Those who built Strikeforce wonder about its future

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

For most of the past six years, Strikeforce was the most commercially successful MMA promotion in the North American market that wasn't the UFC. It was purchased 19 months ago by Zuffa, and kept alive due to a contract with Strikeforce. With that coming due, nobody knows what happens next.

The promoter and three of the four main fighters who built the Strikeforce brand were making an appearance for a charity golf tournament on Friday, but all had questions and none had answers regarding the future of the company.

Injuries to lightweight champion Gilbert Melendez, middleweight champion Luke Rockhold and headliner Frank Mir who was coming over from UFC for one night, resulted in Showtime canceling televising events on Sept. 29 in Sacramento, Calif., and Nov. 3 in Oklahoma City. Without a broadcast partner, it made no economic sense to run the shows. It doesn't take much to question the idea of a commitment to building a brand when you cancel two events and go five months between shows, so it was natural speculation has run rampant regarding the future.

All that is known is that the contract between Zuffa, the parent company of the UFC and Strikeforce (technically Strikeforce is a separate entity with the parent company called Forza, but has the same decision makers) expires early next year. Both sides are still talking. At one point in late 2011, it looked like the two sides were going their separate ways, and a deal ended up being reached, so even early speculation things aren't looking good is not that much different from a year ago.

Currently they are going with the idea of a blowout show in January to make up for the canceled events, and in theory, reviving the brand. From there, it's all speculation.

"We're looking at a show in January with Daniel Cormier, Luke Rockhold and Gilbert Melendez, and don't be surprised to see Ronda Rousey and Nate Marquardt as well," said Strikeforce CEO Scott Coker.

Coker, who considers Strikeforce his baby, having started the brand in 1992 as a kickboxing promotion in San Jose that aired on ESPN2, and switched to being an MMA promotion in 2006 with the Frank Shamrock vs. Cesar Gracie fight that still holds the all-time paid attendance record for MMA in the United States with 17,465 paid and 18,265 total.

Coker said he wasn't involved in the discussions between the two sides, but said he knows talks are ongoing, but the two cancellations have left fighters speaking in less than confident tones.

"I know there is dialogue right now," said Coker, who conceded two straight events being canceled has left everyone involved concerned.

The belief is that Showtime does want to continue in the mixed martial arts business. While ratings for UFC events in the United States have declined this past year, the Strikeforce numbers remain strong. The last three events have ranged between a 1.25 and 1.43 rating, and while it's not exactly the same thing considering the difference in homes that get each station, that is still ratings numbers not far off the recent UFC on FOX events. Not only that, but Ronda Rousey, who drew the best numbers this year, has emerged since March as the fastest rising star in MMA.

Her potential is there to do considerably larger numbers as she gets better known, particularly if a fight is made with Cris "Cyborg" Santos. But her ceiling as a star, as would be the case for any top fighter from Strikeforce if they can get to the top echelon in UFC, is considerably higher.

The second cancellation was not a good sign. The fact Dana White divorced himself almost completely from the relationship, barely promoting the shows and only attending when Rousey fights, also speaks loudly.

While from the outside, from a business standpoint it makes sense for both sides, things are clearly not running smoothly. For Showtime, they stay in a business that likely helps their subscriber numbers and they are working with a company with solid financial backing. Most likely the numbers would be lower and there would be greater risks of the finances with a new partner.

From a Zuffa standpoint, while there are some key fights they could make, including debuting women in UFC, if the relationship ends, it opens the door to a well paying television partner to make another promotion viable.

But will that overcome the constant rumblings that the sides aren't getting along?

Frank Shamrock, who as a fighter headlined most of the promotion's most successful live shows, is now retired but still involved with the brand as a television announcer. To him, he felt the death of Strikeforce was inevitable from the day he found out it was sold to the UFC in March of 2011. Unlike everyone else, he hasn't minced words, being highly critical of UFC. His contract with Strikeforce expired in September, and his only connection is his Showtime announcing contract. But he's already looking at diversifying himself, having recently announced a kickboxing show and he's working at following partner Mauro Ranallo in trying to get on Showtime boxing telecasts.

His emotional attachment to the brand was strong, because he liked being in the promotional fight with UFC and was a personal friend of Coker. But it ended at the time of the sale.

It hit him hard enough that he has talked of it as part of the reason his recreational drinking turned into full-blown alcoholism, a problem he spoke about in depth in his autobiography, "Uncaged, My Life as a Champion MMA fighter" that was just released.

"It was my life's work," he said. "What's happened since is exactly as I predicted."

Shamrock was heavily critical of UFC as he was the face of Strikeforce in its early years. That didn't change when the new version of the promotion inherited his contract. He has constantly stated that UFC isn't doing a good enough job promoting the fighters as the top stars, and instead has promoted Dana White as the top star, but it doesn't work because White doesn't fight.

"I'm most proud of the fact that I never signed with (the current version of) UFC," he said.

He doesn't see the UFC/Showtime relationship surviving, but is still hopeful Showtime continues with mixed martial arts. But he also doesn't know of any potential backup plans.

He would still like to teach martial arts and stay involved in the sport, but said he's felt he was on borrowed time ever since the sale. Over the next year, he's going to be doing a lot of recuperating and rehab. He's scheduled for back fusion surgery on Dec. 12, stemming from injuries suffered playing basketball long before his fighting career and something he lived with his entire career. When he recovers from that, he expects to undergo neck surgery for a bulging disc in April,which stems from an injury suffered in 1996 when he was kicked so hard by Yuki Kondo that he was not only knocked out, and was knocked out of the ring and landed on his head.

Both Rockhold and Melendez were also at the event on Friday, nursing wrist and shoulder injuries, respectively. Both thought they would be able to headline the next show. But as of right now, neither could guarantee it.

"I definitely love Strikeforce and have an emotional attachment to it," said Melendez, who said he was a few weeks away from being able to say with certainty that he'll be able to fight on the next show. If he does, his opponent is expected to be Pat Healy, who he was to face on the canceled Sept. 29 date.

"My shoulder is getting better every day," he said. "Last week there was great deal of improvement. Hopefully I can start hard training in three weeks. I hope to be able to fight in January. I think I'll be on track, but it's not etched in stone."

Melendez also said that his attitude has changed a lot of late. There was a sense of frustration at one point, because he wanted to be considered No. 1 in the world at lightweight. To get there, he'd have to beat the top stars in UFC. The Strikeforce deal with Showtime includes a clause that all Strikeforce fighters must remain exclusive to Showtime for televised Zuffa events, even after the fighters' individual contracts with Strikeforce expire. The only way a fighter now in Strikeforce can go to UFC is if the relationship between Zuffa and Showtime ends.

Melendez said that was among the reasons that while he's won his last seven fights, he doesn't feel he's really shown his true potential or looked like a killer since his win over Tatsuya Kawajiri 18 months ago. But he's paid well and now accepts whatever direction things go and isn't going to agonize over it.

"It doesn't matter if I fight Josh (Thomson) a fourth time, or I have to go back and beat everyone a second time," he said. "It used to bother me but it's all out of my hands."

"I don't know anything," said Thomson, who along with Shamrock, Melendez and Cung Le, were the four fighters who built the MMA version of Strikeforce starting with its first show in San Jose, Calif., in early 2006. "I just hope to get a fight in January."

"I'll be sad to see it go if that's what happens," he said about the promotion that revitalized his career after a short early stint in UFC before MMA exploded.

But for now, his goal is still to get a second run with the lightweight title, and face the winner of the Melendez vs. Healy fight.

But he's pragmatic about the future and is confident about his chances in UFC if Strikeforce is no more.

"I train with every day with one of the best lightweights in the UFC, Gray Maynard," he said. "So I know what fighting the best guys there is like, and I'm confident I can fight at that level."

Thomson was scheduled on the September show that was canceled after he had just about completed a tough training camp.

"It sucks, but the people I'm working for, UFC and Zuffa, they took care of me (financially) and they didn't have to. It wasn't my complete purse, but they still took care of me and a lot of the other fighters."

But there is a sense of frustration because Thomson was plagued with one injury after another for the better part of three years, and either fought at far less than 100 percent, or pulled out of a few scheduled fights.

"Now I'm completely healthy, and I don't have a fight."

And he's very aware, at 34, that if he's going to make a move in the sport, he's going to have to start now.

"I'm not at the end, or even close, but I'm at the stage that I'm very aware that it's going to come."

He's made a number of changes that he hopes can prolong his career, including working with Victor Conte. He's taking supplementation that allows him deeper sleep and better recovery, which is the key as he's older. Also while in fight training, he's cut back to training twice a day instead of three times a day, meaning more rest between his sessions.

"Right now thanks to working with Victor Conte, I fell like I'm 27 or 28, so maybe I'll have four more years left," he said.

Rockhold suffered a torn ligament in his wrist, which he's trying to immobilize as much as possible and considering putting in a cast soon to hopefully heal faster.

Rockhold said he was told the January show would not be in the early part of the month. He said he would need eight weeks minimum of hard training, and would prefer ten weeks. He was looking at three to four weeks more before he'd be ready for hard training, but he is doing some kicking work regularly while he lays off boxing and grappling. He said to take the fight, he's going to have to be ready for hard training in about a month.

"It depends on how fast it heals," he said about the January show. "I think I'll be ready."

Rockhold said he expects to be facing Lorenz Larkin, who was going to be his opponent on the Nov. 3 show, but said Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza has also been talked about. He said Souza makes more sense as a contender, but feels it would be unfair if Larkin isn't the one who gets the shot.

"He was the one who had the shot, and it was my fault, not his fault that the match didn't take place, so he should be the one who gets it," he said.

While Rockhold also first made his name in Strikeforce, he's coming up on five years exclusively with the promotion that gave him a shot after he had won his first two pro fights, he sees the end of the company as inevitable.

"My goal is to get a fight with Anderson Silva," he said.

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