Thursday's official announcement of a new deal between Showtime and Zuffa-owned Strikeforce include the demise of the company's heavyweight division and the continuance of women's fighting within the Zuffa organization.
UFC president Dana White was joined by Showtime Sports executive vice president Stephen Espinoza and Strikeforce CEO Scott Coker for the announcement of six to eight events in 2012 along with contractual options to continue the relationship after that point.
The biggest news concerned the heavyweight division, which will disappear from Strikeforce likely by the end of summer. The 2011 heavyweight Grand Prix tournament, delayed several times, will likely finish in March with Daniel Cormier (9-0) facing Josh Barnett (31-5). The event date is still pending, as Cormier is recovering from a broken hand.
The tourney winner will fight one more time on Showtime and then likely move to UFC.
"We're going to focus on key weight classes and the women's divisions," said White. "After this tournament, there will be one more heavyweight fight, and we'll then do away with the heavyweight division. The heavyweight division isn't deep enough. We'll focus on the weight divisions that are strong."
Strikeforce events will include six divisions: men's light heavyweight, middleweight, welterweight and lightweight, and women's featherweight (145 pounds) and bantamweight (135 pounds). No specific details were given, but Coker announced there would be fights to create new champions at light heavyweight (vacated when Dan Henderson signed with UFC) and welterweight (vacated when Nick Diaz signed with UFC).
Cristiane "Cyborg" Santos (10-1), the women's featherweight champion, defends her title Saturday night at the Valley View Casino Center in San Diego against Hiroko Yamanaka (12-1). It will be the champion's first title defense in 17 months after a long contract dispute.
"If Strikeforce had gone away, there would be no women's fighting," said White. "We're not doing women's divisions in the UFC right now. Strikeforce offers an opportunity to build new stars, new champions, new contenders and keep the women's divisions alive. UFC doesn't have that and wouldn't have it if Strikeforce went away."
The new deal goes into effect with a Jan. 7 show from the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, headlined by Luke Rockhold (8-1) defending the Strikeforce middleweight title against Keith Jardine (17-9). Jardine, a longtime UFC light heavyweight name fighter who was cut in 2010, is trying to reinvent himself in his first fight as a middleweight. The event will be part of a Showtime free-preview weekend, so the event will have roughly triple the usual availability of the usual Showtime universe, reaching about 52 percent of U.S. homes.
Under the new contract, Showtime essentially will merge the two different types of shows Strikeforce has produced in recent years. The main shows will continue in the 10 p.m. (ET) Saturday-night time slot. The "Challengers" B-level level series will cease running as separate events and instead become the preliminary card, airing in a two-hour window beginning at 8 p.m. on Showtime Extreme.
"What we've decided to do is consolidate the programming," said Espinoza. "The preliminaries will air on Showtime Extreme prior to the main events that will air on the primary network. Whether they'll be called 'Challengers' or not is something to be discussed. We thought it was better for the cohesiveness to make it one night of programming and serve MMA fans throughout the evening."
White noted that he is going to be hands-on with the project and will promote Strikeforce personally, the same way he would UFC events. White has publicly stayed out of the limelight regarding the Strikeforce brand since Zuffa purchased it in March.
"Scott and his crew will run the day-to-day," said White. "Obviously I'm involved from this side and creatively on the Showtime side. Leading up to the events, I'll be at the Strikeforce events. When there's a Strikeforce event on a Saturday, I'll work on the Showtime events just like if it was a UFC event." White said the recent change in management at the top of Showtime Sports was key in making the deal, as White did not have a good relationship with the former head of Showtime Sports, Ken Hershman, who left for a similar gig at HBO. White met with Showtime officials in late October where the nuts and bolts of the agreement were put together. There had been a lot of talk that the relationship, and the Strikeforce promotion, would end in early 2012 when the existing contract expired.
"Obviously it didn't go well," White said of negotiations with Hershman. "It probably wouldn't have. Me and Ken Hershman aren't fans. He's not a fan of me. I'm not a fan of his. I flew out. I like these guys. I cut a deal. Period. End of story."
No direct answer was given regarding Strikeforce lightweight champion Gilbert Melendez, who defends his title Saturday night against Jorge Masvidal, and the possibility if he or any other Strikeforce champion could fight the UFC champion in their division.
"Gilbert Melendez is pumped to stay in Strikeforce," said White. "He's one of the biggest stars. If he wins this fight, he will continue defend his belt in Strikeforce and he's super-pumped."
White, however, did hint that a champion vs. champion bout could happen.
"There's only one way to find out who is better, and that's to fight," said White.
White, Espinoza and Coker were adamant Strikeforce will not simply become a feeder circuit for UFC, which is how many viewed it with its heavyweight division, as well as Henderson and Diaz, the company's biggest draws of 2011, all now under UFC deals.
"Strikeforce is not a secondary brand," said Espinoza. "Gilbert Melendez is not a secondary-brand fighter. This is a top-tier organization and brand, and it'll continue to be a top-tier brand."
Said Coker, "We started our relationship with Showtime in 2007; it's far from a feeder league. We've had some of the world's best fighters compete on Showtime and we've recorded record ratings."
Added White: "There's nothing wrong with being a feeder league, but that's not what this is intended to be. We're going after the best talent we can possibly find. Wait and see what we do over the next year in Strikeforce. A feeder league is when guys lose – you go down to the minors. If you lose in UFC, you have to go somewhere else and fight.
"Strikeforce is going to be looking for the best guys in the world, to build guys up as contenders and to win titles, just like we do in UFC. You'll have knuckleheads who will say it's a feeder league. It's not a feeder league. It's going to be the farthest thing from a feeder league."
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