When the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) exploded into the mainstream, one-by-one a collection of start-up companies with plans for conquering the world of mixed martial arts began promoting shows across the United States.
And one-by-one they closed their doors.
From the WFA to the IFL and most recently Elite XC, brands hoping to survive as an alternative or successor to the Zuffa monopoly have crumbled under failed business plans and fan disinterest.
All except one.
Perhaps that's because Strikeforce, the San Jose-based mixed martial arts company founded and currently directed by CEO Scott Coker, is neither a start-up nor a fly-by-night operation.
Strikeforce is, however, a legitimate mixed martial arts promotion with a sound business plan, marketable fighters and of above all else, respect from its peers and fans alike.
Coker began promoting martial arts in 1985 and labeled his first kickboxing show on ESPN 2 "Strikeforce." After branching out and promoting K-1 on ESPN 2 for the better part of seven years, Coker made the transition to MMA after the sport received legalization from the California state legislature in December of 2005.
Three months later, Coker set a North American attendance record for MMA with 18,265 fans coming to see Strikeforce: "Shamrock vs. Gracie."
We were fortunate enough to get a hold of the Strikeforce CEO and pick his brain on everything from his highly publicized acquisition of Elite XC, landing a spot on Showtime, why he wants to be more like PRIDE FC, and just when we may actually see Tito Ortiz and Gina Carano make their long-anticipated debuts inside the Strikeforce cage.
Take a look.
Brian Oswald (MMAmania.com): A lot of people may not realize Strikeforce has been around for more than 20 years. Can you give us a brief history lesson and also tell us how your role with Strikeforce has evolved over the years.
Scott Coker: Well I have always been the owner/co-owner of Strikeforce since the start. My background in promoting martial arts started in 1985 when we were doing PK Karate, which was on ESPN. It was above the waist kickboxing and we had a lot the best fighters competing on our show.
Then in 1993 we got our own ESPN series on ESPN 2 (when it first launched) and we called that Strikeforce. That was when Strikeforce was "born" and it was born as a kickboxing show. So throughout the 90’s we were doing kickboxing on ESPN 2. In 2000, I started working for K-1 and we put K-1 on ESPN 2 for about seven years.
Then when mixed martial arts became legal in California I made the jump to MMA. We did our first show March 10, 2006, with Frank Shamrock fighting Caesar Gracie. That is when Strikeforce MMA was born. For that fight card, I believe Dave Meltzer was quoted as saying we still have the record for the biggest paid attendance for an MMA show in the United States.
It was a big night …we had over 18,265 paid so I felt like we hit a grand slam homerun coming out of the gate. It put us in a great position for sure -- got a lot of eyeballs on us, and gave us the ability to talk to some of the bigger name fighters. So, I feel like we’ve had a good run from the very beginning.
Brian Oswald (MMAmania.com): What was your overall impression of your most recent fight card? Did it accomplish what you wanted from a business perspective, and on that note, what were you trying to accomplish with the first event since acquiring Elite XC’s assets?
Scott Coker: Well to start, injuries always happen in this sport. I was really hoping to have Josh Thomson vs. Gilbert Melendez on that show, but Josh broke his leg. MMA is a tough sport though and it didn’t work out this time around. Besides that fight not happening, I am very pleased with the overall product put forth.
I know there was some controversy over the woman’s fight. But at the end of the day, Cyborg won and we are looking forward to promoting her fights in the future. We look forward to making the Cyborg-Carano fight happen and are working hard on that.
In terms of the rating, I talked with Showtime and they seem to be very pleased with how things turned out. The key now is sustainability. Our goal is to take what we have and scale it upward while maintaining that continuity.
We are not going to be that company that goes out and hires 100 people and grows haphazardly or be so top heavy that just can’t make money. We are going to grow the business organically and as needed. So far I am very happy with the business model that has been carried out. Hopefully our over 20 years of experience will kick-in during the times when we need it.
Brian Oswald (MMAmania.com): Frank Shamrock looked completely ineffective against Nick Diaz. I know he had a broken rib going into that fight so you have to factor that in. That being said, has the fighting aspect of MMA passed Frank by, like it seems to be passing Chuck Liddell by?
Scott Coker: I will tell you what … both those guys are just legends of the sport. Chuck I can’t answer for, I know he lost this past weekend. But both guys were in against very tough opponents. Both Frank and Chuck are not afraid to fight the toughest guys out there. And when you fight the best, there is always a chance it can go the other way. You just never know with this sport.
Your right, his performance was not that great, but I know he is a better fighter then that. When you see him in the cage again it will be a healthy Frank Shamrock and you’ll see a much different performance. The guy was literally hurt and when Nick hit him with that body shot it rocked those ribs and that was it. He was in excruciating pain, but you know what, no excuses.
Nick Diaz is an amazing fighter though and I don’t think people were giving him enough credit.
Frank called me three weeks before the fight and said he broke his rib. I said to him that we should cancel the fight and he didn’t want to do it. So it is what it is. Like I said, the next time Frank fights, you will see a healthy fighter, and a much different performance.
Brian Oswald (MMAmania.com): Speaking of Liddell, Dana White seems to be putting his foot down by retiring Liddell. I didn’t know that the President could actually retire a fighter, but I guess he is free to cut him from the UFC roster. If Dana White were to cut Chuck Liddell, how soon would you be on the phone with him?
Scott Coker: At the end of the day, if a fighter wants to keep fighting he will find a place to fight. With a legend fighter like Liddell, there has to be a time where he says "this is it." Whether that time was against Shogun or is it his next fight, it’s really up to Chuck.
I have no idea what his contract status with the UFC is though. I don’t know anything about what kind of deal they have so I can’t really comment too much. Chuck has had a great career there -- they built him up from scratch and made him a star. So maybe it would be best if he rode off into the sunset with the UFC. That being said, if a free agent expresses interest, I would be open to talking and having that conversation.
Brian Oswald (MMAmania.com): Back to Shamrock; did his loss to Nick Diaz kill a rematch with both Cung Le and Tito Ortiz?
You know and I know … right now the media is all down on Frank Shamrock. But if Frank gets another fight and knocks out so-and-so then it all turns around and he is the hottest guy back in the mix. It’s just the nature of the beast. I think there is still a very good chance of Frank fighting Cung Le.
I will be having a conversation with Frank next week about his future -- what he wants to do, who he might want to be matched up with, etc. I think both fights that you mention are still promotable and just need to be built back up in the appropriate manner. Frank’s next fight will determine a lot.
Brian Oswald (MMAmania.com): When can we expect Cung Le back, also who do you expect his first opponent to be? Would Jake Shields-Robbie Lawler winner would be a worthy foe?
Cung Le is an action movie star right now. I couldn’t be happier for him and we have been friends for a long time. So it’s been great to see him achieve success both inside and outside of the ring/cage. We are going to sit down in the next weeks and I am going to put that question to him. Cung Le will be fighting before the end of the year.
The two guys you mentioned are definitely an option. If Jake wins I have to talk to him about that fight because he may want to go back to 170 pounds. If Robbie wins, well that’s a no-brainer -- former Elite XC champion fighting the current Strikeforce champion.
Brian Oswald (MMAmania.com): Why has Cung Le been allowed to hold the middleweight title hostage for more than a year without being forced to defend it?
Scott Coker: The answer to that question is that from November to April we were in limbo over whether or not we would acquire the assets to Elite XC. So we didn’t put on a fight card during that time period. Strikeforce: "Destruction" was on November 21 and our next event didn’t happen until this most recent event.
So it’s not Cung’s fault he wasn’t fighting. All the fighters were on hiatus for several months and so Cung started making movies. Now that things are back on track we have to be willing to work with his schedule. The deal with Elite XC was happening one minute and the next it wasn’t. Now we are ready to move forward.
Trust me when I say, Cung Le is hungry to get back in the cage and it will happen when everything comes together, including the right opponent. Cung was actually bummed out that Frank lost; that is the first he wanted to come back to. We will see how it plays out.
Brian Oswald (MMAmania.com): In regard to Diaz, he fought his fight with Shamrock at a "limbo" weight of 179. Where do you see Diaz settling in at, and if it is at 170, who is he going to fight? We know it won’t be his friend, Jake Shields, and other than that, Strikeforce doesn’t currently house any premium welterweights
Well, I think we have some great fights ahead for Nick Diaz. If you look at our roster, just in the near future, I could see Diaz fighting Phil Baroni and a Joe Riggs rematch. I could also see Diaz fighting Jason "Mayhem" Miller. I see him fighting Robbie Lawler, possibly at a catchweight.
Also, Nick "The Goat" Thompson.
I would also like to see Hayato Sakurai fight Nick Diaz once he is done fighting in the DREAM welterweight tournament. I think that our 170-pound class has more competition than people think. So I think were going to be just fine in terms of opponents for Nick Diaz. What about Diaz versus Cung Le depending on how everything plays out? Some of these fights should happen and my job is to make the fights that people want to see happen.
Brian Oswald (MMAmania.com): Will Tito Ortiz’s first fight with Strikeforce happen in 2009, 2010, or never? Am I correct in assuming that money is the only thing holding up the process at this point?
Scott Coker: 2009. He is just trying to get to the point where he is 100 percent healthy before he steps back into the cage. When that point comes, we will be doing everything on our part to set up the right fight for him to come back to.
Brian Oswald (MMAmania.com): What are your plans for another former UFC champion, that being Kevin Randleman? It seems like a good move, at least on paper, to help bolster your light heavyweight division.
Scott Coker: Kevin is a dynamic. We have been friends for a while and I love the guy. He has great energy; there have been some mishaps in the past but he has got his body back to 100 percent healthy. I think he could be a force at 205 pounds. And if he is not we will find out really quickly against guys like Renato Sobral, Bobby Southworth, Tito Ortiz, and some of the other guys we either have or are talking to right now.
Brian Oswald (MMAmania.com): I couldn’t help but notice Andrei Arlovski in attendance at "Shamrock vs. Diaz." How great would a fight between him and Alistair Overeem be for the Strikeforce heavyweight title (depending on how things play out with Affliction)?
Scott Coker: I would love to see that. If he becomes a free agent I will be having a conversation with him.
Brian Oswald (MMAmania.com): It is no surprise that your roster is filled with former UFC fighters and champions. Do you think this reality could leave some people to perceive that Strikeforce is a "purgatory" for fighters who can’t compete on the highest level?
Scott Coker: I have to disagree with that assertion. Our heavyweight champion Alistair Overeem has never fought in the UFC. Jake Shields, a future welterweight champion, has never fought in the UFC.
Cung Le, our middleweight champion, has never fought in the UFC. Josh Thompson competed in the UFC but they dropped their lightweight division so he came over to us. Josh never got to fight the best of the UFC.
Guys like Sobral and Lawler, they fought in the UFC once upon a time, but they have improved by leaps and bounds since then. They are both considered top five guys in their respective divisions. Also, look at a guy like Fabricio Werdum who we just signed. Because he lost his last fight in the Octagon and got cut, does that mean he is not a top heavyweight contender? No.
So, I disagree with the notion that Strikeforce doesn’t have top level fighters. And, we are just getting warmed up. Like I said, we will be adding great fighters to our roster.
Brian Oswald (MMAmania.com): You have to be excited about the fact that Elite XC basically gift wrapped female MMA to you in the form of Carano vs. Cyborg and even happier that Dana White didn’t feel the need to take the fight. Good things come to those who wait … so how long do we have to wait for Carano-Cyborg?
Scott Coker: Yeah, this has the potential to be built as one of the hottest match ups in MMA. We are really looking forward to promoting it and I feel very fortunate with how it played out. It was teed up very nicely for us. The deal has been put in place. Now it’s just a matter of the lawyers crossing the T’s and dotting the I’s. So it will happen at the appropriate time, on a soon to be fight card.
Brian Oswald (MMAmania.com): I just read that Bob Sapp and Bobby Lashley have an upcoming fight. Sapp is on the Strikeforce roster and I heard there might be some negotiations between Strikeforce and Lashley so why isn’t this fight happening with your organization?
Scott Coker: Well, I just recently confirmed that the fight is in fact happening myself. It is a one-fight deal and the organization that is putting it on is shelling out a lot of money. All I can comment on is that I want to see that fight, I will tune in if it makes it on TV. It could almost work as a WWE main event.
Brian Oswald (MMAmania.com): It’s been confirmed that American Kickboxing Academy (AKA) manager and trainer Bob Cook has taken over the role of matchmaker for Strikeforce, replacing Javier Mendez who is also associated with AKA. UFC matchmaker Joe Silva gets a lot of notoriety for his match making ability so tell us about Bob Cook and how he is going to elevate the level of matching over at Strikeforce?
Scott Coker: The way it works at Strikeforce is that we have a committee. Bob Cook will be an integral part of that committee. We throw all our ideas around the room and at the end of the day Showtime has final approval. Strikeforce and Showtime collaborate to come up with the most compelling match ups for the fans. Bob is a great consultant, a great sounding board. He will bring some great ideas to the boardroom.
Brian Oswald (MMAmania.com): Dana White’s squabbles with the AKA training camp are well publicized. Things reached a boiling over point when he actually "fired" AKA fighter and welterweight stud Jon Fitch for a brief period. I know it’s not your style, but would you consider signing the entire AKA roster, which includes Fitch, Josh Koscheck, Mike Swick, Cain Velasquez and others?
Scott Coker: AKA is one of the prominent gyms in the world. In my mind those guys are all UFC fighters and of course we have a couple of guys out of AKA on the roster. My feeling is I want to be able to build up and promote Strikeforce fighters. That is the model we want moving forward, in the way we built up a guy like Cung Le. Like I said, we will always talk to fighters who are free agents, and if there is a win-win to be had great, but for the most part, we want to build our own stars.
Brian Oswald (MMAmania.com): I recently wrote an article entitled, "In the Next 10 Years, MMA Will Be the Biggest Sport on the Planet" based on a Dana White quote. While the statement is rather ambitious, how are you going to go about helping Dana accomplish this lofty goal?
Scott Coker: Our sport has great fighters and great fans. And the fans really get to connect to those fighters. Strikeforce is here to stay -- we are definitely going to do our part to grow the sport and to be good ambassadors of the sport. It’s about pushing forward. The relationship with Showtime was huge and now we are looking forward to putting on 12 to 14 shows a year.
We would like to hearken back to the old PRIDE days when you used to see a lot of big fights in one night. Not just a headliner and four "okay" fights. That is what we want to get back to. When a fan can come in, pay as little as $30 to get into the stadium, and see five superstar fights. I think that everyone would like to see that.
Brian Oswald (MMAmania.com): That’s a fantastic goal and one that I’m sure all the fans out there hope you accomplish. Best of luck with Strikeforce, Scott, and thank you for all your time.
Scott Coker: Thank you, Brian
Brian Oswald is an associate editor for Inside Fights, as well as a syndicated writer for Fox Sports. Look for future exclusive articles from him on MMAmania.com.