Alistair Overeem, Fabricio Werdum and the Case for the Strikeforce Heavyweights
Strikeforce had a real struggle on their hands as the promotion moved into 2011. Competing with the UFC, a brand so strong many fans believed the sport was called "ultimate fighting" rather than mixed martial arts, was an uphill battle.
The promotion needed an identity, something to distinguish themselves from their competitors in Las Vegas. When they pinpointed one in late 2010, it was more a harpoon than a hook. Strikeforce was going to go big.
Their signature event for the year, a "Heavyweight Grand Prix," would pit eight of the best gargantuans in the sport in a winner take all tournament with bragging rights at stake. The first show set viewer records on Showtime and sparked plenty of debate. Were Strikeforce's best heavyweights on par with the top fighters in the UFC?
It was an unthinkable question. No promotion had matched the UFC fighter for fighter in any weight class since the Japanese Pride Fighting Championships went under in a wave of controversy and accusations of Japanese mafia involvement back in 2007.
Fans were intrigued. Were fighters like Alistair Overeem, Fedor Emelianenko and Fabricio Werdum really the equals of UFC greats like Brock Lesnar, Cain Velasquez and Junior dos Santos? Battles on message boards and in the comments sections of MMA sites all over the Internet were fierce. Strikeforce had hit a nerve.
Of course, this idea all came crumbling down with the UFC's purchase of their competitors later in the year. The Grand Prix was de-emphasized. Overeem, Strikeforce's leading light, left the company to pursue his craft in the UFC proper. The question that was so intriguing as 2011 began had died to a whisper in the early months of 2012.
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No more. It's time to consider, once again, the question that so moved MMA fans just one year ago. Are the former Strikeforce heavyweights better than their UFC counterparts? Although the issue is far from settled, right now, evidence points to "yes:"
The former Strikeforce champion hit UFC star Brock Lesnar so hard that the wrestler quit the sport right there on the spot. Overeem is a world class kickboxer with more than a decade of submission training. Combined with his size (roughly equal to a small car or some kind of bovine livestock) and you have a fighter capable of beating anyone on the planet.
Although Antonio Silva and Dan Henderson have both followed him down that road, Werdum was the first man to beat the unbeatable Fedor Emelianenko. Was it a fluke? Was Werdum, who left the UFC in 2008 with a 2-2 record in the Octagon, nothing more than an average fighter who was lucky enough to catch a legend in his declining days?
Last weekend's dismantling of Roy "Big Country" Nelson should be more than enough to put that idea to rest. We knew Werdum had a masterful jiu jitsu game. Against Nelson, he showed a kickboxing prowess that made him more than a match for the former Ultimate Fighter winner. That's a dangerous combination of skills.
Will a Strikeforce Heavyweight Win UFC Gold?
We knew Lavar was tough. You don't survive a horrific shooting if you're not. But Johnson, a training partner of former UFC champ Velasquez, opened eyes with his beatdown of Joey Beltran in Chicago. Beltran was just an average UFC heavyweight. Johnson, a marginal Strikeforce fighter who had lost his last two prior to his Octagon debut.
So what did we learn? That the typical Strikeforce heavyweight could compete with the typical UFC behemoth. Parity, it seems, runs deep in the division.
The question is still very much open. Were Strikeforce's fighters better? Maybe, maybe not. But they've shown Strikeforce President Scott Coker was on to something. Their heavyweights were something special indeed. And there are more on the way.
Time will tell how well others adjust to the brighter lights of the UFC. I'm excited to see Antonio Silva and the winner of the Daniel Cormier/Josh Barnett try their luck in the Octagon. If others are any indication, they will give UFC opponents quite a battle.
In the end, a Strikeforce fighter may never hold the UFC heavyweight title. As it stands, Strikeforce champions like Jake Shields and Nick Diaz have failed at the highest levels of the UFC. Overeem and Werdum may fail to climb the mountain top as well. But Strikeforce fighters can hold their heads high. They've proven worthy of the hype—they belong on the sport's biggest stage.
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