“UFC Heavyweight Champion of the World….!” When Bruce Buffer says these words, every fan in the arena as well as those watching around the world knows that the best heavyweight fighter in the world is being introduced. There is never a doubt that the man who holds a UFC title is the best because the UFC ensures that this is the case, ordering instant rematches when there is an argument about who won a title bout and placing their champions at the top of the most prestigious UFC Pay-Per-View cards. If Jesus himself were slated to appear on a UFC card, he would co-main for the champ at best. Also, belt or not, you would never see Brock Lesnar (5-1) on a Fight Night. This is because the UFC understands the importance of proper promotion. Dana White and company follow the two most sacred of promotional laws: never devalue your own company’s titles and if you have a unique attraction, maximize it. These rules not only carried the UFC through the ban era of the mid to late nineties, but built the UFC into the financial powerhouse it is today. Following these rules cost a promotion nothing and even the smallest of amateur promotions follow them. Why can’t Strikeforce seem to get on board?
The first serious offense Strikeforce has committed is the utter disrespect it has shown for its own championship titles. A title’s purpose is to give the fans a tangible representation of the prestige and privilege that goes with being the best. It’s an emblem that even a casual fan can identify with. This is a fundamental principle of promotion. Even a local amateur show that breaks every fundamental rule of promotion treats their champion like he is the best fighter in the world. He could be a fighter with a mediocre amateur record who trains in his backyard but the promotion will still surround him with the respect and pomp due to a true champion. Strikeforce has never treated their titles with the respect they deserved. They allow champions to go on extended hiatus without asking them to relinquish the belt, they’ve placed championship matches under more mundane bouts on their main cards and, far worse, placed championship fights on the Strikeforce Challengers Series, an event that’s stated purpose is to introduce fighters who hope to one day compete on the big stage.
In recent history, this has regressed even further with the fiasco surrounding “The Last Emperor” Fedor Emelianenko (31-2) and the treatment of Sarah Kaufman’s (12-0) women’s welterweight title. Strikeforce begins the disrespect with the introduction of Fedor in Chicago where they placed him above not one but two title fights. Weather or not Fedor was the consensus number one heavyweight in the world or not matters very little; you don’t put ANYONE ahead of your champions on your card. This first offense was somewhat excusable as both titles that were in contention were vacant, but then instead of fighting for the belt, Fedor faces Fabricio Werdum (14-4-1) while the man he had just defeated, “Grim” Bret Rogers (10-2), fought for the title against “Demolition Man” Alistair Overeem (31-11). Having the champion defend against a man who lost his most recent bout in a very definitive fashion while the man he lost to faces a different opponent implies that the champ is ranked third out of the four men involved in the promotion’s eye.
Strikeforce wasn’t content to leave its disrespect of its own titles there either. The next misfire came when Scott Coker decided to hold the bout for the women’s welterweight title between Sarah Kaufman and Takayo Hashi (12-2). To hold any title bout on a Challengers Series card is an abject insult to the belt. To put this in perspective, no matter how insignificant the challenger, the UFC has NEVER placed a title fight on an Ultimate Fight Night card. To make matters worse, they had Kaufman face a challenger who had lost her last Strikeforce bout, again on a Challengers card. While “Roxy” Roxanne Modafferi (14-5) is certainly a worthy challenger, there is no excuse to have your champion face a fighter coming off a loss (barring a Shogun/Machida, Penn/Edgar situation) and certainly not on a scrubs card. If Strikeforce isn’t going to show the same respect to Kaufman’s belt that they do to the 145lbs belt held by “Cyborg” Cris Santos (10-1) they shouldn’t have given her one at all.
Friday, August 13, 2010, Strikeforce perpetrated its most recent promotional grievance: the Women’s Welterweight Tournament. This offense falls under the second of the two rules mentioned earlier. Strikeforce, for the moment at least, is the only promotion that offers a structured women’s division for the casual fan. With Bellator preparing its own women’s tournament, Strikeforce needs to hammer home its position as the UFC of women’s MMA with the casual fans ASAP and relegating your one unique attraction to an up and comer’s card under “Diesel” Joe Riggs (31-12) is not the way to do that. Strikeforce has a chance to be the home of women’s MMA but instead is content to be the home of “Cyborg” while leaving the rest of the ladies as no more than a sideshow attraction. This, like the handling of Fedor Emelianenko, is a gross misuse of resources by the executives of Strikeforce.
In the end, Strikeforce is doing a fantastic job of proving Dana White right. Strikeforce was phenomenal as a regional promotion where most of their transgressions went unnoticed, but on the national stage, Strikeforce has proven to be remarkably bush league. It’s not the fighters, who are truly skilled if not UFC caliber; it’s the mismanagement of those fighters and the other resources given them that is preventing Strikeforce from becoming a true player in the worldwide MMA game. Exclusive contracts to prevent talent from being occupied elsewhere when needed and to ensure than champions defend their belts regularly would be a serious step forward, but if Strikeforce doesn’t make those titles worth something in the eyes of the fans, it would all be for naught. The same holds true for their women’s division. Strikeforce needs it to be taken seriously and as long as they disrespect every woman not named “Cyborg” that won’t happen either. At this rate, Bellator will surpass Strikeforce in more than just commentary within the next year.