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Showtime executive Espinoza: After Zuffa acquisition, the trajectory of Strikeforce was clear

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Jayne Kamin-Oncea-US PRESSWIRE

In March of 2007, Pride Fighting Championships, then one of the two biggest mixed martial arts promotions in the world, was purchased by Lorenzo Fertitta and Frank Fertitta, co-owners of Zuffa, the parent company of the UFC. Pride FC never again held an event.

Exactly four years later, in March of 2011, MMA's new second-fiddle, Strikeforce, was similarly purchased by Zuffa. At the time, UFC President Dana White insisted Strikeforce would continue to function "business as usual." Yet after increasingly frustrating 21 months, a period that saw several marquee fighters jump ship to the UFC, and eventually, the cancellation of two separate events, Strikeforce will be shutting down operations following this weekend's final event on Showtime.

"We had the option to extend for another year," Showtime executive Stephen Espinoza revealed on Monday's edition of The MMA Hour. "We decided not to, and candidly, there's one main reason behind it. As any fan who follows Strikeforce or MMA generally knows, there's been some talent problems in the last half of the year, and there's been some injury problems throughout the sport. But given where the talent pool in Strikeforce is, we really got decimated by injuries and suspensions. And in the overall scheme of things, we just weren't comfortable with the trajectory of where the shows were going. We didn't believe towards the end of the year that we were getting shows that were premium television level shows, and we didn't see that situation getting any better.

"I wanted to live up to the high standards that Strikeforce set with Showtime before I got here, and as the year went on, it was clear that wasn't going to happen."

According to Espinoza, Strikeforce's demise became all but imminent following the cancellation of two events over three months in late-2012. However, Espinoza emphasized that it was not his call to pull the plug on either event. Showtime's role was simply to market and televise events. Zuffa, rather, was the company responsible for event planning, production, and fighter acquisitions, meaning it had the final say in regards to the two cancelled shows that would be Strikeforce's death blow.

The only decision attributed to Espinoza was to ensure both his network and its subscribers we're getting adequate value for the money they were paying.

"This problem with the talent pool and the trajectory of the promotion going forward wasn't going away," Espinoza explained. "It wasn't just a streak of bad luck for a couple months. It was a trend. Look at it from the big picture. Look at the trajectory of the organization Strikeforce before the acquisition by Zuffa and after. I think, with due respect, everything that we did after, the trajectory wasn't the same. That became very clear by the end of the year."

High-profile injuries were ultimately the culprit for both cancellations, even if Strikeforce's lack of depth played a hefty role. The injury scourge even seeped into the promotion's final event, which was initially slated to feature three championship bouts, but now features only one.

Strikeforce contender Tim Kennedy was among one of the more vocal parties to insinuate fighters have been faking injuries to expedite their entry into the UFC, though Espinoza shrugs off the notion.

"Not to single out any particular guys, but I know Luke Rockhold and I know Gilbert Melendez," he said. "Those guys are fighters. I don't believe that those guys would fake injuries or take advantage of a situation for ulterior motives. I know medically both of their injuries, in particular, were absolutely valid. So it would be virtually impossible for me to believe they would have those motives."

Looking back on the past year of Zuffa's ownership, it's difficult to ignore the facts. From the outside, the partnership fell apart very quickly. Fighters voiced their discontent with increased vigor, star power noticeably lessened with each fight card, and most telling of all, White refused to answer any Strikeforce-related questions from the media with anything other than a terse, ‘I don't run that promotion.'

Nonetheless, Espinoza insists the connection was never as broken as it often seemed.

"The relationship was actually fine between Zuffa as a company and Showtime as a company," he explained. "Dana has been pretty outspoken. He's been outspoken on everything. We know he's passionate and he often speaks off the cuff, and so I take what he says with a little bit of a grain of salt. But outside of that, there hasn't been really any difficulties in the relationship once we got things sorted out way back in January. The fact that Dana wasn't happy at times and sort of distanced himself, that really wasn't a factor in the decision at all."

Even still, Espinoza admits there were several challenges between the two sides that, in retrospect, could have been handled differently.

"They were a good partner," Espinoza said carefully. "The hesitation that you hear is that, we had an awkward structure. Having this promotion and operating the shows in the context of the larger deal that Zuffa had with FOX, and the limitations it put on us, and the fact that a lot of our talent was stripped out at the start of the deal, really created some challenges in sustaining the organization going forward.

"There were adjustments that we needed, there were adjustments that they needed, just within the context of the deals, because neither of us anticipated this would happen at the time when we signed our respective deals. So in the process of, sort of, reconfiguring that deal, there was give and take. In retrospect, maybe we should have tried a little bit harder to hold on to some more talent, so we weren't going to be faced with the challenges towards the end of the year.

"But having said that," Espinoza added. "I think we put on some very good events this year, with some very good fighters, as evidenced by the fact that the UFC can't wait to get their hands on them."

As for the future of MMA on Showtime, Espinoza isn't willing to call this the end. The network has already engaged in a number of conversations with a range of different organizations, and although Espinoza refused to confirm any particulars, he did speak highly of all-female promotion Invicta FC.

Most surprisingly, Showtime would still be open to working with the UFC again in the future, though Espinoza emphasized that no discussions have taken place at this time.

Regardless, whether the network waits for a promotion to grow into a "worthy partner," or unites a number of small entities into one talent pool, Espinoza is hopeful MMA will eventually find its way back onto Showtime.

"There's definitely a lot of enthusiasm and a big appetite for MMA here, both me personally and the company as a whole," he concluded. "This company, this network, has been a pioneer in the sport in many ways. It's been a huge supporter of the sport and done some of the most watched events in recent history.

"Whether there is the right opportunity is still a sort of process of determining that's still going on as we speak. I don't know what the future is going to hold, whether we're going to find the right opportunity, or opportunities, in combat sports. But we definitely would love to continue in MMA."