Commentary

Santos is MMA's most vicious fighter

Originally Published: December 19, 2011
By Josh Gross | ESPN.com

Following Strikeforce's final card of 2010, Scott Coker caught his breath inside an empty press room. He'd just wrapped the busiest year of his promotional life and was well within his rights to take a moment.

Reflecting on what was and predicting what would be, Coker declared Strikeforce, then the closest thing resembling a competitor to the Ultimate Fighting Championship since Pride disappeared, ready to move beyond the "building block" stage.

It was, he said, time for "Phase 2."

As it happened, Coker was correct. Only partially and briefly, but there's no denying he was on to something in St. Louis.

Twelve months later, Strikeforce chugs headfirst into yet another incarnation, one that hardly resembles what its founder and CEO touted at the time. That buzz-worthy heavyweight division? It's all but been dismantled. (The final chapter comes sometime in 2012, when the promotion is set to hand over its heavyweights altogether.) Promotable names like Alistair Overeem, Nick Diaz and Jason Miller are gone. There was a sense among some fans that Strikeforce represented an option for MMA outside the Zuffa frontier, a sort of Americanized Pride, which engendered a sense that this upstart was worth supporting. That's all gone. In its place exists an unsettled road, one paved in the wake of Strikeforce's sale to Zuffa and a pared-down broadcasting deal with Showtime.

A year after Coker sounded so energized, so eager to move forward, his baby, for which he was handsomely paid to relinquish, seems more likely headed to purgatory than the promised land. Building blocks, it seems, all over again. Except he's not the one tasked with building it anymore. And those who are might have something better to do.

Strikeforce's new shot-callers -- UFC president Dana White and Showtime Sports boss Stephen Espinoza -- have touted the promotion as a legitimate home for the sport's best fighters. It's a hard sell. Does anyone really believe Strikeforce and UFC are going to bid against one another for prospects, contenders or champions? Of course not. The same people are cutting the checks. So questions surrounding Strikeforce's role clearly won't center on its potential status as a competitor to the UFC.

If history is our guide, Strikeforce is in for a rough ride.

For as much as Zuffa has excelled by promoting the UFC, it has equally failed to build other properties. World Extreme Cagefighting, for example, featured far more talent than Strikeforce does today, and that show was eventually chopped down before getting folded into its money-generating big brother. If Zuffa couldn't turn Jose Aldo, Dominick Cruz, Urijah Faber and many others into consistent rating and pay-per-view draws without attaching "UFC" alongside their names on the poster, what hope do Gilbert Melendez or Luke Rockhold have when they're tied at the hip to "Strikeforce"?

While some fighters should benefit from Strikeforce's new lease on life -- solid paydays and televised roster spots exist where they wouldn't otherwise -- that won't come without a price, namely MMA's Zuffa-dominated purse structure. So what is Strikeforce's purpose exactly? A feeder league for the UFC? A world-class promoter of mixed martial arts? A cultivator of top talent? A mechanism to maintain control over the vast majority of top mixed martial artists?

Only time will tell.

In the end it comes down to the fights. Can Zuffa find opponents for Melendez or Rockhold that will inspire fans to pony up for the product on Showtime? And if so, for how long?

Whether the conversation takes place today or a year from now, eventually it will lead to the same place: Let these guys fight against the best in the UFC.

Look no further than Melendez's escapades leading up to his Strikeforce lightweight title defense against Jorge Masvidal on Saturday. Few people considered the challenger a legit threat. That was the storyline leading up to the fight. Masvidal's performance did little to change anyone's opinion. And afterward, Melendez was forced to defend his performance and status. That's how it will be with this deal.

On to the action in the cage. From A to F, here's how fighters on the last Strikeforce event of 2011 fared.

Josh Gross covers MMA for ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter at JoshGrossESPN.

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