It's one of those things that must have seemed like a great idea at the time. Fedor Emelianenko, the world's best heavyweight fighter, had suddenly become a free agent. All Strikeforce needed to do to snare him was agree to a shadowy co-promotional deal with his cronies at M-1 Global, which meant -- what? -- maybe a couple of their logos get stuck on the cage where paying sponsors had been before, or their executives get up at the press conference and give short speeches that no one pays much attention to. That's not so bad, especially not if in return you get one of the baddest, yet most elusive men on the planet.
Only now we're finding out that M-1 Global is a monster not so easily appeased by token sacrifices. It demands blood, and in so doing has largely crippled what should be one of Strikeforce's most compelling attractions: its heavyweight division.
Strikeforce first acquired Emelianenko through a three-fight deal with M-1 Global in August of 2009. Since then, he's fought for the promotion once, which is exactly as many times as M-1 Global has insisted on renegotiating his contract in the same time span. If you're wondering what the point of a three-fight contract is if one party will insist on, in their own terms, "tweaking" the deal a third of the way through, you aren't alone.
One of the issues at stake, according to what M-1 Global's Evgeni Kogan told Yahoo! Sports, is the public perception that Emelianenko's clash with Brett Rogers in November took place at a Strikeforce event. You see, technically, it was a Strikeforce/M-1 Global event. You'd know that if you took a close look at the promotional poster, or if you stopped watching the actual fights long enough to check out the decorations around the cage.
Odds are you did neither, because odds are you don't really care about ancillary stuff like this, and that really irks the people at M-1 Global. They say they don't blame Strikeforce, but rather the media that chose to largely ignore their co-promotional efforts. So why, one wonders, is that sufficient reason to hold Emelianenko out of the upcoming Strikeforce event on CBS in order to tinker with the contract? If it's an attempt to get M-1 Global more media coverage, then it's working. I'm just not so sure it's the kind of coverage they had in mind.
This is the point where I am forced to admit that when it comes to running an MMA promotion, a little bit of tyranny is sometimes a good thing. The UFC may adopt an iron-fisted approach to dealing with employees -- just ask Jon Fitch what happens when you have the temerity to bristle at signing away all rights to your own likeness -- but the UFC gets what the UFC wants. More often than not, that also means fans get the fights they want to see -- and sooner rather than later.
Compare that with Strikeforce's heavyweight troubles. Between Emelianenko and current champ Alistair Overeem, they have two of the best big men in the sport. But what good does that do you if you can't even get them in the same room?
Overeem has flagrantly flaunted his responsibilities as Strikeforce heavyweight champ, and Emelianenko's camp says they won't even consider facing Overeem unless he's drug-tested first. Considering the mountain of muscle mass the Dutchman has put on in recent years (and considering that lately he's also done his best to avoid competing in places that actually care about what's in a fighter's veins), that's not so unreasonable. But isn't that what athletic commissions are for?
The more we see M-1 Global's idea of co-promotion in action, the less appealing it looks. It's not enough to put their name on the door; they want to make sure everyone is forced to read it, too.
Give Strikeforce credit for taking the big-tent approach to running an MMA organization. Their willingness to work with anyone and everyone is refreshing, and it has the potential to give us matchups that we might otherwise never see. But there's a distinct danger in allowing every big-name fighter become a promotion unto himself. At a certain point you end up with a plodding bureaucracy that moves slowly, when it moves at all, which is how you end up with a network TV event that's missing its rightful headliner.
As congenial a leader as Strikeforce's Scott Coker has proved himself to be throughout this ordeal, this is one of the times when you wish he had a little more of the Dana White-esque dictator in him. Sometimes it takes a tyrant to make the trains run on time.