In the first six months of this year it looked like the UFC were an unstoppable force.
UFC 100 in July in particular appeared to have raised the bar significantly, gaining widespread media coverage and bringing in record breaking pay per view numbers. When the next event in August also exceeded expectations it looked like they were ready to welcome in the next decade in style.
Since then their luck has changed however. The last few months has seen the worst injury crisis in the company’s history, including four of their five champions (Georges St.Pierre, Anderson Silva, Lyoto Machida and Brock Lesnar) being forced onto the sidelines due to illness and injury. An unprecedented number of other fighters on the roster have suffered a similar fate.
Problems with other big name stars have complicated matters. Topping the list was undoubtedly Quinton Rampage Jackson who pulled out of a blockbuster fight with fellow Ultimate Fighter season 10 coach Rashad Evans to star as B.A Baracus in The A-Team.
A contract dispute with Dan Henderson, who would eventually leave for rival promotion Strikeforce as a result, further limited the promotions ability to put on the kind of star-studded events fans had become accustomed to.
Meanwhile Strikeforce have stepped forward as a potential challenger to the UFC. Along with the recent acquisition of Henderson, the promotion also managed to sign one of the world’s best pound for pound stars, Fedor Emelianenko ahead of the UFC, formed an alliance with Japanese promotion DREAM and had a successful debut on network television via CBS in november, pulling in an average of 4 million viewers.
The contrast in fortunes between the two promotions in recent months has led to criticism for the UFC from some fans, but is it really justified?
While Strikeforce have undoubtedly had an impressive six months, it could be argued that the the UFC’s recent woes only further highlights their status as the sports market leader.
To see why lets look at some of the affected events in recent times:
UFC 105 – UFC 108 (Originally scheduled headline fights):
- UFC 105: BJ Penn Vs Diego Sanchez (lightweight title fight)
UFC 106: Brock Lesnar Vs Shane Carwin (heavyweight title fight)
UFC 107: Rampage Jackson Vs Rashad Evans
UFC 108: Anderson Silva Vs Vitor Belfort (middleweight title fight)
If these bouts had went ahead as originally planned the UFC would have been on course for a stellar end to the year (UFC 108 airs on Jan 2nd of next year, but we’ll include it here for the sake of argument).
Penn – Sanchez would have given UK fans the chance to see a title fight on their own turf, and those in the US would have been able to watch the fight for free on Spike TV.
Meanwhile Lesnar – Carwin was a title fight that had been widely predicted to be a major ratings winner for the UFC, while the hype emerging from the 10th season of TUF 10, which brought record ratings on Spike, suggested that Rampage – Evans was also set to be a major success.
Though Anderson Silva isn’t as bankable a star as some of the others mentioned, his title fight with Belfort certainly had all the makings of a high quality match-up that would be well received among fans.
Of course with the exception of the Penn Vs Sanchez fight, all of the above bouts ended up being canceled due to unforeseen circumstances. Let’s take a closer look at their replacments:
UFC 105 – UFC 108 (Re-arranged headline bouts):
- UFC 105: Randy Couture Vs Brandon Vera
UFC 106: Forrest Griffin Vs Tito Ortiz 2
UFC 107: BJ Penn Vs Diego Sanchez (lightweight title fight)
UFC 108: Rashad Evans Vs Thiago Silva
While certainly a step down from the planned fights, considering the chaos going on behind the scenes this is a respectable line-up. In each event they have a recognized star who has headlined a UFC event before, and at least one former champion.
It’s also worth pointing out that in the case of UFC 106 and UFC 108 they didn’t even have to look far to find a solid replacement – these fighters were already scheduled to fight in the co-main events on the cards in question.
Bearing in mind this is the UFC at what many would consider to be their lowest ebb in recent times, it’s hard to be overly critical about how they have performed.
Consider how Strikeforce would fare under similar circumstances.
For example, what would happen if Fedor, like Brock Lesnar, had pulled out of his fight with Brett Rogers in November at short notice and was now out indefinitely? Strikeforce’s relationship with CBS is still at a fragile stage and with so much of the success of the event hinging on the Russian star, it would have been a disaster for the promotion.
Also consider if they had to abandon three of their next four headline bouts and find replacements at short notice. Would they fare any better than the UFC has? I think most people would acknowledge that they would not.
It’s also worth remembering we’re only talking about the major fights here. The UFC’s recent injury troubles stem far beyond that, yet they have been able to make the necessary replacement and continue on regardless.
Strikeforce on the other hand have a smaller roster, though they are doing an admirable job of trying to fill it out. Even so, when Trevor Prangley pulled out of his bout with Robbie Lawler due to injury at short notice, the bout was scrapped altogether, meaning only four main card fights aired instead of five.
Along with a deeper roster, the UFC also still holds much of the talent as well, which they have built up over a number of years.
For instance, while Strikeforce have the best heavyweight fighter at their disposal in Fedor Emelianenko, they do not have a long list of top quality opponents for him to fight, as is highlighted by the fact that Fabricio Werdum is now being lined up as his next opponent.
Alistair Overeem hasn’t fought for the promotion in over two years and is apparently in no hurry to return, while Dan Henderson has his hands full contending both the middleweight and light heavyweight titles in the near future.
Contrast that with the UFC’s heavyweight division where Shane Carwin, Frank Mir, Antonio Nogueira and Cain Velasquez are all standing in line for either a shot at current champion Brock Lesnar if he recovers fully from his recent illness, or a run at the interim title if he does not.
It’s perhaps telling that the fighter who appears to be just out of the title picture at this stage in the UFC is Junior Dos Santos, who took just over a minute to defeat Fabricio Werdum when they fought under the UFC’s banner in 2008.
Strikeforce has wisely acquired some fighters who could be the stars of the future in the sport, such as Gegard Mousasi, ‘King Mo’ Lawal and Bobby Lashley, but only time will tell whether they can reach their full potential where they are, and if they do, whether Strikeforce can hold on to them.
In the mean time Strikeforce have proved that they can put on a good show, like the Evolution event which provided plenty of entertainment on Saturday night. The trick now is to maintain that quality and consistency over an extended period of time, and look to improve upon it as they go along.
2010 will be a big year for both promotions. Strikeforce will hold 20 events via Showtime, CBS and Pay Per View which will be a major test for them, and give a good indication of how robust their roster actually is. Their next event on CBS is scheduled for April, and good ratings their are vitally important to their longer term plans.
Meanwhile the UFC are set to expand into new markets like Australia and The Middle East, and will welcome back a number of their major stars back from injury in the early months of the year.
That should lead to several stacked cards from the promotion, and the opportunity to remind people why they are still the biggest show in town.
Article by RossC
Pictures courtesy of sherdog.com