Part One: The Birth of Strikeforce
March 10, 2006.
Scott Coker felt sick.
The HP Pavilion was packed to the rafters with over 18,000 in attendance. At the time it was the largest crowd ever for a mixed martial arts event in the United States, at what was the first ever sanctioned MMA show to be held in California. Scott and his promotion, Strikeforce, had made history but he didn't care. All he cared about was that the cage he had helped build with his own hands didn't come crashing down. His stomach turned as he watched Clay Guida push Josh Thomson into one of its walls and the whole structure started leaning subtly in that direction. Visions of it suddenly collapsing and the two fighters spilling out on to the first row filled Scott's head. His stomach turned again.
All he wanted was for this night to end.
This week marks some major anniversaries for the now defunct promotion Strikeforce.
On March 10th of 2006, it held its first full mixed martial arts event, the first sanctioned MMA event in California, which also set the attendance record at the time for a mixed martial arts event in North America.
On March 12th of 2011, it was announced that Strikeforce had been purchased by the owners of the UFC, eliminating another major player from the board. Between those two dates, Strikeforce went from a regional kickboxing promotion testing the waters of mixed martial arts to a national player with major television deals and some of the best fighters on the planet. It was easily the most successful MMA promotion that did not contain the letters UFC in American history.
This is that story. It's a story that's been told before, with perhaps the two best versions being supplied by Jonathan Snowden (part 1 and part 2) and Dave Meltzer (part 1 and part 2) who each wrote their own two-parter chronicling the rise and fall of the promotion last year. And yet, as good as both their works were, they didn't tell the whole story. This series will aim to fill in the gaps left unreported - until now.
Much like Snowden's, this too is an oral history, with many different voices helping to tell the story of Strikeforce. One voice, though, holds a more prominent place than anyone else in this tale, and that is Scott Coker's. For the story of Strikeforce is very much Scott's story.
SCOTT COKER, founder and former CEO of Strikeforce:
Really, I've dedicated my whole life to martial arts. It goes back to the mission statement I wrote years ago about dedicating my life to it and contributing to growing it, because I believe in what it does. I owned two schools at one time, I taught martial arts to children and teenagers and adults. That really kept me driven through the up and down years and I really thought being a fight promoter was a great way to help grow martial arts.
I started promoting back in the 80s for PKA Karate. If you look at the posters of the events I was promoting back then, it was all PKA Karate.
In 1993 ESPN contacted me and they said they're going to launch a new network called ESPN 2 and they want to have extreme sports, including kickboxing, because martial arts had always been a great ratings deliverer for them. And that was the birth of Strikeforce. It started with kickboxing.
In 1994 we did a show at the San Jose Arena [the current SAP Center. which is better known to Strikeforce fans as the HP Pavilion], and it did 12,000 people. But, most of my fight promotion career in that era, promoting in San Jose, we would promote at the arena at San Jose State College, which holds 6,000 people. And that's where the majority of Cung Le's fights took place. We also had Alex Gong, Rick Rufus, Jean-Claude Leuyer. Even Javier Mendez fought at the Event Center there.
We even did a mixed martial arts match back then, in 1997. We were told that California was going to allow for mixed martial arts, so we went to the commissioner at the time and said, "Hey, can we do a mixed martial arts fight?" It was modified rules. I think it was, we just couldn't have punching to the face. It was kind of like Pancrase rules. The fight was Brian Johnston versus [John] Renfroe.
After that, we wanted to do more. But, we wanted to do full MMA, so we had to wait for the state to pass it.
After I moved to San Jose I started calling everyone up, looking for a place to train. And that's how I met Javier. And then I met a bunch of the other martial arts guys in the area. One of the guys I met was Ernie Reyes. And it was through Reyes that I met Scott, who was always testing for his black belts and progressing in his martial arts. He was very serious about his martial arts and has a bunch of black belts to show for it. [Scott Coker currently holds a 7th degree black belt in Taekwondo.]
When California said they are going to do mixed martial arts, I said to myself "OK, I want to be the first person to do it here." Because I had the license for the longest time in the State of California. So, I went to the commission and said, "Listen, if you are going to do this you need to do it with me, because we have been in business together so long." And they agreed.
Our first show would have been Frank and [Kazushi] Sakuraba in 2001. PRIDE wanted to do that fight in Japan. So, I said to Frank "Why don't we just do that fight here because it's going to be legal in the state?" And he said, "Let's do it." And the only reason it didn't happen is, because the legislation kept getting pushed back and back and back.
The December 2000 issue of Black Belt Magazine discussed the possibility of the two meeting in February 2001 in an event organized by "Strike Force." Also to be on the card were Brian Johnston (identified as Johnson in the article) vs. Kimo Leopoldo and Cung Le vs. "a yet-to-be-determined member of the Gracie family."
MIKE AFROMOWITZ, Strikeforce director of communications:
I was freelancing, writing some stuff for Black Belt Magazine. I was a fan of boxing and kickboxing, and I saw K-1, and was interested in trying to work in kickboxing, so I reached out to Scott through email. Back then it was a small group of people doing this, so it was easy to reach people. So we connected, and my intent was to tell the stories of the K-1 fighters. To write their bios and backgrounds and get people interested in the fighters.
The first event I went out and worked for K-1 was in Vegas when Frank beat Shannon Ritch. And after the event we got together and we were discussing MMA and they were talking about launching MMA. They'd been trying to get it started.
An interesting story is how in 2000 K-1 had Frank Shamrock fight Elvis Sinosic in Japan. So, we stayed after to talk to Mr. Ishi about starting a MMA branch for K-1 in America. Well, a week after Franks fight there was a UFC fight in Japan, and I told Frank "lets all go." So we went, and it's in a little nightclub with only 1500 people. And the fight card was unbelievable. And I'm sitting there watching with Frank and [K-1 International Director] Ken Imai, and I believe Javier Mendez was with us at the time.
And in walks Dana White and Lorenzo Fertitta and Bob Meyrowitz. My thought was "I wonder why the head of the Nevada State Athletic Commission is here? Are they here about regulating the sport in Nevada?" I had no idea about the purchase.
If that meeting and that purchase didn't happen I think MMA would have died in America. I really have that feeling that it would have quietly died. Maybe it would have survived, but you got to remember at the time it was very taboo in America. It was kicked off all the pay-per-view distribution networks, and Senator McCain was not a fan. It was the right people buying it with the right commitment behind them. They were committed enough to go millions of dollars in debt, trying to figure it out and make MMA work until finally the Ultimate Fighter hit. That was a big commitment.
I felt like I was part of history, that I got to witness history.
Master Ishii and I became very close and he was very interested in mixed martial arts and wanted to promote it. He believed Scott was the guy and I was the star and he was supposed to give us a bunch of money and let us do our thing. We had the California advantage. With Scott's reputation promoting here and with the movement towards legalization, we thought we were at the right place at the right time.
We felt California was where the opportunity was. We felt it was sort of a Mecca of MMA, even kind of the birthplace with the Gracies coming here. So, California and Los Angeles were the hotbeds of it, even if it wasn't legal. The culture of fighting throughout the state made it the perfect market to make it work.
At the time, K-1 had big plans. They were really supposed to make a big push into the US with the whole K-1 MMA. Sony thought K-1 was the next big thing and wanted to invest into it and buy into the company and help promote it around the world. But the business culture is different in Japan. Things don't happen quickly. And there's always a question of where the money is coming from. You know, "is the money clean?"
We were always asking, "Where's the money?" And they were always, "It's coming."
I think they were waiting on legalization for us. So, we were ready to go and could have done a show on an Indian Reservation, but we wanted it to be legal to make it work. That was important, that it was legal.
We worked on it for a couple of years, but it didn't happen. They retained me for a year or more to make sure I was ready and so they paid me to hang out and I did a few promotional things, but eventually I pulled the plug on the whole thing because I got tired of waiting. I wanted to do stuff. But, it was the first time Scott and I partnered up on something. And it was where we really developed a relationship and a friendship.
So, I retired - again. I distanced myself from the sport. I took a whole course on business management and brand development. Sort of re-educating myself to being a businessman.
And then Cesar just popped out of nowhere, and I didn't even know who he was. Never had heard of him. And he had got on the Internet and started challenging me. Knowing I was in retirement. And I went, wait a minute, he's a Gracie. We had a few words with him, and I saw the heat that was developing. The heat was sort of growing along with the opportunity for legislation. And the pieces started falling together, and I came out of retirement again to be a businessman-slash-fighter.
JIM GODDARD, Executive Vice President of Business and Building Management for the Sharks Sports and Entertainment (formally Silicon Valley Sports and Entertainment):
We met Scott Coker in the early 90s when Scott brought us a kickboxing event, shortly after the arena opened. He had already been in the fight business for years and was a San Jose resident. So, we hosted that event at the arena and it was relatively successful.
In the mid part of the decade we did three more kickboxing events with Scott that did very well and were very successful. And with the movement on legalization we could see the handwriting on the wall. That mixed martial arts would become legal in California and we were positioning ourselves to enter the MMA market in California. We were fortunate to also have Scott to work with.
There was talk of it finally being passed and we even had an event ready in June of o-five. And that fight was going to be an MMA fight but we turned it into a kickboxing fight when they told us at the last minute that "Sorry, it wasn't going to happen." So we did a kickboxing show. And Cung Le fought a Sanshou fight and I think Josh Thomson was on that show.
After that last kickboxing fight we had Frank and Cesar get in the ring and agree to fight each other and it was the launch for MMA for us. Scott had a great relationship with a lot of the local gyms, so we got a bunch of good fighters. There were a lot of fighters from AKA and Cesar was bringing a couple of his guys. There ended up being a lot of talent there.
In June of 2005, it was reported that Frank Shamrock vs. Cesar Gracie was scheduled for October 1st at the HP Pavilion in San Jose.
We then planned on having Frank Shamrock and Cesar Gracie that fall, but they didn't pass a budget. Finally, they came to me at the end of 2005, they came to me and said, "OK, we have a budget and we're green lit. The very first day you could go is March 10th of 2006." And I said, "I'll take it."
JOSH THOMSON, former Strikeforce Lightweight Champion:
Coker's always been really good friends with all the guys here in San Jose, including Javier Mendez, who is the head trainer at AKA, and Bob Cook, who is also my manager.
He's had a relationship with them for years. Javier had been producing really good kickboxers for years, and Scott even used to promote Javier Mendez as one of his kickboxers when Strikeforce first got started.
Coker was the person who had the connection to get me a fight with PRIDE in Japan. After that, he asked if I wanted to try kickboxing and I said "Sure. Anything to keep fighting."
So that relationship was already established. He knew that Javier used to train Frank Shamrock and did train me at the time and was training Cung Le at the time. All he did was say "I'm thinking of starting MMA, let's put this together". He just approached all of us as well as Javier and said, "What do you think it will take? Let's get this off the ground." And he ran with it.
I remember sitting down with Frank and saying, "Frank I really have no idea what's going to happen with this first show." It isn't like today where every network or an affiliate has an MMA product on it. Back then it was still a little taboo.
I remember the CBS affiliate coming to interview me and asking if it was like cockfighting. If people were going to die during it.
People were saying this is like tough guy. And I said, "No, this isn't like tough guy." I had to explain that this is a martial arts fighting competition. These are skilled martial artists. What you're going to see is the same as what you see in kickboxing, Jiu Jitsu, and in the Olympics. Only with all of them at the same time.
In the end, it became bigger than we had anticipated. We had dealt with Scott before so we knew he was a credible person. When he brought us the event idea we assumed he knew what he was talking about, in terms to the quality of the fights and the commercial viability and so forth and the ability to draw fans. So, it was not much of a leap of faith for us to get involved with him at that point and time. It was even more successful than either of us hoped for.
I knew a month out that it was all going right. Just because all the media requests. It was three or four times bigger than the biggest things we had ever done. I could just feel it. But I don't think anyone was prepared for the actual night.
On the day before, on the 5 o'clock news, I was doing the weigh in. "Lets go to Frank. He's weighing in." It was just crazy. Then I knew something crazy was going to happen.
It had the right names, Shamrock and Gracie. It was the right time and it had that want-to-be-there atmosphere.
I remember sitting down with Frank at the Starbucks near my house and asking "How much should we set up for?" And he says for 7,000 [people]. So I went to the arena and set it up for 7,000. And as it got bigger we set it up for 10,000, which is pretty much the whole bottom bowl. And then the week of the fight the arena called me and said, "Hey, we got to open more sections, because it's already selling out."
So I said, "Okay, open up the top middle." And then the day of the fight, around one o'clock, I get a call from Javier Mendez asking if I had tickets for his family. We had no extra tickets. We had forgot to set aside tickets for friends and family. Thankfully I had remembered to hold some for myself but we hadn't done that for anyone else and I was scrambling to get tickets all day.
I remember getting a text from Dana White the afternoon of the show saying he tried to get tickets through Ticketmaster but they were all out and his guys wanted to come. He asked, "Can you take care of Kirk Hendrick, Sean Shelby and Helen Miller?" We didn't have any seats available but somehow we got them ringside seats. Dana offered to pay, but we said no, as a professional courtesy.
Originally Strikeforce was going to be in a ring and not in a cage. And [California State Athletic Commission executive director] Armando Garcia, who had just come in at that time, said to me "You can't do a ring." Because it wasn't approved in a ring, it was only approved in a cage.
I said, "You're kidding. People do it in a ring all the time. Look at PRIDE." PRIDE was my big point of reference. I said, "It's happening in Japan. It's safe to do it in a ring." And he said, "Nope, can't do it." And was like "Jesus, now I got to go and find a cage builder and one that could make it in time." So, we were scrambling.
Sven Bean ordered this cage from Tennessee from a company that built cages for pro wrestling shows but said they could build an MMA cage. So, it's getting closer and closer to the date and I get this phone call a week or so out from them saying it's not going to happen. "We're not going to finish it on time." And I told Sven "You got to make this happen."
Sven sends two drivers to pick it up and one of them was Donald Cerrone. They stayed there and pushed this guy to finish it and then they drove it all the way back. They were supposed to arrive the day before, in the morning, but they didn't arrive until - I want to say 4 or 5 in the morning. So, I waited at the arena all night with my crew. They were stuck in a snowstorm in Reno trying to get over the pass to get down to Sacramento and on to San Jose.
So Donald Cerrone saved Strikeforce. The "Cowboy" rode to our rescue.
And as soon as that cage arrived, me, Duane Ludwig, Bob Cook, and Sven Bean put it up with our own hands. And the thing was so shaky, so flimsy that we basically started zip-tying the cage together. There must have been a thousand little zip ties on that thing.
I was so tired and delirious. I had literally worked 40 hours straight and hadn't slept and was wearing the same clothes as from the night before. And I was sick to my stomach, so worried that when Frank and Cesar hit the cage, it was going to fall apart. I was thinking the show was going to be a disaster. The whole time I was praying, "If I somehow get through this I'll be good."
A number of fighters that appeared on the Shamrock vs Gracie card had fought or would later fight in the UFC. The list included Frank Shamrock, Mike Kyle, Gilbert Melendez, Josh Thomson, Clay Guida, Cung Le, Krysztof Soszynski, Brian Ebersole, and Matt Horwich.
The first time I walked into that arena I was only expecting like 10,000 people, 12,000 people at the most, but when I walked into that arena I was like "Holy cow." It was packed from top to bottom. It looked like it was standing room only.
And that show was also my worst memory of Strikeforce. I just went out there and had a really bad performance. I stunk it up and I'm a little embarrassed on how I trained and how I prepared for the fight, and how I fought.
It was just through the roof. It was just crazy. People were turned away at the door. They wanted to see it. It was just crazy. It ended up being massive.
When it was over I was... just kind of numb. I couldn't believe what just happened. That we had a sold out event and had just done MMA. But, the whole experience, especially the last 48 hours, leading up to the night was very stressful for me and I was just glad it was over.
It was a great event. It was a financial success. We had over 18,000 people in the building. And I just wanted to go home and sleep.