The demise of Strikeforce
Two things killed Strikeforce as an independent promotion.
The first was on April 17, 2010, in Nashville, the company's second show on CBS. The first show on CBS, on Nov. 7, 2009, went well, featuring an exciting knockout win by Fedor Emelianenko over Brett Rogers. It did a strong 2.5 rating with huge success in the younger male demographics CBS was looking at reaching.
The second show was loaded with three championship fights, using former UFC and Pride star Dan Henderson against Jake Shields for the middleweight title as the main event, Gegard Mousasi against King Mo Lawal for the light heavyweight title, and Melendez against Japanese superstar Shinya Aoki for the lightweight title. It seemed like a can’t-miss show. Even if one fight was bad, there’s no way all three could be.
Everything that could go wrong that night did. All three fights went to decisions, five rounds each. All three fights dragged and seemed as if they would never end. Aoki could do nothing with Melendez and seemed largely content to lose by decision by engaging very little. Lawal continually used his wrestling to take down Mousasi and held him there for most of the fight to win a major upset. Henderson nearly knocked Shields out in the first round, then gassed, and was taken down at will for the next four rounds, leading to a third dull fight.
The latter was a huge blow since Strikeforce had given Henderson a huge contract with the idea they had raided one of UFC’s biggest stars because they needed headliners with national names for CBS. The night had already gone terribly bad. But it was about to get worse.
After Shields got his hand raised, Jason "Mayhem" Miller, who won in an earlier fight, went into the cage to shoot his own angle, asking "Where’s my rematch?"
Shields was celebrating with his crew, which included the Diaz Brothers, Melendez and a few others from their fight team. They overreacted, thinking Miller, who was just trying to hype himself into a title fight, was going to attack their buddy. So they attacked Miller first.
Shamrock points to that moment as one that changed the industry in this country.
"The CBS riot changed the history of the sport and the future of the sport," he said. "It ended what should have been an ongoing relationship with CBS with shows regularly in prime time. That would have taken the sport to a whole new level. That was one of the hardest days of my life, sitting there watching that happen.
"There was a pretty good backlash right away. I know Scott had to go in and see the Big Cheese and take some heat for it. But it wasn't until months later, when I'd developed nice relationships with CBS people and followed up on it. I then saw how, universally at the network, it was, 'You screwed up, and we're probably not going back to it.' But yeah, when it was happening, I was thinking, 'We're done.'"
"The emotions were high," said Melendez, who was right in the middle of the brawl. "It's funny, because I think Mayhem's a funny dude. I think he's hilarious. But emotions were high, the guy was out of line and things just escalated. Sometimes you've got to take care of stuff yourself. It got way over escalated and it's sad the impact it had. Sometimes stuff happens. It's the promotions responsibility that those scenarios aren't even possible to occur. But the scenario happened. Things got out of hand. I'm not proud of it. I apologized. Sometimes you hurt the sport. It certainly wasn't our intention. I was standing up for my friend. He had just gone through a war with Dan Henderson. Something needed to have been done by security, if not by us."
"For that to happen with our champions (Shields, Melendez and Nick Diaz were all Strikeforce champions at the time), it gave the sport a black eye," said Coker. "We set up policies, rules and regulations of who could get into the cage after a fight so it could never happen again. I've never worried about it since then, but that was one of my biggest regrets. The sport was new to the general audience. It's still new to the mainstream audience. It doesn't have the 120 years of history like boxing, 100 years of history like the NFL. It was a new sport and anything that happens like that gets magnified."
Boring fights and the wrong kind of a post-fight brawl, combined with a 1.76 rating, considered a disaster since officials had greatly overestimated Henderson’s ratings drawing power, and Sumner Redstone of CBS said he no longer wanted it on his network. For Silicon Valley Sports Entertainment (SVSE), the regular CBS coverage was thought to be the key building block for a long-term successful national franchise.
The other major event was the signing of Emelianenko, still considered at the time of his signing by most inside the sport as the best heavyweight, and many still considered him the best overall fighter in the sport. But it came at a huge cost and with tremendous headaches. Not only did the cost per fight run into the millions, but they had to co-promote every show with M-1 Global, Emelianenko's fight company. And after every show, Emelianenko's people would keep trying to change the deal. He was also submitted in one minute by Fabricio Werdum's triangle, in what was from a world MMA news standpoint, the biggest moment in the company's history.
The idea to turn things around, was the heavyweight Grand Prix tournament. It was an idea from Japan. Coker had regularly attended the K-1 World Grand Prix every year which at its peak would sell out the Tokyo Dome and be every bit as big in that country to the public as an event like the Final Four of the NCAA basketball tournament was in the U.S.
Instead of one night, he figured it was best to space it out over a year, like Pride had done with its successful tournaments. The idea would be two first round fights on two different nights, then the two semis a few months later, ending with the finals. The idea at first was that hopefully the semifinals could get them back on CBS, and build to the finals on pay-per-view with the hook of crowning the "true" best heavyweight in the world.
But even before the tournament had started, SVSE decided it wanted out.
"From their side, they invested a lot of money into the brand," said Shamrock. "We were signing some high dollar fighters, Dan (Henderson), Fedor, and when we committed to the heavyweight tournament, that was a huge financial commitment. Those guys, they aren't big risk takers. After we signed Fedor at everyone's suggestion, we didn't get the support from our distributors that we thought and hoped for. Nothing was guaranteed and they could expose themselves to great risk, and they got out. To them, it was just business. We were an asset not making enough money and having too much risk. For the rest of us, it meant a lot more."
They spent heavy on the tournament. The eight first-round fights would pit Emelianenko vs. Antonio "Bigfoot" Silva, the Elite XC champion when it folded and a huge guy. Andrei Arlovski, the former UFC champion, would face Sergei Kharitonov, one of Pride’s top heavyweights when it went down. Josh Barnett, another Pride heavyweight star, would face Rogers, who gave Fedor a great fight on CBS. And Alistair Overeem, champion by that point in Dream, K-1 and Strikeforce, returned to face Werdum. The idea was to build for Overeem vs. Fedor in the semifinals.
There was simply no way to outlay the kind of money it took to get those fighters together without big pay-per-view numbers or much larger television rights fees backing it up.
"The Sharks group wanted to get out of the MMA business," said Coker. "That's basically how it all went down. When it first came up, it was a very quick period of time before the deal was done. This wasn't being negotiated six months or a year. It went down very quickly. The thing for me was, my partners wanted to get out of the business. It was a tough choice. So you either have disgruntled partners or we have to find another partner. We were moving 100 miles per hour and they started talking to the UFC, and the rest is history."
At the time, several people came out saying they were in talks trying to buy the company. Those at SVSE have said the degree some suitors publicly described their seriousness was overblown. Everyone involved conceded that the only real serious, legitimate offer was from UFC.
"There were two or three other people who reached out to us, but the only one that was a serious buyer was Lorenzo (UFC Chairman Lorenzo Fertitta, who personally negotiated the sale with Silicon Valley Sports, Dana White did not attend any of the negotiation sessions)," said Coker.
Ironically, SVSE's final event was a high point, the Feb. 12, 2011, show at the Izod Center in East Rutherford, NJ, where it broke its own Showtime total audience record set by the Carano vs. Cyborg fight for the first night of the Grand Prix. Silva beat Fedor, ruining plans for a match with Overeem.
Strikeforce will go out on Saturday, not in San Jose, but in Oklahoma City. It will probably be one of the largest actual viewing audiences for a Showtime event because Showtime will be free almost everywhere this weekend, meaning a universe of roughly four times the usual level.
"I would have loved more than anything to have this show in San Jose," said Coker. "But the issue was the availability of the building when Showtime wanted to do the fights. The arena wasn't available. San Jose was the home of Strikeforce and in my mind, it'll always be the home."
"Of course I'd love Strikeforce to continue forever," said Coker. "But this is a business. On the business side, it didn't work out. That's just the reality of it. When I look back, I feel very good about what we accomplished. The fights we put on speak for themselves. We launched a lot of careers of fighters who are going to do great things in the UFC. I'm going to be the first guy to pay $54.99 to watch them. I'm a promoter, but I'm a fan, and I love martial arts, I love boxing, I watch it all. I've have a good time sitting back watching our guys go to UFC and bringing it to them. You'll get to see Gilbert fight Ben Henderson, D.C. (Daniel Cormier) fight Jon Jones, Jacare Souza in big fights, Luke Rockhold fighting Anderson Silva. This wouldn't happen if this didn't come together."