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Showtime extends Strikeforce deal for next year

Challengers series, heavyweight division on their way out from Strikeforce

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Sam Morris

Shawn Jordan makes his way to the cage for his match against Devin Cole at Strikeforce Challengers 3 Friday, July 22, 2011 at the Palms. Cole won by decision.

Zuffa, the parent company of the UFC and Strikeforce, will continue to run two mixed martial arts promotions in 2012.

UFC President Dana White announced Thursday afternoon that the company had come to a new agreement with Showtime to continue airing Strikeforce events. Although some changes are in store, Showtime will broadcast six to eight Strikeforce cards next year.

“Showtime and Strikeforce have a long history, a mutually-beneficial and supportive relationship,” said Stephen Espinoza, executive vice president and general manager of Showtime Sports. “We’re very happy that that continues and actually we’re continuing to build upon that foundation in this new structure.”

Espinoza said options were in place for additional years and fights, but wouldn’t disclose any specifics of the deal.

The announcement would have come as a surprise three or four months ago. Many assumed it would only be a matter of time before the UFC absorbed Strikeforce after Zuffa purchased the second biggest mixed martial arts organization earlier this year.

It only looked more imminent when White brought three Strikeforce champions — heavyweight Alistair Overeem, light heavyweight Dan Henderson and welterweight Nick Diaz — over to the UFC. But all the fighters remaining in Strikeforce now will stay there. That includes lightweight champion Gilbert Melendez, the No. 2 155-pound fighter in the world, who had lobbied to come to the UFC for months.

“Strikeforce offers a ton of opportunity to build all kinds of talented new stars, champions and contenders,” White said.

The new contract kicks off with a Jan. 7 card at the Hard Rock, where Strikeforce middleweight champion Luke Rochold defends his belt against Keith Jardine.

The event will air during Showtime’s free preview weekend meaning 60 million people will have access to the event, according to Espinoza.

“I’m fired up about this deal,” White said. ““This thing is dialed in perfectly now for success. This thing is absolutely doable.”

The two most notable differences will come from the Strikeforce Challengers series and the heavyweight division. Both will cease to exist.

Instead of Challengers cards, Showtime will air Strikeforce preliminary cards on its Showtime Extreme channel.

The World Grand Prix heavyweight tournament finals between Josh Barnett and Daniel Cormier will still take place, but the weight class will go away shortly after the bout.

“You’ll see one more fight where the winner will fight a top-ranked heavyweight and then we’re going to go back to focusing on our other weight classes,” Strikeforce CEO Scott Coker said.

Coker will place an emphasis on further developing the two women’s divisions in Strikeforce. White said keeping the women became a priority because of the way fans overwhelmed him with their support for female fighting.

“If Strikeforce goes away, the women were done fighting,” White said. “It wasn’t going to happen, we’re not doing a women’s division in the UFC right now.”

White’s role with Strikeforce will increase. He said he planned to work at all the events and treat them like their UFC counterparts.

Between Strikeforce and the UFC, Zuffa will put on 40 cards next year.

“My schedule next year is ridiculous,” White said. “People don’t even think it’s going to be humanly possible, but I disagree.”

Case Keefer can be reached at 948-2790 or [email protected]. Follow Case on Twitter at twitter.com/casekeefer.

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