Eight-man heavyweight Grand Prix is Strikeforce's big gamble
The business of fight promotion is the business of hyperbole. That's why it's always worlds colliding and the best of the best squaring off in fights that will redefine the nature of prizefighting forever. So we're told about once a month, anyway.
That's fine. We hear it so often in MMA, it blends into the background noise, right along with the fighters saying they're in the best shape of their lives and each trainer insisting he's never seen his guy look better in the gym.
And yet when Strikeforce CEO Scott Coker says his heavyweight Grand Prix, which kicks off Saturday night in East Rutherford, N.J., is, at least on paper, "the greatest heavyweight tournament in the history of mixed martial arts," it's a plausible enough claim to make you stop and wonder if he's right.
Honestly? Yeah, maybe. Quite possibly, even.
However, let's not get crazy. When M-1 Global's Evgeni Kogan suggested at this week's press conference that the Grand Prix will turn Strikeforce into the world's premier MMA organization, that should be taken as either an insult to our intelligence or a sign that Kogan is off his meds. There are still too many casual sports fans who think "UFC" is the name of the sport for that to happen.
But to say that, at least as it's laid out now with big names like Fedor Emelianenko, Alistair Overeem, and Josh Barnett all vying against one another, it could end up being the most significant and exciting tournament in MMA history? That's actually perfectly reasonable.
In bringing together eight big-name heavyweights -- at least half of whom are arguably in the top 10 -- Strikeforce has put together the kind of field that we haven't seen since the 2005 and '06 Pride tournaments. What's more, Strikeforce has done it without bolstering the first-round brackets with freak shows (sorry, Zuluzinho) or filler fighters who are only there to lose (no offense, Yoon Dong-Sik).
When the biggest longshots are guys like Andrei Arlovski and Brett Rogers, both of whom can still lay claim to some notable accomplishments in the sport, you know you've got a competitive lineup.
So when Coker says we could be looking at what will become one of the best MMA tournaments we've ever seen, it's hard to argue. At least, in theory and on paper.
That's the problem with having so many moving parts. The whole thing could always be derailed by an injury or a positive drug test or a licensing snafu. Between the fragile-handed Fedor, the questionably bulky Overeem, and the three-time drug-test loser Barnett (who is still persona non grata in Strikeforce's home state of California) there's a chance that this thing could fall apart at any time.
But then, that's the abyss you're always hanging over as a fight promoter. The more ambitious your plans, the easier it is for them to turn into a punch line. Coker had to try something. After collecting heavyweights the way Herschel Walker collects cars, it wouldn't do to have them sitting around and staring at one another. If nothing else, the Grand Prix puts all the wasps in one jar and shakes them up just to see what will happen.
But if the tournament really is the best MMA has ever seen, what will that make the eventual winner? The answer to that question probably depends on who he is and how he gets there.
For instance, if Overeem follows up a 2010 that saw him capture the K-1 Grand Prix title with a 2011 that includes dominant victories over the likes of Werdum, Emelianenko, and someone like Barnett or Sergei Kharitonov in the finals, it will be hard for anyone to claim that he's not the world's best heavyweight.
On the other hand, if Barnett benefits from an easier opening draw and then rolls over some reserve fighters to beat a field decimated by injuries and withdrawals, we can expect UFC president Dana White to hold it up as proof that the whole thing was a farce.
Is the Grand Prix a gamble? Absolutely. But Strikeforce has no choice. It's now or never. With just a little bit of luck, we could be on the verge of something that will make the pre-fight hype seem understated by the time it's over. And wouldn't that be a nice change, if only a fleeting one.