Strikeforce GP survivors left to wonder what they're fighting for
Maybe it's fitting that on the week of the semifinal round of the Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix, the UFC announced it had signed Strikeforce's last heavyweight champ, Alistair Overeem, to fight Brock Lesnar at the end of the year.
And by fitting, I mean a real kick in the gut to the Grand Prix participants who have been left behind to wonder what exactly they're fighting over Saturday night in Cincinnati (10:30 p.m. ET/PT, Showtime). If they're not used to that sensation by now, they ought to be.
When it started, the Grand Prix was supposed to be the tournament that would crown a top heavyweight and revitalize the entire Strikeforce organization. Now, less than a year later, the stakes are vague at best, the big-name stars are almost completely absent, and the champion is headed to the UFC, where he'll get a bigger fight and -- most likely -- a bigger paycheck than he ever got in Strikeforce.
Meanwhile, the four remaining participants in the Grand Prix get set to square off in a tournament that seems to offer more and more risk, with less and less reward.
For instance, consider the fate of the men who have already been eliminated from the tournament. There's Fedor Emelianenko, who, after losing to Antonio "Bigfoot" Silva, lost his next fight to Dan Henderson and was dropped from the organization altogether.
There's Brett Rogers, who was submitted by Josh Barnett and then arrested on domestic violence charges, a one-two combination resulting in his immediate dismissal.
There's Andrei Arlovski, who was knocked out by Sergei Kharitonov and then cast down yet another rung on the promotional ladder, finally landing in the resurrected Pro Elite organization.
Then, finally, there's Fabricio Werdum, who went from legend-slayer to cautionary tale after a bizarre showing in a decision loss to Overeem.
The point is, even if no one knows exactly what the winner of this Grand Prix will have actually won, we can still be reasonably sure that nothing good will happen to the losers. That's not so surprising, since getting beat up is rarely the path to success in this (or, really, any) sport. But if you're going to risk the beating, wouldn't you like to know that you're doing so in pursuit of some goal beyond that night's paycheck?
For Overeem, getting pulled from the tournament and dropped from his Strikeforce contract may be the best thing that could have happened to him. It might be a stretch to call it a Get Out of Jail Free card, but at least it sprung him from the Strikeforce purgatory and put him instantly in a more significant fight than any he could have found with his former employer.
By every metric imaginable, from promotional hype to potential financial benefit to total combined weight, Overeem vs. Lesnar is a huge fight. It's also a fight that, if he wins, puts Overeem in prime position to challenge for the UFC title, which, let's be honest, is the only belt that really means anything in any weight class right now. No matter how much fun a tournament format might be in theory, you can bet there's not a single man left in the Strikeforce Grand Prix who wouldn't trade spots with Overeem if given the chance.
Is it sad to watch Zuffa strip Strikeforce's bones in such agonizingly slow fashion? A little, yeah. Ideally, you'd like them to do it quickly and all at once, like ripping off a band-aid. Instead, it seems like a death by a thousand slights. Champions get picked off one by one as the UFC needs them, and the fighters who are left behind have plenty of time to ponder the lifeboat economy of it all. Some are going to be saved and some are going to get thrown overboard.
And maybe, in the vaguest of ways, that's all they're fighting over anymore. Instead of being a tournament of kings, maybe the Grand Prix is now little more than an extended UFC audition. If you win, how could you be denied a contract? If you lose, well, don't go and get yourself arrested.
Are those stakes high enough to motivate fighters and maintain fan interest? Actually, yeah. It's pretty compelling when you think about it. It's just not at all what these fighters thought they were signing up for back when they first agreed to it, back when a future with Strikeforce was more of a promise and less of a threat.
Funny, that seems like so long ago now.