Some fans would argue toward the negative due to their notion that the UFC is the premier promotion that houses fighters such as Cain Velasquez and Junior dos Santos. In that regard, they would be correct. The UFC did hit the lottery by acquiring both top flight heavyweights early in their careers, but the magnifying glass has been enlarged due to the recent developments within the UFC heavyweight division.
Velasquez's injury will sideline him, at best, for six to eight months, and that's not factoring in the training time it will take for him to progress back to the skill level he possessed when he fought Brock Lesnar. The story that Lesnar may be on his way out of mixed martial arts after his next fight has also been a significant focal point of interest for fans. The combination of the two stories in tandem with Strikeforce's announcement of a heavyweight grand prix tournament that will feature the likes of Fedor Emelianenko, Alistair Overeem, Fabricio Werdum, and other notable heavyweights has given some credence to the idea that Strikeforce may, for a short time, have a much more intriguing heavyweight division.
Some fans will scoff at this idea due to their firmly held belief that the UFC still houses the very best in the sport, but the fact remains that Strikeforce has put themselves in a great position. They've also outsmarted the UFC in acquiring the newest breed of heavyweight talent. The UFC signed the better overall fighters, but they didn't account for the lack of talent being produced at the basement level.
Furthermore, Strikeforce may be poised to snatch up the limited amount of prospects that are currently available, and it may surprise fans how that's possible. But to better understand the current situation involving heavyweight prospects and their primary suitors, the UFC, Strikeforce, and Bellator, let's take a look first at why Strikeforce has been so successful.
First and foremost, Strikeforce signed the UFC's scraps, namely Fabricio Werdum, Andrei Arlovski, and Josh Barnett. Some would say that they obtained used goods, but a fighter like Arlvoski, who may never be the fighter he once was, still provides a significant boost to any prospect's record while also serving as a proving ground to any heavyweight hoping to be in the top ten someday. Both Werdum and Barnett provide legitimate challenges to any top ten talent, and fighters like Brett Rogers are rising prospects who can produce highlight reel knockouts and flashes of greatness. Don't think of an entire division in a sense that it is the very best the sport has to offer. Think of it as a mix of some of the best fighters with a sprinkling of entertaining performers.
With a solid foundation in place, Strikeforce's greatest strength was their ability to scout heavyweight prospects very early. They recognized that the division was going to be paper thin in the future, and signing those prospects early in their careers ensured that they could do a number of things to keep their investment.
Most notably, the Challengers series provides a means for those prospects to hone their skills while also gaining exposure to the fanbase. Secondly, it allows those prospects ample time to continue their progression and become better fighters. Strikeforce doesn't operate at the breakneck pace of the UFC, thus cards are spread out.
That platform provides a great environment for prospects. Ultimately, the goal for many of these fighters is to enjoy the exposure and monetary benefits of the UFC, but it might be worthy to consider what the future holds for the heavyweight division worldwide and where Strikeforce sits in that formula.
The heavyweight pool of talent is as shallow as it gets. The UFC has signed quite a few prospects over the course of the last couple of years, but there isn't a single one that stands out as a world beater to fighters like Cain Velasquez or Junior dos Santos. In fact, I'd argue that there is a huge disparity between the top four fighters in the division and the rest of the pack, and I'd side with the notion that many of those fighters won't improve enough, even in the stretch of two or three years, to compete with those fighters. Perhaps that's a lofty assessment, but I'll be surprised if I'm proven wrong.
Take a look at the top 100 fighters in the world's heavyweight division, and you'll see a long list of aging veterans and not quite good enough prospects. There are a few notable fighters who have the potential to make huge strides in their progression, and it's up to the UFC to sign them first if they want to have any chance at maintaining the division's intrigue in the future. Unfortunately, I think Strikeforce has made all the right moves in ensuring they have first crack at those prospects.
M-1 Global. I know, you're probably shuddering at the thought. But you'd be hard pressed to find a promotion in the world today that has had more of an impact on the European and Asian prospect market. They acquired a large number of prospects to fill their regional cards, and they happen to sit in a region in the world that produces heavyweight talent. Strikeforce's connection to the promotion may be an infuriating idea to many fans due to the infamous Fedor re-negotiation proceedings and the UFC's failure to reason with his management, but the promotion itself has a lot to offer Strikeforce in terms of a deep roster of talent.
Furthermore, Scott Coker seems to be very good at leveraging relationships he already has in place. He's worked diligently to gain access to touted fighters in the promotion's stomping grounds on the Western seaboard, and he's continued his success overseas by using past connections with K-1 to obtain heavyweights in the Asian scene.
While Strikeforce's numbers aren't as high as the UFC in regards to the heavyweight division, I do feel, for the first time, that Strikeforce's division may be able to prove it's the more exciting ticket in town in 2011 if you're dead set on watching the heavier fighters. They don't have as deep of a talent pool at this point, but they do have better prospects in the fold in Shane Del Rosario, Lavar Johnson, and Daniel Cormier. They've proven that they can beat the UFC to the punch when it comes to signing prospects, and they have also proven that they can produce the cash to sign notable fighters as well.
Bellator is the key in 2011. If the promotion eventually folds and the UFC buys it out, they'd gain access to Cole Konrad along with a bevy of other prospects. That could re-energize the lower ranks of the division, and it could put Strikeforce in a bad spot. If Strikeforce can somehow work a merger or buyout, which I find unlikely with the capital the UFC has, things would get very interesting in multiple divisions.
As for the rest of the talent out there, it doesn't look good. We've talked about this in great lengths here at BloodyElbow.com, and many theories have been suggested as to why the heavyweight division lacks numbers. Could other professional sports be luring those big men away? Probably, and that won't be cured any time soon. But for this small instance in time, Strikeforce seems to be the lead runner in the race.