There's a line Strikeforce promoter Scott Coker, in his goal to become the mixed martial arts version of Avis to the UFC's Hertz, has uttered a few times over the past year: "Be careful what you wish for."
A year ago, Coker was the most successful regional promoter in the sport.
He worked in partnership with the HP Pavilion in his home town of San Jose, Calif., and drew MMA's biggest non-UFC crowds on the backs of local stars like Frank Shamrock and Cung Le. At the time, UFC president Dana White said that he'd never say a bad word about Coker or Strikeforce, citing the need to build the sport at a local level and give new fighters experience.
That's all changed. In the past year, Coker has signed television deals with Showtime and CBS, a video game deal with EA Sports, and has signed contracts with fighters ranging from genuine top-level stars like Fedor Emelianenko, Gegard Mousasi, Cris "Cyborg" Santos, Marius Zaromskis and Dan Henderson, as well as potential drawing cards and celebrity fighters like Gina Carano, major pro wrestler Bobby Lashley and NFL legend Herschel Walker. All that means he's a proverbial bulls-eye to UFC, which counter programs most of Strikeforce's major events.
"A year ago, we had 15 to 20 guys under contract," said Coker, who promotes his final show of the year Saturday night on Showtime, in the first of what will no doubt be a number of head-to-head battles with UFC owner Zuffa, which has its sister World Extreme Cagefighting promotion running on Versus in a show from Las Vegas that night. "Now we've got … as many as 155 athletes under contract. Before we relied on Fedor and Gina, but now we have good fighters in all the weight classes."
"Look at what we've accomplished in the last year," he said. "We started on Showtime in April. We've signed a co-promotion deal with Fedor, signed Dan Henderson, promoted the Gina vs. Cyborg fight. We've gotten on CBS, the EA Sports deal. It's been an intense schedule."
And there's no break in sight. Coker expects to run 20 shows during the next fiscal year (March 1, 2010-February 28, 2011) on Showtime, CBS and pay-per-view, the same number industry-leader UFC ran in 2009. The business models are different. Strikeforce went from live-events based to one whose top priority is television events. The UFC's goal is to build fights for monthly pay-per-views. Strikeforce is looking at building television fights and if and when the right big fight falls into place (like a potential Emelianenko vs. Alistair Overeem fight) then going to pay-per-view.
But the other big difference is UFC is an insular organization, using only fighters under exclusive contracts. Some have been critical of it because the system more closely follows what the Japanese MMA companies attempted, but never fully succeeded at doing, or the American equivalent, the business model of World Wrestling Entertainment.
Strikeforce, on the other hand, has many of its athletes under non-exclusive contract. It's a negotiating benefit to not being with UFC, as the fight money in most cases may not be as good as UFC, but the fighters have less restrictions when it comes to marketing themselves and the ability to take outside offers or international fights. Emelianenko and Mousasi, arguably the company's two best fighters, are under contract to the Russian M-1 Global promotion. When they work for Strikeforce, it's a co-promotional venture.
Lashley will remain working for TNA, a pro wrestling organization, something White would have never allowed Lashley to do, while agreeing to do three or four MMA fights next year, the first being on Jan. 30 in Sunrise, Fla., the company's first show of the new year.
On that show, Santos (8-1) will make the first title defense of her women's championship on the show, rumored to be against Marloes Coenen (17-3) of Holland, one of the first international women's MMA stars.
Carano is currently focusing on acting and martial arts classes, with a lead role in a major action movie that starts filming next month, and if she fights again, Coker said talks look to be either the second quarter of next year or later in the summer.
The international stars like Zaromskis, Melvin Manhoef and Overeem will continue to work for both Dream and its kickboxing sister organization, K-1, in Japan, which means they are not always at the beck and call of Coker.
Working out shows with headline fighters who have other commitments and priorities is one of Coker's balancing acts. The other is between providing the television partners with ratings and the general public with fights they want to see. Fighters like Carano and Shamrock have proven to be Strikeforce's strongest ratings draws, while many of the international stars he's talked about using, like Zaromskis or Shinya Aoki, are complete unknowns past the tiny-but-vocal hardcore audience and will mean little for ratings until they are better known.
"CBS makes kings," he said. "They made Kimbo. They made Gina. They made Cyborg. Do you think Spike would have gotten the ratings with Kimbo that they got without him first being promoted on CBS?"
Through his CBS exposure leading up to the Nov. 7 show, Emelianenko now fits into both categories, but Emelianenko has his own issues, including a history of hand injuries in recent years. He's currently on the shelf waiting to get a pin taken out of his thumb from an operation after his Nov. 7 knockout win over Brett Rogers.
If everything goes perfectly, and in MMA, that's a crap shoot, the idea would be to first get Overeem, a 6-5, 258-pounder who looks like he stepped off the pages of a bodybuilding magazine, onto CBS before putting him in the company's ultimate heavyweight match on pay-per-view.
Overeem (31-11) won the Strikeforce heavyweight title from Paul Buentello two years ago, but fights regularly in Japan and Europe and hasn't been back in the U.S. since. He was 229 pounds at the time, and his ballooning physique has been the subject of more than a little speculation, since MMA outside North America has neither governmental regulation nor steroid testing.
Overeem will next face Kazuyuki Fujita, a well-known former Japanese pro wrestler, on the annual New Year's Eve show at the Saitama Super Arena, and is coming off going to the semifinals on Dec. 5 in the K-1 World Grand Prix tournament.
"K-1 has the best standup fighters in the world, and Alistair beat Peter Aerts [one of the all-time great heavyweight kickboxers] and Badr Hari [the current golden boy of that sport's heavyweight division]," Coker noted. "He lost to Badr Hari by TKO in the Grand Prix, but he knocked out [Ewerton] Texeira [in the first round of the tournament], and nobody had ever knocked out Texeira. He's a real beast. How many other MMA fighters could go into the K-1 World Grand Prix and do anything? The answer is none."
Strikeforce runs a three-tiered system. The "Challengers Series" events are there to try out, expose and build newcomers. The first star to emerge from that program has been Tyron Woodley (6-0). A former All-American wrestler who has adapted remarkably fast to both striking and jiu-jitsu, with great speed and explosiveness, Woodley appears to have all the tools to be one of the top welterweights in the world and is a fighter UFC wishes it discovered first. He's also expecting middleweight Luke Rockhold (6-1) to make significant waves over the next year. Showtime's major events, roughly eight over the next year, will feature bigger names and emanate from the major arenas, like Saturday's show. The biggest shows will be on CBS.
One of Coker's big goals for 2010 is to have a show televised from Japan with a Dream vs. Strikeforce theme, matching up the best fighters in each organization.
"I'm going there for the New Year's Eve show to start talks," he said. "But you know with the Japanese, deals move very slowly."
Still, Coker talks of bringing Dream's top stars to the U.S., with ideas for fights next year like Nick Diaz vs. Hayato Sakurai, Dream lightweight champion Shinya Aoki against the winner of Saturday's Josh Thomson vs. Gilbert Melendez match for the Strikeforce lightweight title, a deal he said was "about 90 percent there," or even a legends match with Frank Shamrock vs. Kazushi Sakuraba, which would have been one of the biggest matches possible eight years ago.
Saturday night, things are closer to home, at the HP Pavilion where the company started nearly four years ago. Coker has scaled down the arena to 10,000-11,000 and hopes to have it full, with Le vs. Scott Smith and Thomson vs. Melendez as the main matches, as well as submission specialist Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza against former Olympic Greco-Roman silver medalist Matt Lindland, and the Strikeforce debut of Mohammed "King Mo" Lawal, a former national champion wrestler who became a sensation last year in Japanese rings as a rookie.
- Fedor Emelianenko
- Gina Carano
- Alistair Overeem