The 6 Reasons Strikeforce Was Never as Popular as the UFC (and Never Will Be)
Over the last fifteen years, MMA promotions have come, gone and been bought out. Fighters have found celebrity and fortunes using their hands and feet.
There are many places that fighters have plied their trade, but for a long while now, the UFC has been the clear-cut promotion to be in for a variety of reasons. Over these years, competitors have risen to challenge the UFC.
Few had as much success, however little that was, as Strikeforce.
However, even though Strikeforce found itself home to many great fighters and put on a number of strong events, the promotion never really cut into the UFC's fan base in a serious way. Worse yet, while Strikeforce consistently had some of the biggest names in the sport, it never garnered the same kind of following other promotions like Pride and Dream did.
Eventually, the UFC's parent company, Zuffa, purchased Strikeforce and began sapping the promotion of many of its biggest fighters. But even now, with the UFC's backing, the California-based organization still struggles to attract fight fans to their shows.
So why is it that Strikeforce has been met with such consistent indifference with fans? That is what we are here to discuss.
Shallow Talent Pool
How about we go ahead and go at the biggest problem first, eh?
Strikeforce has never really had a large talent pool. While the promotion has been home to many strong fighters over the last several years, it has never really had depth past its top tier.
Gilbert Melendez, Nick Diaz and Jake Shields were (and still are) some of the world's best fighters, for sure. That said, nobody but full-on, fingers-in-ears-and-eyes-closed fans of Strikeforce will deny that the promotion has a very short list of legitimate contenders for them.
Melendez, and essentially every Strikeforce champion, has been pitted almost exclusively against any given veteran of the promotion who could put together any length of a winning streak, or whatever mid-tier free agents the promotion could come up with. Take a quick look at Gilbert Melendez's competition over the last few years.
Outside of submission whiz Shinya Aoki, he has not fought a single fighter established on a large scale, and has faced precisely zero big-name imports. Josh Thomson won a single fight after a year away from the sport (which came after a loss) and had the momentum to get a title fight. Last year, Melendez fought Tatsuya Kawajiri just months after Kawajiri lost to Shinya Aoki (who Melendez also beat). Mitsuhiro Ishida, another Japanese import, was actually coming off a loss when he fought Melendez.
This was the case for Jake Shields. This was the case for Nick Diaz. This is the case for Luke Rockhold and will likely be the case for Nate Marquardt.
This alone would be enough for many to brush off the promotion, but there are so many more problems worth discussing.
Poor Fighter Conduct
In sports, there tends to be that one team that always welcomes in “troubled” players, a la the Dallas Cowboys a few years ago with folks like Terry “Tank” Johnson and Adam “Pacman” Jones. Strikeforce fits that bill and is home to many of MMA's less-reputable characters.
Mike Kyle, for example, recently made Bleacher Report's list of the Dirtiest Fighters in MMA History, and has been fighting for the promotion on and off 2006 (his first bout with the promotion was declared a draw after he thumbed Krzysztof Soszynski's eye).
The same goes for Nate Marquardt who joined Strikeforce after being ejected from the UFC for improper use of TRT (which came after being caught for steroids in 2005). Also Paul Daley. Oh, and Josh Barnett. Renato Sobral falls into this category, too.
Even outside of welcoming in ill-behaved UFC rejects, two of Strikeforce's biggest stars, Mo Lawal and Cris “Cyborg” Santos, tested positive for steroids inside the same month. Adding former Light Heavyweight Champion, Rafael Cavalcante, into the mix does not help matters.
There was also that neo-Nazi that one time.
Strikeforce is mired with behavior issues in and out of the cage. With MMA in a constant battle to make headway in being viewed as more sport than spectacle, and fighters working to be regarded as athletes rather than thugs, this is not the sort of environment a major promotion should be establishing.
Case and point? The Strikeforce: Nashville post-fight brawl that got the promotion kicked off network TV.
I discussed this at length shortly after Rousey vs. Kaufman, and it is worth bringing back up here. Though Showtime is well-established in airing combat sports, they have never seemed to bring their A-Game to Strikeforce.
MMA, once again, is in a constant battle to reinvent itself as a clear-cut sport with world-caliber athletes in a fair, well-officiated and relatively safe competition that will be decided by grit and skill. While the UFC has made constant efforts to make itself seem more in-tune with boxing, Strikeforce has always kept itself closer to the WWE.
Between the overly-flashy walk-ins and melodrama that often spills into the on-screen product (once again, case and point, the Strikeforce: Nashville brawl), Strikeforce is not handled properly by Showtime. Additionally, commentators Mauro Ranallo and Frank Shamrock have much more in common with Jim Ross and Jerry “The King” Lawler than, say, Jerry Remy and Don Orsillo.
The net result is an amateurish product. That, perhaps even more than the shallow talent pool, has damned the promotion.
No "Home Grown" Talent
Nick Diaz, Jake Shields, Jason Miller and Fedor Emelianenko are among the biggest names Strikeforce has had fighting under their banner. None of them originally became famous in Strikeforce.
Many of the UFC's top fighters were courted early in their professional career, and joined the UFC after just a few fights. Georges St-Pierre, for example, joined the UFC after winning five fights in Canada, and with the exception of a single bout in 2005, has never been away from the promotion.
The same goes for Jon Jones, Rashad Evans, Cain Velasquez, Josh Koscheck, Kenny Florian and on and on. Yes, the UFC has injected a great deal of talent by either acquiring free agents or buying out promotions.
That said, the UFC has always been able to scout out and develop its own talent. While some would be quick to point out how the UFC has a reality show delivering regular injections of talent into the promotion, too many fighters come in through more-conventional means, example being Jon Jones.
Strikeforce simply does not have that on a large enough scale. Yes, Gilbert Melendez is a solid fighter that they developed and retained. They also have Luke Rockhold and Tyron Woodley.
That said, Strikeforce is the Washington Redskins of MMA. They constantly depend on free agents, and, similar to the Redskins, they have shown that this is not a recipe for success.
Georges St-Pierre is a UFC fighter. Jon Jones is a UFC fighter. There are very few fighters that you can truly label as a “Strikeforce” fighter.
This is a problem that extends through most smaller promotions, but it is a huge one.
Simply, it is hard to take organizations seriously when they have so little control over their own employees that they end up actively improving their competition.
Strikeforce's heavyweight division was in a frustrating stalemate for years on end when Alistair Overeem skipped out on the promotion so he could actively fight for the Japanese Dream promotion and K-1. Other past and present prominent fighters like Gegard Mousasi and Paul Daley split their time between Strikeforce and other promotions.
As Bellator can attest to, this is a disaster waiting to happen. Their bantamweight champion, Eduardo Dantas, ran through his competition in Bellator, but recently suffered a loss to no-namer Tyson Nam, which immediately had fans decrying the legitimacy of Bellator's entire bantamweight division.
The UFC downright refuses to share their fighters. The same, for the most part, goes for the NBA, NHL and NFL. It makes no sense why MMA promotions would want to be different.
Fighters Do Not Love Fighting for Strikeforce
This is not just because of the UFC's buyout last year. Fighters, simply, have never been especially excited about fighting for Strikeforce.
Fedor Emelianenko was openly in talks with the UFC before settling for a contract with Strikeforce. Fighters like Nate Marquardt and Keith Jardine, after being released by the UFC, expressed only their desire to get their old job back, not excitement at the prospect of moving on to bigger, better things.
Fighters know that the UFC is, for lack of a better term, “where it's at.” Unfortunately for Strikeforce big wig Scott Coker, his fighters mince no words when it comes to their near-unanimous desire to move on up to the UFC.
Gilbert Melendez's lack of respect for Josh Thomson and Strikeforce as a whole was flaunted during the in-the-cage interview immediately after taking a razor-thin decision in their rubber match. Luke Rockhold has been openly dismissive of Strikeforce's middleweight field, and has been pitching a fight with Anderson Silva ever since Zuffa bought out the promotion.
Fighters have very rarely stated that they were grateful to be fighting for Strikeforce. Even when they do, they immediately follow it up with “and Showtime,” which instantly makes it sound like a scripted plug, rather than the authentic adoration the UFC gets showered with by its fighters.
When athletes have an “I can take it or leave it” attitude about their league, the fans pick up on it immediately. Unfortunately for Strikeforce, a fighter indeed can take or leave a contract with Strikeforce, who gives little more than any given regional promotion when it comes to fame or fortune.
The UFC, though? They remain the top organization in the world. They know it. The fighters know it. The fans know it.