July 19, 2011

Maybe Dana White was right after all.

Before his behemoth organization's parent company bought out the next biggest (though far, far smaller) mixed martial arts promotion back in March, the acerbic UFC president was known to refer to Strikeforce as "Strikefarce." It was a prime display of Dana being Dana, mockingly writing off a competitor/adversary by conveniently ignoring its assets and focusing entirely on its shortcomings. He's done much the same with the media and even with fighters, the most recent example being Lyoto Machida, who dared to ask for extra money last week in exchange for saving the UFC 133 main event by filling in on short notice. White spitefully lashed out at the former light heavyweight champion, then fell all over himself praising second-fiddle fill-in Tito Ortiz. Barely more than three weeks ago, Tito was being unceremoniously shoved out the door. Now he's one half of the feature mismatch at the top of the August 6 card.

In the case of Strikeforce, we know Dana's dismissiveness was calculated (or instinctive) salesmanship in the guise of genuine irreverence because of what happened next. No sooner had the ink dried on the purchase agreement when Dana was lauding Strikeforce as "a brand that fans have come to like." A few weeks later he hopped off his private plane in San Diego wearing a smile and a Strikeforce T-shirt, which he wore to that evening's Nick Diaz vs. Paul Daley welterweight title bout. Farce? What farce?

But perhaps White had things right the first time. If Strikeforce isn't a farce, it's at least more stricken than striking.

Look at the promotion's marquee event, the Heavyweight Grand Prix, which promised excitement and drama in the style of the old Pride Fighting Championship tournaments over in Japan. Well, we've seen drama, all right, but not the kind that keeps fans coming back for more. The most recent buzzkill was this week's announcement that Strikeforce heavyweight champion Alistair Overeem no longer will participate in the tourney.

The departure of The Reem is only the latest in a neverending succession of oddities and tribulations for the year-long event and for Strikeforce itself, which sensible Zuffa observers have always believed will go away at some point -- just as Pride did, just as the WEC did. But clearly this consolidation is not happening according to the Neil Young business plan, because Strikeforce is fading away before it can burn out. Apparently rust does sleep.

The Heavyweight Grand Prix was flawed to begin with -- shouldn't a tournament be held to determine the next challenger for a title, rather than including the champ himself? -- and soon became immeasurably more flawed. Can you imagine any major sport holding one set of playoff quarterfinals, then waiting four months before completing the other side of the bracket? Well, that's exactly how the Grand Prix unfolded.

And what's more, at that first tournament fight card in February in the swamps of Jersey, the ambitious event lost its most marketable name. Fedor Emelianenko's upset loss to Antonio Silva might have excited MMA diehards, but in terms of generating ongoing ticket sales and Showtime viewership, it was a bummer. That same night, the Grand Prix also lost Andrei Arlovski, who while admittedly a shell of what he once was as a fighter still had the name recognition that comes with being a former UFC heavyweight champ and sometime movie actor.

Now, with Overeem having earlier this month eliminated Fabricio Werdum, who'd been riding a wave of acclaim after having handed Fedor his first loss in a decade last summer, and then being pulled from the tournament himself after he rejected an early-September date for a semifinal against Silva, the Grand Prix is left with some frightening possibilities. Bigfoot Silva, as the other Fedor slayer, is the only fighter remaining who'd be an appealing tournament champion. But what if he loses to Overeem replacement Daniel Cormier, a much-decorated wrestler who is undefeated in MMA but making a big step up in competition? What if that happens and Cormier's opponent in the final is Sergei Kharitonov, who KO'd Arlovski in the quarters but is unknown to all but the most rabid followers of the sport? Would anyone watch?

That scenario is not as unappealing, however, as this far more likely one: Josh Barnett, Grand Prix champion. The 33-year-old known as "The Baby-faced Assassin" is by far the most experienced fighter left, with 35 pro bouts on his resume. He's a former UFC heavyweight champ, a title he won nine years ago with a TKO of some guy named Randy Couture. He's a former King of Pancrase champ and Pride open-weight tournament finalist. All of that earns him MMA merit badges, but here's a distinction that does not: Barnett is the only fighter in the sport's history to test positive for anabolic steroids on three occasions. Forgive Dana White if he doesn't yell "Whoop-de-doo!" to the possibility of having this guy as Grand Prix champ.

Maybe it doesn't matter. Strikeforce is already doing a disappearing act, as becomes evident when you run down through the promotion's weight classes.

Heavyweight: a mess, as described above.

Light heavyweight: Dan Henderson has yet to defend the championship he won in March. No one has successfully defended this title, in fact, since 2006. The last five men who've captured the belt -- Bobby Southworth, Renato Sobral, Gegard Mousasi, Muhammed Lawal and Rafael Cavalcante -- all have lost it in their very first title defenses. But before Hendo sets out to prove it's possible to hold onto the light heavy belt, he has a heavyweight bout later this month. Now, Henderson has seemingly become more dangerous with age, but he could get old fast when he steps in with the bigger, stronger Fedor. And if he comes away from that bout as a broken man, that would not bode well for this division's championship picture.

Middleweight: Jacare Souza owns the belt, which has been vacated twice in the past two years by fighters moving on to bigger and better things. (Cung Le had Hollywood on his mind, Jake Shields the UFC.)

Welterweight: There's no champ here, as Nick Diaz relinquished the belt in order to challenge Georges St-Pierre for the UFC title.

Lightweight: If there's a stable division in Strikeforce, this is it, as Gilbert Melendez has been champ since 2009 and has twice defended the belt. He's on top of his game, widely ranked among the top three in the world in his weight class. But Gil has said he'd happily do like Diaz, his training partner, and give up the organization's lightweight leather once the UFC's logjam sorts itself out and he's given a shot at Frankie Edgar or whoever is the big show's champion at that time.

Other than that, all that's left in Strikeforce are the two women's divisions, which the UFC has expressed no interest in continuing.

Overall, then, the current state of Strikeforce might best be described by borrowing the words of Gertrude Stein, who in describing her childhood hometown of Oakland, Calif., said, "There is no there there."

So why carry on? Is Zuffa, the parent company of the UFC and Strikeforce, simply counting the days until the Showtime television contract expires and it can pull the plug? Most Strikeforce employees already have been shown the door, quietly and with little pushback, which is the way things go when an organization is owned by one of the larger non-union casino operations in Las Vegas. (That's a discussion for another day, one that'll delve into the political implications for the UFC's growth or stagnation.) It's clear that Strikeforce is disappearing before our eyes. So why is it still there in front of us? We've already dragged Neil Young and Gertrude Stein into the cage, so let's go for the trifecta with a line from a Stein contemporary who worked in Young's business, Ira Gershwin, whose lyrics say what needs to be said:

"Let's call the whole thing off."

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