As Strikeforce heats up, time is biggest enemy

By any measure, Saturday's “Strikeforce: Barnett vs. Kharitonov” show was one of the company’s best, most complete efforts in recent memory.

Somehow -- beyond all reasonable expectation -- Strikeforce actually lucked into a halfway intriguing final for its beleaguered heavyweight grand prix tournament when Daniel Cormier and Josh Barnett breezed through their semifinal matchups. It welcomed a pair of former champions back to the fold as Muhammed Lawal and Rafael “Feijao” Cavalcante both nabbed much-needed wins, conceivably setting up a rematch between the two for its vacant light heavyweight belt. It also crowned a new and arguably more interesting middleweight titlist in the upstart Luke Rockhold.

Even the two-and-a-half-hour preliminary broadcast turned out to be worth watching, despite a reliance on annoying overhead camera angles and oxymoronic attempts to dub Mike Kyle’s bout against Marcos de Lima the “undercard main event.”

Not for nothing guys, but a fight can’t really be a main event if it’s on the … ah, never mind.

Point is, for the first time in a long time, it felt like Strikeforce was making progress on Saturday in Cincinnati. The irony, of course, is thick: Along with some obvious help from Zuffa, it seems Strikeforce is shifting into second gear just as the road ahead prepares to dead end in a cliff.

Really? Now Strikeforce is going to start establishing some momentum? Now?

At this point, the questions we should be asking aren’t whether or not the winner of the grand prix should be the new Strikeforce heavyweight champ (he should) or what Rockhold’s first title defense should be (rematch, naturally), but if the company will even live long enough to see these storylines through to completion.

Perhaps the only thing keeping Zuffa brass from pulling the plug right now is Strikeforce’s ongoing broadcast contract with Showtime. Reports indicate that deal expires sometime in early 2012, but the premium cable channel has the option to extend it as far into the future as 2014. If Showtime declines, Strikeforce may well die on the spot. If it opts to renew, Zuffa’s hands could be tied.

Just to make things even more confusing, Strikeforce announced following Saturday night’s event that it’s planning the grand prix championship some time during the first quarter of 2012. That is, if Cormier’s apparent hand injury doesn’t turn out to be serious enough to put him on ice for an extended period. That could be disastrous. It would seem the fight organization can’t afford any delays.

With all this in mind, the TV guys might have a very interesting decision to make here during the next several months. The Catch-22 is that Zuffa’s influence is clearly already changing Strikeforce for the better and better broadcasts naturally sweeten the pot for Showtime. On the other hand, all previous reports indicate Showtime can’t stand certain high-ranking Zuffa officials. So, what’s the proper play here?

Will the promise of an increasingly relevant product be enough to keep Showtime and Zuffa in business together? Will Showtime just wash its hands of the whole arrangement? Could it extend the life of Strikeforce just because it knows that’s exactly what Zuffa doesn't want it to do? You can see the dilemma.

For fight fans, the real question is this: If Showtime doesn’t keep Strikeforce on life support, will the grand prix final also be the promotion’s last show? Or might it not happen at all?