The Secret History of Strikeforce - Part 4: He Who Has the Heavyweights Wins

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

This is part four in what has now grown into a five-part series on the untold history of Strikeforce. Part one dealt with Strikeforce's lengthy efforts to promote the first mixed martial arts event in California. Part two took a look at the company's journey from a regional promotion based in San Jose to that of a national player airing on Showtime. Part three examined the signing of Fedor Emelianenko and their aborted plan to hold a pay-per-view headlined by him.

March 3, 2011

Scott Coker was enjoying the aftermath of another successful show. It was just the latest in what had proven to be a very successful 2011.

With tonight's show the promotion had taken over Zuffa's traditional place at the Arnold Sport's Festival. While Dan Henderson's contract had meant a higher payout than the typical show, it still had turned a slight profit. It had also drawn great ratings on Showtime, just as the previous two shows that year had also done gangbusters.

The rest of the year was looking strong as well, with the next leg of the Heavyweight Grand Prix coming up along with rumored discussions for a lightweight tournament, a show in Japan, and potentially even another stab at pay-per-view.

Strikeforce looked as if they had finally turned the corner.

A wry smile came to Scott's lips, for he knew that in a little more than a week' all these great plans would come to an end. The promotion he had founded almost 20 years ago had already been bought by Zuffa, only the fans didn't know it yet.

News that a subsidiary of Zuffa had purchased Strikeforce was met with disbelief by fans of mixed martial arts. While the promotion had experienced a very rocky 2010, where it had lost its CBS deal thanks to the Nashville Brawl and had its inaugural pay-per-view derailed following Fedor Emelianenko's first loss in almost a decade, 2011 was looking very promising. Ratings for their first three Saturday shows that year were up over 60% from the previous year. Fan and media interest was at a fever pitch thanks to one of the most audacious roll-of-the-dice seen by a promoter: Strikeforce's World Heavyweight Grand Prix.

Before the roller-coaster ride that was 2011 got under way, though, Scott Coker and Strikeforce had to first deal with Bjorn Rebney of Bellator's challenge to have Gilbert Melendez meet Eddie Alvarez in a champion vs champion contest.

SCOTT COKER, founder and former CEO of Strikeforce:

I didn't think it was a serious offer. If [Bjorn Rebney] was being serious he would have tried to get a hold of me privately so we could get together and talk about. Instead he was texting or going on twitter or whatever was going on. I felt it was a publicity move.

If he would have came to me and was serious here's what I would have said. Lets take my guys and some of your guys and some of Dream's guys and lets have a big tournament. Lets create something that that can last a year instead of being a one off, something that all of us are going to benefit from. Think of that. We could have put in Gilbert, Josh Thomson, K.J. Noons, or JZ (Cavalcante), Dream could have sent over Kawajiri and Aoki and then we could have thrown in Alvarez and Chandler or Huerta or some other Bellator guy and have this great tournament where each of us (promotions) get to host it. How amazing would that have been?

Unfortunately we never talked about it because there was never any real dialogue.

Scott Coker didn't give the challenge from Bellator much more thought, since he was already deeply preoccupied with his plans for monstrous promotional vehicle for the next year: the Heavyweight Grand Prix.

SCOTT COKER:

When we had signed Fedor we already had Alistair under contract. We also had Fabricio Werdum, Brett Rogers, and Andrei Arlovski, so [the heavyweight division] just started growing and it made sense to start signing as many heavyweights as we could. And after we assembled the division it made sense to do something special with them.

I remember getting my little deck together, which had each of the fighters on a card, and flying to New York and sitting down with Ken Hershman and all the guys at Showtime saying this is something I really want to do. I actually showed my deck of fighters to Ariel [Helwani] before I went to Showtime and he said, "This is going to be amazing."

Anyways, when I met with Ken and the people at Showtime I told them "I think this would be great for Strikeforce and I think it would be great for Showtime. Would you guys support this?" They were right in the middle of their boxing tournament, which was doing well, so they liked the idea and were 100% behind it.

They gave us the green light and so I started to try and gather all the guys. We even thought at one point about asking Dan [Henderson] about stepping up and fighting in the tournament.

After the meeting I had a lot of work to do, I had to get a date and a venue and get it going. Trying to get eight fighters on the same page - to get them to commit to the tournament and to the time frame for when it was going to start - was not easy.

But when we announced it, I remember going to the press conference in New York City and just seeing the amount of media that was there to cover it. When I saw that I knew this thing was going to be a home run.

MIKE AFROMOWITZ, Strikeforce director of communications:

As we talked about earlier, people love tournaments. And we had the best mix of heavyweights possible. We had Fedor. We had Alistair Overeem. The guy who beat Fedor, Fabricio. Josh Barnett. It was the greatest collection of eight heavyweights possible. So it was the right thing to do, and it was the perfect time to do it.

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

There's an old saying in the business, "He who has the heavyweights wins."

I knew that when we accomplished building that division we were a threat. How much of a threat I don't know. But I felt that once we acquired that division that had so much strength, we were definitely a threat.

SCOTT COKER:

Before [Fedor vs Silva] all the parties involved - us, Showtime, M-1 - were going to meet with the press at Chelsea Piers in New York.  As we were leaving our hotel Vadim [Finkelstein] and [Evgani] Kogan asked me if I wanted a lift. I said yes and got into their cab.

We're driving and after awhile I realize we are not anywhere close to where we're supposed to be.  We are not even in New York anymore, we are in New Jersey. And I can't ask the driver anything because he doesn't speak English, he speaks Russian. So I'm the only one who doesn't understand what he's saying.

I'm thinking in my head that I'm getting set up here. I've seen the movies, they could take me out somewhere in New Jersey and they'd never find me. So I was getting a little uncomfortable there. And then we were pulling into an industrial area with no one in sight, the streets are deserted, and I'm thinking this is were it was going down. This is right out of Goodfellas.

[Vadim and Evgani] saw me and started laughing. They were telling me "We didn't plan this. You got to believe us." And I was like "I was ready to accept any offer you guys make." We all laughed about it. The cab driver just didn't know where he was going. Had no idea where the arena was.

I knew nothing was going to happen, that it was the driver's fault, but they were worried that I thought they had set it up. We eventually got to the show safe, so it all worked out.


Fedor would end up losing to Antonio "Bigfoot" Silva, his second straight loss in the promotion. While a setback for the Last Emperor, the show was a huge success for Showtime and Strikeforce, drawing at its peak during the main event over one million viewers and setting a ratings record for MMA on the premium channel. The ratings increase wasn't limited to only that card for 2011 would see five of the six highest rated Showtime MMA broadcasts.


KENN ELLNER, Strikeforce business affairs and legal counsel:

I think Showtime were overall pretty happy with the results. I think part of the reason that [Ken Hershman] got the job over at HBO wasn't only because of what he did with the boxing but because of the fact that Strikeforce did pretty well there too. I think he had a pretty good resume looking back.

SCOTT COKER:

We were delivering not just great ratings but also an audience that wasn't there before. We were bringing in a different viewership and a different fan base from boxing. We had a lot of relevance in the market place at that time and I think we had a great relationship with Showtime.

I think they were happy enough that they would have renewed us. In fact, when Zuffa bought us, Showtime still renewed us, so they must have been happy.


With the success of the Heavyweight Grand Prix, there was soon talks of holding more tournaments, specifically one involving the lightweights from both Strikeforce and DREAM.


KENN ELLNER:

We knew that the Grand Prix was just taking off. The energy from it and the press it was getting - everyone loved it. If everyone loved it why shouldn't we do it with the lightweights?

JOSH THOMSON, former Strikeforce lightweight champion:

I heard about that. It was going to be Aoki, me, Gil, Kawajiri. I even heard Bibiano was going to possibly go up in weight.

SCOTT COKER:

We definitely had discussions about having a lightweight tournament. We thought it just made a lot of sense, with our lightweights and the Japanese fighters we had available.

The plan was to run a Grand Prix in a different weight class every year like PRIDE did. Welterweight, middleweight, one for women's. The plan was to eventually do them for each of them. But we also wanted to keep them special. One or two a year max.


Besides plans for a lightweight tournament, Strikeforce was in discussions about co-promoting an event in Japan with FEG, something Coker had wanted to do for some time.


SCOTT COKER:

They would have helped us promote a Strikeforce card in Japan. We would have brought a bunch of guys and put an event on in the cage over there. It was just something I wanted to do. Having worked with K-1 and seen some magical fights in Japan, I thought it would have been amazing to go there and put on my own fights. If we hadn't sold we definitely would have put on a show in Japan.

It would have been a break even show. Maybe even a loss leader. But if we wanted to we could have brought Fedor there and I think he would have done amazing numbers in Japan.

We were also going to help them come here and do a DREAM fight at the HP Pavilion. It would have been in a ring. We would have had some of our guys fighting on the card as well.

MIKE AFROMOWITZ:

I wasn't part of those discussions so I don't know everything that went into those decisions.

Personally, I thought we should have focused here [in the United States] first before going off and trying to conquer places thousands of miles away overseas. Unless some sort of opportunity presents itself for organic expansion like, it did for us in Central California and St. Louis.

But if it was a turnkey, where someone wanted to give us a big fee and was basically rolling out the red carpet for us to do a show, then of course you should do it.

SCOTT COKER:

We had distribution deals - I want to say we were aired in 42 different countries - and we started getting calls from the promoters in those areas where we were airing our product saying "Hey, is there anyway we can do business together? We'd love for you to come and promote your brand and do fights here in our country." So we were in talks with three different promoters where we would have went to Brazil, to London, and to Italy.

Those fights would have been very low cost to us. It was more of a license deal we were looking at and we would have retained the TV rights here. It would have added a lot of value to the TV distribution in that territory. Because now they weren't just watching it on TV, they could also go to the arena and watch us live.


In addition to foreign expansion, Strikeforce had many other plans for 2011 that never saw fruition, including a match between professional wrestlers Bobby Lashley and Dave Bautista...


SCOTT COKER:

That fight was in the works. Bobby Lashley had come out of a great exposure vehicle in the WWE. So after we had signed him we got approached by Cesar Gracie to have him fight Batista, who Cesar was training.

We started negotiating, and with these kind of things its common for the manager to ask for a bazillion dollars. We'll turn it down and tell them to go shop it around elsewhere and eventually they'll come back for a price more within our range. So we were negotiating a deal structure with Batista and we were about to get it done when the company got sold.

... partnering with Paul Heyman on some marketing projects...


SCOTT COKER:

Paul [Heyman] is an amazing talent and he had one of the most creative minds I had ever sat down with. We spent many days in New York talking about stuff. We talked about him getting involved with our strategic marketing and advertising, to help with our marketing campaign with the launch of the tournament in New Jersey.

He had some great ideas and the deal was very close to being made but knowing it wasn't going to be long term - because that's when the negotiations for the sale got really serious - I didn't go ahead with it.

It was going to be commercials and print ads. Very similar to what he did with the EA spots.


..and a long discussed syndicated series.


SCOTT COKER:

We had talked to so many different production companies in LA and New York about [a syndicated show]. It was basically going to be a 24/7 format to promote our fighters and our fights. We even talked to Mark Burnett at one point. We were working on it and I think it was just a matter of time before we got a deal that made sense to us done. But a lot of those things pretty much stopped when I knew there were very serious conversations going on with the UFC.

All of these plans would come to a grinding halt with the sale of the promotion to Zuffa which was announced on March 10, 2011, and which is the focus for our last act.

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