On the eve of "Strikeforce: Melendez vs. Masvidal", it was announced Thursday (Dec. 15) that Strikeforce and its longtime television partner Showtime had struck up a new deal through the end of 2014.
It put to bed the rumors that Dana White and the rest of the Zuffa brass were going to pull the plug on the San Jose promotion when its original deal expired early next year -- but not before ravaging it of its top talent, continuing what the UFC had started with Nick Diaz and Alistair Overeem.
The news came as a bit of a surprise to most but even more surprising was the language White used to describe Strikeforce's future. While he didn't give much thought to the idea, he didn't flat out deny co-promotion between the two fight companies.
He spoke as if Strikeforce would operate on a level comparable to that of the UFC. He denied that Scott Coker's baby would become a "feeder league" and that its titles would not be looked at as "secondary" during Thursday's press conference.
I just wish someone had asked the question that was on my -- and likely many others' -- mind:
Exactly who does White think he's kidding?
Let's get one thing straight: Strikeforce won't have to worry about beginning to look like a second-rate league because it already does. But so does every promotion not named UFC.
In one of the rare instances where fact syncs up with opinion, the Las Vegas promotion is the top dog in the mixed martial arts (MMA) worlds. Ask any Affliction-clad guy in a bar during a pay-per-view (PPV) if he likes "MMA" and you'll see a deer in headlights. Use the term "UFC" and hope you have comfortable shoes because you're going to be standing there, talking to him for a while.
That settles the opinion half of the equation. And it doesn't take Rain Man to figure out the math on the fact portion. Take a look at the USA Today/SBNation consensus rankings and it becomes obvious that it'd be easier to count how many top 25 fighters are not in the UFC than tallying up how many are. The Octagon has a stranglehold on what pundits consider to be the best talent in the world. You'll see Strikeforce pop up maybe a handful of times per division but that presence isn't nearly enough to warrant comparisons to the talent pool its bigger brothers has at its disposal.
Strikeforce is in a situation that is wholly unique in the MMA world. It's a promotion with relatively strong nationwide brand recognition -- something that a Shark Fights or an XFO doesn't have -- that also happens to have a decent TV deal backing it.
The only other company that comes close in comparison is Bellator but the meager ratings it gets on MTV2 -- only ten of thousands of people tune in week in and out -- would have been its death knell had Viacom not decided to replace its UFC programming on Spike with Bjorn Rebney's offering. Bellator simply doesn't register with your casual fan.
Strikeforce -- on top of being the promotion that housed Fedor Emelianenko and up until recently Diaz and "Hendo" -- is leagues ahead of Bellator in terms of recognition. And with the Zuffa's marketing muscle hyping up each event on its PPVs, its FX cards, and even its Fox events, its status in the public eye has nowhere to go but up.
And that does wonders for fighters like Chad Griggs and Shane Del Rosario. These are guys who are obviously talented and have already bulldozed their way through the regional MMA scene en route to Strikeforce. But for as talented as they are, there's no denying that each would get absolutely obliterated against anyone of note inside the Octagon. That's the situation as is now for both fighters. In a couple of years, that might not be the case.
Two years in the UFC though would likely result in both of them picking up two or three consecutive losses and getting bounced from the promotion. Being in Strikeforce, they'll get good exposure and will be able to evolve and progress naturally. The WWE employs a similar strategy. They'll sign someone they see potential in and then send them off to a smaller promotion they have a working relationship with. That way, they can hone their skills and get ready for the big time and the WWE need not worry about a rival company signing the wrestler away.
Strikeforce can absolutely be that for the UFC. What else is there, unification bouts? It's a laughable idea.
Of the two divisions that actually have champions, there is all of one unification bout that fans want to see between the two promotions. And trust me, Luke Rockhold taking on Anderson Silva is definitely not it. The only other titleholder -- Overeem, Diaz, and Henderson were snatched up by the UFC and vacated their belts -- is Gilbert Melendez who hasn't been able to not talk about how excited he is to finally fight inside the Octagon.
But according to White, Melendez is "really f'n excited" to be in Strikeforce. I can see why White lost thousands of dollars in one night gambling; the guy can't bluff to save his life.
"El Niño" has been nothing but vocal about his desire to step inside the Octagon and prove his mettle. In October, he spoke almost as if his contract with Strikeforce was a hinderance, shackles that he couldn't wait to shrug off. He wanted more exposure and more money, both equally proportionate to the talent he feels he possesses.
Of course, Zuffa may have driven a dump truck full of money to Melendez's house to convince him to stay put. The only other thing the Mexican-American brought up more than wanting to prove he was the best was his "brand." It's obvious that he is taking his post-fighting future into consideration already, not wanting to end up like countless retired pro athletes who have nothing to fall back on.
A hefty pay increase could have assured Melendez that security he desired while also helping him forget about his goals inside the cage. The phrase "big fish in a small pond" has already been thrown around. Beyond that, I couldn't think of a single reason why the Strikeforce champ wouldn't want to jump at the chance at fighting on the world's biggest stage.
Despite what White says, Strikeforce is almost fated to become a place where the Griggs and del Rosarios of the world -- too talented for the regionals but not yet at the UFC level -- cut their teeth and where Octagon also-rans either get their career back on track or use whatever residual star power to finish it up. Plain and simple, Strikeforce has never and will never be on par with the UFC.
And if positioned properly, it doesn't need to be.