Strikeforce’s Sophomore Slump

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(Photo by Beau Bailey.)

Strikeforce’s 2009 was a hit.

The San Jose, Calif.-based promotion grew from a regional show to nationally televised fight nights 53 weeks ago with Nick Diaz’s dismantling of Frank Shamrock. They delivered many more times throughout the year: the first ever major female headlining title bout in North America, pound-for-pound great Fedor Emelianenko on CBS and a FIGHT! 2009 Fight of the Year nominee in Gilbert Melendez-Josh Thomson II.

But Strikeforce needs to address an array of problems with fight promotion, production, and its strategic partnership with DREAM that cropped up over those 53 weeks in order to avoid a sophomore slump and continue to stake its claim as the Pepsi to the UFC’s Coke.

On the eve of its second CBS offering that features three title fights with five world-ranked fighters and one of the sports brightest prospects Stirkeforce has chosen to employ a boxing-style promotional model centered on a single fight, the middleweight title tilt between Jake Shields and Dan Henderson.

The campaign is a step backward in a sport where promotions are judged by their ability to book strong cards from stem to stern. And Strikeforce: Nashville delivers with Muhammed “King Mo” Lawal — one of fighting’s most dynamic personalities — challenging FIGHT!’s #2-ranked 205-er Gegard Mousasi for the Strikeforce Light Heavyweight Championship and Gilbert Melendez defending his Lightweight Championship versus DREAM champ Shinya Aoki. In addition to three title fights, Jason “Mayhem” Miller will take on a local opponent in a match that Strikeforce CEO Scott Coker promises will make in on air in highlight form at the very least. It begs the question: why hasn’t the promotional push created a big fight atmosphere around?

Of course, it’s hard to promote fights that aren’t booked and lately Strikeforce has borrowed a page from the Japanese fight promoting playbook, announcing fights so close to curtain call that fans often don’t know who’s on the card. And even when they get it right they get it wrong; Matt Lindland is headlining the next Strikeforce Challengers card on May 21 in Portland, Ore. Against who? No one knows, his opponent is TBA.

This brings us to another of Strikeforce’s nagging problems – its Challengers series. With seven champions (five mens weight classes, two womens), producing one marquee event per month shouldn’t be difficult. Rather than put quality prospects like Andre Galvao, Luke Stewart, Luke Rockhold, Daniel Cormier, Lyle Beerbohn, Billy Evangelista, Conor Heun, Tyron Woodley, Zoila Frausto, Kerry Vera and Miesha Tate on poorly produced and promoted Challengers shows where they’ll go unseen, let them lead off the main card of monthly arena shows headlined by promotional champions and established names like Silva, Rogers, Arlovski, Babalu, Sokodjou, Lawler, Smith, Le, Manhoef, Hieron, Riggs, Gurgel, and Noons?

Strikeforce doesn’t yet have the brand recognition necessary to garner interest for fights between relative unknowns. Twelve solid cards in major markets with a solid promotional push by Showtime and CBS will do more to grow Strikeforce than 20 that vary in quality. Having Justin Wilcox fight in a dark match in front of 14,000 people in Chicago is better than having him fight on Showtime in a half empty arena in Fresno. Plus, Challengers’ shoddy production value make the show seem more like the regional promotion it used to be than the worldwide brand it aspires to be. Fewer, larger events would provide more meaningful preliminary bouts, providing Showtime with compelling content even on nights when CBS is airing the main card and creating clarity to the promotions muddled title picture.

The most integral component in Strikeforce having a strong sophomore year on the national stage is their relationship with Japanese promotion DREAM. If Strikeforce fighter K.J. Noons competes in DREAM, there’s no sense in letting him go unseen. Of course DREAM has a broadcast deal with HDNet stateside, but there has to be some way for Strikeforce/Showtime to negotiate rights to fights featuring Strikeforce fighters. If Strikeforce owns the EliteXC video library they could be packaging old fights to promote upcoming cards. The UFC does this brilliantly with its Unleashed, Wired, and Countdown shows. Getting more eyeballs on DREAM fights would help when Strikeforce brings guys like Melvin Manhoef, Marius Zaromskis and Shinya Aoki to fight stateside; they’re all great fighters but they are also all complete unknowns to the casual fan.

In reality, Strikeforce’s co-promotional relationship isn’t co-promotional, it’s a fighter-sharing deal. While Melendez vs. Aoki is a cool fight for the hardcores, the casual viewer won’t care until he or she feels strongly about the competitors, and that kind of promotional push takes more time and energy than Strikforce, Showtime, and CBS have spent so far.

A year after stepping onto the national stage, Strikeforce is still finding its identity. Strikeforce has the resources (namely fighters and broadcast partners) to be a lasting force in the industry but its lack of promotion, brand-tarnishing Challengers shows, and failure to maximize its strategic partnership with DREAM are slowing the company’s ascent.

Danny Acosta will be a guest on Sherdog’s pre-Strikeforce: Nashville round table today at 10 a.m. PST.

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