(Smith was just luring Le into his trap.)
The story of Strikeforce’s growth from a regional promotion to budding national player can be separated into two chapters with its solo debut on Showtime on April 11, 2009 serving as the dividing line between them. The new year figures to add new and exciting chapters to the tale so let’s reflect on the 10 moments that have defined the San Jose-based promotion so far.
1. Shamrock vs. Gracie, March 10, 2006
Scott Coker, a longtime promoter of kickboxing matches, became the first person to host a sanctioned mixed martial arts contest in California on March 10, 2006. His friend and MMA legend Frank Shamrock headlined the event opposite a first-time fighter with a marketable name in local Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu guru and world renowned trainer Cesar Gracie. Budding stars like Nathan Diaz, Gilbert Melendez and Clay Guida fought on the card, which featured Cung Le’s first foray into the cage.
Coker scored the first million-dollar gate for a North American MMA show outside of the Ultimate Fighting Championship and set an attendance record by filling the HP Pavilion with 17,465 spectators.
2. Gilbert Melendez vs. Clay Guida, June 9, 2006
After Clay Guida upset Josh Thomson to become the first Strikeforce Lightweight Champion, Gilbert Melendez went 25 minutes with Guida in the Chicagoan’s first defense. “El Nino” managed to keep a higher pace and get the better of exchanges against the relentless 155-pounder. It was the organization’s first contest between elite fighters.
3. Gina Carano vs. Elaina Maxwell, Dec. 8 2006
Gina Carano competed in Strikeforce’s cage against then-Cung Le protégé Elaina Maxwell. Carano wasn’t a crossover star yet and Maxwell was favored in the bout. It was an early indicator of “Conviction”’s potential and brought Strikeforce’s dedication to female fighting over from the kickboxing ring and into the cage.
4. Playboy Mansion, Sept. 29, 2007
Strikeforce scored a publicity coup when it hosted the first ever mixed martial arts contest live from the Playboy Mansion. It was an outside-the-box move that kept the promotion’s name in hardcore fans’ conversations and got mainstream fans attention at the same time. It was also the California show’s first brush with wider audiences as Yahoo! featured live streaming video of the show.
5. Cung Le vs. Frank Shamrock, March 9, 2008
Local heroes Cung Le and Strikeforce Middleweight Champion threw down with Frank Shamrock on a Showtime-televised co-promotion with EliteXC. While Strikeforce’s co-promotions caused brand confusion, the relationship laid the groundwork for Strikeforce’s expansion when its sometimes partner bit the dust.
(Round 3 of Le vs. Shamrock.)
1. Nick Diaz vs. Frank Shamrock, April 11, 2009
Frank Shamrock’s been a go-to for Strikeforce, a dependable draw with a finish-or-be-finished style. He headlined against young outlaw Nick Diaz, a street-hardened fighter who lacks Shamrock’s media savvy. Diaz pounded Shamrock out in an electric arena, signaling a changing of the guard. The card was business as usual in San Jose, but for Strikeforce’s first solo go on Showtime, it was as solid a performance as a promoter could have wanted.
2) Co-Main Events, June 6, 2009
Without titles on the line and a rare catch weight main event headlining a card, Strikeforce had to avoid the sophomore curse. And they did by booking co-main events between Brett Rogers and Andrei Arlovski and Robbie Lawler and Jake Shields kept their momentum going.
Rogers knocked out the former UFC Heavyweight Champion in 22 seconds. The emphatic win declared there were exciting, UFC-quality prospects in Strikeforce, wearing away at the notion that it was a promotion full of also-rans and has-beens. Shields further eroded that myth by moving up in weight to middleweight and defeating a top-10 opponent decisively. The fights called attention to the quality of Strikeforce’s thin roster.
3. Gina Carano vs. “Cyborg” Santos, August 15, 2009
The first female mixed martial arts champion of a major promotion was crowned after just five minutes of the Showtime main event action between Gina Carano and her foil, Cristiane “Cyborg” Santos. The Brazilian stopped MMA’s leading lady with her remorseless attack and the fight was received warmly by fans in attendance and at home, solidifying Strikeforce as the premier showcase for female warriors.
4. Fedor Emelianenko vs. Brett Rogers Nov. 7, 2009
Millions tuned in to see the consensus top-ranked heavyweight turn in his second knockout of 2009. The stoic Russian was a hit in the arena and on television – Strikeforce and CBS hope to burnish their star again in April of 2010.
(The end begins at 8:20.)
5. Evolution, Dec. 19, 2009
The adage open strong, close strong rang true for Strikeforce with its last event of its banner year. Scott Smith proved to be the sport’s best comeback fighter by shoving Cung Le’s first loss down his throat with a KO punch late in the third round. It was analogous to Strikeforce’s status as an underdog with a puncher’s chance. But when Josh Thomson and Gilbert Melendez put on a “Fight of the Year”-candidate-bout for the second year in a row it cemented Strikeforce as a realistic home for world-class fighters in their prime.