Even in the days before Strikeforce was swallowed up by his promotion's parent company, though, UFC president Dana White never judged his MMA rival anywhere near as harshly as he did that other combat sport. A few years ago, during a pre-fight conference call with reporters, White summed up his viewpoint of where boxing's business model falls short of his company's: "The difference is, we showcase nine fights that night, not just one. Let me tell everybody on this call something and go off on a rant for a second. I always talk about how much trouble boxing is in. Boxing is in trouble for one reason: greed."
Strikeforce is different. CEO Scott Coker isn't Bob Arum or Don King, who've both lined their pockets for years while filling their boxing undercards with ho-hum Tomato Can vs. Cream Puff bouts, four rounds contested in an empty arena. Strikeforce at least tries.
The company has a cable deal and has been on network TV, true, but that doesn't bring in the kind of revenue of a pay-per-view. So Coker & Co. do what they can to cobble together a collection of undercard matchups that might not be title eliminators but at least serve as crossroads bouts.
Last month, for example, on an evening headlined by two Heavyweight Grand Prix quarterfinals, we saw unbeaten Daniel Cormier take on former UFC fighter Jeff Monson. At age 41, Monson is many miles over the hill, but he's seen it all during a 54-bout career and because of that can be a challenge for an up-and-comer with just seven pro fights under his belt. Cormier passed the test with a unanimous-decision win and later was rewarded with a spot in the Grand Prix, replacing injured heavyweight champ Alistair Overeem.
This Saturday's event in Chicago has an undercard packed with similarly testing bouts. The evening's drawing card, of course, is the main event between Fedor Emelianenko and Dan Henderson, and there also will be a title belt on the line when Marloes Coenen defends her women's welterweight championship against Miesha Tate. But the three other fights on the Showtime telecast (10 p.m. ET) feature rising competitors each facing off at a crossroads with guys who present some problems -- and who themselves have careers that are a lot more alive than Monson's. Truthfully, though, each of the roadblock guys has little more than what in that other combat sport is known as a puncher's chance.
Tim Kennedy vs. Robbie Lawler: Kennedy was 5-1 as a mixed martial artist, including a win over Jason Miller, when he enlisted in the U.S. Army back in 2004. End of MMA career? No chance. The 31-year-old Californian has juggled his two fighting passions for years, and even though active military duty has kept him out of the gym for some long stretches, he built his way toward a shot at the Strikeforce middleweight championship.
He lost a decision to "Jacare" Souza in last summer's title bout, but bounced back in March to submit veteran Melvin Manhoef. Now he gets the heavy-handed Lawler, who while only 29 has been around the block a time or two. He's fought in the UFC, where he beat Chris Lytle, and also is a past EliteXC middleweight champ and owns victories over Frank Trigg and "Ninja" Rua. His last fight was a title bout with Souza, but his third-round submission loss was his third in five fights, with one of the wins being over ancient Matt Lindland.
In other words, Lawler (18-7, 1 NC) can't afford to be taken apart by the 13-1 Kennedy if he hopes to remain relevant. And that's precisely what the versatile Kennedy has to do if he still has his sights set on the belt. Which you know he does.
Tyron Woodley vs. Paul Daley: It's all about the mat with these guys. Woodley wants to wrestle you to it. Daley wants to connect with a punch that collapses you to it. The deciding factor in who imposes his will on Saturday night probably will come down to patience.
Woodley has just eight pro bouts under his belt, all wins, but none against someone as dangerous to be around as Daley. Will he have the poise to set up his takedowns for a moment when the Brit is not in punching position? Likewise, will Daley take his time in setting up his fisticuffs, so he isn't taken down the first time he throws a punch and misses?
Daley has experience on his side, with 38 pro fights, including UFC wins over Martin Kampmann and Dustin Hazelett. His last bout was a thrilling welterweight title fight loss to Nick Diaz in April. But he's even more of a one-trick pony than the wrestling-first Woodley, who has the know-how, speed and bulk to take Daley down and stay on top for three rounds. A Daley win would doubtlessly be more exciting, but the fans ought not hold their breath.
Tarec Saffiedine vs. Scott Smith: Who knows whether Saffiedine is really a contender? The Belgian welterweight, who fought the earliest of his 13 bouts in Europe and also has toiled in Japan, was working his way up the Strikeforce Challenger ranks when he ran into Woodley in January and lost a unanimous decision. Next in his path is the 32-year-old Smith, who has lost three of four bouts and in the lone win over that stretch was being dominated by Cung Le. However, he caught Le with a right hand, and before you could spell out K-O, Smith was having his hand raised. That's the way it's been for Smith, who on other occasions has looked to be on the way to a loss but managed to punch his way to victory. That's a dangerous guy for an up-and-comer to face.