After Saturday night, the Strikeforce brand, started by Scott Coker in 1992 to promote kickboxing events on ESPN2, which evolved into an MMA promotion in 2006, will be no more.
A long journey that started with regional events in San Jose, Calif., ends in Oklahoma City at the Chesapeake Energy Center for a Showtime event headlined by Nate Marquardt defending the Strikeforce welterweight title against Tarec Saffiedine, and Daniel Cormier facing Dion Staring. After the show, all the major Strikeforce names will start debuting on UFC shows.
As will Coker, who told Ariel Helwani on The MMA Hour on Monday what he's planning on doing after the lights are turned out on the brand.
"I wake up and head home, and watch the NFL playoff game," he said. "I do have a contract with Zuffa which I intend to honor and so do they. We're going to work together on the duties and responsibilities. Ariel, honesty, I'll probably fly to Las Vegas in the next ten days or so and we'll probably work it out. But my effort is trying to have a great show on Saturday night."
Strikeforce closes down approximately two years after Coker's original business partners, Silicon Valley Sports and Entertainment (SVSE), who own both the HP Pavilion in San Jose, as well as the San Jose Sharks NHL franchise, sold complete ownership to Lorenzo Fertitta and Zuffa, the owners of the UFC.
The company was kept alive as a separate entity to continue the existing contract with Showtime. The deal as well as Strikeforce nearly ended in late 2011 when UFC and Showtime reached an agreement. The terms called for a one-year contract with Showtime having options to continue it for another year. Even though ratings remained strong, Showtime decided against renewing the deal after pulling out of broadcasting two straight shows in the fall when injuries led to lightweight champion Gilbert Melendez and then middleweight champion Luke Rockhold pulling out of scheduled main event title defenses.
"We've never had that kind of a situation unfold in the past, but it unfolded the way it did," Coker said. "We've been waiting and waiting. They put together an amazing fight card, from top to bottom. It's unbelievable. We'd like to have Gilbert and Luke there, but they're injured."
The company was built from the start around Melendez and rival Josh Thomson, who had the best series of fights in company history trading the lightweight title, and the two big drawing cards, Frank Shamrock, and Cung Le. All four were on the first show, on March 10, 2006, which sold out the Pavilion with 18,265 fans and set what at the time was a North American attendance record for the sport.
"The first four pillars, Frank, Cung, Gil and Josh, they were the building blocks of our organization. I'll be grateful forever for those guys for putting their hearts out and fighting their asses off. Because without those four guys, I don't think we'd have been able to build this company into what it was."
Yet, Coker points to the March 29, 2008, show when Shamrock fought Le in what was promoted as "The Battle of San Jose," with the two local fighting icons who were former training partners as the high point of the company.
"I can judge it by the response in the building, that (the high point) was the Shamrock and Cung Le fight. We sold the venue half to Cung fans and half to Frank fans. It was so electric and so loud you couldn't hear anything. Most thought that Cung was going to get his butt whipped by Frank, and it was going to be no fight and no contest. I remember talking to Javier Mendez and he said, `Cung has a shot. Is he going to win? Well, he has a shot.' I was just looking for a fair match-up and a great main event. It was the most electrifying night, the most electrifying fight in the HP Pavilion, which I think is the greatest place to watch mixed martial arts in the United States."
Coker started promoting local kickboxing events in the 1980s, back in the days when the Professional Karate Association (PKA) had weekly live shows on a fledgling start up station called ESPN. As ESPN graduated to higher profile sports, kickboxing events taped in San Jose became filler taped programming for ESPN 2. In 2005, when mixed martial arts was about to be legalized in California, Coker petitioned the athletic commission to allow him to have the first show, which was originally scheduled for the summer of 2005.
He had been friends with Shamrock, who moved to San Jose in 1997. Shamrock started his own fight team, and Coker talked him into coming out of retirement for the promotion.
"He said okay, and we identified Cesar Gracie as his opponent."
The fight only lasted 20 seconds with Shamrock winning by knockout.
"Cesar got caught with a right hand and the fight was over, but that can happen for any event."
As with any promotion that runs 63 events, there were good and bad shows, successes and failures.
Coker noted you can't build around one or two people because to survive long-term you have to be building the next stars, and the stars after that.
"We've been good star builders, look at Daniel Cormier, Ronda Rousey, Luke Rockhold. We had Cung Le and even Javier Mendez (now one of the best known trainers in MMA) in the 90s, and before that, we had Francis Farley, before that, 'Bad' Brad Hefton from ESPN. You always had to have that main event. If you want to be a sustainable business, you better be a good star builder. You can then supplement your own stars with bring in a few stars in here and there."
The original success of Strikeforce was a lot about being in the right place at the right time. MMA had just gotten on TV. Le was a local star dating back to his San Shou fights in the 90s, and Shamrock was one of the best fighters ever when it came to promoting his own fights. With the AKA team and Cesar Gracie's team, the area had a number of quality fighters. Several first made their names on early Strikeforce shows, and went elsewhere, like Cain Velasquez, Tyson Griffin, Clay Guida, Nate Diaz and Gina Carano.
When Pro Elite, which had contracts with Showtime and CBS, was about to fold, Strikeforce purchased its assets, including contracts with more than 50 fighters, and began promoting nationally.
Unfortunately, Strikeforce's second show on CBS, from Nashville, was Coker's low point with the brand.
"The one black eye that I regret is the situation after the fight, the Nashville situation with Mayhem Miller and the Diaz Boys," he said about a brawl, which started when Miller challenged Jake Shields, who had just beaten Dan Henderson to retain his middleweight title. The words escalated and several of Shields' teammates, which included both Diaz Brothers and Melendez, attacked Miller. The promotion never got another show on CBS after the incident.
"Here we are on the Tiffany network and something like that happens and it wasn't a good thing. I was embarrassed by that. We made sure nothing ever happened like that or even got close again. We set ground rules prohibiting people from getting into the cage. We weren't about to let that happen again."
As far as what the future hold for Coker, nothing is certain long-term, but he's now going to be able to be a fan and watch fights without the pressure of worrying about all the things that could go wrong.
"It's actually 27 years of promoting, 21 years of Strikeforce. It's okay to sit back and watch some of these shows and not have to do it myself," he said. "I had a great time watching Cain Velasquez's fight on my iPad while I was traveling over the holidays. I don't have to be at every fight. I'm a martial artists fanatic and will continue to support martial arts and contribute to martial arts. It's something I believe in, and it's not going to stop."