Strikeforce ends its historic run as a mixed martial arts promotion tomorrow night with Strikeforce: Marquardt vs. Saffiedine in Oklahoma. To commemorate the promotion's role in MMA history Dave Meltzer did a nice two-part series at MMA Fighting and Bloody Elbow alum Jonathan Snowden did the same at Bleacher Report.
Here's a taste from part 1 of Meltzer's tale:
"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.
From Snowden's part 1:
Coker: Frank's a great promoter. The guy had instant credibility and he can sell a fight like nobody else. Cause a lot of controversy, get people pissed off at him. To have a local guy as marketable as Frank out in front of the public was great. This was a great scenario. I figured that we'd at least get a base hit out of it. Or a double. But I think we got a grand slam out of the first one.
Shamrock: That last week before the fight I knew we were riding something extraordinary. You could feel it. Because the news stations just kept calling and showing up and asking for more and more. I knew when I was live on the 5 o'clock news at the weigh-in that it was bigger than big.
Gross: It wasn't a surprise to me because California was a hotbed for this sport. North and south, it had been going on for a long time, mostly on Native American lands. People would drive hours and hours to watch the sport. The fact that it was finally regulated and in a major building-the attendance, in the end, wasn't surprising. People were dying for it.
Cesar Gracie (Strikeforce fighter, trainer and manager): That's the thing it started off with a bang, and I was happy to be a somewhat small part of that, and my fighters were a very big part of that and they had a lot of success there.
Coker: The San Jose Sharks partnered with us on the fight and they have big marketing muscle, a season ticket holder base, and a good infrastructure. They got it out to the people, and that's one of the reasons we were so successful there. When they made the calls the San Francisco Chronicle picked up the story. The San Jose Mercury News picked it up. They could get media that I couldn't have dreamed about.
Afromowitz: To look up at the arena and see every single seat filled, from the bottom all the way up to the stars-I couldn't believe it. 18,255 people and we had to turn people away, walkups. We might have been able to fill over 20,000 seats if the arena setup could have accommodated it.
Coker: The day before the fights I get a call from the arena and they tell me we are sold out. I said 'Completely?' and they said 'Completely.' And I said 'I hope you saved my tickets for my friends and family.' But of course, they didn't. So I was scrambling for tickets that night. It's a pretty good problem to have-but I have some friends that are pissed off still from that night.
From that triumphant opening event, Strikeforce went on to mount a series of successful events featuring Frank Shamrock, Cung Le, Gilbert Melendez, Nick Diaz and more stars. Eventually they found themselves in partnership with CBS and Showtime.
Part 2 of Meltzer's:
Two things killed Strikeforce as an independent promotion.
The first was on April 17, 2010, in Nashville, the company's second show on CBS. ...
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.... 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 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.
From Snowden's second part:
Coker: (Fedor's team) never signed a contract they didn't want to renegotiate. That was one of my personal issues with them. Why not honor the contract that you signed?
Kogan: Negotiations and then renegotiation with Strikeforce after the Rogers fight, and all the subsequent renegotiations, were often over the phone or Skype...There was a discrepancy between the amount of money we were under the impression was going to come out of that deal and the amount of money that actually did.
Chou: There were times we were certainly frustrated. Things didn't flow as smoothly as we'd like. It wasn't a perfect world, that's for sure. But that's the fight game.
Coker: (The Nashville post-fight brawl) was my low point as a martial arts promoter. I got into this business to support martial arts, and I thought that was a disservice to our mission statement. It was very disappointing.
Afromowitz: When I first saw it I said 'This is not good.' And I turned to one of my colleagues from Showtime and asked 'Is this going to be a problem?' And they said 'Nah, don't worry about it.' And then, of course, it was a problem. Of course it's a problem. CBS was a public company, and there were people within that company who didn't think MMA belonged on that network.
Knapp: If it had been Showtime instead of CBS it wouldn't have been blown out of proportion the way it was.
Chou: I remember all of us being uncertain about the future. It was a really big deal. This thing went all the way up the Showtime and CBS ladder. MMA never appeared on CBS again.
Both Meltzer's and Snowden's pieces are well worth reading all the way though. Strikeforce may be going out with a whimper, but in its history it put out more than its share of big bangs in MMA history.