By FIGHT! contributor Larry Pepe
When Strikeforce: Fedor vs. Rogers hits the airwaves this Saturday night on CBS it will mark the long-awaited return of mixed martial arts to primetime network television. It will also mark another golden opportunity to expose MMA to millions of new and casual observers who can be converted into long-term fans of the sport. Of course, that can only happen with smart, aggressive promotion that garners substantial viewership.
Unfortunately, that’s not happening.
As we head into the event, much has been written questioning the marketability of Fedor Emelianenko. Does “The Last Emperor” have the star power to attract millions to the broadcast? Should we expect domestic viewers to tune in en masse to watch a fighter most of them have never heard of before, who doesn’t speak English, doesn’t have the muscular physique or menacing persona to pull off the Drago storyline and, quite frankly, isn’t brimming with charisma?
Why are we even having this conversation, again? If we were in a courtroom, opposing counsel would be objecting on the grounds that the question has been asked and answered. He’s a phenomenal fighter who can’t carry a card in the United States. Is this news? Did he suddenly forget how to speak English a few months ago? Did we expect that he would make the late-night talk show rounds a la Kimbo to pimp the event? Has he slapped on 50 pounds of muscle and turned into the reincarnation of Brock Lesnar? And to make matters worse, Fedor has openly said that he can’t be worried about selling himself to the fans. Strikeforce has to be thrilled to hear that, but not quite as thrilled as Dana White.
There is, however, a question we should be asking. Why is the marketing triumvirate of Strikeforce, CBS and Showtime centering the entire promotion of the event on Fedor? Strikeforce held a media conference call on Monday that featured two fighters and lasted a whopping 90 minutes. You guessed it…Fedor and Brett Rogers. For a guy who has never had the spotlight shine so brightly on him, Brett is doing a solid job promoting the fight, but he can’t be expected to carry the event on his shoulders, broad as they may be.
Monday’s call was a bad foreshadowing of what was to come on Tuesday when Showtime debuted Fight Camp 360 to promote the event. The 30-minute program is the network’s version of Spike’s Countdown show, which is always an hour and devotes time to at least two fights on the card, sometimes three. Predictably, and sadly, Fight Camp is completely and entirely focused on Fedor vs. Rogers, with no mention of the rest of the fights on the card. Not one mention for one second! Was Showtime’s schedule too loaded with “Weeds” reruns to devote 60 minutes to the event? Or were network executives smoking too much weed to realize that it would be a great idea to promote the Strikeforce middleweight championship fight between former EliteXC champ Jake Shields and Mayhem Miller, the ultra-charismatic, highly entertaining host of MTV’s “Bully Beatdown” who happens to be one hell of a fighter and hype man?
And we haven’t even gotten to the guy who might just be the best fighter on the entire card, Strikeforce light heavyweight champion Gegard Mousasi, who annihilated Babalu in 60 seconds while remaining more relaxed from start to finish than most of us do when the traffic light takes too long to turn green. And yes, Gegard speaks English. Last but not least, might there be some value to at least acknowledging that one of the top heavyweight submission artists in the game, Fabricio Werdum, is fighting a monstrous Antonio Silva who has only lost once in his entire MMA career?
As if ignoring that there are three other fights on the main card that night wasn’t bad enough, the episode did a terrible job of promoting the one fight it chose to focus on. No mention of Fedor’s 30-1 record or the laundry list of top heavyweights and prior UFC champions he has left in his wake. No footage of him fighting. (Yes, I know the UFC owns the Pride footage but what about the dozen fights Fedor had in Rings?) And aren’t these shows supposed to build your anticipation for the event and get you thinking that no matter how much the odds are stacked against one of the fighters, that guy has a good shot of pulling the upset? Let’s see…the one common opponent they have is former UFC champ Andrei Arlovski. Rogers took him out in 22 seconds while Fedor took over three minutes. Call me crazy but wouldn’t that build the storyline? And are you ready for the icing on this stale cake? They never gave the date of the fight on the entire episode! It was more like a scattered episode of “Biography” than “24/7.” Congratulations, you just failed Promotion 101.
They say that those who don’t study history are doomed to repeat it. Is it possible that CBS has already forgotten the sting of partnering with EliteXC, watching them build the promotion on Kimbo’s beard and folding up shop immediately after Seth Petruzelli nearly knocked it off his chin? And has everyone forgotten that Affliction exited the fight business stage right shortly after Josh Barnett tested positive and this very same Fedor refused to fight Vitor Belfort a week before their last card was scheduled to happen?
There’s a reason the UFC continues to do big business. They recognize that no one fighter makes the promotion and that, unlike boxing where one fight dominates a card, a solid MMA event has multiple fights of interest and storylines that are deserving of promotion that will peak people’s interest so they watch. While I have no doubt that the fighters on the CBS card will do their part in delivering action-packed mixed martial arts action, I can’t help but think that the pre-fight promotion of the event won’t deliver the audience those fighters, and the sport, deserved.