SAN JOSE, Calif. – It was the beginning of one era and the end of another as Nick Diaz defeated MMA legend Frank Shamrock in Strikeforce's explosive debut Saturday night as Showtime's mixed martial arts promotion.
It might have been the final curtain for one of MMA's all-time greats. Shamrock, whose ability to sell fights is a big reason Strikeforce can be the long term No. 2 MMA promotion in North America behind UFC, couldn't hang with Diaz in the show's main event, likely making him the last of the original pioneers of the sport to fall from major event headliner status.
Diaz (19-7, 1 no contest) dominated Shamrock (23-10-2) throughout their 179-pound catch weight fight, using his significant reach to keep Shamrock from getting any effective offense.
Shamrock, at 36, has a career that dates back to the first world championship tournament in the sport, the 1994 King of Pancrase event in Tokyo. It peaked with a run in 1998-99 when he was the top star in UFC as its first middleweight (the weight class now known as light heavyweight) champion.
Entering Saturday's fight with cracked ribs from training, Shamrock took a second-round body shot in the one place he couldn't afford to take one, knocking him to the canvas. After taking hard Diaz punches on the ground, referee John McCarthy stopped the fight at 3:57.
There was a mixed reaction from the crowd of 15,521 in Shamrock's hometown. Diaz, from nearby Stockton, had a large and vociferous cheering section that booed Shamrock. The crowd was originally split when both men came out. But as the fight went on, the Diaz supporters grew louder as he dominated the battle.
"I jacked up my ribs," Shamrock said after the fight. "But that had nothing to do with what happened. Nick Diaz kicked my ass tonight."
It was both a happy and sad night for promoter Scott Coker, who called the event a grand slam success, but sensed the guy who paved the way for all this to happen may have fought his last big-time fight.
"It's sad because Frank is my friend and he and his wife are my social friends," said Coker, whose initial success in promoting MMA came March 10, 2006, when Shamrock knocked out Cesar Gracie at the HP Pavilion before a sellout of 18,265 fans.
Diaz was 22 at the time, and was Gracie's corner man. It was a night that left a lot of scars that may have been healed for him with the victory that ended a three-year quest to avenge his teacher.
"If that fight would have gone to the ground, Cesar would have submitted him," said Diaz after the fight, still reliving that night.
When the match ended, Diaz helped Shamrock to his feet.
"I told him to get up, you're a legend," said Diaz, who in prefight hype said that Shamrock was not a legend to him.
"It's over," he said, apparently of the memories of the night three years ago.
One of the most unhappy spectators during the match was Tito Ortiz, the loser of Shamrock's most legendary match, a UFC middleweight championship match ten years ago. Ortiz was hoping to avenge that loss in a ten-year anniversary of the match later this year.
"I felt like I was watching money disappear," said Ortiz, who has not signed with Strikeforce.
(Ortiz appeared at the postfight news conference and turned his sights on Strikeforce light heavyweight champion Renato "Babalu" Sobral, giving him the nickname "Baba-Who?")
Both Ortiz and Coker conceded any thoughts of a Shamrock vs. Ortiz rematch are out the window. While Shamrock talked of fighting again after it was over, it's going to be tough for him to headline against the type of opponents that would be big-money matches after consecutive stoppage losses to Diaz and Cung Le, even with his promotional ability.
In the three years since its debut as an MMA promotion, Strikeforce, which started as a local kickboxing promotion, has grown from an organization that ran a few shows a year in San Jose, to one that plans to run as many as 16 shows, all over the United States over the next year, all nationally televised on Showtime or CBS.
Saturday's card had a more professional vibe and was far more organized than its predecessor, Elite XC, which ran the past two years on the network.
The show opened in dynamic fashion with big heavyweights, as 262.5 pound Brett Rogers (10-0), stopped Ron "Abongo" Humphrey (5-1) with a second-round stoppage.
The most controversial fight of the night saw Cristiane "Cyborg" Santos overwhelm an undersized Hitomi Akano. The crowd wasn't familiar with Santos before the match, but in leaving she was like a rock star due to her all-action style reminiscent of a young Wanderlei Silva. During the match, there were constant cutaways to Gina Carano at ringside, Santos' main rival. Each shot of Carano drew a louder reaction than the one before, with each round as Santos won over the crowd.
Coker said he's been talking with Carano's agent, Matt Walker, and hopes to put together the fight, possibly for August, which would likely be the first major MMA event in North America headlined by a women's fight.
But Santos (7-1), a Brazilian billed as the toughest woman South of the equator, missed weight by seven pounds, coming in at 152. Akano (14-6), primarily a grappler, was champion at 128 pounds in Japan, and of late has moved to 135. She bulked up to 143.5 for the opportunity for the opportunity to fight on a major U.S. show for a bout at a contracted 145.
Santos cut to 150.5 late Friday night when the California State Athletic Commission, seeing how drawn she was getting, told her not to cut anymore and agreed to approve the match because she had gotten to within seven pounds of Akano's weight. However, Akano's camp first refused, and it wasn't until making a series of concessions including promises to bring her and some of her teammates in for more bouts in the future, that Akano's camp agreed to the fight at 2 a.m. the night before. By the time the two were in the cage, Santos had rehydrated and eaten, and looked about 20 pounds heavier.
The highlight-reel fight of the show saw Scott Smith (17-5, 1 no contest) snatch victory from the jaws of defeat with a late third-round knockout of Benji Radach (19-5), who had dominated the first two rounds.
"He absolutely beat the hell out of me," said Smith, who admitted he came close to not answering the bell for Round 3. "I was knocked out a few times and the fight was a blur. There's a lot I don't remember."
Smith came out strong in the third round and knocked Radach out at 3:24 with a right, and his two sons, ages 12 and 5, were brought into the cage to celebrate.
Gilbert Melendez (15-2) became interim Strikeforce lightweight champion finishing Rodrigo Damm (8-3) in the second round, and looked forward to a bout with champion Josh Thomson next.
"It's five to six weeks before I can start training," said Thomson, who broke his leg in training ten days before the fight. "I'm looking at fighting in August."