Scott Coker has succeeded in changing the narrative about his heavyweight division in remarkably quick fashion. It's a pretty remarkable sleight-of-hand trick when you consider that all Strikeforce has really announced is a February card featuring Fedor Emelianenko vs Antonio Silva and Andrei Arlovski vs Sergei Kharitonov.
The former is a middling big deal, the latter, outside the context of the "tournament", not so much.
The second installment of the tournament is expected to feature Fabricio Werdum vs Alistair Overeem and Josh Barnett vs Brett Rogers in March.
But let's get real, this isn't actually a tournament. Coker has just let the fans in on his hoped for matchmaking for his heavyweight division for the rest of the year. A real tournament would feature the strongest seeds against the weakest seeds with the goal of setting up a final round between the #1 and #2 fighters. By stacking Overeem, Werdum and Fedor all on one half of the bracket, Coker has shown that his focus is where it ought to be -- on putting together the best possible fights now.
Also, despite its name, this is not a Grand Prix as we've traditionally known GP's in MMA history. Pride, who set the standard during their decade in existence, ran GP's with one night of quarterfinal fights then a second night a couple of months later featuring both the semi-finals and final rounds. Coker knows that attempting a Pride style GP in the U.S. with this cast of heavyweights is not possible.
Right now the biggest question mark remains Josh Barnett's credentials. The heavyweight has not fought in the U.S. since failing a drug test in California in 2009. He has not been re-licensed in California.
Coker talked to Sherdog radio and outlined his damn the torpedos approach regarding Barnett (transcription via Fight Opinion):
JACK ENCARNACAO: "Scott, without venues locked down or even all the licensing in place for the Barnett and Overeem fights, why announce the tournament already if you're not 100%? You might be 90% sure that you can get Barnett and Overeem in the cage in March or as part of this tournament, especially Barnett."
SCOTT COKER: "Well, no, we never said that he's fighting in March. I'm not sure where you got that, but... you know, Barnett has his issues in California, guys, we all know it. We've all been through that dance and he's got to go back and deal with it some more. But, you know, to me, here's a guy that has been, uh, out of the cage or, you know, out of the ring for, in North America, for a year and a half and, you know, I feel like he's paid his time, he's paid his dues, let the guy make a living. You know and his history before Strikeforce is his past and, you know, we're going to judge him on what he does now and six weeks ago he went to (the) California (state athletic commission) in Sacramento in the offices and, you know, he tested clean for all, you know, all their battery of tests that they ran on him and he's not on suspension, so why can't he fight? And, you know, some commissions still feel like, you know, we want to wait until he gets through the process in California but, you know, there are commissions out there saying, ‘Look, you know, have him come in, let him take the test, and if he's clean then we'll let him fight.' So, you know, we're going to work with those commissions that are welcoming him and us but Josh, guys, Josh is going to be part of this tournament and we're going to move on and I think Josh has moved on and I think everybody should move on as well."
Zach Arnold discussed the still unsolved puzzle presented by including Champion Alistair Overeem in the tournament and what that means about the duration of the fights:
When asked about whether or not Alistair Overeem will put the Strikeforce heavyweight title on the line for each tournament bout he's involved in, Mr. Coker said that there are issues right now regarding uniformity in round and rules structure for the tournament fights. In other words, title fights are five rounds under the Unified rules and most non-title fights are three rounds. Jordan Breen, a proponent of five-round non-title bouts, has noted in the past that a promoter at any time can petition a commission (such as Nevada's) to get a five round non-title fight sanctioned. Mr. Coker said that when he presented the idea of all the tournament fights being five rounds, he received push back from various athletic commissions on the matter. The big question now is how to have Alistair Overeem in the tournament if his fights are for the title and are five rounds long while everyone else is fighting in three round fights. Mr. Coker stated that his goal is for the tournament winner to be the Strikeforce Heavyweight champion. He also noted that he would like the Josh Barnett/Brett Rogers fight on the same card alongside the Overeem/Werdum fight.
I'll be rooting for Coker to solve these two puzzles and pull off his tournament as planned. I won't be holding my breath.
Overeem spoke to MMA Junkie about the brackets:
"Tournament or no tournament, Werdum was going to be my first fight in Strikeforce," Overeem said.
"All the fighters in that tournament are good, so there are no easy fights," he said. "I'm a little surprised about it, and I don't know why this bracket is designed this way, but my job is to fight. I'm not picking opponents, so if that's the way they made the bracket, so be it."
"I can show the American fans that I'm the No. 1 fighter of Strikeforce," he said. "Entering such a tournament is not only great for the MMA fans but also a great way to prove that I'm the best fighter in the world."
If Overeem emerges victorious at the other end of this tournament he'll likely be ranked the #1 heavyweight in the world in the USAT/SBN Consensus MMA Rankings, especially with UFC champ Cain Velasquez sidelined with a torn rotator cuff for most of the year.