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Strikeforce tournament’s road leads to pay-per-view, possible CBS return

Strikeforce came out with its proverbial guns blazing last week, announcing a four-night, eight-man heavyweight tournament anchored by former No. 1 world-ranked Fedor Emelianenko that could usher in the promotion’s first pay-per-view event ever this year during its semifinal or final rounds.

The promotion’s return to CBS, which previously aired two Strikeforce cards in 2009 and 2010, is also being preliminarily discussed as a potential piece of the broadcast puzzle, Strikeforce CEO Scott Coker told the Times.

“The tournament is going to deliver our biggest shows yet,” said Coker. “At some point this year, we will be in the pay-per-view business and having this tournament out there is a big step in that direction.”

Billed as Strikeforce’s World Grand Prix - Heavyweight Tournament in co-promotion with M-1 Global, the top-bill effort will commence on Feb. 12 at the IZOD Center in East Rutherford, N.J., with a pair of quarterfinal bouts. Emelianenko (32-2, 1 NC), who met his first defeat in a decade against Fabricio Werdum six months ago, will face Antonio Silva (15-2). The 6-foot-4 Brazilian-born Silva outboxed Andrei Arlovski to a unanimous decision last May.

Arlovski (15-8), a former UFC champion by way of Belarus, has been matched against Pride Fighting Championships veteran Sergei Kharitonov (17-4), a Russian airborne trooper who notched a first-round knockout over Tatsuya Mizuno on New Year’s Eve in Japan.

Valentijn Overeem (28-25), a 15-year MMA veteran and older brother to Strikeforce heavyweight champion Alistair, will meet eight-time K-1 World Grand Prix (kickboxing) finalist Ray Sefo (2-0) in one of three reserve bouts, all constructed to provide alternates should any of the tournament field lose its footing along the way. Chad Griggs (9-1), who surprised many by taking out former WWE pro wrestler Bobby Lashley in two rounds last August, has also been seeded into the reserve brackets against Ring of Combat heavyweight champion and local draw Gian Villante (7-1).

ESPN.com reported last Tuesday that Strikeforce Challengers headliners Lavar Johnson (15-3) and Shane Del Rosario (10-0) will get the final reserve-bout slot.

The five heavyweight bouts will air live Feb. 12 on Showtime, Coker told the Times.

In the other tournament bracket, champion Overeem (34-11, 1 NC) is set to defend his title against No. 1 contender Werdum (14-4-1) in a five-round contest this April at a yet-to-be determined venue. Former UFC champion Josh Barnett (26-5), who is still going through the motions to gain re-licensure in California after testing positive for steroids in 2009, and Strikeforce-bred Brett Rogers (11-2) round out the octet with the fourth quarterfinal bout.

As an added bonus for fans, Overeem's inclusion ensures the Strikeforce heavyweight title will be defended and could change hands multiple times during the tournament’s duration. Strikeforce and Showtime officials said they are still finalizing three- and five-round considerations with individual athletic commissions (only championship bouts are given five-round status per the sport's unifed rules), though they’re mindful to keep uniformity across the board, if possible.

The high-profile tournament comes at both an opportune and needed time for Strikeforce, which saw the development of its marquee division stall as it struggled to keep two of its biggest attractions, Emelianenko and Overeem, in the cage in 2010.

Overeem, 30,  is a particularly hot commodity for the promotion at the moment. The Dutch striker became the first mixed martial artist ever to capture a K-1 World Grand Prix title on Dec. 10, and then rang in his New Year with a 19-second knockout of one-time UFC standout Todd Duffee for Dream’s interim heavyweight title.

With Emelianenko and Overeem or Werdum already slated to face off in the tournament’s semifinals should they advance past their first-round opponents, Strikeforce has some solid ammunition available to find its pay-per-view footing behind the industry leader in the Ultimate Fighting Championship. Ironically, Strikeforce's tournament launches at a time when the UFC’s own heavyweight division is having its owns issues; champion Cain Velasquez is expected to undergo surgery for a torn rotator cuff and sit out most of 2011, among other fighter setbacks.

Dates and venues for the semifinal and finale events have not been solidified, and there are no plans, at the moment, for any tournament leg to take place at the HP Pavilion in San Jose, the promotion’s homebase. Instead, Coker said Strikeforce is exploring holding one of the events in Montreal or Toronto, which would mark the promotion’s debut on Canadian soil.

Coker said the tournament’s semifinals or finals, tentatively scheduled for September or October, are strong bets to anchor a pay-per-view debut. As part of its broadcasting relationship, which enters its fourth year in March, Showtime would produce, market and distribute the event.

“We still see it as something we want to do opportunistically,” said Ken Hershman, Showtime Sports executive vice president and general manager. “We don’t want to make it the focus of what we’re doing because we’re happy with Strikeforce on Showtime, but I think you’ll see us in the pay-per-view business, for sure, in 2011.”

Coker, who’d mentioned promoting a star-studded heavyweight tournament throughout 2010, approached Showtime three months ago with the plan. The eight-man grand prix was greenlit just shy of the new year after Emelianenko and his management company, M-1 Global, signed a multi-fight extension with the San Jose-based promotion. M-1 Global, which also hosts its own events throughout Europe and occasionally in the U.S., will keep its co-promotional mantle for the events the Russian legend headlines.

Strikeforce, M-1 Global, and Showtime negotiated the extension throughout the second half of 2010 once Emelianenko had reached the final fight on his existing deal with the co-promotions. Sources close to both promotions said determining a pay-per-view debut has been a major negotiating factor since the two organizations signed into their first agreement in August 2009.

Coker said the recent talks addressed multiple components of the Strikeforce/M-1 Global deal and that the new extension didn't guarantee pay-per-view events, though he declined to discuss further specifics.

Also considered during the lengthy negotiations was a proposed deal to bring M-1 Global shows to Showtime in 2011. Hershman wouldn’t discuss the outcome of that facet of negotiations.

With Emelianenko now re-signed, Coker probably didn’t have much convincing to do to get Showtime onboard with the tournament concept. Hershman said the premium pay channel “scored a homerun” with its “Super Six” boxing tournament in 2010.

“The ratings were pretty steady, but what its done is keep the conversation among the fans, among the media, and mostly importantly, among our subscribers, at the top of their minds,” said Hershman. “There’s been more talk and more articles written about the Super Six than probably about any individual bout in 2010, including Manny Pacquiao...We think that the Strikeforce heavyweight grand prix will be the biggest story in all of mixed martial arts in 2011.”

Coker believes the tournament carries enough cache to revisit a potential run on CBS, which hasn’t broadcasted a Strikeforce event since April after the main event erupted into a scuffle involving fighters and cornermen on live television.

The promoter said that broadcasting the tournament semifinals on CBS to optimize a pay-per-view finale sounded like “a great plan,” and would be discussed with Showtime officials this week in New York. (A CBS official declined to comment at this time.)

Hershman was also open to the idea of incorporating Showtime’s sister network into the strategy.

“Right now, we’ve structured it all so that we don’t have to worry about that component of it,” said Hershman. “If CBS could jump in, that would be amazing. We’d love it, but we’re positioned to maximize this opportunity.”

Wherever it airs, the tournament could prove a defining moment for Strikeforce, and most importantly, a springboard toward sustainable profitability that has only been enjoyed by the UFC up until this point.

“This tournament is going to be historical in mixed martial arts,” said Coker. “The roster that we’ve been able to put together for this reminds me of the heyday of Pride in Japan. It’s going to have a special vibe and anytime we can get Fedor into the cage, it’s going to have significance.”

-- Loretta Hunt

 

 

 
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