In the exciting world of mixed martial arts, the UFC gets most of the media attention. And for the most part, rightfully so. The UFC blew up big after its reality show “The Ultimate Fighter” debuted on Spike TV in 2005 and launched the sport into a multimillion-dollar, pay-per-view and television phenomenon.
Its rapid rise is reminiscent of the WWF (now ‘E’) ascent in 1985 when Hulk Hogan and “Rowdy” Roddy Piper because household names.
But let’s be clear. The UFC is not MMA. Just like Lady Gaga is not Popular Music. She’s huge, but there have been others before and more will come along in 2010. In a smart attempt at branding his company, UFC president Dana White consistently uses UFC and MMA interchangeably.
Good for him . . . but it’s not going to work.
Like a rising tide lifts all ships, the UFC has unwittingly elevated its competition.
In the world of mixed martial arts, San Jose California-based Strikeforce looks like the rising star.
Strikeforce, led by CEO Scott Coker, has emerged as the most exciting MMA promotion in the world.
Just look to its most recent MMA event on Showtime last December.
Widely regarded as one of the best cards of the year, the show featured some high-caliber wrestling, exciting San Shou kickboxing, and dynamic ground-and-pound.
And of course, a classic knockout to end the card.
In the show’s main event, Vietnamese-born San Shou expert Cung Le virtually destroyed Scott Smith with kicks for nearly three rounds. A spinning back-kick put Smith on the ground in the first two minutes. Le would spend the greater part of the rest of the fight taking Smith to the woodshed with movie-style karate kicks. (Le will appear as Marshall Law in the upcoming live action film Tekken). The 37-year-old Le even landed a spinning backfist on Smith’s chin.
Everything looked beautiful for Le, like it was out of a Hollywood script, until Smith, a warrior with a hard head a heart of steel, faked a right hand and then connected with a left hook that sent Le to canvas.
Le got up, only to get clubbed by a right hand that sent Le crashing down face first. A few right hands later and Smith, the 29-year-old from Reno, pulled off an amazing Sportscenter moment.
Smith is known for his comebacks. He stopped Benji Radach in similar fashion last year.
As far as MMA goes, the TKO was as exciting as it gets. Le was minutes away from a decision victory before the underdog reminded everybody why you play game.
Le hadn’t fought in nearly two years, and had been making movies during his hiatus. Smith on the other hand was busy in the cage. He was hungry and in better shape and condition.
Le tired toward the end of the fight, right at the time Smith was warming up.
Earlier in the night Josh Thomson and Gilbert Melendez competed in what may have been the fight of the year. For five, 5-minute rounds, these two young men put on a clinic. Thomson, coming off a broken leg fought like a lion. Melendez was looking to avenge his loss to Thomson in a previous fight and regain the lightweight championship.
The two are friends, and trained together before they made it big. It showed. They know each others’ styles, which made for a dynamic, thrilling contest. Melendez won a unanimous decision, but both fighters gained in stature after the battle.
Strikeforce also has a bright 2010. The company, in its biggest coup and triumph over UFC yet, signed Fedor Emelianenko, regarded as the best heavyweight MMA fighter in the world. The Russian bear, a veteran of Pride Fighting Championship, debuted with Strikeforce, in a fight on CBS, last year.
He destroyed Brett Rogers, who incidentally had broken Emelianenko’s nose with a left jab in the first punch of the fight.
Strikeforce also signed UFC veteran Dan Henderson, regarded as one of the best MMA fighters in the world, who will fight the rising Jake Shields for the middleweight championship later this year. Henderson left UFC last year in contract dispute.
And then there’s Gina Carano and Cris “Cyborg” Santos, the sport’s best female martial artists. The two threw it down on Showtime last year in one of the most popular fights in cable history. Santos won, and the two are likely headed for a rematch in 2010.
Strikeforce has even signed former NFL star Herschel Walker and TNA wrestler Bobby Lashley to contracts. Lashley, a gigantic mass of muscle, is a former college wrestling star. And even though his best football days are behind him, Walker is ready to try out his athletic ability in the cage.
In other words, UFC, despite its boasts and chest-thumping is not the only choice for MMA.
Not by a long shot.
Like the old fable the Tortoise and the Hare, Strikeforce may prove that even in the world of mixed martial arts promotions, boasting is never good, and slow and steady still wins the race.
Just like in the cage, competition in MMA is good for the sport — and great for the fans.