The UFC’s parent company, Zuffa, purchasing Strikeforce has become THE MMA story of 2011, overshadowing Fedor loss to Silva, the Edgar/Maynard draw, “Spider” Silva’s kick-KO of Vitor Belfort, and 40-year old Dan Henderson’s winning his third major championship belt. It is big news in-and-of itself, of course, but the sheer unexpectedness of the announcement on a sleepy Saturday added a layer of surreality to the affair that is unique to the cynical world of MMA fandom.
The details are a little vague, insofar as Dana White, in a 20-minute interview with Ariel Helwani, stated that while Zuffa owns Strikeforce now, Scott Coker will continue to run it “business as usual.” Meaning no changes the current dynamic. No cross promotions are planned, and no immediate cross-overs will be happening. So no Fedor/Lesnar. No Moussai/Machida. No Overeem/Velasquez. Strikeforce will continue to look like Strikeforce. Continue to operate on Showtime. Continue to run its Grand Prix. In other words, nothing to see here folks.
Yeah, nice try.
The pattern for the UFC’s past acquisitions have been unique. The PRIDE purchase was massive news, of course. And initially it was a “dream deal” for fans. Cross-promoted fights between the superstars of both organizations. Those fights never quite materialized in a timely manner. We got Liddell/Silva, Jackson/Henderson, Silva/Henderson, but that’s pretty much it. CroCop and recent addition, Gomi, have been disappointments. And then there’s the failure to acquire Fedor. Given PRIDE’s financial problems and the eroding fortunes of Japanese MMA, the purchase of Zuffa has done little more than consolidate the late-decade MMA scene. So the UFC’s ownership of PRIDE has been mostly symbolic in the long run.
The WEC purchase was really an example of Zuffa attempting to develop a missing aspect of their brand. The sub-welterweight classes had not been a major factor in American MMA, and the WEC did light, feather, and bantamweight just about better than any other organization on the planet. Exciting, fast-paced matches with built in super-stars like Urijah Faber provided Zuffa with not so much a “development league” but rather an enhancement to the brand. Whether the plan was to always fold the WEC fighters into the UFC (the big MMA news of 2010) is not known at this time. It seems like Zuffa a wanted to let the WEC try to make in the big leagues by forwarding a Faber-led pay-per view show. But this may have been a fait accompli by 2010, as that pay-per view omitted all references the WEC brand. By absorbing the divisions in one swallow, the UFC gets something no other MMA organization has ever had, a fully-stacked roster bought and paid for. It may have been one of the savviest maneuvers in sports history.
But the Strikeforce feels different. The events did decent business, but the shows were few and far between. Young fighters are not well-developed by Coker and company, and there seemed to be an emphasis on “the big match” rather than great cards and interesting arcs. The Grand Prix is an interesting innovation and Strikeforce can make a argument for having a better heavyweight roster than the UFC. (Not a convincing argument, mind you, but having Overeem and Fedor is pretty persuasive. ) Zuffa may have wanted to nip Coker’s success in the bud as the tournament picked up steam, though I think the excitement over the gimmicky nature of the format gets washed out by scheduling realities and, frankly, less-than-interesting fights. (There’s also the “so what” factor at the end of it all. Whoever wins… unless it’s Overeem… won’t be the promotion’s champion. )
Dana White says in the Helwani interview that the UFC wants more fighters and the Strikeforces fighters will obviously be interested in hearing what Zuffa has to say when their Strikeforce contracts are up. (All except Josh Barnett and Paul Daley. They will be seeing Zuffa checks again, but they won’t be UFC brand fighters again, at least according to White.)
Which brings up a funny little aspect of this deal. How can it be “business as usual” when Zuffa is the ultimate boss of all things Strikeforce? White insists contracts will be honored, but if White and the Ferttias want Overeem, or Moussai, or Melendez, then what’s going to stop them from making a non-refusable offer? Will Coker really be in a position to offer Overeem a better deal when his contract is up? Unlikely. The money to make that offer comes ultimately from Zuffa. And if the parent company thinks Overeem should be competing against Velasquez, Lesnar, and Dos Santos rather than Silva, Werdum, and Barnett, then what are the Dutchman’s real options?
(By the way, I guess this answers the question regarding why Coker has been so reticent to co-promote a super-fight between Strikeforce champion Melendez and Bellator lightweight champion, Eddie Alvarez. BFC president, Bjorn Rebney has talked up the fight for nearly a year, saying Coker wouldn’t return his calls despite showing initial interest. One might therefore track the intrigue of this purchase from mid-2010, when Coker first clammed up on Alvarez/Melendez fight.)
Strikeforce isn’t PRIDE. White overstated (perhaps purposely) it’s popularity among fight fans. They present fair to middling events and occasionally pull off a newsworthy match. But they were never going to compete at the level of the UFC. They were Dunkin Donuts. The UFC are Starbucks.
They also aren’t the WEC. They offer nothing unique to the MMA world. (With the possible exception the two most popular women fighters in the world, Gina Carano and Cyborg Santos.) The UFC will not benefit from letting Coker “nest” and nurture fighters. Strikeforce’s best fighters are seasoned veterans. (The “newest” fighter in the tournament is Brett Rogers.) Their heavyweight champion has been fighting since 1999, and their new light heavyweight champion is 40 years old.
So, if one were to do the odious work of presaging the future of Strikeforce, one would be predicting a terminal point of perhaps two to three years before the doors close. Zuffa and Showtime will not be working together beyond the Strikeforce contract. White and company may have some interest in securing a premium cable deal with HBO or a major network arrangement at some point, but that may or may not be a “book marked” development strategy for 2012 and beyond. Sufficed to say, Strikeforce’s time in the MMA world are numbered.
Which means, one way or another, for good or for ill, the Strikeforce fighters (minus Barnett and Daley) will have to deal with the UFC if they want to fight for the top money and the most exposure.
In a way, one could almost make the argument that White helped arrange all this just to put M-1 Global in an awkward position.
After so many years of trying, White finally got Fedor, sort of.