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Alistair Overeem & the Curious Case of the Strikeforce Grand Prix

Published in Blog Archive, Culture Bully. Tags: .

Where to begin…? After much speculation Strikeforce dropped a bomb on the MMA world when it announced this past January that the World Grand Prix Heavyweight Tournament, branded as a competition to determine the world’s best heavyweight MMA fighter, would take place throughout 2011. Such a bold statement was backed with a rather bountiful crop of athletes however, as the lineup boasted Fedor Emelianenko, Strikeforce Heavyweight Champion Alistair Overeem, Fabricio Werdum, Josh Barnett, Antonio Silva, Andrei Arlovski, Sergei Kharitonov and Brett Rogers. With a lineup like that, what could go wrong?

Seeding left the tournament’s four favorites, Emelianenko, Silva, Overeem and Werdum, on one side of the bracket, curiously suggesting that instead of an eight man tournament, the champion would be decided with or without the inclusion of half of the competitors. From there, the first fights of the quarterfinals yielded a massive upset, with Silva crushing Emelianenko, and the elimination of one of the more recognizable names, Arlovski, as he was squashed by Kharitonov. From there, disorganization immediately left its mark on the event as the second quarterfinal matches were pushed from April 9 to June 18, eventually culminating in a one-sided win by Barnett and a bizarre snooze-fest between two of the tourny’s favorites, with Overeem taking a decision victory.

With the semifinals set for October, the extended layoff left both Silva and Kharitonov with an unusually lengthy layoff between fights, and one which left the latter enough time to squeeze in a kickboxing fight in Russia (where he knocked out Mighty Mo in just under two minutes). Perhaps adding a cloud of negativity to the festivities going forward was Rogers who, after tapping out to Barnett, was arrested on domestic violence charges and subsequently released by the company.

Most recently Showtime came forward and announced that the next round of the event would be bumped from October to September 10. Yet as the remaining fighters reportedly accepted the change in date, a bombshell was dropped early this week when Alistair Overeem announced that he had not agreed to the change in date and would not be competing. “For me that’s too short notice to take a fight like this” he told MMA Fighting’s Ariel Helwani during an interview Monday. Further, he added that Strikeforce’s parent company ZUFFA had threatened to pull him from the tournament if he didn’t comply, leading him to lash back, “If you really want to do that, be my guest, I’m totally not going to sing to your tune.” It was promptly announced that Overeem was out and the former Olympic wrestler Daniel Cormier (8-0) was in to face Silva as an alternate in the semifinals. Fans took to the Internet to spout their disgust in the removal of the champion from the mix, with opposing views either lashing out at ZUFFA for the quick substitution or Overeem for not stepping up to the plate and accepting the match. That said, it doesn’t seem like we’re being given the entire story here.

Citing a lingering pinky toe injury, Overeem claims that he wouldn’t have enough time to put together a proper training camp and prepare for such a fight in the nearly eight weeks between now and the new fight date. Yet this is coming from a fighter who — as he confirmed to MMA Fighting loves to be active — had a total of seven combined kickboxing and MMA fights in each of the past two years. Despite Silva commanding as much preparation time as possible, it does seem a bit unusual that a fighter who has been proven to be able to compete with such frequency apparently needs a whopping 12 week training camp to get ready for a tournament fight.

On the flip side is UFC President Dana White, who in speaking for ZUFFA, clarified the company’s decision to pull Overeem from the match at this week’s UFC 135 press conference. “He hurt his toe, pulled out of the fight. He’s still under contract. The date that was set in September was set by Showtime, and it is what it is. We’ve got to get an alternate in there, but he’s still under contract.” White continued dismissively, “If you say you’re hurt, you’re hurt. What are you gonna do? There’s been a lot of that lately. If I got mad at guys who got hurt, I’d be really pissed off right now. It is what it is.” So, what’s the big fuss over if this is simply a case of an injured fighter being replaced in a tournament?

Aside from leaving Silva, Cormier, Kharitonov and Barnett competing to determine the best heavyweight MMA fighter in the world (right…), things simply don’t add up. Speaking to TATAME, Silva called shenanigans on the substitution, and sharp-witted fans have been quick to do the same. While ZUFFA’s eagerness to quickly move ahead suggests that there’s little favoritism toward Overeem, with one remaining fight on his Strikeforce contract, had he participated and won his match the champion would have had ample leverage in his corner to bargain with come time for contract negotiations. (It would be more difficult to send an alternate into the finals over a contract dispute than sending one in at this stage.) Yet with his open contract structured the way it is, come October — the date which he still suggests he’ll be competing next — he will be looking to fight for the highest bidder, be is K-1 (where he is the reigning World Grand Prix champion) or DREAM (where Overeem is the current Heavyweight Champion). Yet if ZUFFA is to hold him back from competing elsewhere, they have to have a match ready for him, and considering Strikeforce’s current roster of available talent such a scenario begs the question of who, exactly, remains to fill such a void? No one, really.

Unless ZUFFA intends on reworking Overeem’s contract and introducing him to the UFC’s roster with a Nick Diaz-type move, their decision to boldly eliminate him from the Grand Prix remains questionable. At this point in time, allowing Overeem to walk from the company and compete for any number of international promotions would seem an unwise decision, especially with so much interest bounding around the potential for superfights which could be made with the current Strikeforce champion. Yet, all we’re left with right now is one single conclusion: that being that the Grand Prix, as it stands, is a shadow of what it was intended to be. Though the remaining matches featuring Silva vs. Cormier and Barnett vs. Kharitonov are intriguing (to say the least) and certainly exciting for fight fans, the lackluster manner in which the tournament has unfolded leaves with it a bitter taste of unfulfilled expectation. This final blow goes a long way to suggest that when the contract is up between Strikeforce and Showtime, that ZUFFA will not be working with the premium cable network in the future. And with or without Overeem in its stable, that could very well serve as the moment that ZUFFA puts an end to Strikeforce as well.