Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix Brings Both Excitement and Question Marks

Joe LanzaCorrespondent IJanuary 31, 2011

Fabricio Werdum & Andrei Arlovski in a 2007 fight
Fabricio Werdum & Andrei Arlovski in a 2007 fightGary M. Prior/Getty Images

Critics of the loaded, but largely inactive, Strikeforce heavyweight division will either be silenced for good or given more cannon fodder over the next few months, as the highly anticipated heavyweight Grand Prix unfolds.

Somehow, Scott Coker has managed to pull off the seemingly impossible, booking his top eight heavyweight contenders in a single elimination, Japanese-esque Grand Prix-style tournament. This, despite the numerous roadblocks that have previously hindered Coker’s ability to put together fights amongst what, on paper at least, is the best collection of heavyweights on the planet.

But will this tournament, which is a dream lineup of matchups and potential matchups, come off without a hitch? Plenty of fans are skeptical, and for good reason, since Coker has had a laundry list of issues standing in his way of getting these fighters into the cage against one another.

Fabricio Werdum, fresh off of his huge upset win over consensus top-ranked heavyweight Fedor Emelianenko, has been inactive while nursing injuries.

Emelianenko, represented by the mysterious M1 Global cartel, has become the certified diva of MMA, with his frustrating contract negotiations and his Floyd Mayweather impersonation during talks to face Alistair Overeem, demanding Olympic-style steroid testing for the suddenly beefed up former light heavyweight. M1’s insistence on co-promoting all of Fedor’s fights has also caused issues.

Overeem, the Strikeforce heavyweight champion, claims to be open to facing anyone (and also claims he is being ducked), but takes off months at a time to pursue his kickboxing career. And when he does find the time to compete in MMA, it’s almost never for Strikeforce.

His one and only title defense, a win over Brett Rogers (a questionable title challenger, coming off a loss to Emelianenko), came nearly two years after Overeem was crowned champion. In fact, the knockout victory over Rogers is the only Strikeforce fight on Overeem’s resume since his November 2007 title win over Paul Buentello.

The rest of his wins over the last few years have been one-sided victories over a parade of no-names, has beens, and never will bes, including Mark Hunt (who peaked years ago for the PRIDE organization and sports a losing record), James Thompson (who lost to Kimbo Slice, of all people), Tae Hyun Lee (who?) and recent UFC castoff Todd Duffee (who agreed to the fight on a few days notice, showed up out of shape and was soundly beaten within seconds in a fight for the DREAM Interim heavyweight title). While dominant, many rightfully question the idea that Overeem is the world’s top heavyweight based on this less-than-impressive collection of victories.

Amazingly, Overeem’s lack of activity within the Strikeforce cage blows away the activity of two other tournament competitors, Josh Barnett and Sergei Kharitonov. Both were signed by Coker months ago, but have yet to fight for the organization.

Barnett, in fact, hasn’t fought in America in over two years, since dispatching Gilbert Yvel on an Affliction show in 2009. A drug test failure for steroids and subsequent suspension canceled a potential fight with Fedor, and effectively killed the Affliction promotion. With three drug test failures on his record, Barnett has spent the last two years fighting sporadically in Japan and taking part in worked pro wrestling matches.

He recently no showed his California State Athletic Commission reinstatement hearing, which means he will not be allowed to fight in any state that upholds the CSAC ruling. This would include heavy hitters like Nevada and New Jersey, making booking Barnett for this tournament quite the hurdle. Coker has already hinted at potentially going overseas, but is Barnett really worth the trouble?

Former UFC champion Andrei Arlovski, despite his infamous lack of chin, has curiously taken up boxing. The last two entries, Antonio “Bigfoot” Silva and Brett Rogers, are the only two fighters who Coker has been able to consistently rely on to actually step into the Strikeforce cage when asked. But even Rogers, frustrated by a lack of fights within Strikeforce, was given the green light by Coker to take an outside booking (a sloppy decision win over veteran Ruben “Warpath” Villareal on a tiny show in Canada).

Assuming the fights happen as planned, critics have still found plenty to gripe about, namely the bracketing. Coker curiously loaded up one side of the bracket with the top four fighters in the field. The No. 1 contender, Werdum, faces the champion, Overeem. And Fedor, the No. 2 contender, faces Bigfoot Silva, generally considered No. 3. The winners would face each other in the semifinal.

Coker said he did this to ensure that the matchups people wanted to see most would be more likely to happen. The first “big fight” will happen when Overeem fights Werdum. And if Fedor beats Bigfoot as expected, he would face the winner of the Overeem/Werdum fight in the second big matchup.

A potential Overeem/Fedor fight is probably the most talked about heavyweight matchup in all of MMA. Werdum/Fedor would be a rematch of arguably the biggest upset and most talked about non-Zuffa fight of 2010. I was critical of this booking strategy at first, but with the unpredictable nature of MMA (not to mention potential injuries) this was the right way to set things up. At the very least, fans are guaranteed an Overeem/Werdum fight.

The opposite side of the bracket will see Barnett face Rogers, and Arlovski take on Kharitonov. While clearly a weaker lineup, the fighter who emerges from this side of the draw will presumably make himself a bigger star in the process. Or at least that’s what Coker hopes.

The other source of criticism has come from the recent development that the Strikeforce heavyweight title will not be on the line in any of the tournament fights and that the winner will instead be crowned the “World Grand Prix Champion.”

The original idea was for all title matches in the tournament, starting with the Overeem/Werdum fight, to be traditional five-round title tilts. This was scrapped when Coker claimed that the athletic commissions would not allow some tournament fights to be five rounds, while the other non-title tournament fights were only three.

Coker mentioned New Jersey specifically (the home of the first two first-round matchups), but Josh Gross of claims to have spoken to several athletic commissions, including New Jersey, all of which said Coker never contacted them concerning the title issue. Sounds fishy to say the least, and my rule of thumb is when in doubt, don’t trust the promoter.

Despite the controversies and assorted issues, the tournament kicks off February 12th in East Rutherford, New Jersey at the Izod Center (also airing live on Showtime), with the Fedor/Bigfoot fight and the Arlovski/Kharitonov tilt. There will also be two alternate fights that night, with the winners being in line to replace any competitor who moves on in the tournament, but cannot continue due to injury.

The first of these fights will see two top Strikeforce prospects, Lavar Johnson and Shane Del Rosario, face off. The second is Valentijn Overeem (the older brother of Alistair) vs. kickboxing veteran Ray Sefo, who carries a 2-0 MMA record.

Why Coker did not match his young stars against the two veterans is a mystery, and one also has to wonder what will happen if “Oldereem” beats Sefo and is pressed into action against his younger brother due to injury.

The other two first-round matchups (A. Overeem vs. Werdum and Barnett vs. Rogers) have no date or venue announced, but are expected to take place in the spring, with the semifinals and finals slated for late 2011 (with the finals potentially taking place on what would be the first Strikeforce PPV).

My biggest concern for the success of the tournament has nothing to do with fighter issues, but rather a complete lack of faith in the promotional abilities of both Strikeforce and Showtime.

On a recent Strikeforce Challengers card on January 7th, airing on Showtime during a free preview weekend no less, there was no mention of the Grand Prix until a mind-boggling 61 minutes into the show. Even then, the first mention of the tournament was a brief comment and graphic during a throwaway segment of a calendar of events coming up on Showtime.

About 10 minutes later, a short video promo featuring Fedor was shown. The only other mention the tournament received was at the end of the show, after the last fight was over (and after many people had likely changed the channel), when the announcers briefly talked about the matchups, and oddly, spent the majority of the time talking about Kharitonov, easily the least marketable and smallest “star” in the entire field.

This was a gigantic missed opportunity to promote the tournament. The February 12th  start date and tournament brackets should have been plastered all over the screen, all night long. Why were none of the tournament participants present to cut promos? Why were there no video packages or pretaped interviews? The message should have been loud and clear—order Showtime and see the best eight heavyweights in the world face off in a yearlong tournament. Instead, they did virtually nothing to promote the event. To their credit, they did a much better job promoting the tournament on the recent "Diaz vs. Cyborg" event this past Friday night. 

Issues aside, the tournament itself should be fantastic, with plenty of storylines and subplots. Is Overeem for real? Was the Fedor loss to Werdum a fluke? How will Josh Barnett look, having not faced this level of competition in years? Can Arlovski bounce back? Will we see Overeem vs. Fedor?

2011 will no doubt prove to be the pivotal year for Strikeforce. This tournament has the potential to give fans several dream matchups and also has the potential to set up several more fights for 2012.

And let there be no doubt—this tournament field is loaded, perhaps the most talent laden heavyweight tournament field of all time, and the winner will be the undisputed No. 1 heavyweight in the world. Off the back of this tournament, we may also see the Strikeforce debut on PPV.

This could be the year Strikeforce takes a strong step forward in solidifying their place as a legitimate player in the MMA game, ready to challenge the UFC for both market share and mainstream attention. It would be good for the sport, so no matter who you are rooting for to win the Grand Prix, you should also be rooting for Strikeforce to pull this off successfully.

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