When it comes to Strikeforce, the higher-ups at Zuffa are facing a major decision: what to do about Dan Henderson. And that decision also could impact Showtime's involvement in the sport.
Strikeforce's light-heavyweight champion completed his contract with a victory July 30 over heavyweight legend Fedor Emelianenko. With the win, Henderson – two weeks away from his 41st birthday – suddenly finds himself among the most talked-about fighters in the sport.
Henderson doesn't want to retire, and there is no other logical company for him to sign with. But the issue is whether the deal is with the UFC or Strikeforce. Henderson could walk into the UFC next year and legitimately get a title shot against whoever emerges as champion after the winner of the Sept. 24 Jon Jones vs. Quinton "Rampage" Jackson bout faces Rashad Evans.
Beyond that, there are endless potential UFC opponents, such as Mauricio "Shogun" Rua, Lyoto Machida, Forrest Griffin, Tito Ortiz and even rising stars like Phil Davis and Alexander Gustafsson. There even would be a potential rematch against middleweight champ Anderson Silva, who the UFC was trying to match with Henderson when the sides had a contract dispute and Henderson signed with Strikeforce. Zuffa, the UFC's parent company, then purchased Strikeforce in March.
On the Strikeforce side, Henderson's next opponent likely would be the winner of the Sept. 10 bout in Cincinnati between the group's former light heavyweight champion, "King" Mo Lawal, and one of the world's greatest submission masters, Roger Gracie. The only other big name waiting in the wings is Gegard Mousasi.
In addition, Henderson reportedly earned $800,000 for the Emelianenko fight. With the win, his price tag likely will go up.
Economically, that makes far more sense on the UFC side, where the pay-per-view revenue could justify the cost. Even though Emelianenko-Henderson was a great fight and pulled strong ratings on Showtime, sources within the promotion say the show was a major money loser due to the cost of putting two high-priced fighters together without pay-per-view.
Still, the decision isn't a no-brainer, as Strikeforce's future could be impacted by Henderson's next move.
It's been a banner year for Strikeforce, with television ratings on Showtime up 24 percent for the major shows during a period when the industry as a whole has declined. The group has put on some of the year's best fights and arguably the year's strongest top-to-bottom show (April 9 in San Diego, headlined by Nick Diaz vs. Paul Daley).
The names responsible for drawing those increased ratings were Emelianenko, Henderson, heavyweight champion Alistair Overeem, welterweight champ Diaz and '80s football legend Herschel Walker. But none are under contract with the promotion today, and only Henderson, who previously hasn't been a big draw unless he facing a big-name opponent, appears to be a real possibility to remain on the roster. The only other company fighter with any history of drawing numbers is Gina Carano, who Strikeforce hopes will headline a show in December. But after two years away from the sport, there's no guarantee she'll regain her former popularity.
Strikeforce CEO Scott Coker believes he can restock the roster.
"Here's the great thing about the sport: We're going to have to have more stars emerge," Coker said. "Not just Strikeforce has to do it. Everyone in the MMA has to rebuild and not rely on the old guard. Fedor is the old guard. Nick Diaz isn't the old guard but he had unique circumstances. We're going to find some more stars for a year from now. We have to do it.
"Pride had to go through the transition where guys who were the best in the world, six to eight months later, they were irrelevant. In UFC, a lot of the guys who were relevant two years ago aren't still around."
Aging fighters and various contractual issues have accentuated the issue for Strikeforce.
Emelianenko's contract expired with the Henderson loss, and both Coker and UFC president Dana White said he would not be offered a new deal after three straight defeats. While still marketable at a certain level, Emelianenko simply isn't worth the $1.5 million per fight – and realistically never was to anyone but the UFC, but his management and the sanction could never strike a deal.
While Emelianenko still may be worth that price for a single fight with Brock Lesnar, when it comes to Zuffa, the Fedor ship likely has sailed.
Overeem was released after a business dispute between Zuffa and Overeem's management over a number of significant issues.
Diaz had a unique contract with Strikeforce that allowed him to box, and as one of the fighter with more potential marketability, Zuffa didn't want him competing in another sport where he'd risk looking like a second-rate fighter to a public that wouldn't understand that MMA and boxing are entirely different endeavors. So he was offered a big-money deal to give up the right to box, moved to the UFC and will face Georges St. Pierre for the welterweight title in what's expected to be the biggest MMA fight of 2011.
At 49, Walker was a gimmick attraction for Strikeforce. He wanted to prove to himself that he could still compete in sports and seemed content with two fights. However, Zuffa isn't as interested in promoting gimmicks.
"With Alistair, that's an unfortunate situation," said Coker about Overeem's release before the semifinals of a tournament that had proven to be a strong ratings success. "There's more to it than anyone wants to get into. At the end of the day, everyone has to move on, and that's where we're at right now.
"When you think about the tournament [which continues Sept. 10 in Cincinnati], the hardcore fans are really disappointed but we have a great replacement in a two-time Olympian [Daniel Cormier] and we're ready to move forward. I think the popularity of the fighters in the tournament will grow as the tournament comes to an end."
If Henderson isn't brought back to Strikeforce, that puts four of the company's seven championships in limbo. Women's featherweight champion Cristiane "Cyborg" Santos has been out of action for more than a year due to her contract's expiration, and the two sides have yet to come to terms. Coker did say Santos is very close to signing a new deal.
Henderson joining the UFC would give fans the perception that Strikeforce title belts are at best stepping stones to the UFC, this rendering Strikeforce somewhat meaningless as far as drawing power. Plus, without stars like Overeem and Diaz, ratings are estimated to drop at least 30 percent from their current level – at least until new superstars emerge, which isn't an easy task.
At that point, the big question is what does Showtime wants out of its MMA property? Showtime might not be happy with 1.0 or 1.1 ratings for its major events when it's been used to bigger numbers, nor will it necessarily want its shows and champions to be perceived as stepping stones to the UFC.
Would Showtime instead make a deal with another promotion independent of the Zuffa umbrella that would minimize the migration of their network stars to the UFC where bigger financial opportunities await? Or will Showtime be happy with the financially stable Zuffa affiliation and its strong promotional capabilities?
Representatives from Showtime did not respond to requests for comment. But beyond Showtime's needs, there also could be an issue around whether Zuffa can exist in a situation in which, unlike all of its other TV and marketing deals, it isn't the one calling the shots. Instead, Showtime would be in control of production and fight approval.
At the end of the day, the future of Strikeforce – with or without Henderson – really might be in the hands of Showtime. As long as Showtime wants the programming, the company will exist. Without that backing, it is likely Strikeforce's existence would come to an end with the top fighters merging into the UFC.