Photo by Zak Woods exclusively for Bloody Elbow.
While the Arnold Classic has made a home in Columbus Ohio for the past twenty-plus years, 2011 marked the inaugural appearance of Strikeforce. The San Jose based promotion quickly stepped in to fill the vacancy left by Zuffa and with nearly 200,000 sports nutrition enthusiast coming to Columbus for the event Strikeforce had the opportunity to further the growing relationship between the two worlds.
Work for the event began months earlier as Strikeforce matchmaker Rich Chou did an excellent job of lining up a two title fight card that featured MMA legend and fan favorite Dan Henderson as he made an attempt to claim his third world title in a different organization by facing Brazilian knockout artist Rafael "Feijao" Cavalcante. In addition to the bout between Henderson and Feijao, the card also featured women's 135 lb. champion Marlos Coenen and middleweight contender Tim Kennedy. To further the connection to the host city Strikeforce also put Ohio based fighters Jorge Gurgel, Brian Rogers and Roger Bowling on the preliminary card. Saturday night would ultimately tell the tale of the organization's success during the weekend but Strikeforce went above and beyond to make sure their presence was a part of the overall experience at the Arnold Classic.
In addition to the event at the Nationwide Arena, Strikeforce looked to capitalize on the opportunity to connect with their fan base as they set up a large booth at the Fitness Expo which ran from Friday to Saturday at the Columbus Convention Center. As one of 700 vendors on display Strikeforce made sure their booth was visible as they pulled out all the stops to create one of the most visually appealing and visitor friendly stands. The entire booth was designed using the official Strikeforce cage where fans could filter through to meet the fighters or stop and have their pictures taken with the Rockstar/Strikeforce ring girls on the outer perimeters. At the entrance, Strikeforce set up a box office where tickets could be purchased for Saturday's show in addition to signing up for raffle drawings that were held throughout the course of the weekend.
Once inside the cage fans and visitors could play EA Sports MMA on several monitors in addition to signing official Strikeforce placards that were being sent, along with the cages used for the weekend's events, overseas to the U.S. Military. Strikeforce also gave visitors a chance to interact with their All-Star roster as the organization scheduled appearances and presentations allowing fans, new and old, to meet some of the top fighters and personalities on their roster. Josh Thomson and Frank Shamrock held meet and greet sessions during the opening portion of the Expo on Friday while current welterweight champion and one of the world's pound for pound best Nick Diaz held court on both Friday and Saturday afternoons. Also making appearances were MMA legend Pat Miletich, Antonio "Big Foot" Silva and recent Strikeforce signee Josh Barnett, who is preparing to make his official Strikeforce debut when he faces Brett Rogers on June 18th in the opening round of the heavyweight tournament. The convention center was jammed packed from the time the doors opened until they closed and Barnett, who had a massive turnout, had this to say in regards to the insanity.
"It's huge," Barnett exclaimed. "It's busy as hell. This is a great venue for Strikeforce to be in. New fans...in addition to us getting a chance to make an impression on them and get them to follow what we are doing. So I think it's a necessity. Plus, I like the fact that they have all the events for the kids to keep them entertained. Right now I'm here having a good time but when I get in the gym I'm thinking about murder."
While the Strikeforce booth was certainly one of the more popular stops during the Fitness Expo, Friday's activities lead up to the official weigh-ins that were held at the Expo's main stage on Friday evening. The event was open to visitors from the Classic and masses gathered to get a look at some of Strikeforce's best as they took the scale. While not on the weekend's card, AKA's Mike Kyle as he was on hand to not only promote Strikeforce during the Classic weekend but also his upcoming fight as he returns to light heavyweight to face former champion Gegard Mousasi on April 9th.
"The Arnold is a good time," Kyle stated. "I'm walking around promoting myself and my fight with Strikeforce on April 9th Gegard Mousasi. The whole community here in Ohio seems really excited to have Strikeforce here. Just being at the Arnold is going to result in even more people showing up for us. It's good to see the sport blown up the way it has. It's a blessing."
The grand hope of course was to build up Saturday's event which featured 40 yr old Dan Henderson attempting to make his climb to the top of the heap in Strikeforce's light heavyweight division. Henderson eventually landed his big right hand to claim the title as his victory capped off an exciting night of action and impressive performances from Coenen, Rogers, Gurgel and company. At the post fight press conference Strikeforce officials announced an attendance of 7,123 and while it wasn't the MMA record setting turnout the UFC experienced in 2007, it was still a positive introduction from an organization that continues to provide strong cards for an ever expanding fan base.
Taking a closer look at Strikeforce: Henderson vs. Feijao shows that while the numbers are lower than their two previous events (11, 287 & 9059) , the attendance is in the ballpark range of Zuffa's showing during the convention weekend of 2010 which was 8,345 for WEC 47. There has been no official word from Strikeforce whether a return can be expected in 2012 but judging from the increased gains in visibility MMA continues to make during convention weekend a return in some capacity would seem likely.