LOS ANGELES – It appeared the participants at Thursday's Strikeforce news conference were going to say all the right things. The promotion was glad for a new platform on Showtime. The cable network was pleased it is back in the mixed martial arts game, after its last promotional partner, Elite XC, crashed and burned. The fighters were happy to simply have a chance to fight and make money again.
But then main eventer Nick Diaz showed up at Avalon Hollywood, ready to prove that while Strikeforce and Showtime are turning the page on Elite XC, the old promotion's three-ring circus atmosphere isn't quite dead and buried yet. Diaz refused to shake hands with his opponent on the April 11 card at San Jose's HP Pavilion, former UFC light heavyweight champion Frank Shamrock, greeting him instead with a one-finger salute. The controversial fighter then refused to play along for the cameras and wouldn't come in close for the traditional two-fisted fight pose.
The remainder of the event turned into a show worthy of admission. While Diaz has a reputation for running his mouth, the 36-year-old Shamrock has stayed relevant as a headliner through his quick wit and his ability to talk people into buying tickets as much as for his skills in the ring.
"My son's five years younger than Nick," said Shamrock (23-9-2). "If he acted like [Diaz] I used to send him to his room, take away his allowance."
"Where's he at?" Diaz (18-7, 1 no-contest) retorted. "I'll fight him."
"He's in college," Shamrock said. "You wouldn't know."
The match will be fought at a catchweight of 179 pounds. Shamrock, the first holder of what is now known as the Ultimate Fighting Championship light heavyweight title back in 1999, has fought in recent years at middleweight; Diaz fought at 160 pounds in Elite XC after competing as a welterweight in the UFC.
"He's got little man's disease," Diaz curiously claimed, given Shamrock is the heavier fighter. "We were shooting the promos for the fight and he was all oiled up. They didn't even give me any oil. He's going to have to push his weights and do whatever else he does to keep up with me."
Whatever Diaz was trying to imply with that statement, Shamrock had questions of his own. "Nick's got to pass a drug test," Shamrock said. "Ask him. Have you passed your drug test yet Nick?"
"I'll be fighting either way," said Diaz, whose biggest career win, over then-PRIDE lightweight champ Takanori Gomi in 2007, was changed to a no-contest after he tested positive for marijuana.
Shamrock has made the HP Pavilion his home base in recent years, beating Cesar Gracie and Phil Baroni there and losing the Strikeforce middleweight title to Cung Le last year. Shamrock was asked whether he or Diaz, from nearby Stockton, would be the favorite.
"It's my arena," Shamrock said. "They're going to have to rename it Shamrock Stadium. I've got my own parking spot at the arena. Do you have your own parking spot, Nick?"
"No, and I don't have no [expletive] dressy suits either," the sweatshirt-and-jeans clad Diaz told the nattily-attired Shamrock.
If the banter and trash talk continues for the next month – a given, considering the participants – the card should have plenty of hype for what Showtime Sports vice president Ken Hershman called "MMA version 2.0."
The collapse of Elite XC, and the Showtime and CBS programming that went with it, left a gaping hole in the schedule for fans in search of an alternative to the industry juggernaut UFC.
"The first time we dove into MMA, the pool was empty," quipped Hershman. "But we never wavered in our commitment to the sport. MMA offers a dynamic audience in the demographics we're looking for, and it complements our boxing coverage well. With Strikeforce, we know we're partnering people who know what they're doing."
That may sound like standard corporate-speak for a new venture, but truth is, Hershman's optimism is well-founded.
Elite XC's promoters came from a boxing background and never seemed to grasp the differences inherent in promoting the two sports. Strikeforce boss Scott Coker, on the other hand, has been around martial arts promotion since the mid-1980s, including a stint as ESPN2's main kickboxing provider and another as Japanese company K-1's American promoter.
Coker started his MMA promotion in 2006 with strong local draws in Shamrock and Le and grew the product from there.
"He didn't try to do everything at once," said Gilbert Melendez, who has been with Strikeforce since its debut. "He didn't go throwing around millions of dollars trying to overtake the UFC. He built it up slowly and built up a good relationship with the people around him."
As an example, Melendez used his April 11 co-feature against Josh Thomson, in which he'll attempt to regain the Strikeforce lightweight title he lost to Thomson last year.
"I've only got one fight left on my Strikeforce contract," Melendez said. "[Coker] knows there is interest with UFC, but we're both working on a new deal in good faith. I wouldn't do that for just any promoter, and some promoters wouldn't take that risk with someone in my position. That's why you see so many guys stay so loyal to Strikeforce."
Coker is unique among major MMA promoters in that he doesn't actively seek the spotlight. For one thing, he has too much work to do behind the scenes. Strikeforce has 16 shows on its contract, and so far, officials have only announced a main event for their second card – former Elite XC middleweight champ Robbie Lawler will meet former EXC welterweight champ Jake Shields at 182 pounds. The card, originally slated for Tacoma, Wash., is likely to end up at a Midwest venue instead.
"I don't need to be the face of the promotion," Coker said. "'I like to sit in the arena and watch the show, see how the people are reacting. That's where I get my satisfaction. I've been to big boxing matches and felt the buzz, and if I can give the fans that feeling, that they've seen something great, then I've done my job."
For his part, Shamrock wants to give the fans in San Jose something extra. "I hope Nick has his friends there," he said. "So they can catch his head when I knock it into the second row."