Promoters are in the business of offering what they can't deliver, so when Scott Coker outlined his plans for the Strikeforce heavyweight division to me several weeks ago, I was skeptical. Coker is good at putting fights together, but that job is like hitting baseballs, in that if you can do it once in three tries you're doing very well.
As things turn, Coker seems to have the goods, and the widely rumored and much anticipated Strikeforce World Grand Prix is now a going proposition.
On Feb. 12 in East Rutherford, N.J., the great Fedor Emelianenko will fight Antonio Silva, while Andrei Arlovski will face Sergei Kharitonov. At a date to be announced, Josh Barnett will take on Brett Rogers, while Alistair Overeem -- Strikeforce heavyweight champion and winner of the K-1 World Grand Prix -- will tangle with Fabricio Werdum, the only man who has ever beaten Emelianenko. The winners will move on in their brackets, and you can do the math from there.
All of this raises a lot of questions. If the champion is in the tournament, does that mean the title is on the line? Why is Josh Barnett, who isn't licensed to fight in the United States, entered? What happens if there is an injury? Why are the top four seeds all in the same bracket? And what is the nature of Strikeforce's relationship with M-1 Global, the mysterious entity that controls Emelianenko's career and technically functions as a co-promoter for events in which he is fighting?
Coker can't answer some of these questions. In his telling, for example, the question of whether the title will be on the line turns on whether athletic commissions will allow non-title fights to go five rounds. The logic is that it would be "awkward" to match a champion coming off a five-round fight against a challenger coming off a three-round fight.
"Under the unified rules of mixed martial arts," he explained, "you can only have a championship fight via five-round fight. So the original thought was to have all these fights five rounds. But we've run into some opposition with the athletic commissions that we're thinking about going to, because they go strictly by the book. We're trying to iron out those situations because Alistair fighting Fabricio can be a five-round fight, but the commissioners wouldn't let the other parts of the tournament be five-round fights."
His take on Barnett, the 2006 Pride Openweight Grand Prix finalist and catch wrestler who hasn't applied for a license since serving a one-year suspension after testing positive for performance enhancing drugs in California in 2009, isn't much more satisfying.
"Josh obviously has some issues with California that he has to work out," Coker said of the only fighter ever to fail three drug tests, "so we will not be bringing any of our tournament fights to California until he's clear to fight here. There are other athletic commissions that will license Josh with a clean test. And we feel very confident that he's going to test clean everywhere he goes, and we'll test him at every fight, before the fight and after the fight."
The issue of injury replacements is blessedly straightforward. On every tournament card, one alternate's fight will be held. Shane del Rosario, for instance, will fight Lavar Johnson in New Jersey, and the winner will be swapped in if a winner of a tournament bout is hurt and can't fight.
So, really, is the answer to why the bracketing is set up such that Emelianenko, if he wins his quarterfinal bout, will then fight either Overeem, the most highly ranked opponent for him who isn't under UFC control, or Werdum, the only man to beat him, in what would obviously be the biggest fight the tournament can offer.
"It's never too early for dessert," Coker said. "We want to put on great fights, and this way we're guaranteed to have a semifinal that's huge."
Translated, this means that fans have to accept that a tournament is simply a promotional gimmick. The object isn't to rank eight fighters in order and let them fight it out to prove who the best man is in some linear fashion, but to put on fights that will draw interest and make money. More pointedly, it's a way to provide a narrative structure to a three-fight sequence from either Emelianenko or Overeem. The ability to build a throughline out of a fighter's progress is one of the reasons UFC has been so successful, and Strikeforce's failure to do the same is one of the reasons it hasn't taken advantage of all its opportunities.
There is also this: Set up a tournament in hopes of seeing Fedor Emelianenko against Alistair Overeem in the finals, and you could end up with Shane del Rosario against Andrei Arlovski.
Finally, we come to the main question, having to do with Emelianenko. There is a certain disbelief that the man is going to go through with this. Perhaps unfairly, he has acquired a reputation over the past several years for dodging tough fights and for being the toy of a coterie of sketchy Russians. The idea that he is actually going to fight, say, Silva, Overeem and Barnett in one year, at least without coming down with conveniently timed injuries or coming up with new contract demands, strikes many as fanciful.
Coker, citing a confidentiality clause, will only say of his relationship with M-1 that Emelianenko is under a multi-fight, multi-year deal that could allow him to retire with Strikeforce. (Vadim Finkelstien of M-1 described it to ESPN.com's Josh Gross as a four-event deal.) This isn't going to calm anyone who just doesn't believe that the great man will take real fights. But those people are missing the point.
It would have been a lovely thing for Emelianenko to have worked things out so that we could have seen him take on every top fighter in the world over the last several years, but fighting isn't, except incidentally, about satisfying the desires of the fans. It's about money and control. Emelianenko's legacy and $500 will buy him the wheelchair he'll probably be in one day.
One constructs conspiracy theories explaining why he never took a UFC offer or why he hasn't yet fought Overeem, and so on, but the best explanation is probably the simplest: He doesn't especially want to be owned by Dana White and the Fertita brothers, and while he's willing to fight anyone, he's only willing to do so on his terms. This is dismaying in its way, but also admirable, and anyone who wants to see fighters exert control over their fortunes rather than serve as replaceable parts in a great engine of hype should be glad to see it.
Emelianenko will fight a top contender next month; assuming he wins, he either will or won't fight for the Strikeforce title in what would be the biggest match on offer outside UFC. Assuming he wins that, he either will or won't defend the title against another legitimate top contender. All the same is true of Overeem, who in his way has a very sound claim to being the finest combat athlete in the world. That these are even possibilities is a terrific thing. Promoters often don't deliver. Sometimes they do.