Let's start with a simple question. When is the last time that Strikeforce commanded as much space on MMA sites as they have since the announcement of their heavyweight tournament? Fabricio Werdum upsetting Fedor Emelianenko was news for a few days but had roughly the shelf life of any other major fight result. Even the negative stories like the Nashville brawl didn't have the legs that the tournament is proving to have.
Upon the initial announcement of the brackets the obvious criticism was that the balance was incorrect but that has seemed to calm down as people slowly begin to understand that Strikeforce is ensuring some "must-see" fights between the established top of the division on one side while allowing a new contender to emerge from the other. It's fairly sensible and also quite fan friendly. We have a much smaller chance of seeing injury or upsets derail a Fedor/Werdum rematch or Fedor/Overeem "dream match."
Now, on the heels of the Strikeforce press conference, new problems have sprung up for some fans. Most notable among them is Alistair Overeem's title not being on the line. The potential for Overeem to lose has some shouting that it devalues the title and could lead to a situation where the champion loses during the tourney and then the winner will get another shot against a champion coming off a loss. Tomas Rios of Snark Fights attempted to delve into that point in the comments of a recent fanpost:
By not having the belt on the line, Strikeforce could end up with a paper champion. A unification match would have no promotional juice because anyone following along would know that the "champion" is coming off a loss. Worse yet is the possibility that Overeem loses prior to the final and ends up defending his title against someone other than the person who beat him. There are many different ways this tournament can fracture the division and it has little to do with the idea of a tournament, but rather the way it has been formatted.
There are a number of factors at play here that I think somewhat lessen the seriousness of this:
- We have to stop thinking of this tournament as anything other than a heavyweight tournament. This is a not a tournament for the Strikeforce heavyweight championship. It's simply an invitational tournament featuring the top heavyweights in the promotion.
- Should Overeem lose does a rematch really carry less "juice?" Does it truly matter who the champion is coming into a rematch? Many felt that Fedor was the "true" heavyweight champion for Strikeforce prior to the Werdum fight, yet a rematch between the two still holds intrigue because people want to see if Werdum's feat can be duplicated. Let's say Fedor goes on to beat Overeem in the semi-finals and then wins the final match. Is the inevitable rematch between the two truly more valuable because Fedor is defending rather than trying to win the title?
- The idea that a situation could occur where Werdum beats Overeem and then loses to Fedor (or Silva, or someone in the finals) seems ultra-messy upon first glance but again, the tournament winner would get a shot at the now vulnerable champion and should Overeem win then it's simple business that the man who beat him would get the next shot and we're in the same situation. Is that fight really going to draw less interest than if Overeem were to be coming in as a challenger rather than champion? And if Overeem loses his title to the tournament champion you now have the tourney champion against the man who beat Overeem first. And then even a possible fight after where Overeem gets a shot to recapture his title if he picks up a win in the meantime. Yes, it's not ideal. But I sincerely doubt that it will hurt business in a measurable way. If anything it sets up a situation where the tournament remains just as valuable and instead of having one "money" fight after it concludes you now have two or three big fights. That isn't a bad thing.
The Strikeforce heavyweight title holds little value at the moment and, yes, the title being defended three times in a tournament may add some degree of prestige to it, but that's hardly important. The true value in the tournament is in developing a clear divisional structure and creating valuable fights down the road. Building up the promotion as a destination for important and relevant fights featuring recognizable stars is absolutely more important than worrying about trying to build up equity in a title that will, inevitably, be seen as a second tier title due to the UFC's deathgrip on the public perception of top level mixed martial arts.
The only thing that can truly increase the value of a title long-term is increasing the value of that title's promotion. This makes worrying about if the title is or is not defended a waste of time.
I have my concerns with Scott Coker appearing to lie about the reasoning for not having five round fights throughout the tournament but there are far more likely factors at play than "he didn't want to." Showtime may have been uncomfortable airing multiple five round fights on a card after the Nashville show and they have a lot of say in how things go down. When compared to the UFC that seems horrible, but Strikeforce is not the UFC and they do not have the clout to control all aspects of events. And if there is a legitimate reason why they couldn't do five round fights the whole way through it adds to the reasons to not make Overeem defend his title in five rounders while everyone else fights three. Could Coker have come up with a more elegant excuse than lying about commission issues? Sure, and he should have. Even a simple "we just decided against it" would have been a better option. But again, we're focusing on things that aren't actively as important as what the tournament does for the promotion.
Finally, we have the "fourth judge." The aforementioned Tomas Rios expressed concern over how a non-commission controlled fourth judge deciding the outcome of draws could hurt the legitimacy of the tournament. First off, the chances of a draw are slim. But stalling the tournament out because a fight results in a draw is dangerous. Commissions aren't going to implement a Japanese style "must win" rule for draws and they aren't going to assign a fourth judge for what Strikeforce wants to have done. So the promotion is going to take steps to make sure that someone advances and allows the tournament to keep moving. Assuming the fight was ruled a draw it will likely have been extremely close so it will be hard to argue that someone gets "screwed" by the final decision. I'd like to hear Strikeforce and Coker explain what criteria that judge will be told to put emphasis on (overall damage? who finished stronger? ..etc) but I think we're jumping the gun in assuming that somehow this will be a moment that leads to cries of corruption.
The truth is, despite any concerns fans may have, this tournament is going to do a great deal of good for Strikeforce. Much like the UFC does on a regular basis, Strikeforce is starting to make decisions about what is best for building the brand. And without a strong brand, it's pointless to worry about the strength of titles.