Strikeforce has a lot riding on the success of Ronda Rousey on Saturday, even though there are some clear holes in her game.
Oct. 4, 2008. BankAtlantic Center in Sunrise, Fla.
More than 4.5 million people tuning in to CBS to watch an MMA event from Showtime's early, half-cocked foray into the sport. This confusing alliance with the entertainment company (and on-again, off-again MMA promotion) ProElite was known to the masses as EliteXC.
EliteXC became both famous and infamous to fight fans for its time slinging heavy-handed YouTube star Kimbo Slice to the drunken masses. Sure, they had other fights. Sure, they had actual fighters on their roster like Nick Diaz, Jake Shields, Antonio Silva and many more.
Kimbo Slice, though, was their bread and butter and they made no apologies about that. They made money off him, and he made money off them. They helped each other where they could.
On that October night, where Kimbo Slice's bout with porcelain-chinned UFC veteran Ken Shamrock got scrapped very shortly before it was to take place, both sides figured they were doing the other a favor.
Slice chose to fight whatever can they threw in front of him and the promotion figured they had an easy win in TUF2 washout Seth Petruzelli, a light heavyweight who was supposed to fight Aaron Rosa that same night.
The rest is history. Petruzelli knocked out Slice. The straight right that put Slice onto all fours was as much a knockout blow to EliteXC, who closed doors about a month later amidst an investigation into whether promotional brass were trying to massage Slice's chances of winning. It was an ugly day all around.
Strikeforce has numerous similarities to EliteXC. Not in the allegations of crookedness, mind you. Strikeforce has never had the sort of controversies that marred nearly every major event staged by EliteXC.
Strikeforce, like EliteXC before it, has made a practice of putting too many eggs into the basket of one of its top fighters. Strikeforce has gotten away with this for a while now as they, unlike Elite XC, have effectively groomed talent (and gotten some lucky breaks as well), which has kept a replacement star handy at all times.
Early on, it was the Shamrock brothers and Cung Le. Then Nick Diaz and Gilbert Melendez rose to the top. Then was the fast rise and faster fall of Gina Carano. Then came the Fedor Emelianenko era. Now? Strikeforce can be accurately labeled as “that group that Ronda Rousey fights for.”
Yes, Strikeforce still has some quality fighters. It still has Gilbert Melendez. It has Daniel Cormier and Josh Barnett. It picked up longtime UFC contender Nate Marquardt. Still, Strikeforce is the Ronda Rousey show.
With Rousey's first fight since becoming an A-list personality set for this Saturday, Strikeforce bigwig Scott Coker's stomach is undoubtedly in knots.
He knows Strikeforce's future with Showtime is only secure through 2012. He knows that the UFC's light heavyweight and middleweight divisions are downright aching for new talent like Gegard Mousasi, Luke Rockhold and Lorenz Larkin.
He knows that Dana White is lusting over the idea of setting up fights like Gilbert Melendez vs. Ben Henderson and a heavyweight title eliminator featuring Daniel Cormier vs. Alistair Overeem.
He knows that if Ronda Rousey loses, there are very few reasons for both the UFC and Showtime to keep Strikeforce around. Worst of all, he knows that there is a very good chance that Rousey's opponent, Sarah Kaufman, will win this fight.
While Rousey has an incredible amount of skill, best demonstrated by her Olympic bronze medal in judo, she undeniably has holes in her game. The fight that propelled her into stardom and offered her the springboard she used to jump to ESPN The Magazine's “The Body Issue” and a seat next to Conan O'Brien was a championship bout with Miesha Tate.
Though Rousey won with an elbow-snapping armbar in the first round, Rousey displayed awkward, tentative striking when the two were upright. Kaufman has some of the best kickboxing in women's MMA, and actually started her career with eight straight knockouts.
Though the lone loss on her record is an armbar at the hands of Marloes Coenen, she has solid submission defense and good stamina. Rousey is strongly favored going into the fight. However, this will be, at the very least, a very tough test for her.
Not one of those Jon Jones vs. Dan Henderson “tough” tests. No, Sarah Kaufman has the striking to knock Rousey out and the stamina to take a decision.
With Strikeforce's inability to draw strong gate numbers, and the UFC looking for excuses to finally give it the ax, a Rousey loss could easily be the final nail in the coffin for the California-based promotion.
It is worth pointing out that Strikeforce, its individual fighters and Showtime are all so contractually intertwined that somebody of this writer's pay grade would not be able to decipher what legal hoops there are to jump through if the UFC intends to absorb Strikeforce in full.
However, there is little doubt as to whether the UFC would prefer to have Gilbert Melendez and Daniel Cormier on their roster. Meanwhile, there would be little reason for Showtime to keep Strikeforce around if it was not as profitable as re-airing semi-popular movies like Powder or Honey, I Blew Up the Kid.
That, ultimately, is what this boils down to.
It is no secret that one loss can destroy an MMA career, and it can easily derail the Ronda Rousey Gravy Train. It happened before with EliteXC. It could very easily happen again this Saturday to Strikeforce.