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Does Strikeforce's Heavyweight Grand Prix Still Matter?

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The Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix harkened back to the early days of MMA. Stars were made in the UFC and in Japan's Pride on the strength of tournament wins. Strikeforce had the same idea - until everything went awry.

Photos: Esther Lin/STRIKEFORCE
Photos: Esther Lin/STRIKEFORCE

It seemed like the idea that was going to officially put Strikeforce on the map. The San Jose-based mixed martial arts promotion had gotten the world's attention with their twin signings of Fedor Emelianenko and Dan Henderson. They had helped create new stars in Cung Le and Gina Carano. But nothing had resonated with fans and media quite the way the Heavyweight Grand Prix did.

The idea was simple. The tournament, with the full support of Showtime, was created to make a star. Take the best eight heavyweights in Strikeforce, toss them in a cage together, and await the results. Strikeforce promoter Scott Coker was adamant that his group of heavyweights was just as good as the top fighters in the powerhouse UFC promotion. They just needed some hustle behind that muscle.

Tournaments were time-tested star makers in mixed martial arts. The UFC used them for years, creating legends out of Royce Gracie, Dan Severn, and Don Frye. In its own formative years, Pride used the Grand Prix format to give their shows an easy and powerful narrative. Strikeforce had aims of following in its predecessors giant foot prints, and to do so assembled an eclectic group of fighters.

The Grand Prix included two former UFC champions (Andrei Arlovski and Josh Barnett), the consensus best heavyweight in the sport's history (Fedor Emelianenko), the man who had shockingly upset him (Fabricio Werdum), a literal giant (Antonio Silva) and an intriguing stand up specialist with charm, submissions, and a body that defied belief and description (Alistair Overeem). There was a legitimate argument to be made that whoever emerged from the morass had a case as the top heavyweight in the world - and Coker made that argument far and wide to whoever would listen.

The first event, held February 12 in New Jersey, was an immediate success - the promotion set records for MMA viewership on Showtime and the tournament was the talk of the MMA world. Although many pundits suggested Emelianenko's first round loss to Antonio Silva was a disaster, internally no one was too upset. The tournament was designed to make a superstar out of whoever was man enough to win - whether that was Emelianenko or one of the other seven stars.

Speculation swirled.  Would the finals would be broadcast on pay-per-view, Strikeforce's first foray into the medium? How would Strikeforce protect their new star from Zuffa and the UFC? Could they really manage an eight-man tourney in one calendar year?  Then, a month and a day after its greatest triumph, it was all moot. Strikeforce was sold to the UFC.

To say the sale created shock waves in the community is a significant understatement. Much was said about what the deal meant for the fighters, the promoters, and the fans. But, perhaps, the most important casualty was the tournament itself - or at least the idea and soul of it.

The tournament goes on. As you can see in the ads surrounding this article on our site, Showtime will broadcast the semi-finals this weekend. It's still an impressive collection of heavyweight talent. But any illusions that this event will crown the world's best heavyweight have disappeared with Strikeforce champion Alistair Overeem, who failed to come to terms with Zuffa and left the promotion mid tourney.

And Overeem isn't the only loss limiting the event's luster. The buzz is gone. With both promotions owned by the same corporate entity, Strikeforce is no longer even trying to claim it's our heavyweights versus theirs (the UFC's). There are no grand stand claims that the winner of the tournament will be the real world champion. No carnival style barkers are making the round of the MMA internet, taking shots at the competition and proclaiming Silva or Barnett to be the next coming of Emelianenko himself.

Personally, I'm still pretty pumped about this tournament. It's a rare opportunity to see Josh Barnett, one of the greats, pushed to his limits. It's a chance to see how good Antonio Silva can be. Daniel Cormier, the sport's top heavyweight prospect, will be tested like he's never been tested before. But to the fans at large it's just another show. The opportunities that seemed so ripe in the winter of 2011 have vanished. This tournament is a MMA event, but it's not an event. And that makes all the difference in the world.