The Secret History of Strikeforce, Part 3: The Emperor Gambit

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

This is part three 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, while part two, dealing with the company's movement from a regional promotion based in San Jose into a national player airing on Showtime, can be found here.


June 26, 2010

Scott felt "numb." There was no other way to describe it. What had transpired was so unbelievable that it was the only possible reaction. Scott soon became aware that he wasn't the only one: the whole arena had gone quiet.

He looked out over the sea of faces that made up the crowd. All wore the same look of disbelief. A murmur began, as the realization of what they had witnessed dawned upon them. The same realization had come to Scott. While Strikeforce had been the host to many important and historic events in mixed martial arts this might be singularly the most noteworthy of them all.

The inconceivable had just happened. Fedor Emelianenko had lost.

One of the most important and one of the most controversial decisions in the history of Strikeforce was the signing of the former PRIDE FC champion, Fedor Emelianenko, the Last Emperor. Fedor and his fights garnered more attention, drew higher ratings, and evoked more emotions than any other fighter in the promotion. No fighter brought as much to Strikeforce nor cost as much. And for almost a year, he gave Strikeforce something the UFC couldn't boast: the number one heavyweight in the world.

SCOTT COKER, founder and former CEO of Strikeforce:

I'm on vacation in Europe and I get a call from Todd Beard - bless his soul, I know he recently passed away - and he says, "Hey, we got this fight and we need Brett Rogers because Fedor's opponent, Josh Barnett, got pulled." And I've been going to the Affliction shows and I'm a big fan of Fedor's, so when I get this call I tell him that we already have Brett booked for something else so we can't really do that fight.

So, I get a call later asking me again, saying "come on, we really need him." So we tried to work it out. I called [Showtime's executive vice president at the time] Ken Hershman and asked him what he thought, because [Showtime] was our television partner and sending Rogers affected who we could put on their shows, so I wanted to get his input. He said he didn't want to do it and didn't know why I'd want to do it. So I tell [Beard] no.

By the time I get back from Europe, my phone is blowing up and I find out that not only the fight but the whole show had been canceled.

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

I had started working with Scott and Strikeforce in 2009. I had met him when I was working with Affliction and as I saw Scott make his moves in the industry I knew he was someone I aspired to work for. I thought he was a really decent, honest man. And those are few and far between in our industry. So I was very happy when they got the Showtime deal and were able to bring more people on and I got the offer to come over.

So I was working for Strikeforce at the time but I had given a commitment to Affliction to make myself available to assist them with the last event which is the one that got canceled.

They had all these athletes arriving, like Fedor, with nowhere to go and who didn't know what was going on and I had the job to tell them what was happening and take care of them. Fedor was in the air, flying, when they canceled it, so he landed and had no idea what was going on.

SCOTT COKER:

I get a call from Dennis Spencer, who was handling M-1's distribution deals, and he asks me to come down and talk to Vadim [Finklestein, founder and president of M-1]. I fly to LA and we start talking. They told me Fedor wanted to get a fight quickly so they were trying to get a deal done right away. We started talking but I knew they were going to talk to the UFC and I told them "why don't you guys go talk to the UFC. I'm sure you'll probably get a good deal." I thought that was going to be it, honestly. But I guess he went and talked to the UFC and they couldn't come to a deal. I heard the biggest issue was the co-branding. The UFC didn't want to do it and Vadim wanted it so badly that it caused the deal to not happen. That's what I was led to believe, that Fedor didn't sign with the UFC only because of the co-branding.

But Fedor was open to coming to us, so we started talking...

SHANNON KNAPP:

I can tell you my exact words. "Careful what you want." Because sometime what you want and what you get are not exactly the same thing. I had worked with [M-1]. I had spent the most time with them. And it wasn't like you were only signing Fedor. You were signing the whole group. You were committed to M-1. It wasn't just an athlete and his purse, there was always a catch-22.

An example would be when Fedor came for an event, he got his own van. No one else used it; that was Fedor's. There was always more, often a lot more, to Fedor than his purse or the fight.

SCOTT COKER:

So we started discussing a deal that made sense for everyone. I can't get into all the details, but Fedor was the hottest free agent of that time, so yes he wasn't cheap.

About all [the co-promotion] rumors, I can tell you the only territory they got was Russia. That was it. They aired it on their national station.The Russian equivalent of CBS. They kept asking for those rights, so I'm sure it was very successful. The other stuff, like fifty percent of anything, isn't true.

KENN ELLNER, Strikeforce business affairs and legal counsel:

We calculated it, and we had a pretty good CFO, and we went through all the numbers and we looked at it from many different sides. And it made a lot of sense. Looking back, you can see in hindsight how successful that was for Strikeforce.

MIKE AFROMOWITZ, Strikeforce director of communications:

It was great. Just having him was major news. We got, at the time, the number one heavyweight.

CUNG LE, former Strikeforce middleweight champion:

I thought it was awesome. Everyone watched Fedor. Not just domestically but worldwide. Everyone was watching Fedor, so he definitely brought [attention] to Strikeforce and to the other fights, including mine.

GILBERT MELENDEZ, former Strikeforce lightweight champion:

I was like, "Oh, shit! That's incredible." It was a great deal for Scott Coker and a great deal for the show. It was incredible. You could see the momentum of Strikeforce picking up. Getting Fedor was great. It definitely put eyes on us.

SCOTT COKER:

We set up the Brett Rogers fight originally for Showtime. We then got a call saying we have the opportunity to put it on CBS if we want to make the move. We said "Yes, we'd love to."

We had made a deal with CBS to do a couple of events a year, but we didn't know when they'd activate it, so we were happy when we got the call. I knew in my heart that Fedor could do really well. And as I remember, we did very good numbers. Ratings were solid.

I've got to give it to CBS. They were a great partner. You turn on and watch Sunday football and you'd see the Fedor against Brett Rogers promotion everywhere.

MIKE AFROMOWITZ:

That was unbelievable. Fedor had his priest there. He made quite an entrance. And the fight was great. The crowd loved him. We got back to the hotel and fans were sleeping by the elevator waiting for him. He was a star.

What was it? 5.1 million viewers in the first show? You can take a lot from that. The numbers don't lie: he was a draw. He had a big mystique and was arguably the pound-for-pound best at that time.

Things were on a roll for us. We signed [Dan] Henderson and things were going good.

SHANNON KNAPP:

When Dan Henderson came over to Strikeforce, he was asking for a lot of money. A lot of money.

SCOTT COKER

When we signed Dan [Henderson] , when he was a free agent, my thinking was to try and get all the good fighters we could when they came available. Even with Dan and his sizable purse at that time, we were breaking even on his fights or making a small profit.

Honestly, I think the fighters liked having another bidder in the marketplace. I think the industry is healthier when there is more than one buyer in the market for athletes' services. Because it's either that or take it or leave it.

ANDREW EBEL, Strikeforce director of business operations:

I think we recognized that Fedor was an opportunity to take us to that next level. All of a sudden, we could take Fedor anywhere in the country and we felt we could be successful. Where as before we looked at it kind of regionally, where anywhere we went we thought, "Who is going to headline this event in this market?" There was always the question of regionalism because we had to sell tickets. You can have a great name or a great fighter but if he or she can't sell tickets in that region you really had to think about that matchup on the main card. You can't just go "so-and-so fights so-and-so", that's a no-brainer. It just doesn't work that way. So, with Fedor it was one of those clear examples of someone we could take anywhere

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

We knew we could make money on arena events because we had in San Jose and at other events around the country. But we knew if we wanted to be in the market for the best fighters in the world we knew that we had to be in the television market, and eventually either network television and/or pay-per-view.

And so when we decided to compete at that higher level we knew with the purses involved with the best fighters, that it required the TV money and the eventual pay-per-view to make the economics work out.

SCOTT COKER:

The goal for [Fedor] was to put him on CBS and build his brand in America, outside of the hardcore, just MMA fans. The plan was to also build up to a mega event, our Super Bowl, and enter the pay-per-view market. At that time Alistair Overeem was our champion so we reversed engineered it and said that's the fight we really want to put on pay-per-view.

We were definitely going to put Fedor back on CBS, and we even were trying to put Alistair on the next show. But that plan obviously changed. If Fedor would have won and Alistair would have, we would have put a great undercard together for it and had our mega event. That's a fight we could have promoted anywhere. In Chicago again, in New Jersey, even in the Bay Area.

I think we had very realistic expectations. I told everyone don't start putting together crazy numbers, the pay-per-view business is very, very difficult. If we get 100,000 buys that's a success. 200,000 would have been viewed as a big victory. And I think we were headed in that direction but it obviously didn't work out.


While Strikeforce's original plan called for both Fedor and Overeem to be on the next CBS event, that plan had to be altered when first Overeem informed them that he wouldn't be available. Shortly thereafter M-1 informed Strikeforce that Fedor would also not be available for the event and that they were not happy with the current agreement.


MIKE AFROMOWITZ:

[M-1] wanted more. They felt that the deal didn't - that the deal should have been changed. So they decided to hold out and we didn't get him for the second CBS show. It was as simple as that.

SHANNON KNAPP:

It was a complicated business structure. It was always when you were involved with [M-1] And I don't mean that in a negative way. Because everyone got to do business in a way that's best for them. But it was always complicated and a lot of work.

SCOTT COKER:

They never signed a contract they didn't want to renegotiate. And that's what we were dealing with. There was constant, constant fluidness to their negotiating style. We had a deal but the deal kept changing after a certain point.

I have a lot of respect for [Fedor]. I loved watching him fight. I thought he was dynamic and exciting. We had some nice conversations through translations. So really it was a good relationship.

Strikeforce continued ahead with plans for their second CBS show which was to be televised from Nashville. A new main event, with Middleweight champion Jake Shields defending against new acquisition Dan Henderson, was booked. It was joined by two other title fights on the undercard: light heavyweight champion Gegard Mousasi versus Muhammed Lawal and Strikeforce lightweight champion Gilbert Melendez versus Dream lightweight champion Shinya Aoki.

GILBERT MELENDEZ:

I thought I was top ten at the time and I was fighting what many considered the number one or number two, after B.J. Penn, in my class at the time. So it was an opportunity to prove myself. To solve the riddle that hadn't been solved yet. And on CBS in front of millions of people, against the trickster Aoki, it felt like I'd really arrived in the sport. And to claim a spot in the top five or top three in the world. I felt like I was the best in the world at that moment. It was really a great night for me and my family.

Following Jake Shields's victory in the main event Jason "Mayhem" Miller sneaked into the cage to ask Shields for a rematch. A brawl quickly broke out between Miller and members of Cesar Gracie Jiu-Jitsu.

GILBERT MELENDEZ:

I realized, "Man, that's probably a problem for Strikeforce on CBS." I thought they should have cut away. They had a second delay. But they didn't. I mean we are fighters and Mayhem was being Mayhem.

Not the proudest moment for me.

ANDREW EBELS:

Nashville, that was probably the biggest downer we ever had. I was with Rich Chou at the back of the walkout ramp, and we saw it start and I remember we looked at each other, and the terror was in our eyes. We knew exactly how bad this was.

KENN ELLNER:

It's really surprising it caused the problems it did. You have baseball players running out and getting into fights. You have football and basketball players on TV getting into brawls. It's so bizarre that it became the focus. It was an overreaction. But part of the reason I think it was an overreaction was the announcer. "Oh, God! This is terrible! This is just horrible!" I think it exacerbated it.

I think from CBS's point of view they made the decision that they thought was right for their business. From my point of view, I thought it was a serious overreaction.

MIKE AFROMOWITZ:

A day later it was depressing. It was something that didn't have to happen. How did [Jason Miller] get into the cage... Where was security? He shouldn't have been there. They didn't do their job. He got in there and he's a loose cannon and then he provoked something. And the guys that hit him basically assaulted him.

Honestly, when it first happened I was thinking "well, fights happen all the time in sports." That same night I witnessed a basketball brawl on TV. Fights happen all the time in sports. Things get heated in competition. But because this happened on prime time on CBS and that there was a certain amount of resistance to MMA - and there still is among some media outlets - because it happened on a broadcast network, it wasn't acceptable. When they saw people kicking the guy on the ground I think that's were it went overboard. It was a melee. That's what happened, but it didn't have to happen.

It was a down period for us, but I like to think we picked ourselves back up after it.


Shields would relinquish the belt after Nashville and sign with the UFC. Strikeforce announced plans to hold a tournament in order to crown a new champion.


MIKE AFROMOWITZ:

We were thinking about [a middleweight tournament] but it just didn't happen. A lot of things go into making them happen. There's finding the right fighters, the right names and making sure they're available. Injuries, that can get in the way. There's a lot that goes into putting on a tournament.

TIM KENNEDY, former Strikeforce middleweight contender

When I came to Strikeforce I was really was hoping I'd get rematches with Scott Smith and Jason Miller. Those were matches that made sense for me and I that wanted badly when I signed with them. Unfortunately they never came about. Kind of understandable because Mayhem ended up being a... liability by that time.

I also wanted to fight in a tournament. That appealed to me. We had some talks about a tournament for middleweights. Even a one night tournament. And I really wanted to take part because I do really good in those kind of tournaments. It's how i started, fighting three times in a night. But it never came about. I was disappointed, I really wanted to do it.

SCOTT COKER:

If I recall what happened, we really wanted to do that [one-night tournament] but the state we wanted to hold it in wouldn't allow it. We had done a four men enter before, and K-1 had always held tournaments, so it was something I was always interested in.

The plan was to eventually hold [a one night tournament] every year. To make it an annual event.

After coming to terms with M-1, a Fedor-Werdum fight was finally booked. The rescheduled match would be on Showtime though, and not CBS, and would be held at Strikeforce's home arena, the HP Pavilion.

ANDREW EBEL:

I'll never forget that night. My son, who was 11 or 12 and was a Fedor fan, and my wife and a cousin from England all came that night. And we were totally geared up to watch Fedor take on Fabricio.

We always did a VIP experience on the day of the shows. You could buy a ticket and go into the special VIP room before the show for some food and drinks and an occasional fighter would come in to sign autographs and take photos. Typically it was a fighter who wasn't fighting that night. Someone who was off the card. Well, around seven o'clock, we're about to go on TV at this point and so I walk into the VIP room just before we're ready to shut it down and who is in there hanging out with all the VIPs? It's Fabricio. And I'm thinking to myself, "this is odd." He's in there having a good time. He's totally loose. And the first thing I think to myself is "Oh my god, he's going to get KTFOed tonight."

I'm used to seeing these fighters so focused. 

And he beats Fedor! And I was absolutely shocked, just like the whole crowd at the HP Pavilion. The arena just went silent when he got beat. And all I could think about was Fabricio having a good time, and being jovial, and hanging out only two hours before.

SCOTT COKER:

I couldn't believe it, I was just in shock. I mean, here was a guy I'd watched in Japan, who had been on a tear, and to see him lose. That was a historical moment in MMA history.

I was listening to the crowd, and looking into the crowd after the fight just ended and people were in shock. That place was buzzing. People were just shocked. There was this amazing energy in there.

ANDREW EBEL:

My son texted me when he was leaving because I had to stay, and he said, "Dad, I learned two things tonight." And I texted him back "What is that son?" And he goes "Number one: Cuddles is the worst nick name ever for a fighter. And also that the greatest fighter in the world can get beaten on any given night."

KENN ELLNER:

What's funny is that [Fabricio Werdum] was released by the UFC. That was the first contract I worked on for Strikeforce. They released him and we signed him and he beat Fedor. We gave him a home and look what it did for him. Imagine where he would have been without us to sign with after being let go?

SCOTT COKER:

Would it have been great if he won? Sure because then we could have continued on with the plans of having him eventually fight Alistair. But anything can happen in MMA, so we weren't mad. When things don't happen the way you might have had it on paper, things go on and you have to just reshuffle.

Even after the loss I thought we'd be able to put on the rematch [with Werdum], along with a great undercard, and put it on pay-per-view. But because of injuries and stuff it didn't happen and we started moving on to another plan.

We got approached by EA Sports, who were going to launch their MMA game, and they said they wanted to do something big . They wanted to do this big concert with Linkin Park and have us put on fights at Dallas Cowboys Stadium. Herschel Walker was fighting for us at the time, so he would have been on that card. How cool would have that been, to have Herschel Walker fighting in Dallas?

I went to Cowboy Stadium a couple of times, and we were going to have a press conference, but then EA had a conflict with the band.

MIKE AFROMOWITZ:

There was a musical group that had to withdraw and it would have been tough to find an act to replace them. That was a key component to EA's roll out, so when it didn't work out it was tough to find a replacement. It was big fights, live music with a group that was relevant at the time with our audience and the EA roll out in a big football stadium.

SCOTT COKER:

EA would have put all their assets behind it. And the band would have pushed it. And we would have pushed it and it would been this great festival environment with some big fights. That was definitely the game plan. And we were one week away from hosting the press conference in LA with Jerry Jones.

In the end Strikeforce's original plans for a fight between Fedor Emelianenko and Alistair Overeem on pay-per-view were never realized.

ANDREW EBEL:

There's some reality to [Fedor] being a loss leader. I think he wasn't as profitable as we all hoped he would have been, but I don't think you can put a total value on what he did for the brand. It was immeasurable. But yeah, a pay-per-view with Alistair had been the goal with Fedor. Building that mega event that could have competed with some major UFC event.

Financially [Fedor] really stretched us. It really put a lot of pressure on our back. My personal opinion is that I'm glad we signed Fedor. I'm glad we took the risk. Because that's the way Scott wanted the company. Let's do it big, lets do it right, and lets take some risk. With hindsight being twenty-twenty, I think it was the right decision. It put Strikeforce on a different level.

KENN ELLNER:

With Fedor it wasn't like you were buying into something you couldn't make money on. There was a situation, in terms of analysis, that it made financial sense. It had to do certain numbers. Do well at the gate and in other areas, like pay-per-view. And if that didn't work you still had a tremendous amount of marketing value associated with it.

I think it was a no-brainer. I don't think you could have lost. And we didn't. Fedor was a quantum leap opportunity. For example, if you recall the first Fedor fight was on CBS. Well from a financial standpoint you say that doesn't make any sense, you're losing money, you'd have been better off doing pay-per-view. But at the end of the day look at how many people watched it on CBS. And how much would it cost you to buy that kind of publicity? And not only the fight. The behind the scenes that played in many of the markets. All the media coverage. The commercials spots that ran during the football games. There's no way you could buy that kind of publicity. Come on, when you consider all that, there's no way that was ever considered a loser.

SCOTT COKER:

You can point to how much it cost, that we lost money on the events we had [with Fedor] but in the end I think it was worth it. I think it's obvious it was worth it. When you look at what it did for the brand. The media attention we got. How it put our name out there. The money we spent was well spent.

I mean, it worked so well the UFC had to buy us right?

Special thanks to Thomas Nash.

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