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Why The UFC Gutted Strikeforce

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Since being purchased by the UFC, Strikeforce is a shadow of its former self. Why?

Strikeforce Bracket
Strikeforce Bracket

Last Saturday's Strikeforce Grand Prix: Barnett vs. Kharitonov featured some fine fighters putting on great performances, but by most every other measure it was a bust. The funny thing is, most of the factors that hurt the event were deliberate choices made by the promotion's parent company Zuffa, which also owns the UFC.

It's no secret what's happening, in fact, it's Strikeforce's own fighters who've been the most outspoken about the status of the organization.

Before fighting Roger Gracie on the card,  Muhammed "King Mo" Lawal referred to Strikeforce as "a dying cancer patient," adding, "That's how I feel like the organization is. We're just waiting for it to die, to pass."

After the event, Lawal's rhetoric got even more dramatic.

"I thought Strikeforce was a cancer patient," he told MMA Junkie. "Man, it's a damn AIDS patient instead - with Dr. Jack Kevorkian in the background ready to pull the plug."

Reports from the U.S. Bank Arena in Cincinnati say a mere 1,500 people bought tickets, this in an arena with a 17,000 seat capacity. The reported fighter salaries for the card approached $1 million. Those figures prompted MMA business site MMAPayout to comment that, "it had to be a big money loss." 

The ratings were just as bad, if not worse. According to MMA Junkie, the event drew only 274,000 eyeballs. That's the second worst Strikeforce on Showtime ratings ever, beating only Strikeforce: Los Angeles, a 2010 event that took place on a Wednesday night and was hastily arranged to promote EA Sports MMA video game.

The ratings came as no shock after a week of MMA news dominated by huge UFC announcements featuring former Strikeforce champs Nick Diaz and Alistair Overeem and their fights on the UFC 137 and UFC 141 pay-per-view cards. 

This begs the question, why is the UFC stripping down Strikeforce, especially in such an expensive fashion?

First let me say, from all appearances, Zuffa bosses Lorenzo Fertitta and Dana White know exactly what they are doing and it's the right call. 

When Zuffa bought Strikeforce in March of this year, they made no bones about their primary interest being in the acquisition of Strikeforce's fighter roster. They assured the press they would honor all existing Strikeforce contracts, with fighters and Showtime, the promotion's television partner. And they have, to the letter. 

The spirit of the agreements, that's a different matter.

But they've also reduced the quality and appeal of the Strikeforce cards dramatically. On top of that the PR around the promotion is even more feeble than it was in the old days when Strikeforce was independent. The reality is that the UFC brass will ensure that Showtime gets Strikeforce events to put on the air, but if they're not big cards that will draw big ratings, so be it.

The UFC has to focus on two things right now: putting the biggest, most buzz-worthy fights on Fox TV and continuing to sell massive numbers of UFC events on pay-per-view. Anything else is a distraction.

The reality is the UFC owners can afford to take a bath on Strikeforce events as long as they are printing money with big PPVs. Having the compelling and controversial Diaz and Overeem in the headliner (and co-headliner) slots on major PPVs makes the promotion more than enough money to offset the loss on Strikeforce events. 

With the Fox relationship locked in, the UFC has little or no interest in an ongoing relationship with Showtime. Showtime's hole card was their relationship with CBS, but Strikeforce already aired two events on the Tiffany network and went bust after an on-air brawl got them booted off prime time. With Fox on the UFC's side, Showtime has nothing to offer Zuffa.

It's time to move on. If Showtime wants to keep airing Strikeforce events, I'm sure the UFC will be happy to keep serving them events of this caliber, but if Showtime decides to  terminate their relationship before the current contract expires, that's fine too.

The UFC has bigger fish to fry. It's been fun Showtime, but Fox TV and pay-per-view are going to monopolize the biggest draws in MMA for the foreseeable future.