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UFC and Strikeforce battle for young talent

RJ3162011-03-29 05:25:45 +0000 #1
Imagine yourself as a highly-touted collegiate wrestler who has made the transition to mixed martial arts. You've not only succeeded in maintaining an unblemished record through four professional bouts, but you've established yourself as a top prospect in the world in your weight class. The perfect combination of supportive teammates and world class trainers has put you on the fast track to stardom in a major promotion. Time is the only hurdle, but time is something you don't have as your wife and child are currently residing in your parents' basement.

It's a situation that two-time NCAA Division I All-American wrestler Chris Weidman continues to live through despite being signed by the UFC to replace Rafael Natal at UFC on Versus 3. He will face Italian boxer turned mixed martial artist Alessio Sakara in roughly two weeks time, hopefully putting an end to his monetary woes and putting himself and his family in a better living arrangement with a victory.

The finality of swimming in free agency must be a sigh of relief, especially considering the added pressure he had thrust upon him to sign with the UFC. As Weidman pointed out during the MMA Hour with Ariel Helwani last Monday, trainers Ray Longo and Matt Serra suggested that he wait for the opportunity to fight inside the Octagon instead of signing with promotions who had offers on the table:

ARIEL HELWANI: How do you feel in terms of your progression? You're 4-0 obviously, what are the goals for you? How far are you away from fighting on the Strikeforce, UFC cards?

CHRIS WEIDMAN: Hopefully, as soon as possible.

ARIEL HELWANI: You're ready?

CHRIS WEIDMAN: I feel like I'm ready, definitely, just trying to stay injury free, which is so hard. I've talked to Strikeforce, talked to Bellator, they are both highly interested. But right now, my coaches Ray Longo, Matt Serra, they kind of want me to be in the UFC, they feel that's where I should be.

ARIEL HELWANI: They're a little biased?

CHRIS WEIDMAN: Yeah, so it's tough. I'm living in a basement, wife and a baby, and I'm tempted to take the quick money and take one of these spots, but in the long run -- some of the people that got me into the right direction say I should wait.

Weidman's comments give us a first hand account into the decision-making process of the free agent market. Depend on the guidance of the UFC, a promotion that relies heavily on perception, or sign with an organization that may have the resources to raise your stock in the eyes of fans at a very early stage in your career? Gian Villante chose the latter, and he was given a huge opportunity to impress on one of the premier cards in the history of their existence.

Unfortunately, he failed to wow fans in his debut against Chad Griggs, but that doesn't erase his chance to resonate with fans tuning into the event. He simply missed that opportunity. His future remains bright, however, as Strikeforce's own Challengers' series, through strategic placing of their cards on dates in which media can cover the events and acceptance on Showtime, can showcase his talents as he continues to progress.

Both fighters represent the two differing methodologies in signing talent. The UFC relies on their brand and historical success to bring the talent to their doorstep. Prospects want to fight for the title of best fighter in the world in their respective weight classes, and the UFC houses those fighters for the most part. Their history certainly helps the situation as fighters who compete under the banner are influential in the decisions of prospects who they now train and work with on a daily basis. Weidman is the perfect example.

Strikeforce has more of a traditional system to scout and acquire talent. While they do rely on relationships with training camps to gain an edge, i.e. Guto Inocente, one of their greatest strengths is signing talent early in their careers and using their developmental program to progress their skills while simultaneously introducing them to the fanbase. Tyron Woodley is the epitome of that philosophy.

Strikeforce isn't an unattractive option to fighters over the UFC. The promotion will more than likely be one of the frontrunners in any negotiation, mostly due to the fact that Coker and company are offering contracts much earlier than the UFC. For all of the criticism that the Challengers' cards get from MMA media, eyes are watching those shows, and it's one of the best opportunities in the sport to make a name for yourself before being graduated to the larger events.

The question becomes, in light of Strikeforce's recent success, whether the UFC and Strikeforce are beginning to close the gap in terms of competitiveness in the talent market. Can the UFC sit back with the knowledge that they are the consensus number one promotion with fans and rely on prospects continuing to dream of their time inside the Octagon? Or is Strikeforce a legitimate option for the future too?

One of the arguments for Strikeforce is that the promotion allows even the youngest talents to maximize their value through the Challengers' series. The UFC can compete with that option by using The Ultimate Fighter as a similar vehicle with better ratings, but the show has felt the pinch of other promotions sniping prospects out of the free agent market. It has resorted to using personable characters over legitimate talents on the show. Short-term, the UFC can create smaller stars from the show, but Strikeforce has the long-term edge with a more talented fighter.

Strikeforce is no longer a young buck who should be considered irrelevant to the conversation. They are far from a pay-per-view giant or consistent ratings' machine, but they have the resources to compete in the free agent market with the UFC. That's a problem, and the strategy of signing talent early and allowing them to grow under the Challengers' banner is a smart idea. Not only because it allows these fighters to make more money and progress at a reasonable pace, but from many accounts I've read -- brand loyalty is surprisingly visible in some of the talent that Strikeforce has acquired.

Brand loyalty is a large part of why the UFC has continued to successfully sign unknown or highly-regarded talent. Weidman's situation is the obvious parallel here, but Strikeforce is beginning to reap some of the benefits of their staying power. They are beginning to sign talent through camp relationships, and many of the fighters under their banner are willing to stick with Coker's master scheme of turning Strikeforce into a legitimate money-making venture. Will the UFC's strategy continue to work in the long-term? Evidence suggests a shift may need to happen soon.

RJ3162011-03-29 05:28:19 +0000 #2
Very cool article with many good points being made.

Should the UFC offer a minor league sort of vehicle for younger guys coming up (Strikeforce Challengers) or stay as is?
Mr Jones2011-03-29 05:58:00 +0000 #3
Definitely, since the UFC is supposed to be the elite MMA organization.

Not only is Strikeforce in competition with the UFC regarding young talent, but Bellator does a fine job with their production and young talent also.
JimDaeWong2011-03-29 06:21:25 +0000 #4
It depends if thsoe guys show loyalty to these organizations after their first contract is up. Look at the Toronto Raptors; they signed Vince Carter, Chris Bosh, and Tracey McGrady to rookie contracts and then they all bolted. Developing young people is good if and only if they are loyal.



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