Damn it. The sport of MMA has some traditional weeks frequently hosting events, commonly followed by a dry week afterward. Seeing as how last week featured the traditionally MMA heavy New Year’s holiday, this week features… almost nothing. Sure, I could have done an article on last year’s fantastic matchup between Jon Jones and Daniel Cormier, which took place on January 3, but that took place just last year (like I just mentioned). Is it just me or does that seem a little too soon to be bringing that up in great detail?
So what’s left? Well, I recently wrote a piece suggesting the UFC eliminate TUF and replace it with a weekly or bi-weekly show that features prospects, headlined by hometown mid-carders. I had compared it to USA’s Tuesday Night Fights, which was a staple of the cable network for over 15 years, and for some reason neglected to compare it to a more recent example of something similar: Strikeforce Challengers.
There were a total of 20 events run under the “Challengers” banner which highlighted younger fighters on the up-and-up. It aired on Showtime, but with little promotion. Despite that it did quite well, as hardcore MMA fans loved the idea of matching up the brighter prospects. It often served as the first exposure of some of the bigger names in MMA today. For example, Ronda Rousey’s first two Strikeforce appearances came on a Challengers showing. Others who appeared early in their careers include Miesha Tate, Sarah Kaufman, Tim Kennedy, Luke Rockhold, Rafael Cavalcante, Tyron Woodley, Tarec Saffiedine, and Daniel Cormier. What do they all have in common? All have been champions or title challengers in the UFC and/or Strikeforce, with Rockhold and Cormier both currently holding UFC gold. Sounds like a program that helped develop talent, does it not?
The program didn’t just feature the next generation, as more established stars such as Jorge Gurgel and Joe Riggs made appearances as well, often serving as a name that the fans would recognize in order to help attract eyes to the program. The venues were often quite small as well, with the first event hosting a live audience of 2,322. Do you see where I’m going with this?
So now that I’ve once again peddled my idea, you’re probably wondering what the hell this has to do with any sort of MMA history. Either that, or you’ve figured out that one of those events took place on this day, as I’ve already emphasized that there isn’t a lot to choose from in the general time period of the late first or early second week of January. If that’s the case, you deserve a gold star (you’ll have to award it to yourself though).
The thirteenth edition of Strikeforce Challengers took place on this day in 2011, headlined by a match between the aforementioned Woodley and Saffiedine. It wasn’t exactly a great match, as Woodley was still largely a lay-and-prey fighter at this time. He took Saffiedine down for the majority of the fight, landing small and mostly harmless strikes from there, with little else of note, to earn the unanimous decision victory. In fact, outside of a vicious KO applied by Amanda Nunes on Julia Budd, the action in the cage was largely forgettable. But the names on the card….
Woodley could very well be next challenger for Robbie Lawler’s Welterweight Title, barring how everything plays out following Lawler’s controversial win over Carlos Condit. Saffiedine was the last Strikeforce Champion, but hasn’t been much of a factor in the UFC thanks to a litany of injuries. Nunes could receive a title shot in the next year as she is one of the top names in the shallow women’s bantamweight division. Ovince St. Preux (scoring an uneventful unanimous decision over Ron Humphrey) has emerged as a perennial top 10 fighter at light heavyweight. Dustin Ortiz (putting down veteran journeyman Matt Horning by TKO in the third) may not be a star, but he does continually hover just outside the top 10 of the flyweight division.
Of course I’m saving the biggest name for last in Daniel Cormier. Cormier dominated established veteran Devin Cole for 15 minutes in a performance that seriously began to turn heads his way at this event, making him less of a former Olympian curiosity and more a legitimate prospect.
The Challengers series was discontinued by the end of the year after 20 events, as the UFC (having bought Strikeforce just a few months after this event took place) had established it’s footprint in Strikeforce by that time, and wasn’t interested in investing more money than necessary. Why would they want to sink money into journeymen to fight prospects for a brand they never had any real intention of promoting? It makes sense why they discontinued the series, but it also stinks to high hell that they have little interest in the development of their prospects for the good of those fighters.
My apologies for turning this week’s history lesson into another abashed promotion of my desire for the UFC to kill off TUF with alternative programming, but it is something that I feel strongly about. Strikeforce had something going with their Challengers series. I’d love to see the UFC do something similar to that event series to help develop the young talent they have, getting them experience without pushing them into the spotlight before they are ready… just as the Challengers series did once upon a time.
This Week in MMA History
- January 3, 2015: Y’all knew this one was coming. At UFC 182, Jon Jones completely picked apart heated rival Daniel Cormier in one of the most anticipated fights in the history of the UFC. Cormier’s gas tank failed him while Jones did whatever he wanted with the former Olympic wrestler, even taking him down when he choose to do so. In other action, Donald Cerrone dominated Myles Jury, punctuating his performance at the end with his “FU” kicks to the legs and ass of a downed Jury.
- January 4, 2014: In an event that typified the UFC’s statement of telling fans they don’t have to watch every fight card, UFC Fight Night 34 took place in the wee hours of the morning in North America on UFC Fight Pass from Singapore. The first event fully shown on Fight Pass, it was highlighted by a forgotten gem between Tarec Saffiedine and Hyun Gyu Lim, a bout that went the full 25 minutes with Saffiedine pulling out the decision.
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