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By: Jamie Penick, MMATorch Editor-in-Chief
Strikeforce Heavyweight Champion Alistair OVereem will be fighting the #1 contender to his belt, Fabricio Werdum, later this spring in the opening round of the Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix. But the title won't be on the line.
Strikeforce CEO Scott Coker on Thursday claimed that Strikeforce ran into difficulties with several athletic commissions in getting all of the tournament bouts sanctioned as five round fights. Because they wanted all fighters in the tournament to have to "climb the same mountain" in this tournament, all of the quarterfinal and semifinal bouts will be three rounds instead, and Overeem's title will not be contested throughout.
But ESPN reporter Josh Gross threw some cold water on that notion of commission difficulties, as he mentioned that several athletic commissions, including California, New Jersey, Missouri and Tennessee, that he had spoken with expressed zero issue with five round non-title fights. He also stated that those commissions have not been approached by Strikeforce about that.
So they've opted for an "all or nothing" approach to the tournament fights, and it's a decision that baffles me in regards to Overeem.
Overeem captured their heavyweight title in 2007, and has defended it just once, in a fight against Brett Rogers last year. Now, he will remain the champion regardless of whether he gets defeated in the tournament; meaning if he gets defeated by Werdum in the first round, and Werdum goes on to win the tournament, he'll have "earned" the right to fight for the title. Against a man he's beaten twice.
The tournament field is bringing fights that they should have been putting on in 2011 regardless of whether or not this tournament was in the works. The tournament pairings were perfect for Overeem to face Werdum and then the winner of the Fedor Emelianenko-Antonio "Bigfoot" Silva fight in five round title fights that would have established him, as Strikeforce's Champion, as the best fighter in Strikeforce.
With having the title not be on the line, they run the risk of Overeem losing and holding onto the belt despite not being the top fighter in the division on their roster. There's an argument that an Overeem loss in the tournament sets up a big fight for the Strikeforce Title afterward, but that depends on how he loses and who he loses to. Again, if Werdum defeats him in the first round and wins the tournament, he'll be the established best heavyweight in Strikeforce; but in order to be the division's Champion, he'd have to defeat Overeem for a third time. How does that make sense?
And the argument that it's somehow unfair to Overeem and his opponents if they were fighting five round fights while others in the tournament aren't is simply wrong. Overeem is the Champion. He should be defending his title when he fights in the organization, and title fights are five rounders. If this wasn't being pushed as a tournament, he'd be fighting Werdum in a five round fight for the belt. It's that simple.
This tournament concept has gotten people talking and has garnered interest from a lot of fans, but there is going to be a backlash - and it has already started - on the tournament concept when the champion is participating but his belt isn't on the line.
There's also the issue of if he wins the tournament. Depending on how he does it, he'll have defeated three of the top contenders to his title, leaving Strikeforce with little in the way of contenders. If they run fights featuring early round losers against one another they can work back up, but if, theoretically, Overeem gets through Werdum, Fedor and Josh Barnett, Strikeforce has used up their big title fights, without once having his title on the line.
I believe this is a major misstep on Strikeforce's part, and puts a damper on a great concept with the heavyweight tournament. They're sacrificing any legitimacy to their Heavyweight Championship in order to push through with this tournament gimmick, and it's a decision that simply doesn't make sense.
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Jamie Penick, editor-in-chief
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