Having turned down a deal with the Ultimate Fighting Championship last Wednesday, Fedor Emelianenko didn't wait long to find a new promotional partner in America. And this one comes with a significant television deal.
Joining forces with Strikeforce, which announced a three-fight deal with the 32-year-old Emelianenko and his promotional group M-1 Global on Monday, the Russian heavyweight champion may finally benefit from the kind of visibility in America that's been absent during a distinguished nine-year career fought primarily on non-UFC pay-per-views.
Emelianenko (30-1), the top heavyweight in mixed martial arts, was scheduled to fight Josh Barnett Saturday in Anaheim, Calif. However when Barnett, ranked No. 2, tested positive for steroids, a four-day domino effect rendered the card cancelled and put Emelianenko's promotional partner, Affliction Entertainment, out of business.
Strikeforce, which, unlike the UFC, operates under a business model that leaves it flexible to co-promote events, was in position to capitalize when Emelianenko, an equity stakeholder in M-1, and the UFC failed to come together on an agreement.
Critics panned Emelianenko's decision to turn down a big-money offer from the UFC, deriding him as purposely avoiding the best competition. But most misunderstood the parameters of his arrangement with M-1 and failed to recognize that his weight division is one of the few in MMA that features strong talent outside the UFC.
Among heavyweights currently signed to Strikeforce, Emelianenko could face several tests, including undefeated Brett Rogers and the San Jose, Calif.-based organization's heavyweight champion Alistair Overeem.
"Strikeforce is a top fight promotion that houses some of the greatest fighters in the world," Emelianenko said in a press release. "I am prepared to fight any of them."
Because of the exposure and marketing offered by Strikeforce's television deal with Showtime, heavyweights may opt to chase Emelianenko and his mantle as the sport's best heavyweight instead of signing deals elsewhere, particularly if CBS gets back into the business of broadcasting MMA bouts. Strikeforce and M-1 Global could also co-promote pay-per-views if a fight warrants such a move.
Emelianenko's initial effort with Strikeforce -- the first bout of his career in a cage -- will air on Showtime in the fall.
"We are extremely excited to have the opportunity to work with M-1 Global and Fedor," Strikeforce founder and CEO Scott Coker said in a prepared statement. "Fedor has been the reigning king of MMA's heavyweight division for quite some time now, so being able to work with M-1 and Fedor will substantially increase the level of competition amongst the athletes in this weight class."
Unlike the vast majority of fighters in MMA, including some of the sport's biggest names and money earners in the UFC, Emelianenko's success and standing enable him to control the state of his career. In joining M-1 Global as a partner in 2008 after an earlier attempt to come to terms with the UFC failed, Emelianenko, the former Pride heavyweight king and arguably the top fighter in MMA history, went into the promotional business for himself.
Modeled similarly to boxing's Golden Boy Promotions, M-1 Global's focus is Emelianenko and its intent is to grow the brand while partnering with promotional groups to create legitimate fights. That framework has not necessarily paid off for M-1's partners, though none previous to Strikeforce boasted the sound promotional footing or television exposure of Coker's company.
"I am very happy and excited about the upcoming collaboration with Strikeforce," Vadim Finkelchtein, president of M-1 Global, said in a press release. "We are very pleased that we found a reliable partner and I feel that Strikeforce and M-1 can support each other on many things. This will create big opportunities for both parties to test their fighters against worthy opponents."
In closing a deal with Emelianenko so soon after the UFC declined to co-promote with M-1, Strikeforce has undoubtedly put itself square in the Las Vegas promoter's crosshairs. Because it runs primarily off pay-per-view, however, Strikeforce isn't necessarily a direct competitor to the UFC, even if they clearly, now, are vying for the same fighters.
With moves like aligning with Emelianenko, there's little doubt that Strikeforce is actively working to establish its standing as a dominant MMA brand.