The Secret History of Strikeforce, Part 2: From San Jose to Showtime

John S. Nash continues his look into the secret history of Strikeforce.

This is part two in a four-part series on the untold history of Strikeforce. Part one, dealing with Strikeforce's long journey to promote the first mixed martial arts event in California, can be found here.

August 15, 2009

In the little more than three years that Scott Coker had been promoting mixed martial arts he had put on some big fights, but none as big as this one. Sure, his three events with Frank Shamrock headlining had drawn larger crowds and done bigger gates here in San Jose, but with regards to interest from outside of the Bay Area, this was at another level. The New York Times, CNN, FOX News, and many more of the nations top newspapers and outlets were present to cover the event. This type of media attention was unheard of - not only for Strikeforce, but in mixed martial arts in general.

The reasons behind all this extra attention was obvious for Scott: tonight they were making history with Carano versus Cyborg.

There are two different Strikeforces. The first one was a regional player, based in the Bay Area where they organized shows for the HP Pavilion. During the seven years they promoted MMA events, they would hold 31 shows in their home state of California and 19 in their hometown of San Jose. The second Strikeforce was national. They possessed a television contract with a premium cable network that aired their shows live to hundreds of thousands, held events in 14 different states, and were in the process of expanding beyond the nation's borders when it was sold. This transformation, from the first Strikeforce into that of the second, was not instantaneous, nor was it easy.

What follows is that story.

SCOTT COKER, founder and former CEO of Strikeforce:

So, the Monday after the fight [Shamrock vs. Gracie, 2006] I get a call from the arena and they're like "Hey, we want to do another one." And I'm sitting there thinking that I don't want to do another one, I'm tired and need a vacation. But they're like "no, no, we need to do another." Of course they killed it in food and beverage, and parking and ticket fees. They did very well. We all did well. It was a great night. And they were ready to go again.

JIM GODDARD, Executive Vice President of Business and Building Management for the Sharks Sports and Entertainment (formally Silicon Valley Sports and Entertainment):

To be the first event in California, the biggest state in the country, is a big deal. And with MMA trending straight up at the time we thought there was an opportunity there. We were sort of in the right place at the right time.

We had Scott in our backyard, and we're fortunate for that because he was uniquely capable in the fight business. He was very well connected and established in that industry - in California, in the US, and also in Asia and around the world. We had a great arena with a great staff in terms of production and marketing. It was kind of a perfect partnership at that point and time.

We also had a great market in California and the San Jose area. We had a lot of fighters in San Jose and the surrounding area. There are a couple of nationally renowned gyms in the area. We thought it was a perfect opportunity.

MIKE AFROMOWITZ, Strikeforce director of communications:

It made sense at the time. We had the talent. Scott had built Cung Le up over the years. Frank Shamrock was getting back into the game. We had Josh Thomson and we had Gilbert Melendez, who was just coming up back then but he clearly had talent. So there was a big pool of talent in the Bay Area that we could put under our umbrella and really grow under Strikeforce. The opportunity was clearly there for us and MMA.

SCOTT COKER:

So the arena told me they had a date already picked out for June and that they wanted another event. So I called Japan and asked if they could put together a fight for me. My associates there talked to PRIDE, which was in full swing at the time, and they sent us Alistair Overeem and Vitor Belfort. That was our second fight, Alistair Overeem versus Vitor Belfort. I believe it was the first time Alistair ever fought in America.

PRIDE was the first group to extend us a hand. We had a friendly relationship with them and many of them were friends of mine that I had met while working for K-1. So they were very easy to work with. All they asked is that we were reciprocal with our fighters and send some of them back, which we did.

We did a lot of fighter sharing back then with Japan. Gilbert and Josh fought in Japan, and Aoki, Misaki and Kawajiri came here. We had an open policy, that if we could find a fight company that had built up their own market and that had some athletes that we wanted to put on the air, or had some potentially interesting fights and we had to share our athletes to make it happen, we would go ahead and do it.

I think the fighters like it too. I remember talking to Josh Thomson and he really loved going to Japan to fight. So the fighters had a little more flexibility fighting for us and they got to go to Japan and fight for PRIDE or later DREAM. We also later gave some fighters the ability to go box in their deals. Or do kickboxing.  Nick Diaz, and I think King Mo [Lawal] could box and [Gegard] Mousasi and Alistair had it in their contracts that they could do K-1 or kickbox if they wanted. Which is great I think for fighters to be able to try other stuff.

Shortly after Strikeforce started their fighter exchange with PRIDE FC, the Japanese promotion lost their television deal with Fuji TV. By early 2007 rumors were floating around that they were on the market.

SCOTT COKER:

When I heard rumors that PRIDE was for sale I flew out to Japan in early 2007 to see if I could buy it. I met with Ken Imai and then we went and met with [PRIDE FC president Nobuyuki] Sakakibara and that's where I believe I got to meet [PRIDE FC vice president Hiroyuki] Kato for the first time. I had some investment bankers putting up money and my plan was to keep PRIDE, keep it in Japan but to also expand it to the American market. Maybe get some television deals but definitely put it on live shows here and show it on pay-per-view. I definitely thought we could make it work as a pay-per-view product.

So Ken Imai got me a meeting and I made an offer to Sakikibara. It was a serious offer, but he told me he was already in talks with the UFC and that they were very far along in their negotiations. But he told me that that we could buy it if we agreed to close the deal right away. We had to do it within 14 days. And that there wouldn't be any due diligence. I know there's no way it's happening without any due diligence, so we didn't make the deal and I flew home. And about a month later it was announced that Zuffa had bought them. So I didn't buy PRIDE and turned my attention back to building Strikefoce.

JIM GODDARD:

From the arena perspective, the Strikeforce events were some of the most profitable events we've done here over the years. When I say the arena made good money, it made good money in terms of hosting the event, the food and beverage, the parking, and the other auxiliary sources of income. We took risk on events, which we do when co-promoting, and these events were some of the most successful and profitable that we've done over the years.

SCOTT COKER

At the time Strikeforce had no TV deals, we had no sponsorships, and we did quite well off of live events because that's really my core business. How to get it to the community. How to sell tickets. How to create a lot of buzz and a lot of hype in the market place. We were a live event promotion.

MIKE AFROMOWITZ:

The whole thing about being a good promoter is finding things that people like. That they'll buy. Mostly it's about having talent that is relevant to the audience. It almost always comes back to the talent.

Beyond the talent it's certain event formats, or certain locations. Finding things people are really passionate about.

One-night tournaments have always been huge as K-1 proved. So we did a four-man tournament - the four men enter, one man survives - which made sense in that respect. People love tournaments, they're fun to watch. It's excitement over the course of the night as the action continues, so we found four great fighters for that tournament and we put it together. It was something the audience wanted to see.

When the opportunity came about to go to the Playboy Mansion, I think we had to go there. It's a destination. The fastest growing sport at one of the coolest spots to hang out in the world. Playboy is a huge brand, so that's another thing people wanted to see. Something that got us noticed. And we streamed it live on Yahoo.

In late 2006 Showtime and Pro Elite announced the launch of a new MMA promotion, EliteXC, which was to feature Frank Shamrock as headliner at the inaugural event. The one problem was that he was under contract with Strikeforce. The resulting dispute led to a settlement where Strikeforce and EliteXC would co-promote Frank Shamrock's fights together for Showtime.

SCOTT COKER:

Frank and I had had an arrangement to fight for mulitple fights. And then he went and signed to fight with Showtime and the Pro Elite guys. So we still had rights with Frank, so that kind of dragged us along into a deal with those guys.

FRANK SHAMROCK, former Strikeforce middleweight champion and broadcaster:

It was totally intentional [co-promoting between Strikeforce, EliteXC and Showtime]. I thought we were going to merge all the parties together. I had already found the perfect promotional partner and that was Scott Coker and Strikeforce. So when I got there and talked to them I said "boy do I got exactly what you need, because I had been working for years on an entertainment model and business structure." And so I laid it out for them and they were like "Love it! Love it! Love it! We are all on the team." And then the minute things were signed it wasn't the team they promised me so we just went away.

I was trying to get everyone together because they finally had Showtime which is what I thought we were all working for, a major network. I was trying to get that deal which had been eluding us. It worked out for us at the end of the day but it was tough in the beginning.

SCOTT COKER:

Frank got us on to Showtime with that Baroni fight, and he just sold the hell out of it. Frank was one of the all-time greats, not just as a fighter but with regards to selling a fight, he was an all-time great. You didn't need to tell him, "hey, Frank I really need you to do this", because he was ten steps ahead of you. "I got this video and we're going to do this.." Talk about a great promoter.

FRANK SHAMROCK:

I loved the experience of growing the company. I got to participate in the craziest way. I got to go in and literally be like a Vince McMahon character. Doing story lines and acting the villain and stuff.

MIKE AFROMOWITZ:

Later we got a deal with HDNet to air fights live, and concurrently we started airing our library on NBC. We wanted to take it to the next level, so we did a time buy and put Strikeforce on NBC, late night. There weren't many opportunities for MMA back then, and we thought it was good opportunity to put our product on a broadcast network. It wasn't perfect though. It wasn't in 100% of the markets. It was in 70% or maybe 80% later when other stations picked it up. It wasn't a home run but overall I think it was worth it. It wasn't money that wasn't well spent, lets put it that way.

SCOTT COKER :

For those early shows we had no TV deal, but luckily we recorded all the shows, including the first, Shamrock-Gracie, in HD because we had the relationship with the Sharks. They would arrange the [production] truck and they'd get the producer and we'd shoot everything in HD. And I'm so thankful for that, because we now have all that stuff historically documented. We also got to use it for NBC.

MIKE AFROMOWITZ

When we ran shows outside of San Jose the television deals helped. Getting on television was about building up the brand. Getting people familar with you and your fighters.

When we first started going to other places we didn't go just to go, we did so because an opportunity presented itself. It was an organic expansion. When we expanded to Central California, to Fresno, and to Seattle it made sense because we had partners there we could work with.

On March 29, 2008, Stikeforce promoted a match between Frank Shamrock and Cung Le at the HP Pavilion. It was their first show to surpass the $1 million mark at the gate. (Shamrock vs Gracie fell short of reaching the mark by a mere $20,000.) The promotion's success did not go unnoticed as potential investors and buyers began inquiring.

SCOTT COKER:

Frank Shamrock-Cung Le, that was the game changer here. We had 13,000 to 14,000 tickets sold. Cung Le was very big here. Frank was very big here. And you had two different audiences supporting the local talent.

MIKE AFROMOWITZ:

It was like a Super Bowl. The energy in the arena was just astronomical. It was just incredible. The two biggest names in the Bay Area facing off after years of being talked about and built up. These were guys who were known on the national level as well, but they also happend to be fighting out of the Bay Area so it was monstrous. That show definitely helped. It helped us clear another hurdle. It really helped elevate the brand. Both fighters really put it all out there. They left everything in the cage. The whole thing made a very good impression.

FRANK SHAMROCK

We were very successful, making money hand over fist. And I know, at one point, the UFC came knocking.

SCOTT COKER:

A few months before Shamrock-Le, I was talking to Dana about something and he asked me if I would be interested in selling. And I said "no, I really love doing this." And nothing came of it at the time. At that time we weren't even a TV property, we were a live event - a very successful live event property.

We were doing partnership deals with [Silicon Valley Sports and Entertainment], we were doing revenue shares for these events. But after the Cung Le-Shamrock fight, they approached me and said they would like to buy into the company and grow it. "We think there's a really good business opportunity here. We got relationships with all the venues across the country and we think MMA has some future."

I think they saw with the growth of mixed martial arts over the two years we'd been doing it in the venue, they saw a business opportunity here. They could help in growing it and monetizing it.

JIM GODDARD:

It was a mutual idea between Scott, myself, and our organizations. We were co-promoting the events here at the arena. They were highly successful. So in a sense on an event-by-event basis we were already partners. Then we decided we could grow the company to become more successful in other locales across the country if we formed a separate entity. It needed some capital and some staffing. So we created that company [Explosion Entertainment LLC] and decided to partner in that endeavor. We each brought our own resources to the equation. Scott with his knowledge of the fight business, his connections to the fight business, his promotional experience. In our case, it was our capital, our production capabilities, some of our marketing capability and just a depth and breadth of resources, financial or otherwise.

I've been in the business 40-plus years and this was a unique opportunity in terms of the upside potential. The excitement to be on the ground floor. The quality of the partnership working with Scott Coker. And so, in the course of my career, it was one of the best opportunities, maybe the best opportunity I have encountered.

STEVE KIRSNER, Director of Booking and Events for the Sharks Sports and Entertainment (formally Silicon Valley Sports and Entertainment):

Because our company was well-networked across the country in terms of arena management, we could identify those arenas that would do a good job marketing the events and we could negotiate favorable terms and conditions.

It was a great opportunity. We recognized it early and jumped on it, and it just kind of took off. It had a life of its own.

MIKE AFROMOWITZ:

Being in business with them had a lot of advantages because they owned a major NHL franchise. They were part of the arena board. There was a lot of upside being in business with a company like that. They also sent over a couple of guys from their staff to work with us.

In the early days there was only a few of us. In the very beginning we didn't have anyone selling sponsorships. We didn't have anyone paying for our programming and selling it to international markets. We didn't have website content. We didn't have people doing PR. There was a time I was doing each of those things. When the company expanded, we added more people for those things.

SCOTT COKER:

In those days, Silicon Valley Sports and Entertainment, they took care of all our back-end. They took care of our payroll, our accounting. They handled all the check-writing, they took care of the human resources. They allowed us to just have a live event fight division off property. We had a little warehouse where we did our thing.

We continued on doing our shows but we also started seeing the decline of Pro Elite. What happened is we signed the deal with Silicon Valley Sports and Entertainment in June and then shortly afterwards, in October, Pro Elite got really shaky. It was selling off assets. So I flew to LA and met with [Pro Elite CEO] Chuck [Champion] and said "why don't you put a price on it and we'll see if my guys will step up and buy it." They told me they had a couple of potential buyers, maybe three or four, but Showtime had invested a lot into them and wanted to make sure it went to someone that could handle it. They didn't want just anyone buying it, they wanted to make sure who ever did was capable of keeping shows going.

MIKE AFROMOWITZ:

There were a few companies going after the deal with Showtime. From what I recall, I believe King of the Cage and Mark Ecko were two of them, although Ecko didn't have an existing fight promotion.

SCOTT COKER:

It took a couple of months, but we finally did an asset purchase. We didn't buy the name, we just bought certain assets. After that we started negotiating with Showtime.

JIM GODDARD:

We knew if we wanted to step up into the big leagues, into a higher level of operations, we needed a television outlet. We needed television exposure. And definitely because the UFC was already doing very successful pay-per-view events we knew that potential was out there and we were moving towards that.

So whether it was a cable sports network or eventually a regular major network like CBS, it was leading up to pay-per-view. That was all part of the business plan.


SCOTT COKER:

We didn't get the Showtime deal when we bought EliteXC's assets. We had to negotiate that on our own. And the CBS deal, the CBS option, that was a separate deal as well.

While negotiations were still underway between Strikeforce and Showtime, Scott Coker received a call about the possibility of signing Jon Fitch and other members of American Kickboxing Academy (including Cain Velasquez) that had just been cut by the UFC in a dispute over image rights.

SCOTT COKER:

We had a conversation, but by the time we had our second conversation they had already worked it out with the UFC. I said look guys I know you'll work it out with the UFC because [Fitch] should be fighting with the UFC. That's where [Fitch] built his career and I knew they'd work it out and it turned out he did. So we didn't really have a second conversation. At that point we did not have our Showtime deal in place. If we had our Showtime deal in place, and they cut him, we would have grabbed him that day.

On March 12, 2009, Showtime and Strikeforce held a press conference announcing the launch of "MMA 2.0" on the network. One surprising exclusion from the new venture was former EliteXC star attraction, Kimbo Slice.

SCOTT COKER:

We thought about doing a one-off with Kimbo. I thought a fight with Bob Sapp would have done very well, but in the end that would have been it, one fight. I didn't think it would have been worth it, you couldn't build around a one-off, and I was worried you couldn't get more than that out of it. In the end, we thought it best to start with a clean slate.

Of all the important fights and historic events to take place in Strikeforce, one of the most memorable is the August 11 match between Gina Carano and Cris Cyborg. Not only did it crown the first ever Strikeforce women's champion, but it was the first major MMA event to be headlined by a women's fight and also set the then record for most viewers of a Showtime MMA event.

SCOTT COKER:

I first met Gina when she was like 16, at a Muay Thai gym. And she told me then she wanted to be a fighter. She fought on one of our early MMA shows, and even by then you knew she was going to be a star. So I wasn't surprised when Pro Elite signed her.

When we bought [Elite XC's] assets. The Gina Carano-Cyborg fight hadn't been signed yet, but once we got the Showtime deal we went out and signed that fight. Gina is the one that wanted that fight right away.

I sat down with Gina's management, and I said "Lets get Gina a fight, even a couple of fights because Gina has been out for a year or so." And they came back to me and said "no, Gina wants to fight Cyborg first." I started to debating about this, saying "No I think she has to get a fight --- because Cyborg has been fighting and Gina hasn't and lets make this even." And they said "No, she is not going to fight unless she fights Cyborg first." She wanted this fight and she demanded it, otherwise she wasn't going to do it.

SHANNON KNAPP, President of Invicta Fighting and former fighter liaison for Strikeforce:

Every time a promotion I worked for talked about a female fight on the card it was always brought to me in a different way. It was always brought to me about how they want hot girls. It was more about that, and I didn't have a good take on that. I mean, you're going to take the spot away from one of my guys and put a female in here and all it is about is just about looks. It isn't about how talented and this or that, it's really coming down to they want hot girls. And that I wasn't a fan of.

When I got to Strikeforce, it was my first real opportunity to work with female athletes. Working with Gina Carano, Cyborg Justino, Marloes Coenen, and then other girls later down the line. They sold me on it. I was actually looking at female athletes that were every bit as talented as the males. Every bit. I just hadn't been exposed to that side of it until then.

Carano versus Cyborg would be for the Strikeforce's newly-minted women's 145-pound title. Also originally booked for the card were three other title fights: Nick Diaz vs. Joe Riggs for the vacant welterweight title, a rematch between lightweight champ Josh Thomson and former champ Gilbert Melendez, and heavyweight champion Alistair Overeem defending against Fabricio Werdum. In the end, thanks to injuries, only Carano-Cyborg would remain on the event.

SCOTT COKER:

We built the undercard around it - which was a very stacked card - but we kept getting injuries. And that is just part of the business. We tried our best to put in other fights that could have relevance. But at the end of the day, 90% of the people there and watching on TV were there to watch that one fight [Gina vs. Cyborg]. It was a historical fight with a female main event on Showtime on a MMA platform.

SHANNON KNAPP:

I was in the back watching Gina Carano train. There's Gina doing some pilates kind of stuff. Randy Couture and everyone there is very zen, you know, very focused. I then walked into Cris Cyborg's room and she is beating the hell, literally, out of Evangelista. I came walking out of that room, I walk into the Showtime office and I am like "Whoa guys, this isn't going to go the way you want it to. I'm telling you now."

SCOTT COKER:

And I tell you, when I look back at the press Gina was receiving, it was just as big as what Ronda [Rousey] is doing today. It was everywhere. Everywhere. And rightfully so, it was a fight that people wanted to see.

SHANNON KNAPP:

[Gina] started the movement. I really think Gina contributed a lot to this sport for the female fighters. So I never want to forget her, or Cyborg.

Special thanks to Thomas Nash for assisting with this series.

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