After 25 years in the fight business, Strikeforce is now closing its doors on the heels of its stacked Marquardt vs. Saffiedine card. It's a bittersweet finale for a promotion that was home to many great fighters who put on many great fights. That, after all, is what initially caught the eye of fans, Showtime and Zuffa alike.
With that in mind, many have to be wondering if there was anything that could have been done differently that would have kept Strikeforce from closing up.
When it was first announced that Zuffa had bought out Strikeforce, for the vast majority of fans, the question was not “How is Zuffa going to handle a second promotion?” The question was “When is Zuffa going to close down Strikeforce and absorb all of its fighters?”
This was for good reason, of course. Fans had seen the UFC buy and eat Japan's Pride FC, gaining fighters like Dan Henderson and Mauricio “Shogun” Rua as a result.
The same goes for WFA, a promotion who put on just four shows before being bought out by Zuffa, which let the UFC snag Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, Frank Trigg and Lyoto Machida.
The same goes for the WEC, who pioneered the featherweight and bantamweight division in the United States before being bought out by Zuffa, which instantly netted Carlos Condit, Chael Sonnen, Brian Stann and several other top welterweights and middleweights, and would eventually give the UFC its very own featherweight and bantamweight divisions.
Still, consider the particular time when Zuffa bought out Strikeforce in March 2011. This was not too long before the UFC began pursuing a network TV deal, which would yield the seven-year deal with Fox.
That in mind, there was still a place for Strikeforce in Zuffa. An MMA promotion completely free of the impending deal, whoever it may be with, could have provided an anchor in case things started to sour. It would also afford Zuffa the leverage to pressure competitors like Bellator as they sought a new network to call home (imagine Strikeforce on Spike TV, for example).
The idea of using Strikeforce as a “minor league UFC” was also frequently brought up and made a level of sense. After all, the UFC has consistently struggled handling marketable fighters that end up on ugly losing streaks like Dan Hardy, Melvin Guillard and Yoshihiro Akiyama. In some ways, it went through with this in shifting around Nate Marquardt and Keith Jardine.
On the flip side, there wasn't a single person that didn't expect Zuffa to, sooner or later, make a move to snatch Gilbert Melendez, Nick Diaz, Alistair Overeem and Gegard Mousasi. Would a Strikeforce with all these fighters suddenly disappearing be nearly as entertaining? More importantly, would any television entity even be remotely interested in airing, essentially, a hodgepodge pitting UFC washouts against people you've never heard of?
Over the last two weeks, the various characters surrounding Strikeforce (and its closure) have opened up on the topic.
UFC President Dana White insists that Zuffa did not buy out its greatest rival at the time for the express purpose of gutting it and shutting it. Whether or not this is true is a mystery. If the UFC pulled a page from Microsoft's book, it certainly wouldn't be a great PR move to say so. It would be even dumber from a legal perspective, given the allegations of a monopoly that pop up from time to time.
Showtime Sports executive Stephen Espinoza, however, points the finger squarely at Zuffa. Talking with Ariel Helwani on the MMA Hour, he flatly said that the harvesting of much of Strikeforce's talent was the main reason for their opting out of a potential extension of their deal with the promotion. The UFC, as you know, ended up acquiring most of Strikeforce's highest-profile stars one way or another, snatching up Nick Diaz, Alistair Overeem, Dan Henderson and Fabricio Werdum within a year of the purchase.
This is all on top of the fact that Dana White, for almost as long as he has been the UFC's top dog, has historically worn his near-irrational hatred of Showtime on his sleeve. Even after his grudge with former Showtime Sports executive Ken Hershman was semi-settled (Hershman left Showtime for HBO), White famously threw his hands in the air on Strikeforce last March over a conflict about show production.
All that in mind, it is still impossible to definitively say what UFC and Zuffa big wigs were planning when they first purchased Strikeforce.
On one hand, once again, it was obvious that Gilbert Melendez and Co. were eventually going to end up in the UFC. Even the greatest naysayer of Showtime cannot say it's unreasonable for the network to refuse to stomach such a turn of events. Dana White, certainly, cannot say he didn't expect Showtime to turn down a fighting promotion with no good fighters.
However, Zuffa may not have expected Showtime to keep itself so thoroughly intertwined with Strikeforce as time went on. More so, they might not have anticipated Showtime wanting to keep Strikeforce through 2012. If that was the case, it is entirely possible that Zuffa intended harvest its biggest fighters and then rebuild it on another network.
Then again, it's entirely possible that Zuffa bought out Strikeforce fully intending to take all of its best fighters, then fire everyone else. Who knows?
This writer's opinion? Well, again, obviously Zuffa was not going to leave those star fighters floating around. There is no question that they were going to take them some day, somehow. It is possible that Zuffa wasn't opposed to continuing the Strikeforce brand after they stripped their greatest assets, but again, they had to have known Showtime wouldn't have been big on this turn of events.
It's certainly possible that Strikeforce could have played some role for Zuffa other than a quick source of talent. Whether or not Zuffa ever thought of the newly-defunct promotion as anything other than this, though, is a mystery we will probably never truly know the answer to.
So while Scott Coker might be spending the night with a glass of Johnnie Walker pondering what change he could have made, it is a futile effort. The only people who truly know if Strikeforce stood a chance are Zuffa's board of executives.