The Rise and Fall of Strikeforce: An Oral History

January 12, 2013
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This Strikeforce report is courtesy of MMAWeekly.com official content partner Bleacher Report and Jonathan Snowden:

Cesar Gracie and Frank Shamrock at Strikeforce 1Strikeforce runs its final show this weekend to little fanfare. The promotion that once packed raucous crowds into the HP Pavilion in its home territory of San Jose, California, will go out with a bit of a whimper in Oklahoma City.

When the show goes off the air, it will mean the end of Strikeforce, a promotion that has survived 27 years in the tumultuous world of combat sports promotion. What’s next for promoter Scott Coker is a mystery.

How did it come to this?

How did a promotion that once seemed on the verge of challenging the mighty UFC itself end up in the dust bin of history?

I talked with the most important players, the men and women who built the brand, to find out in this definitive oral history. This is part one of the history of Strikeforce, in their words. Part two in this two-part series, chronicling the early days of the promotion, may be found here.

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Frank Shamrock (Strikeforce main event star and broadcaster): I knew Scott through Ernie Reyes Sr. Ernie was my student in mixed martial arts and Scott was Ernie’s student for many years. He received multiple black belts from him. Ernie was always learning in the martial arts, so when MMA came along he decided ‘I’ve got to study this.’ I became his teacher. I was 25 at the time, he was probably 55. That’s how Scott and I got in the same circles. Scott was always a promoter. That was his journey. He was on the demo team and the promotions team for Ernie and he saw the promotional side, liked it and started promoting kickboxing.

Scott Coker (Strikeforce promoter): I was actually teaching at Ernie Reyes’ school, a couple of classes a week, and I had a student there that said ‘Hey, there’s this Professional Karate Association, the PKA, and they’re looking for a promoter in San Jose. Would you be interested in promoting?’ I was 21 years old and had no idea what I was doing. So of course I said ‘Sure, let’s try it.’ That’s how I got into promotion.

That first event, in March of 1985, was held at the San Jose Civic Auditorium in front of a few thousand fans. Eventually, as a kickboxing promotion, Coker’s Strikeforce ended up going worldwide. It was on ESPN almost immediately, starting in the fall of 1985, with fights featuring greats like “Bad” Brad Hefton, Dennis Alexio, and future MMA trainers of note Javier Mendes and Mike Winkeljohn.

In 1992, ESPN launched “the Deuce”—a new network in desperate need of programming. Coker, now flying the ISKA banner, was more than willing to oblige with 30 hours of programming a year. With ESPN’s backing they became the first U.S. promotion to hold a show at the Mecca of Thai boxing, the Lumpinee Boxing Stadium in Bangkok, and helped to introduce news stars like Alex Gong and Cung Le.

In 1999, Coker ramped Strikeforce back, making it a regional promotion again as he took an offer from K-1 to help launch the kickboxing powerhouse in America. From the Bellagio and Mirage hotels, K-1 ran shows on ESPN from 2000-2007.

Miesha Tate and Ronda Rousey - StrikeforceStephen Quadros (Former Pride and Strikeforce announcer): He had built the Strikeforce brand, which was originally a kickboxing only platform, with a clear game plan that delivered decades of success. Scott wasn’t some fast-talking jive-ass who thought he had all the answers. He was a calm, even media-shy, thinker with drive, patience and humility. Bucking the vogue of the tyrannical fight promoter stereotype, Scott Coker was shockingly easy to work with.

Mike Afromowitz (Strikeforce media relations): When I first started working for Scott back in 2001, the first show I worked was K-1 USA. I remember Scott and I, Maurice Smith and Ray Sefo sitting in a suite at the Bellagio and talking about the potential launch of an MMA league. It went on the back burner as we developed K-1 USA, but we revisited it when MMA was going to be legalized at the end of 2005.

Coker: The reason we didn’t get into promotion of MMA earlier, is that it was illegal in the state of California.

Josh Gross (ESPN Senior MMA Writer): There was a lot of ‘We’ll get to it this year.’ But it just seemed to take forever. There was confusion about rules, and in the end, bureaucracy was really the stumbling block. A ton of red tape and the state didn’t do anything for six years.

By late 2004, Coker had his ear to the ground with contacts in the California Athletic Commission. When it was finally legal to put on an MMA show in California, he was going to be ready.

Coker: I went to the HP Pavilion and said ‘Let’s do this. Let’s be the first ones. I think it will be historical.’ I’d had a promoter’s license in California for more than 20 years—we should be the ones to get it.

I kept calling the commission and the legislation kept getting pushed back. Finally, I get a call, first week of January, from the Athletic Commissioner Armando Garcia saying ‘the first date available is March 10. If you can make it happen, we’ll give it to you.’ I called the arena, I called the fighters and the fight was pulled off in a very short window.

Strikeforce’s first MMA event was headlined by Cesar Gracie and former UFC champion Frank Shamrock. He had been out of action for three years and his return was much anticipated in MMA’s hardcore fan community. It wasn’t clear how the show would perform, or how competitive Gracie would be in his first official MMA fight.

Damon Martin (Lead Reporter, MMAWeekly.com): Strikeforce was a regional promotion out of San Jose—they didn’t have a big television partner pushing them or the promise of pay-per-view. This was just a fledgling promotion making a push, putting a big fight together for their area, and selling a boat load of tickets for a live show. Let’s also not forget one of the guys in the fight, Cesar Gracie, had never even had a fight before that time. I mean that show did numbers UFC shows can’t pull to this day. It really says something about what Strikeforce was able to do.

Afromowitz: It was the oldest rivalry in the sport. The two first families of the sport. It was on from there.

Shamrock: I saw a business opportunity. I’d never heard of the guy. But he had the Gracie name.

Coker: I told the arena ‘Let’s set it up for 7,000 people. I’m not sure what it’s going to be like.’ I didn’t know if it was going to be a hit or a bust.

Afromowitz: We didn’t know what to expect. We just kept opening sections of the arena to accommodate demand. Every media outlet in the Bay Area was covering it, for better or for worse. California legalizing it, there was controversy there. Curiosity was at its peak.

Coker: Frank’s a great promoter. The guy had instant credibility and he can sell a fight like nobody else. Cause a lot of controversy, get people pissed off at him. To have a local guy as marketable as Frank out in front of the public was great. This was a great scenario. I figured that we’d at least get a base hit out of it. Or a double. But I think we got a grand slam out of the first one.

Shamrock: That last week before the fight I knew we were riding something extraordinary. You could feel it. Because the news stations just kept calling and showing up and asking for more and more. I knew when I was live on the 5 o’clock news at the weigh-in that it was bigger than big.

Gross: It wasn’t a surprise to me because California was a hotbed for this sport. North and south, it had been going on for a long time, mostly on Native American lands. People would drive hours and hours to watch the sport. The fact that it was finally regulated and in a major building—the attendance, in the end, wasn’t surprising. People were dying for it.

Cesar Gracie (Strikeforce fighter, trainer and manager): That’s the thing it started off with a bang, and I was happy to be a somewhat small part of that, and my fighters were a very big part of that and they had a lot of success there.

Coker: The San Jose Sharks partnered with us on the fight and they have big marketing muscle, a season ticket holder base, and a good infrastructure. They got it out to the people, and that’s one of the reasons we were so successful there. When they made the calls the San Francisco Chronicle picked up the story. The San Jose Mercury News picked it up. They could get media that I couldn’t have dreamed about.

Afromowitz: To look up at the arena and see every single seat filled, from the bottom all the way up to the stars—I couldn’t believe it. 18,255 people and we had to turn people away, walkups. We might have been able to fill over 20,000 seats if the arena setup could have accommodated it.

Coker: The day before the fights I get a call from the arena and they tell me we are sold out. I said ‘Completely?’ and they said ‘Completely.’ And I said ‘I hope you saved my tickets for my friends and family.’ But of course, they didn’t. So I was scrambling for tickets that night. It’s a pretty good problem to have—but I have some friends that are pissed off still from that night.

For more of Strikeforce: An Oral History, click here…

  • MuayThaiFood

    Shouldn’t that be “The rise and fall of Strikeforce’s Coker to UFC’s Pepsi”?

    • Vulgarian37

      UFC would be Coke, Strikeforce would be Pepsi.

      • Darin

        His point was that COKEr has COKE in his name. But the analogy is dumb anyway.

  • Joey

    Just read both parts on Bleacher Report. An awesome read and great detailing of the thought processes of a lot the people involved in the history of Strikeforce.

    I gained a lot of respect for Scott Coker as he shows a true passion for MMA when he talking about the company he started.

  • Maddawgmar

    Bad analogy, Pepsi to Coke. Because Pepsi is a very legitimate competitor to Coke. And Pepsi will never fold. Strikeforce’s AFL to UFC’s NFL is a bit more relevant analogy.