Yesterday, I broke down how Ben Henderson's UFC Lightweight title win at UFC 144 was not just a victory for Henderson, but for the entire WEC. Along with Carlos Condit, Henderson proved that the former WEC champions are indeed among the sport's elite, and in my opinion, much of the credit for their successes goes to their WEC tenures. But now with WEC gone, are the UFC missing an opportunity to build future champions? They may be, but the answer to solving that problem is already in front of them.
This weekend, the now Zuffa owned Strikeforce returns with an event headlined by Miesha Tate vs. Ronda Rousey. Since the Zuffa buyout last year, there has been much discussion over how Strikeforce should be used. To me, the answer is clear, especially after UFC 144.
Strikeforce should become the new WEC.
This is already the general direction Zuffa seems to be heading, but there are a few steps they need to follow to best emulate the WEC model:
- Keep the company separate. By folding the WEC, the UFC gained some valuable new names and divisions, but it also lost a development system. Let Strikeforce stay alive in that role as long as it is economically viable.
- Focus on only the divisions that can deliver. It was a good choice to abandon the Heavyweight division, as the talent is just not there for a rich UFC and Strikeforce division. I also vote to do away with Welterweight, which also lacks a full talent pool. Focus instead on Light Heavyweight, Middleweight, and Lightweight - 3 divisions where Strikeforce has nice depth.
- Lock the roster down. No more switching champs over to the UFC - decide who stays, and keep them there.
- Keep Women's MMA alive - for now. In the WEC, there were the Featherweight and Bantamweight divisions that were unique. Both divisions eventually flourished, and are now a good asset to the UFC. In Strikeforce, women's MMA can play that same role. Keep it alive, let it develop. If it takes off to the degree that it can be a part of the UFC, bring it in. If it doesn't, let it go.
- Focus on new prospects, not old veterans. No more Keith Jardine or Robbie Lawler. Both are talented, but they won't be in the UFC again, so why bother? Use your resources to build up possible future UFC contenders and champions. And they have plenty of those - Tim Kennedy, Luke Rockhold, Jacare, Ovince St. Preux... these are the men to build up.
With these plans in place, Strikeforce can become a great tool for the UFC. Like the WEC before it, Strikeforce can give younger fighters a chance to test themselves against fighters at their same level while gaining valuable experience dealing with the added pressure of television, PPV, title fights, and so much more.
On the one hand, it looks like this is the direction that Zuffa is headed, which gives me hope. On the other, if you visit Strikeforce's website today, less than one week before their next show, you see a shocking lack of content, which does not bode well for Zuffa's commitment to the company. If the do indeed shut Strikeforce down, they will gain more fighters to the UFC roster, which is a good short term positive. But in the long-run, a developmental league can be a valuable tool, and it's one the UFC should continue to use.