A deal negotiated over several months was finalized Thursday with contract signings that immediately makes the San Jose, Calif.-based Strikeforce promotion the leading competitor to the industry leading Ultimate Fighting Championship.
Strikeforce promoter and co-owner Scott Coker confirmed separate deals were signed Thursday to both buy certain assets from Pro Elite, Inc., which ran the now-defunct Elite XC promotion, as well as television deals with both CBS and Showtime.
The first show under this deal will be April 11 at the HP Pavilion in San Jose, headlined by Frank Shamrock, 36, a legend from the early days of mixed martial arts in the U.S. and Japan.
Coker said the company is talking about several different opponents for Shamrock, a former UFC middleweight (now light heavyweight) champion, who lost his Strikeforce middleweight title to Cung Le on March 29, suffering a broken arm in the process.
Shamrock has proven to be one of the best non-UFC draws in the mixed martial arts business, headlining the two largest paid attendance shows ever in North America, both in his hometown of San Jose, as well as drawing two of the three largest ratings for MMA on the Showtime network, for matches with Renzo Gracie and Phil Baroni.
Coker said he did not purchase the contracts for all of the estimated 80 fighters under Elite XC deals, but that all the key names came with the deal, including Kimbo Slice, who still holds the record for the most-watched MMA match ever in North America in a CBS match last year.
Also confirmed as part of the deal were the country’s most popular female fighter, Gina Carano, lightweight stars Nick Diaz and Eddie Alvarez as well as Elite XC middleweight champion Robbie Lawler, and welterweight champion Jake Shields.
Elite XC’s heavyweight champion, Antonio Silva, would not be part of the deal because he is facing revocation of his fighting license for competing in a match in Japan on Jan. 4 while on suspension for failing a steroid test on July 26. In that match he won the vacant championship against the late Justin Eilers.
The promotion will use the Strikeforce name, and Coker said a decision regarding the status of the various championships recognized by Strikeforce and Elite XC would be forthcoming in about a week.
Coker said the deal would include 12 live events per year on Showtime, which would be split similar to the Elite XC contract. Roughly half will be live prime-time events featuring name fighters and held in major arenas, and the others will be developmental shows held in smaller arenas and on Native American reservations and airing later.
The CBS deal calls for up to four shows per year, airing on Saturday nights in prime time. Elite XC ran three events on CBS last year, two of which were considered ratings successes.
Strikeforce also has a television deal in place with NBC, airing a 30-minute show of taped matches from their video library in a late Saturday night/Sunday morning time slot that airs in most markets between 2 and 4 a.m.
The only official match for the debut show will pit Scott Smith, who had two shots at Lawler’s championship last year, against former IFL middleweight champion Benji Radach. Coker is also hopeful of putting together a match with Strikeforce lightweight champion Josh Thomson against K.J. Noons, who held the Elite XC version of the title before being stripped of it in October in a contract dispute with Elite XC management.
Strikeforce plans to line up match-ups this year from stars created on television and then go to the pay-per-view venue when ready.
"We’ll also be in the pay-per-view business, but not right away," said Coker. "We’re looking at building Strikeforce fighters and Pro Elite fighters to make compelling matches. We’ll put those matches on pay-per-view when we’re ready.”
As far as the one potential superfight Elite XC left on the table – Carano against Brazilian Cristiane "Cyborg" Santos – Coker said Carano wants to do that match right away, but he wouldn’t commit to how soon.
Coker said Strikeforce would remain a private company owned by himself and Silicon Valley Sports and Entertainment, which runs the HP Pavilion in San Jose, as well as the NHL’s San Jose Sharks.
Strikeforce's roster of fighters includes Le, Shamrock, Thomson, Gilbert Melendez, Joe Riggs, Bobby Southworth and Kazuo Misaki. It also recognizes Renato "Babalu" Sobral as light heavyweight champion and Alistair Overeem as heavyweight champion.
While promoting its key events in San Jose, it has run successful shows in other markets including Seattle, Denver, and Los Angeles. With the new deal, it will expand to running shows across the U.S.
Strikeforce still holds the record for the highest paid attendance for an MMA event in the U.S. – a Shamrock vs. Cesar Gracie match which drew 17,465 paying fans and 18,265 total on March 10, 2006. The UFC’s largest paying crowd for a U.S. show was 17,358, although there were more than 19,000 in the arena, for the March 3, 2007 fight between Randy Couture and Tim Sylvia in Columbus, Ohio.
Most of the fighters who had signed with Elite XC had been in a deep freeze since the company closed up shop in October. By not actually declaring bankruptcy, and attempting to sell what was left of the company, stalled negotiations meant most had not been able to fight for months.
A deal between Pro Elite, Inc. and Strikeforce was on the table ready to be signed in December, but it fell apart at the last minute.
Agents representing the key fighters were ready to serve Elite XC with legal papers, attempting to get the fighters declared free agents because they had to sit out months without being paid. In recent days, the agents had been informed that a deal was about to be completed with Strikeforce, and had held off on the legal process.
"It’s the best possible situation," said Ken Pavia, who represents a number of fighters who had been under Elite XC contracts.
- Elite XC
- Frank Shamrock
- San Jose