When Showtime Sports president Stephen Espinoza said that he would like to see Strikeforce champions face off with their UFC counterparts sometime in the near future, it sparked a flurry of discussion amongst MMA fans. Speculation is, after all, one of the most engaging aspects of sports fandom. It’s what made the UFC’s purchase of PRIDE so alluring back in 2007; it allowed speculation to become reality. While the idea of cross-promotional superfights may be enticing in theory, it just doesn’t seem to make sense for either company at the moment.
In his interview with MmaFighting.com, Espinoza asserted that fans wanted to “answer those questions” and “find out who is the best middleweight, who is the best welterweight.” Well, I’m a fan, and I’ve never pondered for a second who would win between Luke Rockhold and Anderson Silva. This is the fundamental difference between the PRIDE merger, and the proposed Strikeforce/UFC faceoff: nobody is asking those questions right now.
Consider this: if you were to combine the top 10 fighters across the eight weight classes employed by the UFC, Strikeforce would account for less than 10% of the names on that list (7/80). The UFC, on the other hand, makes up nearly three quarters of it (57/80). Granted, fighter rankings are unofficial, and therefore somewhat subjective, but those numbers do serve as a fair enough measuring stick for the gap in talent depth between the two promotions. Espinoza likened the proposed matchups to the old NFL vs. AFL Superbowls, but in reality, it would be more like the NFL vs. the CFL. The New York Giants pummeling the BC Lions once a year wouldn’t be good business for anyone, as it only serves to cheapen both products.
Zuffa, who owns both the UFC and Strikeforce, have little to benefit from the proposed superfights. While the Strikeforce product may enjoy the short-term notoriety lent to them by the name value of UFC opponents, that benefit is more or less negated by the fact that the Strikeforce representative would likely lose nine times out of ten. Even on the off chance that an upset was to happen, Zuffa would have only accomplished the feat of lowering the value of their flagship product. It’s a lose-lose from their standpoint. The UFC already do untouchable buyrate numbers, even with cobbled-together main events on injury-riddled cards, so if it isn’t broken, why try to fix it?
From Strikeforce’s standpoint, the matchups would do wonders for their buyrates, a prospect that would definitely have a positive trickle-down effect for their business. More buys means more money, which leads to more attractive signings, which leads to a deeper overall talent pool. That’s an important distinction to make here, because at the top end of that pool, Strikeforce does have some competitive fighters. Nate Marquardt, Gilbert Melendez and Daniel Cormier would all make great matchups for their UFC counterparts, but once you explore that initial champion vs. champion format, the well dries up pretty quickly. Strikeforce barely has the competition to feed their own champions, let alone start matching up with the UFC.
While Strikeforce has certainly grown under Zuffa management, there is still too big a gap in the talent pools to make this a viable option right now. When Strikeforce was first acquired last year, the plan was to build it into a competitive brand that would allow Zuffa to offer fans an MMA product across multiple broadcasting avenues. The Showtime deal was a TV contract once elusively coveted by the UFC, and with a dual product, Zuffa is now able to proverbially have their cake and eat it too. In fact, they’ve got two cakes, both delicious in different ways, and while two is definitely better than one, combining the two isn’t necessarily going to make either one of them taste better.