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By Alvin Benjamin Carter III, MMA Torch Specialist
I am a fan of MMA and of commerce- the latter of which has helped MMA become what it is today. The truth is MMA has gone from a sport with many names (in the early days) to a sanctioned combat sport that falls almost as much in the "sports entertainment" category as it does in the genuine sports category. This is a breakthrough when one compares it to the majority of combat sports that have not caught on, or pro wrestling where the events are scripted.
At times the unscripted drama in MMA takes place before anyone steps inside the cage, and it throws off a fight card. Strikeforce's "Henderson vs. Babalu II" event taking place on Saturday, December 4, 2010 has been dealing with its fair share of main card changes. Valentijn Overeem had to pull out of his Strikeforce debut bout with Antonio "Bigfoot" Silva due to an elbow injury, and Mike Kyle is stepping in on very short notice for Overeem. The biggest blow to this card has to be the cancellation of the Herschel Walker vs. Scott Carson bout. Walker would have been a decent casual fan draw as well as new viewer draw based on name recognition alone, but he suffered a cut on his face in training. This bout has been replaced with Benji Radach vs. Ovince St. Preux. As if the lineup changes aren't enough, the Strikeforce show is running up against The Ultimate Fighter 12 Finale on Saturday evening.
These card changes are typical for MMA, but some cards can take these hits better than others. A lot of how stacked a card is comes down to basic business decisions. The UFC can afford to pay for pretty decent preliminary fights that are often worked into the pay-per-view if time permits, or they are sometimes aired on Spike TV prior to the main card. These fights often feature recognizable fighters that have, in some cases, been on the main card in prior UFC events.
Smaller promotions may not have that luxury, but often I think they might have the opportunity to put together stacked cards better than they do. This would alleviate the problem of having a weak card the moment a main card athlete has one too many sparring sessions prior to the event. This is not to say that UFC has not had some cursed cards in recent memory, but Strikeforce puts on too few cards to have this problem plague them.
The prelim fights on Saturday's Strikeforce card are made up of local athletes and some who have gone through the EA Sports/Sherdog fighter exchange program. Needless to say, fans across the country are not clamoring to see these fights even though they might help sell tickets at the venue; so they could not be promoted to the main card. While Strikeforce needs revenue from any possible source, saving money on fighter purses with eight prelim fights full of national unknowns and upstart fighters is not always as cost effective as it seems.
Again, the concept might have been to pack the venue with local fighters supporting that mission of a venue sell out, but Strikeforce is in a special situation. They really need to make sure people tune in at home. Most shows besides the UFC really need to sell out the venue to make money, but Strikeforce needs to sell well at the gate and make sure they have a decent viewership.
The UFC is not paying it's prelim fighters an astronomical amount of money, but it's enough to get fighters that can be put on the main card if need be. Aaron Simpson vs. Mark Muñoz is an example of a fight that was a Spike TV prelim that would have just been a regular prelim if the UFC and Spike TV chose not to air two fights on the network. It also could have moved up to the main card if there was a last minute adjustment to the card.
Strikeforce has a main event that is a rematch a decade in the making, but there are skeptics based on Dan Henderson's last outing against Jake Shields. There might have been just as many people eager to see Herschel Walker face a "step up" in competition, but to say this was looking like a stacked card would have been a stretch. Having at least one strong fight on a prelim card could have padded the blows this card had taken.
I do commend Strikeforce's ability to get last minute changes done, but fighters might not be ready to perform at their highest personal level do to lack of specific preparation. (On the flipside that might make for a great finish or two). This would not be a problem if Strikeforce had more non-Challengers events each year.
A lot of people did not enjoy UFC 119 or 122, but there were a number of stellar UFC cards this year making those events blips on the map. Strikeforce could consider having more major events each year in an effort to make more of their roster of known fighters, and they can begin to stack cards better. This main card in St. Louis actually is interesting to me, but it is not pulling in new fans and that is something Strikeforce has to at least aim for with every event.
There also seems to be a reoccurring issue with getting fighters of major name value to fight when the promotions needs them to. If Scott Coker can wrangle in these costly fighters and their management in an effort to act like the number two promotion (which is still a powerful place to be) they could get stronger cards and even main events that will draw even if the entire card is not stacked or if athletes pull out.
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