Strikeforce's Challenged Series

(Kaufman vs. Hashi. Props to Strikeforce.)

SAN JOSE, Calif.—The Strikeforce Challengers series is challenged.

A plodding 25-minute main event between Sarah Kaufman and Takayo Hashi made fans exit The Civic Auditorium like it was raining indoors. It’s no secret Strikeforce has work to do despite carving out a respectable place as the promotion currently second to the UFC. However, not selling out a small 3,000 seat venue—or even filling it up with complimentary tickets— in their backyard with a nationally televised card featuring mostly local talent is a major issue for any promotion, especially one the UFC sees as a threat.

Strikeforce switched main events from Trevor Prangley and Karl Amoussou to the female welterweight title tilt between Kaufman and Hashi the Monday before the fights and no one seemed to notice—that’s a problem.

No other champion—even for a vacant crown—would be on a Challengers show, that’s for sure. The slogan for the show even highlights all the confusion: before they are champions, they are challengers. So why was a champion inaugurated at Challengers? Amoussou pulled an Aina, so whatever main event occupied the top spot was going to disappoint regardless. If Kaufman-Hashi was hyped properly though, people would have been emotionally involved enough to stick around.

Strikeforce’s production on their premium Showtime events or CBS cards create big fight atmospheres—the kind necessary to create stars—and that’s something Challengers extremely lacks. Their pre-fight video packages are grown up show and tell. Luke Rockhold is one of the best middleweight prospects in the sport yet having him show off his long board two-dimensionally is embarrassing for him and the promotion, which is capable of quality video packages like their other shows suggest. It’s a try-hard turn off. Audiences want to care about athletes, but they need to be shown how—not told how.

Challengers is Strikeforce’s attempt to build young talent without reality television but it’s a misguided way to do so. No one remembers that EliteXC had ShoXC (“Young Guns” or something?) and Strikeforce has done little to separate itself from that production value or model.

There’s an array of quality talent like Rockhold, Tyrone Woodley and Daniel Cormier coming up through the Challengers ranks. The best way to ensure they ascend is to feature them on cards people will actually watch. For fighters rising up, its better to be an opening contest on a CBS card than a headliner on an uninspired event.

Challengers is a waste of promotional energy because the best way to build a brand is to put on big fights, which is inherently not something this series will do. After all, it’s a shame fights like Meisha Tate-Sarah Kaufman, Tim Kennedy-Nick Thompson and Jorge Gurgel-Connor Huen and stars like Rockhold and Billy Evangelista didn’t have the same viewership as the premium Strikeforce fights or CBS because they certainly deserved them. The same will be true for Luke Stewart and Andre Galvao, who are expected to headline the next Challengers show on March 26 from the Save Mart Center in Fresno, CA—a sizeable venue that could sell out with a compelling main event and quality matches like Stewart-Galvao to anchor it.

While the UFC has a similar feeder system with their UFC Fight Night series, they have the depth and more importantly, the brand recognition and resources to do that. Strikeforce the promotion would be better served scrapping the series all together if its not obligated by Showtime to have them as a sister to the ShoBox series because its better to have 12 amazing shows a year than 20 marred by inconsistency. That allows Strikeforce and Showtime to set fight dates, venues and stack their events with enough talent to inspire fervent interest—something they’ve struggled with since joining the big time on April 11, 2009.

If they want to stick with Challengers and small venues, they need to ensure they’ll sell them out. A better play to develop Strikeforce and its stars is to hit similar unique (and larger) venues in MMA-starved markets like the Bill Graham Civic Center in San Francisco with big time fight nights.

Part of Strikeforce’s success is its ‘small ball’ approach but Challengers isn’t even making contact.

(Rockhold celebrates his stoppage of Bradley. Props to Strikeforce.)

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