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In San Jose, UFC Benefits From Groundwork Laid by Strikeforce

Cung LeSAN JOSE, Calif. -- At least for local MMA fans, the HP Pavilion might as well be the house that Scott Coker built. Strikeforce held its first event here in March of 2006 -- the first sanctioned MMA event in the state of California -- and both the venue and the city served as its home base for the next five years.

That's why it felt a little odd to walk into the HP Pavilion for Friday afternoon's weigh-ins and see the UFC's logo splashed around the arena. This was where Fabricio Werdum upset Fedor Emelianenko. It's where Gina Carano and "Cyborg" Santos became the first women to headline a major MMA event.

And now, with Strikeforce firmly under Zuffa control, it's the UFC that's reaping the rewards of a vibrant market full of passionate fight fans.

For Cung Le, it seems especially strange. The hometown favorite has yet to fight in an MMA bout outside of San Jose, and his contest with Wanderlei Silva at UFC 139 will mark the first time he's set foot in a cage that didn't belong to Strikeforce.

More Coverage: UFC 139 Results

"I'm trying not to think about it," he said earlier this week, adding that it was "an honor to be in the UFC."

Le made his MMA debut at that first Strikeforce event, knocking out Mike Altman in the first round in front of what was, for the U.S. at the time, a massive MMA crowd of more than 18,000 fans.

For Coker, you might think it would be a little bittersweet to see his old friend now working for his former rivals, but speaking to MMA Fighting from Las Vegas (where he's attending Friday night's Strikeforce: Challengers show) the San Jose native insisted he was genuinely happy for Le.

"I'm excited for him," said Coker. "I think it's a big fight, and I'm not just saying that."

The way Coker sees it, the success of combat sports in the Bay Area -- from the early days of his kickboxing promotion to Strikeforce's warm reception there as an MMA promotion -- has a pretty simple explanation.

"It wasn't until the '50s and '60s and '70s that a lot of the martial arts instructors started moving to America," he said. "...Before that, very few people did martial arts in America. What happened was, when the martial artists came over to America, most of them settled in Los Angeles, the Bay Area, and Seattle, because those were the ports of entry. That's why when you look at the Bay Area, you know, I remember at one point counting about 80 [martial arts] schools just in the South Bay part of the Bay Area."

The success of local fighters, such as the American Kickboxing Academy's stable of top talent, has helped maintain local interest in the sport over the years, but the UFC has historically shied away from promoting events in the area. It brought UFC 117 to Oakland last summer, but San Jose has always been Strikeforce's stomping grounds.

Until now, of course.

So now that Zuffa owns his promotion and the UFC is moving into the building where some of the greatest moments of his professional life took place, what will it be like for Coker when he flies back to San Jose on Saturday and walks into the HP Pavilion to watch a fight there as a spectator? At least for now, even he isn't quite sure, he said.

"We're all one family now. But to me, how is it going to feel to walk into the HP Pavilion [for a fight] and have it not be Strikeforce? I'll be able to answer that when I walk in there. I really don't know yet."

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