clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Showtime airs historic MMA event with no publicity

The very first Strikeforce show, in hindsight one of the most significant MMA events in U.S. history, from 2006, aired on Showtime Extreme on Thursday night. It was the first MMA event ever sanctioned in California, And it proved to be one of the most significant MMA events in history.

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

A piece of MMA history aired out of the blue on Thursday night, when Showtime Extreme, with little if any advanced publicity, broadcast the first-ever Strikeforce MMA show from March 10, 2006.

Not only was it the debut of the promotion, but it was the first fully sanctioned MMA event in the state of California. There was more than a little trepidation prior to this event. There had never been MMA at a major arena in California, with events relegated to Native American casinos. This event would get more publicity, and at the time, create more controversy than any event the commission would govern during that era. There was fear the decision to allow the sport would backfire, whether it would be a serious injury, or even spectator violence. While such things could and do happen at any sporting event, the negatives would almost guaranteed be magnified by the press when allowing something that most didn't consider a sport.

Because Scott Coker had a long history of promoting successful kickboxing events in San Jose, his getting the first show was by design of the commission. It was figured giving the first show, which would have the biggest media spotlight, to a promoter they could trust, was the smart percentage move.

Coker had become friends years earlier with Frank Shamrock, who had moved to San Jose in 1997, and lived there during his two-year run as the biggest star during the dark ages of the UFC. He had retired in 1999 because of the lack of money in the sport, although had fought twice over the prior six plus years.

They were looking for a hook for the debut show, as Coker booked the HP Pavilion (now SAP Center) in San Jose. The gist of the show, like Coker's kickboxing events, would be to pit fighters from the Bay Area, mostly San Jose, against those from around the world.

But other factors created almost a perfect storm. The two key hooks were the MMA debut of Cung Le, Coker's big star for nearly a decade on his local kickboxing shows, an undefeated San Shou fighter, and what was promoted as a showdown of the greatest family feud in MMA history -- Shamrock vs. Gracie.

Ken Shamrock and Royce Gracie had two UFC matches that had become legendary, more because they were the two biggest names in the early days of UFC. Neither fight was particularly exciting. In the first, on UFC's debut event in 1993, Gracie, whose family was far ahead of the curve when it came to this type of fighting, choked out Shamrock in less than a minute. In the rematch, in 1995, the two went 36 minutes plus, still the longest UFC fight in history, but it was mostly Shamrock holding Gracie down before dropping him and cutting him open from a right hand after a stand-up. In those days there were no judges, so it was ruled a draw, leaving both sides arguing about what would have happened if they had fought to a finish. But it was a noteworthy event because it signaled the end of the Gracie domination of UFC, as Royce wouldn't fight again for the promotion for more than a decade.

There would have been tremendous interest in a third match. The second match did more than 280,000 buys on pay-per-view, at the time the biggest non-boxing sports number ever. As dull as the fight would look using today's eyes, it had grown larger than life over the next decade.   

But this was Frank Shamrock, whose title reign came at a time when UFC was off pay-per-view, unless you had a satellite dish. Even the idea that it could air on television seemed like an impossible dream. He was a star at a time when almost nobody was watching, the sports equivalent of the sound of a giant redwood falling in an empty forest.

The Gracie, in this case, was Cesar, at the time a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu instructor from Concord, Calif. Essentially, he had the right last name for Shamrock to claim he had a long-term family vendetta with.

I can recall shortly after the event was announced, talking to Coker, and he said, "I think we can do 10,000 people," saying it in a way where it was pretty clear he was as unsure as anyone how it would do, but he was cautiously optimistic. With Le as his main draw, Coker had been able to run kickboxing events that packed the San Jose State gym, but that was 4,600 seats.

The event was very different, when it came to ticket sales, as a modern UFC event, where most tickets are purchased as soon as they are put on sale. This was a new product, and while the advance was encouraging, in no way did it indicate sellout business.  A few weeks into the promotion, Coker was getting optimistic. With a little more assuredness in his voice, he said, "I think we can do 12,000 people," which is the configuration he'd set up for when tickets went on sale.

And then it happened. About a week before the event, the show became the talk of the town. Shamrock had been all over the local media, explaining how the Gracies and Shamrocks have had this rivalry for years, and this was his chance to end the feud with a win for the family. He played it up like it was the MMA version of the Hatfields and McCoys, an analogy that was actually being used in town that week. Frank's sales pitch was so good that it didn't matter that it wasn't Ken and Royce.  

It's hard to explain what happened from there. It almost makes no sense. Strikeforce had never run a show. There was no existing fan base for MMA in the city. There was no television. But it became the thing in town that an awful lot of people were talking about, and on Saturday night, if you were a guy, or a girl in your 20s, that was the thing to see and the place to be seen.

There were 18,265 fans in attendance that night, easily the largest crowd ever to witness MMA in the U.S. up to that point in time. Even today, it's still one of the largest crowds ever in this country. The paid attendance of 17,465 is still believed to be the largest ever for an MMA event in this country. Thousands were turned away. Officials from the arena, years later, noted that it was the biggest walk-up event that they had ever had. In the city and at the arena, it's still remembered, not so much for the fights, but just how it was an event that captured the city's imagination.

The local press was stunned. Outside of San Jose, nobody understood it.

Looking at something eight-and-a-half years later, knowing how history turned out, was fascinating. Shamrock vs. Gracie was a catchy name for the event. It put Strikeforce on the map immediately as a significant promotion .

The main event lasted 21 seconds. With the benefit of hindsight, by today's standards, one would have to question the sanctioning of the fight. Looking at the fight today, it was a terrible mismatch. Yet, if the fight had never happened, the show never would have had close to the interest level it had. The entire history of the Strikeforce promotion and MMA in San Jose would have never happened.

Shamrock was 33, and was one of the first complete skilled fighters in the sport's history. He had been a champion in Pancrase and was the first UFC light heavyweight champion (although it was called middleweight during the period he held the title), even though he was physically the size of someone who would be a welterweight today. Gracie was 40, and while he had the right last name, and was unquestionably a great jiu-jitsu coach, he had never had a fight. In watching those 21 seconds, the end result was all but predetermined.

Phil Baroni, doing commentary, kept channeling wrestler Bret Hart by calling Shamrock, "The best there is, the best there was and the best there ever will be," while building for an eventual match with Shamrock in the same arena.

Le, in his MMA debut, knocked out Mike Altman, in just 3:51. Le was also 33, and while not as quick, or as flashy, as he was in the late-'90s, he looked spectacular. He made an MMA fight look like a martial arts movie fight scene. Whether Le could have ever been welterweight champion, the weight class he really should have fought at, if he had gone into MMA a decade earlier and there had been such a weight class in UFC at the time, will long be subject to debate.

In his prime, Le never faced anyone, until the Shamrock vs. Le fight in 2008, who was a top-tier MMA fighter. But there's little doubt Le would have been a star fighter even if he couldn't have beaten the era's legend, Matt Hughes. The combination of his striking and takedown defense would have been difficult for anyone. And even if he would have lost to the very top guys, he'd have beaten all but them, and had genuine star power given his unique crowd-pleasing abilities.

In watching that fight today, there was quite the elephant in the room given the controversy over Le's blood test result from his fight with Michael Bisping and questions regarding HGH. The Le of 2006 had only a scant resemblance physically to the late 2014. The new version, at an advanced age, was bigger, thicker, harder and more cut than the super athletic looking version of his youth.

The most impressive fight of the show was unknown Clayton Guida, as he was known then, winning a five-round decision over Josh Thomson to determine the first Strikeforce lightweight champion.

Clay Guida would go on to be a popular UFC fighter.

On this night, Thomson was unable to stop Guida's takedowns. The fight was mostly on the ground, but the action was nonstop, with Thomson constantly trying to set up submissions from his back, and Guida in continual motion. Even by today's standards, the pace and cardio shown by both men for the long fight was amazing.

A back story from this fight is that Shamrock and AKA had a bad falling out, and Guida trained at Shamrock's school before the fight.

Guida ended up losing the title to Gilbert Melendez, a Cesar Gracie protege. Thomson would go on to shore up his takedown defense, and his rivalry with Melendez led to two of the most exciting fights in Strikeforce history, and some would call it the greatest in-ring trilogy in U.S. MMA.

Shamrock retired years ago, with his last fight a defeat at the hands of Nick Diaz, who was a 22-year-old in Gracie's corner on that fight night. Three years later in the same arena, the student gained revenge for his teacher.

Le, 42, is likely finished after his recent loss to Bisping. Thomson and Melendez both became top lightweights in UFC many years later. Brian Ebersole and Nate Diaz, also on that first show, remain on the UFC roster today.

And with the exception of Las Vegas, San Jose would have to be considered the city with the most noteworthy history of MMA.

The success of the first night led to Shamrock vs. Le. It also led to UFC 139, one of the best shows that company ever put on headlined by Dan Henderson vs. Mauricio "Shogun" Rua. The arena also housed the fight that proved women could be successful as national headliners with the Gina Carano vs. Cris Cyborg fight, and it was also the building where Fedor Emelianenko was proven a mere mortal when he tapped to a triangle at the hands of Fabricio Werdum.

But nobody in the arena that first night could have begun to predict where it was all leading.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for the MMA Fighting Daily Roundup newsletter!

A daily roundup of all your fighting news from MMA Fighting