UFC, Strikeforce still separate, for now

Zuffa, the parent company of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, made its fourth purchase of a competing mixed martial arts promotion in the last five years on Saturday when it completed a purchase of Strikeforce from the San Jose, Calif.-based Silicon Valley Sports & Entertainment.

In time, the deal will create a super company in which all, or virtually all, of the world’s elite fighters will compete in the same league.

That time is still not here yet.

Prized fighter Fedor Emelianenko, who is coming off back-to-back losses, won't likely fight in the UFC.
(Henry S. Dziekan III/Getty Images)

UFC president Dana White said Strikeforce will continue to be run as a separate company and be led by Scott Coker. MMA Fighting.com first reported the deal on Saturday.

Since 2006, the UFC has purchased the Pride Fighting Championship, the World Fighting Alliance and World Extreme Cagefighting. Zuffa officials indicated at the time of the purchase of both Pride and WEC that they’d be run as separate companies. Pride never ran another show after Zuffa purchased it in early 2007, while WEC did run as a separate company until it was merged into the UFC late last year.

“I know you have heard this from me before, but we have no intention of making any changes,” White told Yahoo! Sports by telephone from his Southern California home. “One thing we always do is honor our contracts. Showtime has a contract with Strikeforce and it will continue. They pull decent ratings. Showtime is happy with Strikeforce and Strikeforce is happy with Showtime. We plan to operate them as they are now, as a separate company from the UFC.”

That is largely because Zuffa doesn’t plan to interfere with the contracts that Strikeforce has with its fighters. Fighters currently under Strikeforce won’t be able to move to the UFC, no matter how good they are, until their Strikeforce deals expire.

However, those who sign deals with Zuffa now and in the future could find themselves shuttling between leagues. Eventually, when all of the current Strikeforce contracts expire, all Zuffa-contracted fighters will be free to float between leagues to create the best matchups.

It is conceivable at that point that Zuffa would shut down the Strikeforce brand and fold it into the UFC, but White said he’s not thinking that far ahead.

The UFC had the deepest roster of talent of any MMA promotion prior to the purchase, but Strikeforce had a number of elite fighters on its roster as well, including welterweight champion Nick Diaz, light heavyweight champion Dan Henderson, lightweight champion Gilbert Melendez, heavyweight champion Alistair Overeem and heavyweight contender Fedor Emelianenko.

With the contracts it owns between the UFC and Strikeforce, Zuffa probably now has 90 percent of the top 100 fighters in the world, though White, typically, believes it’s higher.

“I’d think we have 100 of the top 100,” he said.

White said the UFC needed the fighters, which was Zuffa’s impetus for the deal. He said it plans to increase the number of shows it runs and said it’s conceivable it could, down the road, have more than one show running in different countries on the same night.

The purchase also creates some fascinating subplots. White has repeatedly hammered Showtime Sports general manager Ken Hershman and has railed on Showtime announcers, particularly Gus Johnson, Mauro Ranallo and Steven Quadros.

He’s also had a very rocky relationship with officials at M-1 Global, which have partnered with Strikeforce in its Showtime deal, as well as fighters such as Henderson, Josh Barnett and Paul Daley. White cut Daley last year after Daley sucker-punched Josh Koscheck following a UFC match in Montreal, and said Daley would never fight in the UFC again. But White said Saturday that Zuffa would honor Daley’s contract with Strikeforce.

White, though, said he liked Coker and would have no problem working with him.

“If you know me, you know you don’t have to wonder whether I like someone or not,” White said. “I have never smashed Scott. I have always said I respected him and liked him and he’s going to continue to run the thing. He’s 100 percent in control.

“When we make decisions, we all get together as a team and make them and now that team includes Scott. But he’s running Strikeforce. Let’s be honest here: There are some people there, the Showtime executives, M-1, Henderson, who aren’t big fans of mine. But I don’t want them to be uncomfortable in their own league. Strikeforce is Showtime’s league and they have a contract with Strikeforce and we’ll let it run as it has.”

White said the changes that would be made would be mostly behind the scenes. He wouldn’t say if he would change Showtime’s announcing teams, though he said, “Showtime controls the production [for Strikeforce].”

“We’ll make some back-of-house improvements so the fighters will notice that things may run more smoothly, and the media may see a difference in how we do things, but this is still going to be Strikeforce,” White said.

The appeal of the purchase, though, is that MMA fans are one step closer to a super league that eliminates the issue of promotional boundaries preventing fights.

White for years tried to land Emelianenko, who has a business interest in M-1, and desperately wanted to match him at one point with then-UFC heavyweight champion Brock Lesnar and put the fight in Cowboys Stadium. But Zuffa could not come to terms with M-1 and Emelianenko hasn’t fought in the UFC.

The Japanese promotions are hemorrhaging money and the only other significant MMA promotion in North America is Bellator.

That means Zuffa soon will have the ability to make the best fights in every weight class, though, to listen to White, don’t expect to see Emelianenko in the Octagon anytime soon.

Zuffa has chased Emelianenko for five years and thought it landed his contract when it purchased Pride. But Emelianenko was a free agent and fought with other promotions, including the now-defunct Affliction and Strikeforce.

There is a certain irony in the fact that now that White finally has Emelianenko under contract, the Russian is coming off back-to-back losses and has talked of retirement.

“I don’t see any irony in that,” White said, chuckling. “Even though Fedor is now under contract with Zuffa, I still have a hard time imagining he’ll ever fight in the UFC. We’ll see, but that’s my bet right now.”

There are few fights, though, that can’t be made now. And that’s the good thing.

“You know me,” White said. “I’m as big a fan of this as anybody and I love making the fights that everyone wants to see. At the end of the day, it’s all about making great fights and the fights the people want to see. That’s what we’re doing.”

Kevin Iole covers boxing and mixed martial arts for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Kevin a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Saturday, Mar 12, 2011