The triangle submission that Fabricio Werdum clamped on Fedor Emelianenko on June 26 has taken some of the bargaining leverage away from the Russian and his M-1 Global handlers in negotiating his next contract.
Emelianenko can no longer walk into the UFC and get huge guaranteed money and an immediate title shot against champion Brock Lesnar, as was offered last year.
But the Russian, who has one fight left on his Strikeforce contract, retains value in the big picture.
The game isn't about determining who is the world's top heavyweight anymore. It's a UFC vs. Strikeforce branding battle, with UFC – established as the Coca-Cola of the industry – clashing with Strikeforce, which is attempting to establish itself as the Pepsi of mixed martial arts.
The single most important key for Strikeforce to establish itself long-term as a strong No. 2 organization is building a consistent relationship with CBS. Showtime may pay some bills, but because of its limited market penetration, the premium cable network is difficult to use as a vehicle to establish new stars, the lifeblood for any promotion. A big event on CBS can draw more than four million viewers; the same quality event on Showtime would be lucky to draw 600,000.
Drawing a competitive, network prime-time audience has been difficult thus far. Putting together good fighters and promoting what looks to be "on paper" as solid, competitive fights have failed – such as the April 17 three-title fight on CBS that tanked in the ratings.
The difference between CBS' success and failure has been the inclusion of a headliner with star power. With Gina Carano on an extended break, only Emelianenko has the same track record of success among Strikeforce's current roster. And right now, there doesn't appear to be anyone else who can take his place.
Emelianenko was clearly the company's most popular fighter before his loss. The next most-popular fighter, Dan Henderson, was in the main event on the disastrous April card but hasn't proven he can deliver the audience needed to headline a network prime-time show.
Worse, not only is Henderson coming off a loss to Jake Shields – who appears to be leaving for the UFC without losing the middleweight title – but also there isn't anyone in the light heavyweight or middleweight divisions who could be matched with Henderson who would capture the casual fan.
For that reason alone, given UFC president Dana White's ruthlessness against opposing promoters, I don't believe White for a second when he said last week that he has no interest in the Russian. There wasn't much pressure from the public, outside of the vocal hardcore fan base who comprise a tiny percentage of people who actually spend money on the product, on White to sign Emelianenko. But there were relentless questions from the media about who was the world's best heavyweight, so White clearly put pressure on himself for the past three years to make the deal.
With Emelianenko's loss, however, his real value to UFC is simply that by getting him on its roster, it could derail Strikeforce's most valuable key to growth: the potential to do well on CBS.
The 33-year-old Emelianenko issued a challenge to Werdum for a rematch immediately after Werdum's victory in San Jose. Since then, Strikeforce CEO Scott Coker has discussed all three possible matches among his star heavyweights: champion Alistair Overeem, logical top contender Werdum and the Russian, who desperately needs a high-profile win over one of the other two in his next fight to stay relevant in top-tier discussions.
The match Coker has seemed to favor in recent days is giving Emelianenko a title shot with Overeem. It doesn't appear to make sense on the surface for a fighter who lost cleanly in 1:09 to then get a championship fight. But that's where Coker has leverage. Emelianenko needs a high-profile win over either Werdum or Overeem to regain his elite status. Such a title match would, if CBS comes to the table, allow Strikeforce to promote a heavyweight championship fight, give its title visibility and potentially establish Overeem, with his physically impressive look, charisma and exciting offensive game, as a legitimate player on the North American scene.
Without CBS, Overeem vs. Werdum would be logical for Showtime. The June 26 Emelianenko-Werdum fight was in fact billed as a match where the winner would get the next title shot. CBS changes the picture because Strikeforce would be in a must-deliver ratings situation. At this point, though, neither Overeem nor Werdum have enough name recognition to draw significant network ratings. A Emelianenko-Werdum rematch would have the most public interest at this point. It's also the fight that both fighters say they want. Emelianenko obviously needs to erase the blemish to have a shot at regaining his former stature. Werdum realizes a second win over Emelianenko means more for his career than a championship belt.
Success on CBS is more important than the logical progression of the heavyweight title chase. Strikeforce already came up short in gambling on Henderson beating Shields, and the last thing it needs right now is for Emelianenko to knock off its only real heavyweight contender and then leave the promotion to pick up the pieces.
Clouding the picture is the so-called "champion's clause," which binds a champion to their contract as long as they hold a company title. UFC binds all its champions under such a clause – UFC won its dispute with Randy Couture three years ago by refusing to drop recognition of his title – but Strikeforce hasn't, and the company was embarrassed when Sheilds left with the middleweight belt. Strikeforce is insisting Emelianenko agree to such a clause before signing on for a title bout, which could complicate matters.
If CBS doesn't participate, and it's still unclear whether or not it will, Emelianenko and M-1's leverage in this country will all but vanish. Strikeforce can put on quality, Showtime-caliber events and draw nearly the same audience without him. Emelianenko's value is no longer worth breaking the bank. Strikeforce can lose him, and in the big picture, it won't make a great deal of difference. But don't count out Emelianenko's UFC value after the loss, as plenty of name fighters have shown over and over that one loss doesn't kill interest in stars. But his side has certainly lost plenty of leverage.
- Fabricio Werdum
- Fedor Emelianenko