This is a guest post by Josh Nason.
I'm all for giving fighters an opportunity to succeed, but there are times when promotions have to be realistic with what they're working with. At Saturday's The Ultimate Fighter 13 finale, there were plenty of those reality checks and to me, none more so than Chris Cope.
Cope, a TUF semifinalist, made his Octagon debut to kick off the live telecast and outworked Chuck O'Neil to earn a fairly one-sided unanimous decision. With the win, Cope climbed to 5-1 and likely earned another look in the UFC. However, he shouldn't....at least not yet.
If you compare the UFC to other major sports organizations, they are the equivalent of MLB for baseball, the NBA for basketball, etc. That may seem like a 'duh' statement but I've felt like over the past few years that the desire to put on more events has resulted in Joe Silva bringing in talent that just simply isn't upper echelon level. The UFC shouldn't have room for average fighters, but perhaps that's the reality of their landscape today.
A tricky part for Silva and company has been what to do with inexperienced fighters they want to hold onto, but that need more experience against guys at their level. Ideally, the UFC would have a minor league system so those with single digits in overall fights can go at it without being thrown to the sharks, allowing for growth while also enabling Zuffa to secure top prospects. Luckily, the glut of regional promotions has filled that void but with TUF alums, it can create a conundrum for retaining talent and giving them a fair playing field to evolve their talents on.
Saturday, Cope took advantage of his opportunity and took home a win, but no one should think that he's UFC-ready. He beat a fellow regional-level fighter in O'Neil, not a UFC veteran, in a bout put together strictly because they were on the reality show. With six total fights and considering his experience level, there's no logical next opponent for Cope but the UFC likely wants to hold onto him just in case they found a diamond in the rough. If this was a clear blue-chip stud, that would be one thing but Cope is far from that, at least today.
What to do? Enter Strikeforce.
Needless to say, Zuffa's new California-based toy needs help. Their top fighters are all looking for big-money opportunities in the UFC and for years, their roster has needed to deepen with talent that fans both know and want to see fight. At 170 pounds, Strikeforce is paper-thin and their listed roster at welterweight proves it. When James Terry, Erik Apple and Nate Moore are among your 16 men listed, you simply need some more talent. You need guys like Chris Cope.
By inking Cope to a Strikeforce deal, Scott Coker and matchmaker Sean Shelby would benefit from having a charismatic guy on their roster and someone that has some mainstream familiarity from TUF. Pre-Zuffa purchase, I was baffled why Strikeforce didn't jump on the opportunity to sign more TUF alums for that recognizability aspect alone. With Cope, it'd be the perfect opportunity to keep someone in the Zuffa family that isn't UFC-level ready.
For Cope, learning the ropes of major-level MMA in a slightly less intense atmosphere wouldn't be the worst thing in the world either. Fighting in front of 2000 at the Palms is different than being on the undercard of a PPV at the MGM Grand Garden, especially when it's likely against someone more experienced that you. Let Cope play in a smaller sandbox, see what he can do and when the time comes for the eventual merger after 2012, you could have a familiar face ready to be in the UFC welterweight mix. If not, at least they gave him the opportunity to succeed at a level he's qualified to be at.
I would even suggest they do the same for Ramsey Nijem, who at 4-2 needs more fights but not at the top level of the sport. Considering his run on the show, Nijem might even have more upside than Cope but let him develop that without being thrown to the wolves. Who knows? You could even build to a Nijem/Cope fight if the chips fell in the right places.
It's time the UFC starts being more stringent about who can call themselves 'UFC fighters', helping increase match quality, create deeper shows and put more emphasis on the fact that when people are seeing the UFC brand, they are getting the very best. With Strikeforce, they have the opportunity to send these guys over to help bolster roster depth and potentially create some new stars in the process.
The Octagon shouldn't be the place you go when you need to figure it out. Rather, it should be the place you go when you're ready to compete among the very best. Fighters like Cope and Nijem aren't there yet and only should be if it's the right thing to do and they're qualified to be there.
Josh Nason (@JoshNason) is a New England-based MMA journalist that contributes to BloodyElbow.com, FIGHT! Magazine and WrestlingObserver.com. He co-hosts the weekly MMA Show on ESPN Radio affiliate WGAMradio.com.