The UFC is undoubtedly the preeminent MMA promotion in the United States, if not the world, but as the sport continues to grow on American soil there’s always room for a little competition. This past year has been huge for both Strikeforce and Bellator, the UFC’s main US competitors. Strikeforce inked a deal with CBS that got them on primetime network television and another one with M-1 Global that got them Fedor Emelianenko. Bellator, then still a relatively unknown promotion in its infancy, began its first tournament last April. A great business model and the 2009 Submission of the Year, courtesy of Bellator fighter Toby Imada, thrust the promotion into the limelight, and it has been growing in popularity ever since. Strikeforce still has the bigger names and distribution, and is clearly holding down that second place spot. This month however, as Bellator kicked off its season two tournament, the promotion is looking good, and Strikeforce is looking- well, less good.
Strikeforce: Miami, held on April 17, was America’s second serving of Strikeforce on CBS primetime. The televised card was made up of three big title fights with some big implications. Unfortunately, the hype may have overshadowed the card itself. King Mo Lawal and Jake Shields both put on great performances, and pulled out major upsets (over Gegard Mousasi and Dan Henderson, respectively), but the fights themselves at times seemed of the lay and pray variety. Strikeforce Lightweight Champ Gilbert Melendez put on a more exciting show in his co-promotional super fight victory against DREAM Lightweight Champ Shinya Aoki, but still couldn’t get the finish. That’s three title fights going to decisions. That’s 15 long rounds of grinding it out on network primetime. The biggest excitement of the night unfortunately came after the conclusion of the main event, when Jason “Mayhem” Miller popped into the cage to issue a quick rematch challenge to Shields and was promptly jumped by the Cesar Gracie “scrap pack” of Melendez, Nick and Nate Diaz, and Shields.
Bellator, on the other hand, has been spinning gold all month long like Rumpelstiltskin. Their dramatic rise in popularity last season helped them secure a very impressive talent pool for this season’s tournament. The roster is filled with great fighters ranging from up and coming prospects like 2008 Olympic wrestler Ben Askren, to name veterans like former UFC fighter, Sports Illustrated cover boy, and all around great guy, Roger Huerta. It’s three weeks into Bellator Season Two and the bouts have been nothing short of spectacular. There have been 12 opening round fights so far and 10 of them ended in stoppages. There was a devastating first round one-punch knockout by Pat Curran (cousin of UFC vet Jeff Curran). There was a poetic rolling knee-bar by the aforementioned Huerta. And if you are wondering about last year’s submission king, Toby Imada, he was resigned for this tournament in a heartbeat, and armbarred his way through the first round of the lightweight bracket.
The true beauty of Bellator lies in its structure. Eight fighters in each weight class will battle in a single elimination tournament, weeding each other out over the course of three months until there is only fighter left to face the champion. With three fights in three months on your plate, you can’t afford to get into any three round wars. These guys are there to finish fights. Philosophically, the promotion does not get bogged down in politics, booking matches, or determining contenders. You win three fights, you get a title shot. CEO Bjorn Rebney makes a point of saying this pretty much every Bellator broadcast, and even though it’s starting to get old, it’s great point. Bjorn’s smart man. Bellator was also actually the first MMA promotion to provide Spanish ring announcing and commentary, tapping directly into the enormous Hispanic market. See, what did I tell you? Smart guy.
Strikeforce CEO Scott Coker’s intelligence looks debatable at best right now. The lackluster CBS show was the least of Strikeforce’s problems this month. Contract renegotiations with Fedor Emelianenko, the name that put them on the map, have come to a halt. Consequently, Fedor’s upcoming bout with Fabricio Werdum, a fight with no stakes whatsoever that no one was really clamoring to see anyway, has been postponed into oblivion. Meanwhile Strikeforce’s Middleweight Champion, Jake Shields, has all but defected to the UFC. Shields was practically sitting on Dana White’s lap during this weekend’s WEC: Aldo vs. Faber event. Losing the reigning Middleweight Champion would be a serious shot to Strikeforce and the credibility of its titles. Their Heavyweight title is already suspect. Current champion Alistair Overeem, has only had one Strikeforce fight, which saw him win the title, and hasn’t defended it since. That fight was in 2007. Come on, Coker. Overeem’s long-awaited first title defense is slated for next month’s Strikeforce: Heavy Artillery in St. Louis where he faces Brett Rogers who, although very talented and dangerous, is coming off a loss to Fedor. Sure, why not.
My advice for Scott Coker of Strikeforce: keep your head down and power through. This month was and will continue to be rough for you, but it’s always darkest before the dawn. You’re going to get through this, buddy, and when you do, priority number one has got to be more co-promotion and fighter exchanges at all costs. That’s the one leg up you will always have on the UFC. Dana White was lying when he said he would be willing to do anything to sign Fedor. Co-promotion is not in his vocabulary. But you can spell the word flawlessly and even use it in a sentence. Audiences are always going to want to see two reigning champions fight it out for ultimate supremacy, and Strikeforce is the only American MMA promotion with the resources, ability, and desire to make that happen.
My advice for Bjorn Rebney of Bellator: I don’t have any real advice for you. You’re a smart guy. Just keep doing what you’re doing. I guess it wouldn’t kill you to work on your mic skills a little.