After grand MMA opening, Strikeforce will turn out the lights Saturday night
After a 21-year-run, the end of the Strikeforce promotion was stated with one sentence in a press release that went out three weeks ago.
In talking about Saturday night's event in Oklahoma City at the Chesapeake Energy Center, the release read "this will mark the final Strikeforce event on Showtime."
The Strikeforce brand was only kept alive by Zuffa due to the contract with Showtime after purchasing the company in March 2011. The deal wasn't profitable due to the size of many of the contracts and was filled with headaches on both sides. The marriage between the two partners, both used to being in charge, seemed headed for divorce court from early on. In many ways, the promotion that produced some of the biggest local events in the sport's history, and some of the sport's landmark moments, was like a patient hanging on for the past few months with almost everyone involved largely waiting for the plug to be pulled.
Saturday's event will be the first since August, leaving a roster of unhappy fighters having to sit on the sidelines until nature took its course. It also ends a brand name created by Scott Coker that started in San Jose, Calif., first as a kickboxing promotion and later as the No. 2 mixed martial arts group in North America with shows airing on Showtime and CBS.
"It's been a long road," said Coker, the CEO of the promotion through its entire run. "We started Strikeforce in 1992, so it's been 20 years, we're going on 21 years. It started as a kickboxing brand. We had an ESPN 2 deal. We promoted a lot of great fighters, a lot of great kickboxers and San Shou fighters. Cung Le started on the old Strikeforce shows, and eventually worked his way over to MMA. Over 20 years, we had some great fights, some big fights, and so many amazing events.
"I think Saturday is the culmination of all the hard work and effort. To me, it's time to celebrate the 20 years of commitment, whether it's kickboxing, MMA, San Shou, my mission statement was to make a contribution to the world of martial arts. And I think I've done it."
"Truthfully, the nail was in the coffin as soon as the deal (sale to Zuffa) was done," said Frank Shamrock, who became a key figure when Strikeforce became an MMA group in 2006, headlining many of its biggest shows and being the early face of the promotion. "Or at least that's what I thought."
From a business standpoint, the deal made sense when the sale took place. Showtime wanted MMA, feeling it helped build its subscriber base. Strikeforce was doing strong ratings. While they didn't have the talent depth of UFC, the Strikeforce stars were better than those in any other organization Showtime could have worked with, but there were issues. Showtime was used to dealing with boxing promoters. They would pay them rights fees for a card of fights, and then control all aspects of the television show. They would have approval rights of all the matchmaking. UFC was used to being paid for programming, but UFC had always insisted, to the point it killed some major television deals over the years, to control all aspects of the show.
"I knew when it was sold what the natural progression of things would be, from doing business and seeing how the purchasers did business," said Shamrock. "Their focus was gong to be on their brand, the UFC, not on a secondary brand that they bought. They bought the brand for access to the heavyweight talent under contract and stopped the progress."
While Shamrock immediately viewed it as the beginning of the slow death of the brand, as something bad, Gilbert Melendez had a different feeling.
Melendez would have to be considered the best fighter of the Strikeforce era in MMA. He was the company's second lightweight champion, winning the belt from Clay Guida in the first truly great match in the promotion. He lost the title to Josh Thomson, and then regained it in arguably the promotion's best fight ever. Nearly seven years later, he would have defended the title one last time on Saturday against Pat Healy except his separated shoulder didn't heal in time.
"I called Scott Coker and texted Scott Coker and asked if it was true," said Melendez when word broke one Saturday morning that UFC had purchased Strikeforce. "I thought it was great. I thought I was the biggest winner. I thought I was going to be over there in UFC in no time, but it took two years."
Emotionally, it's been an up-and-down ride for him. While considered among the best lightweights in the world the entire time, being in Strikeforce and not the UFC, kept him from ever being considered the consensus No. 1.
Melendez figured he would soon be matched up with the top UFC fighters particularly after two other Strikeforce champions, welterweight champion and teammate Nick Diaz, and light heavyweight champion Dan Henderson were moved over. Dana White talked openly about Melendez getting a shot at the UFC title back in 2011. But a new contract between Zuffa and Showtime nixed any chance of that happening.
"It brings back a lot of memories," said Melendez about the closing of the promotion, but also an end to the frustration of not being able to get matches with the opponents he most wanted to face. "A big part of the journey to where I am today takes place in Strikeforce. There were some big wins, some great exposure, some memorable times. All those memories come back with this coming to an end. Looking back, I'm appreciative of what Scott Coker has done. It's a sad thing for me, but also a good thing for me."
In late 2011, it appeared the relationship between Zuffa and Showtime was going to be over, and reporters had their Strikeforce obituaries ready. But when Stephen Espinoza took over as head of Showtime Sports after Ken Hershman moved to HBO, he met with Dana White and the UFC brass, and a new deal was put together.
The deal included an agreement that the heavyweights would finish their ongoing Grand Prix tournament, and the winner would then do one last fight on Showtime. After the Grand Prix tournament ended, the entire division would move to UFC. However, no other fighter on the Strikeforce roster could move to UFC as long as the Showtime deal was in place, even if their contract had expired.
"I got the call right before I fought (Jorge) Masvidal," Melendez recalled. "It was from Dana (White), about two days before the Masvidal fight. He said, 'Listen, it's real complicated, but this isn't your last Strikeforce fight. You're going to have to be here. We'd love to have you in UFC. It is what it is.' He made sure I was cool with it. I told him as much as I wanted to be there in UFC, I want to do what's good for the company. A lot of deals were going on in the back. You want to do what's best for yourself and what's best for the company. You want to work with everyone. But it was a bummer to hear that. But it's over with now."
Showtime would also have exclusivity when it came to women’s fighting. That suited UFC fine at the time. They hadn't had any real interest in promoting women in UFC since Gina Carano, the marquee star at the time, decided to sign with Strikeforce to stick together with the other top women, instead of taking a deal with Zuffa after the folding of Elite XC in late 2008.
White and the UFC would help promote Strikeforce shows and pretty much take the place of WEC as Zuffa’s "B" brand, but things fell apart. It’s not exactly clear what it was, but White admitted he made suggestions about changes and Showtime nixed them. White, not used to that, turned his back on Strikeforce almost completely. The promotion continued to draw reasonably good ratings, but there was a lot less effort in promoting the live events, new top talent wasn't being signed, and ticket sales at recent events were not strong.
Strikeforce started as a kickboxing promotion, running shows in San Jose, either at the 5,000-seat SUREC Arena or the 2,500-seat Civic Auditorium, with tapes of the live shows being sold to ESPN2. The network largely used it as filler programming.
Le was the star and the highlight of Coker’s local shows. He became the local hero to the Vietnamese community, although his appeal spread far past simply the ethnic level. He would come out with fans of all ethnicities, each waving thousands of tiny Vietnamese flags all over the arenas as he dispatched of one opponent after another in what was billed as United States or world championship San Shou championship matches in whatever weight class he was fighting in.
San Shou, similar to Russia’s Draka and Japan’s shoot boxing, were kickboxing matches that also allowed takedowns, but no ground work. The takedowns would earn points based on the height of the throw, meaning the more impressive the slam, the more points. The matches were largely Le facing kickboxers, and using his array of thrust and spinning kicks to befuddle them. Then, with them off balance, he'd use his wrestling to do a variety of slams, suplexes and, his trademark move, the flying scissors takedown.
Coker’s shows were marathon television tapings. The idea was to create as many hours of new programming in one setting as possible with shows often exceeding 20 matches. Sometimes one of the main events didn’t get into the ring until 2 a.m., and it was nearly 3 a.m. when the show ended, with maybe 100 of the originally nearly sold out crowd still there.
"Even before the 21 years of Strikeforce, I was already promoting for seven years, so it's 28 years of being in the fight business," said Coker. "We had so many great fighters on ESPN. Some of the guys who used to fight for me on ESPN shows were Cung Le, Javier Mendez (now the trainer of the AKA team in San Jose, which provided much of the talent to the promotion) used to fight for me, and Mike Winklejohn (the striking coach at Greg Jackson's camp) fought in San Jose two or three times. From the very beginning, it was shown on ESPN, in 1985. That's when we had our first TV. That's when ESPN was filled with Australian rules football and rugby. They had the pro wrestling format. They'd go live every week. I was 21 years old and they'd roll into town with the PKA shows, air our main events live as part of the PKA series. I thought, 'We were on TV and this is great.'"
Because of Coker’s successful background as a reliable local kickboxing promoter, when California finally allowed MMA fights to take place outside of Native American land, Coker was trusted to promote the state’s first show on March 10, 2006 at the HP Pavilion in San Jose. The show was billed as Shamrock vs. Gracie (as in Frank Shamrock vs. Cesar Gracie), featuring the MMA debut of Cung Le.
It was largely criticized on MMA message boards, with the idea that it wasn’t the real Shamrock (Ken) or the real Gracie (Royce) that had the UFC rivalry that built the first popularity period of the sport in 1993-95. Some decried the event because they perceived Le to be a martial arts magazine star and local creation who would be exposed as a fraud if he ever fought real MMA fighters.
Coker was expecting to sell about 6,000 to 7,000 tickets, but was hopeful with a little bit of luck, they could hit 10,000. Le was a proven local favorite. Shamrock had the ability to promote a fight like few in the history of the sport. Coker set the building up for 12,000. Ticket sales moved so quickly that they kept changing the set up. By the end, they had to remove the entire entrance set. By the last week, largely due to Shamrock building up the idea that the Shamrock vs. Gracie family feud was the biggest in history to whatever local media would pay attention, the show had become the talk of the community. It wasn't really a fight fan audience as much, but well-dressed men and women, almost all in their 20s and 30s, coming with friends or dates to see the big happening event in town.
There was a massive traffic jam in downtown San Jose in the early evening that night with one of the largest walk-up sales in the history of the HP Pavilion. Not only was the building sold out, with 18,265 fans, setting the North American attendance record for the sport, but also roughly 5,000 more were turned away.
It made no sense to anyone, whether they had backgrounds in boxing, wrestling or any other combat sport. How can a promotion in its first show ever, that nobody outside of the city had ever heard of, with no promotion outside the city, with no television, virtually no advanced sports page coverage, draw a sellout crowd charging what at the time were considered pretty outrageous ticket prices?
The paid attendance of 17,465 fans is still the largest ever in the United States. It was an electric night, ending with Shamrock scoring a one-punch knockout win over 40-year-old Gracie in 21 seconds, while Gracie's top students, the Diaz Brothers, Jake Shields and Gilbert Melendez, watched from the corner.
"It turned out better than all expectations that I could think of," said Shamrock. "I was good at marketing and creating stories and using what we had and what was available to promote at the time. We had such an opportunity with the first show in the California market. To have the Shamrock vs. Gracie story, the right story at the right time, the city just fell in love with it. It was crazy. It was the craziest thing I've ever done promotionally."
The success of the first event as a show itself, was all about the matchmaking, a theme of putting fighters from Northern California against outsiders, with Shamrock and Le as the stars.
"Cung was chomping at the bit to fight in MMA," said Coker, who had Le under contract for years on his kickboxing events. "I started promoting him when he was 26 years old. I've seen his whole career blossom. I'm so proud of him, to see his success in the fight business and in the movie business. He's a super guy. I knew he would be a great martial artist and he can still fight. He has the skills. I was the beneficiary of seeing Cung fight at 27, 28, I saw some of the great fights he had and knew this guy was going to be a superstar."
Luckily for Coker and Shamrock, American Kickboxing Academy was turning into one of the premier gyms in the country, while Cesar Gracie had his own stable of young fighters.
The local stars on the show included two of Cesar Gracie’s young fighters, 20-year-old Nathan Diaz, in his third pro fight, and San Francisco’s Melendez, unknown in the U.S. but already a star in Japan and one of the world’s best lightweight fighters. The pro wrestling side was represented by San Jose’s Daniel Puder, who won WWE’s Tough Enough and was a master self-promoter. There was Brian Ebersole, who specialized in creative ring entrances. There was Mike Kyle, a muscular, brawling fighter who was a resident badass who had previously fought for the UFC. There was also Josh Thomson, another former UFC fighter and one of the best lightweights in the world. All were living in San Jose. All the locals won but one. In a major upset, Thomson, who was expected to become the Strikeforce lightweight champion, lost to a wrestler with endless cardio from Chicago, who put himself on the map en route to becoming a UFC cult favorite in Guida.
"There was a ton of talent in this area," said Coker. "I remember walking into AKA on Hillsdale Avenue and seeing Brian Johnston (an early UFC fighter). He was telling me he was going to fight in the Ultimate Fighting Championships. He was explaining that he had to wrestle, do Jiu Jitsu, boxing and kickboxing. He had the mindset of a complete mixed martial artist. Frank Shamrock came after that. Frank had put together an amazing fight team. A lot of people from all over the world were coming to San Jose to train with Frank and Javier Mendez. Javier had the best striking skills and he was helping Frank with his hands. That's kind of how MMA evolved in the Bay Area."
"It was definitely impressive," said Melendez. "It was the first MMA show ever in California, or at least the first legitimate one, the first one sanctioned. Cesar Gracie and Frank Shamrock headlined. They sold out every single seat. It was nuts. It was a packed lineup. All the up-and-comers in the Bay Area were there, and some from out of town. I got a `W,' I got to see Nate get a `W,' Cesar lost, but we were all there and it was neat to be a part of history."
While it was the event that put his company and himself on the worldwide map, aside from the shocking crowd, Coker remembers much of it like it was a nightmare. So many seats were sold that there were none left for his close friends.
"I'm not kidding, there were so many problems with that show," he recalled. "Our ring didn't come in until the day before. You can't just buy a cage. We had so many problems. You should look back at our first ring carefully. It's embarrassing. I remember Crazy Bob Cook, Duane Ludwig, myself, Luke Rockhold, who was just starting to train, we were tying the pads to the corner. It was such a crappy cage. I was afraid it would fall apart. I couldn't wait until Frank fought and the show ended. I was afraid the heavyweights or light heavyweights would break the cage. It was a stressful night, and a stressful night before that. The first night was something I should have enjoyed, but it was one of the worst nights for myself. We had 18,000 people. I was so afraid something would go wrong. It was just terrible."
"When Strikeforce came along, it was a blessing and Scott was my friend," said Shamrock. "It was fun, interesting and cool. We had an awesome thing. It was five people running the whole thing. It was the smallest group of people in the world going against the largest army and we did wonderful things."
Before the end of the year, they had debuted unknown heavyweight Cain Velasquez. Velasquez's tenure lasted all of one fight because after his first appearance, every time they tried to get him a fight, the opponent would cancel.
The December show saw the company promote its first woman’s fight, hardly something controversial or ground breaking in Coker's mind, since he regularly featured women on his Strikeforce shows in the kickboxing days. While there had been women’s MMA on smaller shows, including Jeff Osborne running all-women shows in Evansville, Ind., this was the first woman’s fight in the U.S. in front of such a large crowd.
Elaina Maxwell, a San Jose fighter, was showcased against the out-of-town fighter. But in this case the out-of-towner, Gina Carano from Las Vegas, became an almost immediate attraction with the crowd. On what was an otherwise disappointing show, it was the women who had the best fight, with Carano’s natural charisma leading the way for a future movie star to be born.
Gary Shaw, a boxing promoter who was starting an MMA company on Showtime, also wanted to build around Shamrock. But he saw a second potential superstar in Carano.
Showtime, already feeling it was taking a risk in airing MMA and facing large amounts of criticism that a network of its caliber shouldn't lower itself to that kind of programming, was willing to risk it to copy the Strikeforce formula with Shamrock vs. Gracie (this time Renzo Gracie) as its first main event. But the idea of putting on women was something they were at first dead set against.
Shaw gave every argument, as did Shamrock, for why Carano should be on the show. Neither side would budge, with Shaw saying it was important to have her there from the start. Showtime finally agreed to this much. Carano could have a televised light on the first show, in the opening match, and it was a one-time thing. If it didn't go well, Shaw was to never bring the subject up again.
Carano vs. Julie Kedzie stole the show on the first Showtime card. Carano would later headline one of Strikeforce's most successful events, her battle with Cris "Cyborg" Santos, which at the time set the Showtime MMA ratings record and drew the company's largest crowd ever for a show that wasn't headlined by Shamrock.
Five years after Maxwell vs. Carano, Strikeforce gave another woman fighter, Ronda Rousey, her first televised fight, winning in 25 seconds with a flying armbar over Sarah D'Alelio. Carano opened the door to women to be featured as main eventers on men's shows, but it was Rousey who got them into UFC.
Over the years, Strikeforce had a lot of highlights, from the super-heated Shamrock fight with Phil Baroni and the "Battle of San Jose" against Le. Natural evolution followed when Shamrock, now older and badly injured, faced Cesar Gracie's protege, Nick Diaz, for revenge for when his coach was knocked out in 20 seconds a few years earlier. This time Diaz, with Cesar Gracie in his corner, hammered Shamrock, and it led to Shamrock retiring. While younger and better fighters had come along, few had the ability and understanding how to promote fights. While crowds were good after, they never hit the level of Shamrock's big fights again.
"I wish my body had held up," said Shamrock, who is in need of back surgery and neck surgery. "This is the way it happened. They told me when I was 16 that my back was so bad that I would never play any sports. They told me, `We're sorry.' So every day I got to play, and wrestle, and fight, was a blessing. I was surprised I made it through one career, and instead I had three different stages (his early Pancrase run, his UFC championship run, and his Strikeforce headliner run) of a long career. But it was always a ticking time bomb. I'm glad I'm not in a wheelchair."
There were the upsets where Scott Smith, being beaten in every direction by Benji Radach and Le, defeated both via late knockouts in two of the most sensational finishes in modern MMA history.
And there were the match of the year caliber fights, often involving Melendez, most notably his win over Guida to become the second lightweight champion. That's also true for his back and forth in three matches against Thomson in one of MMA’s all-time best-ever trilogies.
A legendary area sportswriter was covering the second Strikeforce show given all the buzz that came from the first show. He had all the preconceived notions about MMA being a brutal non-sport and the success of the original show being something hardly positive for the community. But he was impressed with the audience and intrigued by the prelim fights, but not sold. After Melendez and Guida went up and down for 25 minutes in the match where Melendez took the title, he changed his viewpoint. He may not have been a fan of it, but he respected that these were great athletes with incredible conditioning, competing in a real sport.
"I couldn't get a better compliment than that," said Melendez. "Hearing that makes me feel good. It was memorable, an awesome night for me. I won the title. I remember the crowd. I knew he'd be in amazing shape. I spiked him on his head and he got right up. He took me down. I took him down. It was a war. It was one of my greatest fights ever. Nate (Diaz) was in my corner. Jake (Shields) was in my corner. I was a home town guy. Everyone in the crowd was on my side. We were all fired up. I think I beat him every single round. I still don't know how it was a split decision. After all that, the guy popped up and started doing pushups. It made me laugh so damn much."
In actuality, while recorded everywhere as a split decision, it was a mistake in tabulating the scoring and was actually a unanimous decision win for Melendez.
But his success in Strikeforce also led to frustration.
"There were points in time where I addressed Scott Coker and said, 'I'm not happy. I'm not getting exposure. I fought Guida. It was an amazing fight that nobody saw except the 11,000 people in the building.' Then they got the Showtime deal. I got lot of money to sign. But Scott Coker got me the rematch with Ishida (Mitsuhiro Ishida, who had beaten Melendez on a New Year's Eve show in Japan), the rematch with Thomson. I'll always be thankful to him for that. But at times you would see people get more credit in the UFC. You'd just like to go there and beat some dudes up."
In San Jose, they had the night the mythical Fedor Emelianenko proved to be human when Fabricio Werdum tapped him with a triangle, the Carano vs. Cyborg fight, and even had sports legend Herschel Walker fight. The local media went from almost ignoring it, to trumpeting San Jose as an MMA hotbed, and it was no longer something for the city to be embarrassed about. Coker was given credit for being a local product who was one of the best sports promoters in the country.
But for all of that, they never fully hit that nerve with the general public like they did the first night. Not that there weren't a number of very successful follow-up events.
Coker points to the Shamrock vs. Le fight on March 29, 2008, as the emotional peak of the company.
"I think Strikeforce was built on four fighters, Frank Shamrock, Cung Le, Gilbert Melendez and Josh Thomson," said Coker. "Frank Shamrock was the key to the MMA community and the key to helping us build our brand and in promoting. He drew the biggest gates in San Jose in the history of our company. But when he fought Cung Le, that was a really special night and something I'll never forget.
"On one half of the arena, we sold all the tickets to Cung's fans. On the other half of the arena, we sold all the tickets to Frank's fans. People were very strong on who their favorite was. We were worried something would happen in the crowd because there was a lot of heat on this fight in this area. It was the fight to be at."
It was the closest thing atmosphere-wise to the first night with 16,326 fans nearly selling the building out. It was a higher percentage of fight fans than the original sellout. While it wasn't as big with people who were taking their girlfriends out on dates to the hot show in town, once you got inside the building, it was an even bigger night.
Shamrock vs. Le and Shamrock vs. Phil Baroni produced the loudest crowd reactions at Strikeforce events, rivaling even Georges St-Pierre title matches in Montreal against Matt Serra, or Randy Couture's last heavyweight title win over Tim Sylvia in Columbus, Ohio.
"It was awesome," said Shamrock, who lost the fight on a third-round stoppage after Le had broken his arm early in the fight with a kick, and destroyed it completely with another kick at the end of round three. "The only thing I didn't like is that I had to paint myself into the bad guy role in my home city and carry that spot. I felt a little weird about it, but I knew it was my role to play. The city was divided on who they wanted to win. People had definitely chosen sides and you could feel the crowd battle back-and-forth just as Cung and I were battling back-and-forth. It was going on before we even fought. It was like there was a line down the middle of the arena. People who would have normally been Frank Shamrock fans, some of them were with Cung on this one. People who would normally have been Cung fans, some were with me. It was the first time since I lived in the city that I made myself the bad guy. I felt that feedback. Once, when I went to get my hair cut, the guy who cut my hair, out of the blue, said he was a big fan, but he said, 'I was going for Cung in that fight, but you're a good dude.' That was the first time I felt something like that."
Strikeforce, which was owned and funded during this period by Silicon Valley Sports and Entertainment (SVSE), the owners of the HP Pavilion and San Jose Sharks of the National Hockey League. The company changed in scope in 2009, becoming a national brand and getting on Showtime and CBS after Silicon Valley Sports purchased the dying Elite XC group, giving the company 50 or 60 fighter contracts. They went from promoting a few shows a year in San Jose to promoting 16 shows a year all over the country.
While people will criticize in hindsight the move from being the San Jose group relying on local fighters vs. outsiders, the company really relied on Shamrock and Le. It was a different time. MMA was new, and Le had a flashy style and was an established local star. He had never lost in the city dating back to the mid-90s. Shamrock was UFC’s star fighter in the late 90s, fought sparingly and then came back. The game in the cage had changed greatly since Shamrock's prime, but there was no fighter of that era who better understood how to promote and sell a fight.
But both were already 33 in 2006, and their time at the top was inherently limited. And there would be no ability to create followers with the same level of local appeal. It was the right product done the right way at the right time, but what worked then could never sustain in a more mature market at least at the level of packing major arenas, once the UFC produced so much product on free television.
(Editor's note: Check out part 2: The demise of Strikeforce on Friday.)