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Friday, November 9, 2012
The bittersweet demise of Strikeforce

By Chuck Mindenhall

Strikeforce Heavyweights
The ambitious Heavyweight Grand Prix marked the last big enterprise for the Strikeforce brand.
As a still nascent sport, the landscape in MMA can change rapidly. The only constant in a sport like this is there are no constants.

Not quite two years ago, in January 2011, Strikeforce rolled out eight of the fiercest heavyweights in the land to partake in a grand prix tournament. This was the "biggest heavyweight tournament ever," we were assured.

All eight participants crowded onto a stage on Manhattan's west side and it was a spectacle -- Andrei Arlovski, Fedor Emelianenko, Antonio "Bigfoot" Silva, Josh Barnett, Alistair Overeem, Fabricio Werdum, Sergei Kharitonov, Brett Rogers. Somewhere in the wings, an alternate named Daniel Cormier.

Strikeforce CEO Scott Coker had the heavyweights -- the remnants of Affliction, the banished from the UFC, the coveted Russian G.O.A.T., and the colossus of Pride.

Later, that same collective went to the top of the Empire State Building for photo ops -- perhaps a symbol of Strikeforce's great heights.

Turns out that was the last big enterprise for Strikeforce, the little "regional" that had played so well at second place that it appeared at times to be gunning for first. By March 2011, Zuffa bought the San Jose-based promotion. The heavyweights on display were undoubtedly a big part of that. It was the one division on which the UFC didn't have the market cornered.

(Well, that and women's MMA, which was still a revival in the making.)

From the point of the Zuffa purchase, it's been a matter of time and of constant speculation. When will it end?

It's been a matter of respirators and promises and flickering glimmers of hope. It's been neglected, sifted, picked over and left for dead. Nick Diaz came over, and Dan Henderson and Overeem and Cung Le. It's been charades. The belts began disappearing, and then whole cards. There were two forces pulling at Strikeforce from behind big oak desk: Zuffa and Showtime. At times, they were friendly. At other times (most of the time), cold. Strikeforce, in the middle, a loud sort of mute.

What was going on behind the scenes? Scott Coker was forever circling back around to it, trying to find those answers.

Turns out the answer is "good riddance." Reports broke on Thursday night via TMZ that the promotion will finally come to an end. In January 2013, just two years from that ill-fated heavyweight tournament, the whole thing's gone belly-up. This came to the surprise of nobody (and as a relief to most), but it's still a bittersweet moment.

Why? Because Strikeforce, for all of its uncertainty and guessing games, was a lot of things.

It was leverage, for starters, before Zuffa purchased it. It was an alternative (to fighters). It was variation (to spectators). It was a partition that sparked debate (for message boards). It was cable, not pay-per-view. It was CBS for a bold minute. It was all about Frank Shamrock's forever braces.

And yet, it's been a purgatory for Gilbert Melendez. A salvation for Keith Jardine and Nate Marquardt and Paul Daley. A platform for Ronda Rousey, who unexpectedly became the star of the promotion. In fact, Strikeforce was the center of women's MMA -- it was Gina Carano and Cris "Cyborg" Santos and Miesha Tate. It was prospects. Cormier was on the Strikeforce challenger's cards back when farming talent was in vogue. Ditto for middleweight champion Luke Rockhold and Lorenz Larkin.

It was local, too. Those pre-Zuffa cards always had a bunch of fighters from whichever state in which they were fighting on the undercard. In that way, it was a chance. It was a circus on national television (the brawl in Nashville) and at times a little loose in matchmaking (remember the Brandon Saling incident?). It was Mauro Ranallo, the "bi-polar rock and roller," and Pat Miletich. It was all the single-word identities -- "Jacare" and "Feijao" and "Mayhem." For a while there, it was like the ABA in the mid-1970s.

Now it's dissolving, and at this point it's for the better. This thing's gone on as a wounded animal as far as it can. The bright side is that Showtime can get back to being untampered with MMA, and all the good, viable pieces from Strikeforce will now be integrated into the UFC. That means Melendez, so high on media pound-for-pound polls, can get on with proving it. It means Gegard Mousasi might be motivated and Rockhold will be thrown to the wolves at 185 pounds. It means Cormier, too, against not just Frank Mir, but anybody. These guys are (seemingly) wading into an infinity pool.

In these ways, it's good. Strikeforce's best fighters will be working again regularly. There will be women's divisions in the UFC, which is an added component. Rousey, what's not to like? And Strikeforce's journeymen ... well, those journeymen will be like jacks hitting the linoleum. Probably time to journey elsewhere.

But that's just business. This is all just business. And in 2013 in the ever-expanding UFC, business should be good.