This week is what I liken to a funeral march; one last week of Strikeforce under the Zuffa banner, one last night of action and then a improper burial in a shallow grave for whatever wild animal is starving enough to consume its carcass. Strikeforce is ending with a whimper, not a bang, and it’s appropriate because that’s what the company ultimately is going to symbolize: unfulfilled promise. And anything over than that are delusions of grandeur to what Strikeforce really was: a company that reached for the stars and fell painfully to Earth, dead cat bouncing for a bit before finally coming to a stop in Oklahoma City forever.
Strikeforce as a whole was never anything more than a promotion through which the ills of Zuffa were seemingly corrected; it was the promotion that plenty of people liked more than the UFC because it was the contrarian thing to do. For every “Zuffa Zombie” there was a “Strikeforce Stan” arguing just as loudly. Strikeforce was always about potential above actualization. It was about what MMA could be outside the Zuffasphere instead of what it actually was: second tier MMA elevated beyond its ability. It never fulfilled its promise of being a successful first tier promotion that could actively compete for talent.
And if there was one moment that symbolized Strikeforce’s ultimate legacy it was that of the announcement of the Heavyweight Grand Prix. Eight of the best heavyweights in the world were to enter and the winner could stake a claim to legitimately being the best heavyweight in the world. Looking back now it seems like folly, of course, but the lure of the Heavyweight Grand Prix with some of the best heavyweights in the world had an appeal. The UFC even copied their format by being able to put most of the best heavyweights in the planet on one card in 2012, seemingly one-upping them in the process. With their purchase of the company a year earlier, UFC 146 had captured a little bit of that initial magic that the Heavyweight Grand Prix produced.
There was magic in the air and the potential for a magnificent tournament was abound. It was hard not to be excited when you look at the roster of fighters assembled.
You had the mythical Fedor, coming off his first professional loss but still among the elite heavyweights in the world. His name still carried with it the weight of the MMA heavyweight division, if not nearly as much after his shocking first loss. Alistair Overeem, fresh off winning kickboxing’s highest heavyweight honor, was going to dedicate the year to Strikeforce and MMA. Fabricio Werdum was resurgent after flaming out of the UFC, eager to stake his place on top after being the man that beat Fedor the first time. Antonio “Bigfoot” Silva brought a burgeoning elite status and was ready to stake his claim. Josh Barnett seemed poised to pass a drug test and return to fight on American shores after he submarined Affliction by being unable to do so. Barnett’s elite status had always been there, despite not having faced elite talent in some time. He was a name, though, and one that still carries a lot of significance. Throw in Brett Rogers, who fought admirably against Fedor, plus toss in two Eastern European heavyweight mainstays in Andre Arlovski and Sergei Kharitonov for some flavor and you have a recipe for an amazing tournament.
You had a pair of former UFC champions, a number of Pride veterans, the greatest heavyweight of his era and the best striking heavyweight on the planet all poised to determine who would have a stake to being the best heavyweight fighter on the planet. Anyone who could look at this tournament and not want to tune in was crazy.
The clear four best fighters, the ones everyone expected to have the best chance at winning, were even put in a path to face one another. Barnett would ride a much easier bracket into the finals but until then we could see Werdum vs. Overeem, the winner taking on a presumed Fedor after he starched the massive Brazilian as was predicted, and Barnett vs. Werdum/Overeem/Fedor would stake a claim to being the best heavyweight in the world. It was a nearly exceptional setup; all the fights we wanted to see were nearly guaranteed to happen and we’d have a final with at least one guaranteed fighter in the top 5 on either side of the bracket. Cinderella wouldn’t be happening in this tournament … or so we thought.
The tournament was so disastrous you couldn’t have made a pro wrestling tournament work so poorly.
Bigfoot Silva would give Fedor the beating no one expected, stopping him by strikes in magnificent fashion. Werdum vs. Overeem would turn into one of the worst fights of the year, coupled with Overeem withdrawing after his win because of an injury. He would later conveniently show up to face Brock Lesnar in the UFC to nobody’s surprise. Daniel Cormier would shock the world, however, by stopping Bigfoot in emphatic fashion and the only near guarantee of the tournament happened: Josh Barnett ran through his side of the bracket as neither Kharitonov or Rogers proved to be anything more than the journeymen their careers have shown them to be. Andre Arlovski was the tournament’s only real guarantee in a sick way; watching him get knocked unconscious in brutal fashion one more time might’ve been the event’s lowest moment. His aspirations of returning to the form that saw him hold the UFC title were crushed that night.
A while later, much later than anticipated, the tournament concluded to little buzz and in a more perfunctory manner than a celebratory one. The tournament finale was a crowning of Cormier, an alternate, as the winner after he ran through Barnett and staked his claim to being an elite fighter. He got a belt signifying the win but it was short lived; Strikeforce was running through all the loose threads to be closed up. Cormier may have been bandied about as an elite level heavyweight but the aftermath was more about Cormier coming to the UFC than who would he face next under the Strikeforce banner.
And that’s what this weekend’s card is ultimately about; closing threads. Strikeforce’s biggest moment fell uncomfortably flat, moving the needle somewhat but never really changing the discussion. It’s a symbol of everything the company will leave as its legacy: unfulfilled promise. Strikeforce is the ultimate MMA Quilt that was never completed, showing signs of something but never delivering. Its Heavyweight Grand Prix is the ultimate failure and its signature moment, appropriately. This Saturday we shouldn’t come to praise Strikeforce or celebrate what it did; we should bury it in the pile of dead MMA promotions where it belongs.