Remember how this weekend is supposed to be the semi-finals of the Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix? Ronaldo Souza is supposed to also defend his middleweight belt against Luke Rockhold? No? That's okay, most of us haven't been focused on it either. In a week leading up to a card that should at least garner some media attention, fans are instead treated to the proverbial "Full Court Press" from the Zuffa marketing machine which is building up future UFC matches.
It began last week with the major announcement via conference call which was to notify the media that the headlining matchup for the UFC on Fox show would be Cain Velasquez vs Junior Dos Santos. They followed this up with announcing the Brock Lesnar vs Alistair Overeem match for UFC 141, a card that takes place in December. Finally, they use the UFC 137 press conference to break the news that Nick Diaz was pulled from his title fight with Georges St. Pierre and was replaced with Carlos Condit. Even last night, just two days from the Strikeforce event, the media were concerned with who would be B.J. Penn's new opponent.
It shouldn't come to any surprise that the show this weekend in Ohio has had poor ticket sales, with many expecting somewhere around 5k paid and 2k comp'd tickets with the remaining seats unsold. The tournament took a major hit when Zuffa terminated the contract of Alistair Overeem, who was the most marketable and recognizable fighter in the Grand Prix. Lame Duck President Scott Coker informing the media that the tournament winner would not be crowned the new heavyweight champion and that there weren't any plans in place for the vacated title.
This weekend's card is arguably the best that Strikeforce can produce without even considering the talent in the Grand Prix. It marks the return of Muhammed Lawal and the promotional debuts of Maximo Blanco and Yoel Romero. Unfortunately, Zuffa's decision to bury this Strikeforce card to build up the discussion and promotion of future UFC events has killed any and all interest in the Grand Prix. Zuffa has even gone back on the original idea of keeping Strikeforce alive and run as a separate promotion. It was believable because it wasn't Dana White making this proclamation. It was Lorenzo Fertitta.
A look at the recent business dealings obviously suggest that Zuffa has zero interest in continuing Strikeforce as a brand once the contract with Showtime is up. Nick Diaz was threatening to utilize a loophole in his contract to try his hand at boxing. Zuffa signed him to an exclusive UFC contract and his welterweight belt was vacated. Dan Henderson defeated Fedor Emelianenko as the reigning light heavyweight champion on the last fight of his contract. He is currently in talks to sign with the UFC and trying to set up a title unification bout. And earlier this week Alistair Overeem's long rumored signing was made official as well, effectively vacating the heavyweight strap. So why are the powers that be sabotaging Strikeforce?
The Strikeforce/Showtime television deal is up in February 2012 with a network option to extend to 2014. With the ratings of major cards down as of late, it has become apparent that Strikeforce only had a few fighters that broke through and captivated the audience. Those few fighters, with the exception of Gina Carano, are either in the UFC or under contract with M-1 Global. The recent terminations of Golden Glory fighters included the former women's 135 pound champion Marloes Coenen. There also haven't been any major signings to the promotion recently outside of Rhonda Rousey and prospects like Yuri Villefort.
The addition and general push of Rousey gives the appearance that Zuffa has intentions of keeping the promotion alive in some capacity. Rousey is viewed as the next face of women's MMA, combining the looks and skills that made Gina Carano such a valuable commodity. The UFC doesn't have the roster space to transfer and sign the best fighters from Strikeforce. At this point they can barely provide the existing roster with the contracted fights per year. An influx of even 10 fighters per division could spell disaster. The UFC is having enough trouble establishing the featherweight and bantamweight divisions, adding two women's divisions could prove impossible. The end of Strikeforce would effectively kill women's MMA in the United States.
I don't want to say that Zuffa is trying to kill Strikeforce since I believe it still can serve a purpose. There have been many promotions that have built their rosters on UFC washouts, most notably MFC. Instead of cutting fighters, Strikeforce could become the home for fighters to develop or bounce back. It is actually a rumored plan that Lorenzo and Dana are considering. There is one thing that is certain though: this week has proven where Zuffa's priorities are. They aren't wasting any resources building up Jacare's title defense or the semi-finals. They aren't trying to kill overall interest in Strikeforce, but they do recognize there is more value building up future UFC events. This decision will result in less eyes seeing fights and eventually hurt the bottom line.