When Gina Carano steps into the cage with Cristiane "Cris Cyborg" Santos Saturday night, the Strikeforce MMA promotion will be putting on what its CEO, Scott Coker, calls not just the biggest women's MMA fight ever, but the most significant women's competition in the history of any combat sport.
In an interview with FanHouse, Coker -- who has worked in martial arts most of his life -- spoke about the historical significance of Carano vs. Cyborg and why he made it the main event on an MMA show that otherwise features only male fighters. The full interview is below.
Michael David Smith: In your view, how important is Gina Carano vs. Cris Cyborg as a historical moment for MMA, and as a historical moment for women's sports?
Scott Coker: When I first put this fight together, I realized it was big, and as a fan I was looking forward to seeing it even when I thought those two were going to fight each other in EliteXC, before I was involved. It's something fans have gravitated toward because these are two great athletes. We're really the beneficiaries of getting that deal for EliteXC.
If you know Gina, she's not just the girl next door with the pretty face. She can really fight. I've been watching her for a long time and she's a real warrior. She has that spirit. And when you look at Cyborg, she's just going to bring it. They're going to go into the cage and throw it down. This will be our first women's championship, so it's big for us. They've never had a female main event on Showtime, so it's big for them. And in the history of women's fighting, period -- boxing, kickboxing, anything -- there hasn't been a big fight like this. This is the biggest fight in the history of women's fighting, not just MMA.
It took a certain amount of chutzpah to make a women's fight the main event on a card made up otherwise of male fighters. Did you face any resistance to that?
There were some fighters who weren't happy, but it was a decision we made with Showtime, and they loved it. They think it's going to be fantastic. We're happy we made the fight a main event. This fight is worthy of being a main event.
It hasn't happened often in the United States, but there have been certain times in certain sports where the most popular female athlete was a bigger star than the most popular male athlete. I can think of Mia Hamm in soccer a few years ago, probably the Williams sisters right now are bigger stars in the U.S. than any male tennis player. Is it possible that Gina Carano can be the biggest star, male or female, in MMA in this country?
Well, I'll tell you this: If you look at the ratings on CBS when they showed her fights, when Gina Carano fought, the ratings spiked up, and then when her fights ended, the ratings went down. She has a certain popularity that goes way beyond other MMA fighters. She's been on American Gladiators, in a Pepsi commercial. She's done very well in MMA and very well outside MMA as well.
Are you concerned at all that one or both will miss weight?
That's a very good question, based on the history, but Gina has never missed weight at 145 pounds, it was always when they asked her to make 135 or 140 that she had trouble. Cyborg, because of what happened last time, we're sending a lot of e-mails, making sure she's on target to make weight. When you're a professional fighter, it's your job to make weight.
There are a lot of good fights on the undercard. How excited are you about acquiring the fight between Babalu Sobral and Gegard Mousasi, which was originally supposed to be part of the August 1 Affliction show?
Well, Babalu was originally scheduled to fight on this Aug. 15 card, and we actually went to him and said, "We want you to fight this kid, Gegard Mousasi." And that's the fight we wanted to happen. But then (Affliction VP) Tom Atencio calls me and says, "We really want Babalu on our Aug. 1 card." And I said, sure, go ahead, and then they set him up with Mousasi. So it's ironic that we now have the same fight we wanted in the first place.
Gegard is a great young fighter. He beat Melvin Manhoef and Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza in the Dream tournament in Japan last year. And then this year he beat a much bigger guy in Mark Hunt. A lot of people in America haven't seen Mousasi yet, but this kid is the real deal. When he starts fighting on Showtime for Strikeforce and M-1, people are going to know about this guy. He can punch, he can kick, he can take people down and submit them.
Nick Diaz is fighting Jay Hieron for the welterweight belt. Nick has had two very impressive fights for you. How important has he been to your promotion?
People say I use Nick Diaz too much, but it's not like I make him fight or something. I go to him and say there's an opportunity, and he always says yes. He didn't get hurt against Frank Shamrock, and then his second fight this year against Scott Smith he only got bruised a little, and since he's a fighter who likes to fight a lot, we're putting him back in.
Has he been important? Yes. Nick pretty much destroyed Frank Shamrock and had a great fight against Scott Smith. Nick does a lot of talking, and he might be controversial, but he's great in the cage and lets his actions do the talking.
Fabricio Werdum, one of your top heavyweights, is on the undercard against Mike Kyle. Why isn't that fight televised?
Well, we wanted to have Fabricio fight Alistair Overeem, but because of Alistair's injury, it became a non-title fight, and we wanted to have four title fights on the TV card, and we didn't have time for any non-title fights. So we're happy to have Fabricio on this card but there wasn't enough time to have that fight on the Showtime broadcast.
You're coming off an extremely busy week. You announced the signing of Fedor Emelianenko and you also announced a partnership with the Dream promotion in Japan. Could you explain what your partnership with Dream entails?
I've worked with the people in the Japanese martial arts community for a long time, and MMA in Japan is a great atmosphere. The fans in Japan are great, and the fighters love fighting there. So I'm thrilled to have a partnership with them that might allow us to put on a fight like Shinya Aoki vs. Josh Thompson. I'm going to push like crazy to get Shinya Aoki fighting in Strikeforce in the US by the end of the year. Or Robbie Lawler vs. Melvin Manhoef or Sergei Kharitonov vs. Alistair Overeem. We're going to have the ability to see these fighters go back and forth, which is a victory for MMA fans, for Strikeforce, for Dream and for Showtime. We'll see the best against the best.
You sound very excited about getting Shinya Aoki in Strikeforce. He's one of the top lightweights in the world.
Yeah, we just have to get his pants figured out.
Will the state athletic commissions allow Shinya Aoki to wear his pants?
We haven't figured that out, but we're working on it. I'm sure he'll want to wear his pants, so we'll make some calls.
When are we going to see Jacare fight for Strikeforce, and who will he fight?
You'll see Jacare in October, on the undercard for the Fedor fight. I'm not sure who he'll be fighting, but we're trying to put that together.
One of the most popular American fighters in Dream is Jason "Mayhem" Miller. Will we see Mayhem in Strikeforce?
Absolutely. We have a contract with Mayhem. He's been fighting in Japan, but we're expecting him to fight for us by the end of the year.
With Mayhem on MTV's Bully Beatdown, and MTV being part of the same parent company as Showtime and CBS, I assume they'd like to see Mayhem fight for Strikeforce.
Yeah, I think that's true. Bully Beatdown has done pretty well and getting him on Showtime or CBS I'm sure would be great.
Let me ask you about your title picture. Your heavyweight champion hasn't defended his belt since he won it almost two years ago, and he doesn't have a title defense scheduled. Your middleweight champion hasn't fought since he won it a year and a half ago and doesn't have a title defense scheduled. Your lightweight champion hasn't defended his belt since he won it more than a year ago and doesn't have a fight scheduled. Your light heavyweight champion hasn't defended his belt since he won it nine months ago and only has a title defense scheduled because Affliction fell through, and you don't have a welterweight champion. Isn't that a pretty big problem?
Well, here's my response to that: Alistair Overeem, we had a deal where he could fight in Japan and he could fight for us. The two times he was going to fight for us he got injured. Injuries happen in MMA. Same thing with Josh Thompson. He broke his leg, had to rehabilitate, was training again and broke his leg again. So we've been unlucky on those two fronts. Cung Le is going to have to fight by the end of the year. That's the timetable we all agreed on. He has other things in his career, but he's a martial artist first, and the last time I talked to him, he wants to get back in the cage.
These things are sometimes unfortunate, but in four months since the Showtime relationship started, I think we've accomplished a lot. And now we've got four title fights coming up.
When will we see Strikeforce on CBS?
Here's the situation: The last regime that was on CBS left a bad taste in their mouth: Kimbo Slice, Seth Petruzelli, Ken Shamrock, that whole situation left a bad taste in their mouth. So we're fighting on Showtime, I think we're doing great fights, and we'll have another meeting as soon as this Showtime fight is over next Saturday.
When will we see you on pay-per-view?
We'll probably enter the pay-per-view business some time in the next nine months. Fedor's first fight will be on Showtime, but in 9-10 months we'll probably have Fedor on pay-per-view. Right now we're in the Showtime business. A fighter like Fedor, who's the No. 1 heavyweight in the world -- everybody knows that -- is worthy of pay-per-view.
Has anyone in the MMA business other than the UFC turned a profit on a pay-per-view show?
I can't answer that. I'm not sure. I don't think Affliction was profitable, but their issue was that they didn't manage their fighter costs from the beginning. But we've been in the fight business for a long time, and if we didn't think we'd make money on this M-1 partnership, we wouldn't do it. At Strikeforce, this is what we've been doing every day, for the last 25 years. This is what we've done: The martial arts fight business. This is what we've dedicated our lives to, the martial arts business, and if there's a difference between us and other companies that have failed, it's that this is what we do.
What else do you want fans to know about what you guys are doing?
Saturday is going to be a historical moment in MMA. It's going to be an amazing fight. And we're going to continue putting on great fights, and if you subscribe to Showtime you'll see them for free. We're only going to get stronger and stronger and give the fans more great fights.
Strikeforce: Carano vs. Cyborg takes place Saturday at 10:30 PM ET on Showtime. For updates, follow my MMA Twitter page.