Heavyweight class, Challengers series going away
Strikeforce and Showtime have new life – with some fairly major changes.
The promotion and premium cable channel on Thursday announced a new agreement to extend their broadcast partnership. But as part of Strikeforce going forward, the heavyweight division will ultimately be eliminated, allowing the promotion to focus on deeper weight classes, and the Strikeforce Challengers series will go away.
Under the terms of the new agreement, Showtime will hold six to eight live Strikeforce events in 2012. The new deal will start with the Jan. 7 Strikeforce card in Las Vegas featuring a middleweight title fight between champion Luke Rockhold and Keith Jardine, which will be made available to more than 60 million homes on a Showtime free preview weekend.
Sometime in 2012, once Daniel Cormier's hand has healed, he will fight Josh Barnett for the Strikeforce heavyweight grand prix title on Showtime. And after that, the winner, Strikeforce CEO Scott Coker said, will fight once more – and then the heavyweight division will go away.
"We're going to focus on our other weight classes, and focus on the women's divisions, which you'll see after the tournament finals," Coker said Thursday on a call with media members. "You'll see one more fight where the winner will fight a top-rated heavyweight, and then we'll go back to focusing on our other weight classes."
Coker said it's possible the tournament winner would fight a UFC heavyweight in a crossover bout, but speculation that might be the then-UFC champion is premature.
"Nothing is determined, but we'll have some dialogue to determine who that fighter will be," Coker said.
Zuffa and UFC president Dana White said eliminating Strikeforce's heavyweight division makes sense. And with former heavyweight champion Alistair Overeem recently moving to the UFC, and Strikeforce heavyweight Fabricio Werdum moving over this week, two of its biggest names are already gone.
"You guys have heard me say this before, but the heavyweight divisions aren't deep enough," White said. "We're going to focus on the (Strikeforce) weight classes that are strong. I have no idea what's going to happen with (the tournament winner) yet. We'll see. Showtime wanted to have the grand prix winner and have one more heavyweight fight before the division went away."
But Coker and White reiterated that the rest of Strikeforce's divisions will remain – including both the 135-pound and 145-pound women's divisions.
And in a new addition to the Strikeforce-Showtime relationship, the promotion's preliminary card fights will now be televised on the Showtime Extreme channel – which in turn likely will eliminate the current Strikeforce Challengers series.
Speculation built soon after Zuffa bought Strikeforce that the promotion would ultimately be folded into the UFC. And when champions Nick Diaz, Overeem and Dan Henderson all made their way to the UFC, the writing appeared to be on the wall.
But White, who entered negotiations with the network earlier this fall, had grown increasingly confident in recent weeks that a deal extension would be reached with Showtime that would allow Strikeforce to remain a separate entity from the UFC. White entered negotiations with Showtime after Ken Hershman, the former head of Showtime Sports, left the network for HBO. White's frosty relationship with Hershman kept him from being involved in the past.
"He's not a fan of mine, I'm not a fan of his," White said. "He's not there any more. I flew out (to New York), (the new regime and I) liked each other, and we've got a deal. End of story."
Showtime Sports executive vice president and general manager Stephen Espinoza said all parties agree that Strikeforce isn't the "B-level" promotion to the UFC – even though the public might perceive it that way.
"Strikeforce is not a secondary brand," Espinoza said. "Luke Rockhold, Cyborg (Santos), Gilbert (Melendez) are not secondary fighters. It'll continue to be a big brand going forward. Now that we're out publicly with this, it'll be very clear, very shortly. EVeryone's going to know this is not a secondary brand."
In divisions that don't currently have champions in Strikeforce – light heavyweight with Henderson in the UFC and welterweight with Diaz in the UFC – Coker said some resolution will happen, starting in January.
"When you think about the fights we're having Saturday and in January, it'll eventually lead to title fights in the weight classes," Coker said. "We'll put fights together and work toward titles in those divisions."