Strikeforce: A Blueprint for the Future
When the UFC purchased their number one competitor Strikeforce, the question on every MMA fans mind was; what are they going to do with the promotion and its fighters. Many people called for the immediate folding of the #2 North American MMA company, with the best fighters being signed to UFC contracts and the rest being left to compete in Bellator, overseas, and on the local circuit.
Instead of a completed liquidation of the San Jose based promotion (in no particular order) the majority of the Heavyweight division was moved over to the Octagon, long time Welterweight Champion Nick Diaz made the jump, and the newly crowned Light Heavyweight Champion Dan Henderson went in search of his first UFC title.
These changes left Strikeforce with a significantly depleted roster and following the signing of Dan Henderson’s new UFC contract Showtime set out to stem the tide of the remaining top name talent leaving for greener pastures. Showtime negotiated a deal with the UFC’s parent company ZUFFA that guarantee that the remaining marquee fighters left on the roster would fight under the Strikeforce banner as long as Showtime continued to broadcast their events.
To my knowledge the list of fighters that this deal pertains to has not been made public but we can speculate that the likes of Gilbert Melendez, Luke Rockhold, Tim Kennedy, Jacare Souza, and Rafael Feijao are all on that list. With these elite level fighters required to remain inside the Hexagon for the foreseeable future, it will be important for Zuffa and the Strikeforce brass to build an interesting product to keep Strikeforce as a legitimate MMA promotion.
I have already discussed the possibility of expanding the current Strikeforce roster by signing potential Free Agents (Rebuilding Strikeforce- One Division at a Time), many of the fighters I have listed have already be locked up by Dana White and company so instead I will switch my focus to building the promotion based on the current roster.
The Heavyweight Division
Heavyweight Grand Prix Champion Daniel Cormier is scheduled to face former UFC champion Frank Mir in late October and it is expected that following that fight Cormier (along with Frank) will make his next appearance in the UFC.
Grand Prix finalist Josh Barnett is in a similar situation and will fight once more for Strikeforce. An opponent has yet to be named, but Tim Sylvia who was temporarily tied to a bout with Cormier or Andrei Arlovski would make for a respectable final bout fight for Barnett.
Following the conclusion of these two bouts the Heavyweight division will cease to exist and the focus of Scott Coker and Strikeforce will turn to the rest of the roster.
The Light Heavyweight Division
Oh what could have been, the 205 pound division was once one of the best divisions Strikeforce had to offer. The aforementioned Dan Henderson lead the way as champion with former title holders King Mo Lawal, Rafael Feijao, Gegard Mousasi, Renato Sobral, and top contender Mike Kyle headlining the roster.
We were treated to a few matchups between these top level athletes, but there was still a lot of potential matchups left unfulfilled when Henderson left for the UFC, King Mo was released, Sobral’s contract was not renewed, and had Rafael Feijao was suspended.
The division is a shadow of itself and has no one to wear the belt, but all is not lost. Feijao’s quick submission victory over Mike Kyle has been overturned which should put Kyle back into the title mix, Gegard Mousasi will soon return from injury and Feijao will eventually return from his suspension.
If the company is going to continue to play host to the 205ers it is important to find a new champion. With a champion it helps to put order to the division and the easiest way to do this would be to take the two most marketable fighters still active (Kyle and Mousasi) and let them battle for the title in early 2013.
Unfortunately this doesn’t do much for the rest of the roster which are relatively unknown and not on the talent level of the elite. In place of a one fight formula to crown a new champion I propose that a second attempt at the Grand Prix model (with a few tweaks) be attempted. With Mousasi still on the shelf, the next 8 fighters that I would include in the bracket ranked 1-8 are: Mike Kyle, Ovince St. Preux, Gian Villante, Guto Inocente, Trevor Smith, Marcos Rogerio de Lima, Yoel Romero, and Virgil Zwicker.
Following a Bellator style template, the quarter finals should be scheduled on the same card, followed in short term by the Semi-finals and finals (barring injuries). This type of setup would serve to revive a stagnant division, introduce a few unknown fighters to the fans, and give at least a couple of fighters a chance to compete and cash in at least 3 times in a short period of time.
Additionally, the champ would then be faced with defending his newly won belt against the returning Gegard Mousasi in his first title defense and the subsequent winner of that bout would be paired up with Rafael Feijao down the road. The talent in this division isn’t deep but with a few interesting moves some intrigue can be created going forward.
The Middleweight Division
In arguably the most active division, Luke Rockhold has now defended his title twice including picking up a win over top contender Tim Kennedy. The future of the division is sound at least for the next few months to a year.
If Jacare Souza gets by Derek Brunson this weekend, Souza and Rockhold will rematch for the title. In an interesting twist it would actually be in the best interest of the company for Jacare to win back the strap in disputable or at least close fashion to even the series and set up a third and deciding encounter. If Jacare were to emerge with the title, Tim Kennedy would also find himself back in the mix for a shot at the crown in another event headliner.
Lorenz Larkin’s victory over veteran Robbie Lawler should move him into contention and baring a slip up he could be in line for a title shot in the not to distance future. Roger Gracie’s divisional debut was also a successful one, but the submission savant will need at least one more victory under his belt before he can legitimately call for at title shop.
Gracie could be heading towards a matchup with Tim Kennedy, which could be a misstep if Gracie fails to build on his current momentum. Other fighters in the mix include Lumumba Sayers and Anthony Smith who will square off this weekend, along with Adlan Amagov and Keith Berry who battle on the undercard. Smith and Amagov have already met with a definitive result, but should another combination of fighters emerge victorious then we could see that matchup in the future. Derek Brunson should not be forgotten and could steal himself a shot with an upset this weekend, and the division is rounded out by a more then over the hill Keith Jardine and a handful of other fighters that hopefully will be a little more active in the coming months.
The Welterweight Division
Nate Marquardt has taken is position atop the division and now the scramble is on to see who will be the first man to oppose him. If Tarec Saffiedine beats Roger Bowling this weekend he could get the first shot, but I think a better matchup would be Marquardt and recent arrival Kazuo Misaki. Misaki had a decent win in his debut dispatching Paul Daley and would make for an interesting first title fight.
Roger Bowling has an opportunity to move up the ladder with a win over Saffiedine, and Bobby Voelker is another long time Strikeforce resident that can make some noises in the division. Voelker and the formerly undefeated Tyron Woodley would make for an interesting matchup, but the division would be better served to see them lined up with some of the lower rank competitors in order to create future challengers for the title.
Jason High is on an impressive winning streak and could also be a candidate for a future shot at the gold. If not then a fight with the newly signed Jorge Santiago (if he defeats Quinn Mulhern in September) would make sense and give both guys some main card exposure. Jordan Mein could be the divisional dark horse and had he not been laid on for 3 rounds by Woodley we might be considering him for the next title shot. Hopefully, Mein will be given the chance to further develop and smash through a couple more opponents before he is given his chance to contend for the title.
Chris Spang, the already mentioned Mulhern, Nah-Shon Burrell, Tyler Stinson, Nate Moore, Brain Melancon, Yuri Villefort, and Evangelista Santos round out the division and will either serve as future wins for the top contenders or start to make their own run.
The Lightweight Division
Gilbert Melendez will be with Strikeforce until the promotion folds or is no longer available on Showtime, so don’t expect to see him with the UFC anytime soon. So if Melendez is going to remain a draw he needs opponents to challenge him and make the division interesting. Unfortunately he has already dispatched the best the company has to offer in Josh Thomson (twice) and Jorge Masvidal.
Thomson will most likely get another shot at the title, but Strikeforce should give him the chance to earn it and prove to the fans he is deserving. My suggestion is to require Masvidal and Thomson to pick up a couple of wins each (Masvidal has on already over Wilcox) and then square them off in a number one contenders bout which to determine who gets the shot.
I won’t forget Pat Healy and his title shot that he earned, despite coming off his poorest performance in recent memory. If Healy were to upset the champ it would certainly upend the division and make things a little more interesting, if not Healy has the potential to be a prospect destroyer. Healy has already beaten a couple of up and comers, most notably Caros Fodor.
Fodor has a lot of potential, but he needs to pick up few high profile wins. Unfortunately his flash knockout victory over Justin Wilcox was on the prelims, because it is performances like that one that serve to build contenders. Fodor should be given a main card spot against Billy Evangelista or Joe Duarte in an effort to build him into a title threat.
Bobby Green has won 3 in a row and could be due for a push with a win over Matt Ricehouse. Rising prospect Ryan Couture would be an excellent matchup for Green with the winner getting a jump to the next level of competition.
KJ Noons is stuck in purgatory, he has been used to build the last two title challengers but seems unable to put enough wins together to earn his own shot. Noons could actually provide a legitimate challenge for Melendez, but in order to set that fight up KJ needs at least two wins and to look good doing so. JZ Cavalcante would be a nice first step for Noons, and with a win a fight with another rising challenger could get him a title shot.
Justin Wilcox has potential, but has lost back to back fights and will need to regroup. While, Isaac Valile-Flagg burst onto the scene with a win over Cavalcante and could be the division dark horse. He has a date with the newly signed Adriano Martins a former Jungle Fights Lightweight Champion who could sneak into the title picture with an impressive performance of his own.
Finally Mizuto Hirota’s performance and controversial defeat against Pat Healy should not be overlooked. Had Hirota got a better deal from the judges he could be at the top of the heap of contenders in the division. Regardless, Hirota showed that he has the ability to make a run in the shallow waters of the division and should be given an opportunity to do so.
The Woman’s Bantamweight Division
Potentially the most interesting division, the best place to find Female MMA could and should be in Strikeforce. With a marketable champion in Ronda Rousey leading the way the powers-that-be should go out of their way to bring in as much talent as possible to keep things fresh and interesting.
Rousey has another tough challenge ahead of her in former Champion Sarah Kauffman, and should she get by the Canadian a rematch with Miesha Tate is almost a foregone conclusion. Tate needs a win over Julie Kedzie to hold on to her spot as hard charging challengers like Alexis Davis, Liz Carmouche, and Amanda Nunes all look for their spot. In addition, Hiroko Yamanaka could find herself in contention with a win in her Bantamweight debut.
There are also a couple of wildcards in play here. Cristiane Justino (formerly Santos) could return and has debated the possibility of moving to 135 to challenge for the belt. If she can make the cut it would make for a big drawing title fight. Outside of the company former champion Marloes Coenen could make her return and challenge for the title and the undefeated Olympic silver medalist in wrestling Sarah McMann could also be an interesting challenger should she sign on the line to join the ranks.
With Strikeforce being arguably the highest profile place for Woman’s MMA, Zuffa would be best served to make an effort to obtain as much talent as is available. Ronda Rousey has proven herself to be marketable and whether she holds onto the title through the storm of challengers headed her way or not, she has at least shown that WMMA can draw.
That was a long read, but hopefully worthwhile. Strikeforce has been seemingly on life support, but there is potential to revive the organization and make it an entertaining and marketable alternative (Bellator is growing quite nicely) for MMA fans. Here is hoping that through proper match making and maybe a little bit of outside talented being acquired we will see action inside the Strikeforce Hexagon for at least the next couple of years.