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Japan Front Runner For Remaining SF HWGP Quarterfinal Bouts, Lightweight GP Next? (Update)

It looks like the Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix could head to Japan sooner rather than later. ESPN’s Josh Gross is reporting that the second half of quaterfinal bouts is scheduled for April 9, and Japan is the current front runner for the event’s location.

While venues in the U.S., Canada and Brazil remain in play for a card featuring Alistair Overeem against Fabricio Werdum, Josh Barnett versus Brett Rogers, and, Coker confirmed, the return of Strikeforce lightweight champion Gilbert Melendez, Japan appears to be the front runner.

Sotaro Shinoda, a representative for Real Entertainment, the Japanese company that co-produced Pride events before partnering with FEG to form Dream in 2008, is expected to meet with Coker Thursday evening to discuss details about bringing the Showtime-televised card to Tokyo.

I hate to put on my tin foil hat, but I really don’t understand why Coker is so intent on taking this thing to Japan other than to avoid Josh Barnett’s licensing issues. I mean it’s not like MMA is booming in Japan anymore. Gross reports that Strikeforce will test their fighters if they travel to countries without regulation much like the UFC does, but Barnett still wouldn’t need a license to fight, which he absolutely should to compete in this tournament if you ask me. I hope that’s not what this about, but I can’t think of any good reason otherwise. I mean who wants to watch Overeem-Werdum and Barnett-Rogers on Showtime at three in the morning, or worse, on tape-delay?

In other Strikeforce/Japan-related news, Josh Gross is also reporting that Real Entertainment (former Dream Stage Entertainment folks that have been working with DREAM if I’m not mistaken) is looking to put together a eight-man lightweight grand prix with DREAM and Strikeforce fighters in May which would air on HDNet.

The field would consist of Strikeforce and Real Entertainment fighters, possibly but not necessarily under the Dream banner, and likely without FEG, which has been its promotional partner since Pride Fighting Championships was purchased by Zuffa in 2007.

“We’re committed to keeping our fighters active, but if we can help Dream and have our fighters go over there and participate in their tournament, why not?” said Strikeforce CEO Scott Coker, who confirmed ongoing discussions between his promotion and Real Entertainment for the May event. “If things go the way they should, I feel confident we’ll send a bunch of guys over.”

It’s not clear which Strikeforce fighters Coker would send, but Shinya Aoki, Tatsuya Kawajiri and Katsunori Kikuno are in on DREAM’s side. If Strikeforce sent Gilbert Melendez, Josh Thomson, KJ Noons and JZ Cavalcante you would a heck of a tournament, but it sounded like Melendez is being booked for the April 9 card. I’d love to see Eddie Alvarez in this grand prix as well, but I don’t know if that’s something anyone is considering at this point.

Update: The MMA blogosphere’s resident Japanese MMA industry expert Zach Arnold answers my question why Strikeforce would want to bring the GP to Japan.

It’s a fascinating move by Scott Coker to really consider a deep involvement in Japan given the current climate of the industry there and yet, it’s a calculated move. The risk is high — lack of money, shaky television situation, long-term uncertainty with K-1. However, what makes the prospects of Strikeforce working with K-1 in Japan realistic is that SF can turn the tables on K-1 and use the K-1 financial model to benefit. With Showtime paying Strikeforce a certain amount of money per show, the promotion can afford to work with someone like K-1 if K-1/DREAM is willing to run the show and cover the costs. Sounds fahimiliar? It was Kazuyoshi Ishii’s strategy when PRIDE collapsed and now, unfortunately for K-1, it’s a failing business model for the Japanese. Which means that the idea of Strikeforce using that same model against the grandmaster who built his empire on it is extremely thick in irony.

Whether it draws or not is another question, but right now K-1 is in survival mode and working with Strikeforce to bring in Fedor, Alistair, Barnett, etc. is good for the image. Plus, all those fighters want to fight in Japan anyways, so it keeps the talent base happy. A co-promotional relationship also would critically help Strikeforce fill some major voids in terms of depth (at least on paper) in the Lightweight and Welterweight classes. The door also opens up to use fighters at Bantamweight and Featherweight.

For Strikeforce, the ability to make money while running big fights in the big non-American MMA market will be a win that UFC will not be able to obtain. It’s a move where both SF & K-1 can combine forces to try to diminish the prospects of UFC making a big dent in the country. Each party (SF & K-1) has something at stake and right now the stakes are pretty high for both parties. Desperate times call for desperate measures. If K-1 can use Alistair, Fedor, and others to try to get leverage for television security, then it’s worth it to play ball in the end.

It still seems to me that Strikeforce would be better off running the entire GP in North America. This is where all the money in MMA is at right now. It’s where Strikeforce is based and more importantly it’s where it’s trying to build its brand. Coker called this GP their “defining moment,” but how can it truly be that if their core audience won’t get to get to watch it live at a reasonable hour? No one outside a segment of the hardcore fan base gives a damn about what happens in Japan. If anything, its one more reason for people not to invest themselves in the tournament and Strikeforce.

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