Scott Coker leaves legacy of MMA success despite Strikeforce's demise

Kevin Iole
Yahoo! Sports

More than a quarter of a century ago, Scott Coker sat at a desk in his Northern California home and began scribbling on a notepad. As he was about to embark on a career as a promoter of martial arts fights, he decided to write a mission statement to guide him.

It was, and remains, very much a personal document, but it's one that he's kept and referred to repeatedly over the years.

Coker is now one of the most successful mixed martial arts promoters in history and will stage his last Strikeforce show on Saturday in Oklahoma City on a card that will be broadcast nationally by Showtime.

From the first Strikeforce MMA show in 2006, which set a U.S. attendance record that still stands, until Saturday's finale, Coker accomplished the primary goal he scribbled on that pad, even as the organization prepares to shut down.

The primary tenet of the document was to remind himself that whatever else he did, he needed to contribute to the martial arts in a positive way.

"I believe in what martial arts does for people," the Strikeforce CEO said. "The perseverance, the indomitable spirit, the respect, the character building, all the things that martial arts teaches you, not just combative but in life skills, is important for people to know.

"So I said to myself, 'This is what I am going to dedicate my life to, to spreading the gospel, spreading the word, about martial arts teachings.' And whether I was teaching myself, or whether I was studying martial arts myself, which I do and I believe in, or whether it was promoting martial arts fights on a small scale or on a big platform, like we are today on Showtime, the mission statement has always stayed true."

Strikeforce debuted as a kick boxing company in 1992, with Javier Mendez fighting in the main event. Mendez now is one of MMA's most respected coaches and runs the American Kickboxing Academy in San Jose, Calif.

Mendez has remained close with Coker and said that as Strikeforce fades into the history books, his pal has never changed.

Coker was about all the fights.

[Related: Top five memorable Strikeforce moments]

"He's driven to make great shows," Mendez said. "He's never been driven by popularity, or fame or attention. He was driven by creating great things, by putting on shows fans wanted to see, by doing things that people thought couldn't be done. He's had great, great success over the years, but he's still the same guy. If he gives you his word, you can rely on it. His word is golden. He's one of those rare people you meet, who when he tells you he is going to do something, he does it."

What he's done mostly with Strikeforce is put on great fights. In 2005, as it appeared that the California State Athletic Commission would vote to regulate MMA and allow fights in the state, Coker was in constant contact with the commission’s then-executive officer Armando Garcia.

He wanted to put on the first officially sanctioned show in the state. Garcia told him he could.

Coker, fighter Frank Shamrock and a few others convened at a Starbucks in San Jose, in early 2005 and began mapping out the organization that would become the Strikeforce MMA promotion.

"There was a groundswell coming and you could feel that," Shamrock said.

MMA, though, was far from mainstream and two of the biggest names in the sport at that time were Shamrock and Gracie: Ken Shamrock, Frank's brother; and Royce Gracie, Cesar's cousin.

Frank Shamrock was a major name, however, and Coker believed that promoting another Shamrock-Gracie fight would do good business.

Little did he know how good it would be.

He was expecting a crowd of around 6,000. The morning before the fight, he received a call from Steve Kirsner, the director of booking for the HP Pavilion in San Jose.

"He said, 'Hey Scott, I just wanted to let you know we're sold out,' and so I said, 'Good. Let's just open up a few more sections,' " Coker said. "And he kind of laughed and he said, 'Scott, you don't understand. We're sold out.' And I said, 'Completely sold out.' He said, 'Completely.' I was shocked and all I could think was whether he had saved some tickets for my family."

Coker's family managed to get in, though around 5,000 who showed up to see the event were turned away. The crowd of 18,265 remains a U.S. record for MMA attendance, as does the paid gate of more than 17,000.

It was the first of a series of hits for Coker, whose Strikeforce brand turned fighters such as Cung Le, Nick Diaz, Ronda Rousey and Gilbert Melendez into stars.

Frank Shamrock, who has had a long and bitter feud with UFC president Dana White, worries about the future of the sport without Coker. Coker said he's going to meet with Zuffa officials about his next act, but Shamrock said the sport will be lesser without Coker directly involved.

"First and foremost, the talent is going to be hurt," Shamrock said. "Fighters are going to have doors closed in their faces. They don't have as many options. It's going to be harder for guys to chart their own course.

"Scott is very comfortable for a fighter to deal with as a promoter. You could tell him your goals and your ideas and what you wanted to do, and he'd work with you to help you reach those goals. He created limitless opportunities."

Coker was something of an unwitting victim as Strikeforce has died a slow and somewhat ugly death. When his partners at Silicon Valley Sports & Entertainment decided in 2011 they wanted to sell in order to concentrate on running the San Jose Sharks, Strikeforce was purchased by Zuffa.

Coker worked well with White and UFC CEO Lorenzo Fertitta, but White had issues with Showtime that ultimately led to Strikeforce's demise.

The original plan for the final Strikeforce show was to have all of its champions defend their belts on the show. That meant Rousey defending the bantamweight title, Melendez the lightweight belt, Nate Marquardt the welterweight belt, Luke Rockhold the middleweight belt and Daniel Cormier the heavyweight grand prix title.

[Related: Who benefits from Strikeforce's end?]

But Rousey signed with the UFC and Melendez and Rockhold were injured and were unable to fight.

The final card, headlined by Marquardt against Tarec Saffiedine and Cormier against Dion Staring, lacks the sizzle that a Rousey-Melendez-Rockhold-Cormier show would have.

Coker, though, is hardly upset. He said he expects Saturday's card "to be special," and is excited to see the fights.

At the end of the day, perhaps the reason for Coker's success is that he's a fan himself. He puts on fights he loves to see.

He calls Shamrock, Le, Melendez and Josh Thomson the pillars of Strikeforce, but Coker has been the real pillar. He's the guy who identified and then helped build the stars and make the promotion what it became.

"Scott loves martial arts, all the martial arts, so much, and he's dedicated so much of his life to them," Mendez said. "He's done great things for this sport, really and truly great things. He's been a big factor in the growth and the success of [MMA]."

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