Until Oscar De La Hoya broke free from Bob Arum in 2005, there were only two boxing promoters that mattered in America. One was Arum's Top Rank, the other the legendary huckster Don King. While King attracted the headlines with his voluble personality and over the top rants, Arum quietly promoted some of the biggest fights in boxing history. The New York Times ran down Arum's background on the eve of the Sugar Ray Leonard-Marvin Hagler fight:
Arum, hooking his hands inside his waist-band, allowed himself a smile, the kind of smile that is accompanied by a purr.
Why not? After five months since the signing for the fight, the man who came from Brooklyn, who went to Erasmus Hall High School, New York University and Harvard Law School, and who worked as a taxation expert on Wall Street, for the District Attorney's office in New York City, in the Justice Department during the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations, and who until 1965 had no interest in boxing - in ''two guys clubbing each other over the head'' - was about to make a profit for himself of somewhere between $3 million and $6 million.
Although they promoted the famous "Thrilla in Manilla" together, Arum and King have spent decades at each others throats. King, as usual, puts it best:
When journalists would ask about his relationship with promoter Bob Arum, Don King would recount a fable. The story involved a venomous snake and an alligator. The snake needed passage across a river and asked the alligator to oblige. The alligator protested, citing that once the snake got on his back, the snake would bite. Eventually, the snake convinced the alligator to provide passage and in the middle of their journey, the snake plunged a fatal bite into the back of the gator.
When the gator asked why the snake bit him, that they would now both surely drown, the snake replied, "I’m a snake, I couldn’t help myself."
The alligator in the story was King, the snake was Arum.
Strikeforce President Scott Coker sees a similar dynamic between himself and UFC frontman Dana White. While the two men have never been in a post fight scuffle like Arum and King (after the aforementioned Hagler-Leonard fight) and neither, as yet, has pointed out the loaded pistol in his pocket, the two promoters are like oil and water.
"Dana is kind of like the Don King. He's out there and he's out promoting his brand as well as the company brand and the fighter brand. I'm more of a very direct business man," Coker said in an exclusive interview with Bloody Elbow. "The guy I really liked wasn't Don King. To me, it's okay being the Bob Arum. In a lot of Bob's early fights, you didn't even know who promoted the fights. The fights were amazing, they were great, and they were focused on the athlete. That's been my philosophy too. The stars of the show are in the cage."
White, who helped propel mixed martial arts forward in America, has plenty in common with King. Both are outgoing media hounds who put themselves front and center for every fight they promote, often making media appearances in the place of the fighters. And both play up a streetwise tough guy persona, emphasizing to the fighters they promote that they too come from similar circumstances. King and White also rely heavily on undisclosed bonuses (King's often paid in cash in a brief case or attache case) or expensive gifts to keep fighters happy.
Coker prefers to remain in the shadows. In a perfect world, he thinks fans would never even ponder who the money men behind the fights are. They'd be too busy enjoying the action in the cage. But the world White has created leaves little room for a quiet professional, part of the reason Coker seems to spend so much time being criticized for the crime of not being Dana White.
"Dana is Dana. He does a great job at doing what he does. It's okay to be the Bob Arum and put on these great fights, to put on these mega events," Coker said. "I think we've accomplished so much in these last 18 months. A lot of fans have to remember - Strikeforce on a national scale has been around since April10, 2009. And the fights that we put on are right up there with any other league. We've done some big arena shows, we've done some million dollar gates. Outside of the UFC, I don't think anyone is doing that."
More on the Strikeforce-UFC relationship after the breakThe relationship between the UFC and Strikeforce is long and complicated. White used to hold up Coker as an example of a regional promoter who understood the business. When Coker and his partners at Silicon Valley Sports Entertainment acquired Elite XC's assets and, more importantly, its relationships with Showtime and CBS, that all changed. Coker became the enemy and White has been on a constant offensive for more than a year.
The latest battle between the two groups has been over fighter sponsors. While managers and fighters have been complaining that apparel companies that once sponsored athletes across the sport are now UFC exclusive, Coker remains unconcerned.
"Here's the thing - we have our sponsors too. Believe me, we did really well on sponsorships last year," Coker said. "Rockstar, our title sponsor, has been fantastic. We have Full Tilt Poker too. And we encourage Rockstar and Full Tilt to sponsor our guys. EA Sports. Anybody that comes on board with us, like Clinch Gear, we encourage them to sponsor our guys as well. Think about this - this industry provides an 18-34 year old demographic that is very sponsor elusive. We can deliver. As many people as want to work with the UFC, there's just as many who want to come work with us."
While many fans focus intently on the rivalry between the two brands, Coker says it occupies very little of his time. Instead, he's doing his best to build the Strikeforce brand and bring fans the best fights he can.
"There's plenty of room for everybody. We are going to continue going down our path," Coker said. "Like I've said numerous times, when I wake up in the morning I'm thinking about what we're going to do. What's the next matchup, what's the next fight? What's the next big promotional opportunity? Showtime's been a great partner and I'm worried about what we're doing. That's what I'm focused on. I'm not worried about somebody else worrying about me."
Stay locked in to Bloody Elbow this week for more on the "State of Strikeforce" directly from President Scott Coker.