Strikeforce No Longer A Dark Horse

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I wrote in the April 2009 issue of FIGHT! Magazine that Strikeforce is a “dark horse ready to prove itself as a thoroughbred,” and as 2009 comes to a close the San Jose-based promotion looks like it’s ready to run.

Having promoted combat sports since 1985, Strikeforce founder and CEO Scott Coker entered the mixed martial arts game in March 2006 by breaking a North American paid attendance record (17,465; since broken by the Ultimate Fighting Championship in Canada) and scoring the first million-dollar gate outside of the UFC.

Unlike other upstart promotions that flamed out within 24 months of their respective launches, Strikeforce then continued modestly. It remained profitable because of its strategic partnership with Silicon Valley Sports & Entertainment, the company that operates the National Hockey Leagues’s San Jose Sharks as well as the Sharks’ home, the HP Pavilion, its commitment to women’s MMA, and its patient approach to growth and expansion. But it will grow exponentially because of three relationships it built in 2009.

Much like the UFC considers Las Vegas it’s hometown, Strikeforce has a rear naked choke on northern California. The promotion sells out its home arena using fighters from San Jose, San Francisco, Sacramento, and Stockton, fighters who sell tickets in the Bay Area but couldn’t carry a pay per view. Strikeforce’s relationship with the SVS&E allows it to produce three or four home run shows each year and use San Jose as a launching pad to travel to new cities such as Tacoma, Denver, Kansas City, Chicago, and Miami.

If EliteXC did one thing right, it’s the promotion of Gina Carano. Among the many things Strikeforce has done right is the decision to pick up the torch of women’s MMA. None of the ladies share Carano’s name recognition, but they nearly all bring it when the bell rings, and crowds pop when the women start swinging. You’re not going to get women’s MMA from Zuffa anytime soon, which allows Strikeforce to own that slice of the market.

Until recently, Strikeforce featured only a handful of fighters in each division and it’s best prospects (Cain Velasquez, Nate Diaz, and Clay Guida) jumped ship to the UFC. But the promotion is slowly stocking its roster through the Strikeforce Challengers feeder shows and in the future, the talent they discover will be kept in-house (see: Luke Rockhold).

By carving out a corner of the market for his product, nurturing it cautiously and distinguishing himself from the competition, Coker has laid the foundation for success. But its the three major deals he made in 2009 that will push Strikeforce from regional dominance to mainstream prominence.

Strikeforce’s partnership with Dream was a groundbreaking move that will create the bridge between American and Japanese mixed martial arts that hardcore fans hoped would exist after Zuffa purchased Pride. Non-exclusive deals allow fighters to stay busy and build followings in North America and Asia, beefing up Strikeforce’s bullpen of available fighters and hopefully offering a lifeline to the flagging Japanese MMA scene.

The promotion’s relationship with Showtime/CBS is by no means groundbreaking but it is significant in the fact that for the first time a properly managed MMA promotion not owned by Zuffa is airing live fights on premium cable and broadcast airwaves. It’s difficult to predict the long-term impact of the deal on mixed martial arts, but it’s safe to say that it’s a good thing for both fighters and fans.

Last but certainly not least is Strikeforce’s partnership with Electronic Arts. The video game giant was hesitant to get in bed with the UFC to develop an MMA game but revealed its plans to release EA MMA after THQ experienced a breakout hit with “UFC Undisputed 2009.” EA has tremendous resources but needed noteworthy names besides Randy Couture and Fedor Emelianenko to make the game work. Enter Strikeforce and its roster of fighters. It’s rumored that EA will announce a partnership with a Japanese promotion as well, which could mean that the game will feature just about any noteworthy fighter not currently under contract with the UFC or WEC. Again, it’s hard to predict what impact this will have, but this association will do nothing but raise Strikeforce’s profile.

Coker is a promoter but not a self-promoter, a buttoned-down counterpart to Dana White. The fact that the two promoters have expressed genuine respect for each other could mean that MMA is entering an era of mutually beneficial competition. After, this dark horse is starting to catch the bettors’ attention.

Closing Shots

Scott Smith cemented his place as mixed martial art’s best comeback kid when he stopped former Strikeforce Middleweight Champion Cung Le by technical knockout with 95 ticks remaining a fight he was losing handily. A fight with Tim Kennedy should be in order. Le’s likely back to Hollywood, but a fight with Frank Shamrock would be a welcome sequel.

Gilbert Melendez officially has a clean slate. In a “Fight of the Year”-worthy bout, Melendez recaptured the Strikeforce Lightweight Championship from Josh Thomson, avenging his 2008 loss. Besting Thomson in a 25-minute war leaves Melendez, 18-2, with a clean slate as he avenged his first career loss, Misuhiro Ishida, earlier this year. A fight with Shinya Aoki is ideal to determine the best lightweight in the world not named B.J. Penn, while Thomson would create fireworks against a returning KJ Noons.

Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza demonstrated his submission brilliance over 2000 Olympic Greco-Roman Wrestling Silver Medalist Matt Lindland with an arm-triangle choke in round one. The Brazilian would have a war with Bellator’s Hector Lombard. Meanwhile, “The Law” should face off with another recent hard-luck middleweight in Jason “Mayhem” Miller, if only for Miller’s ability to make any fight attractive.

Muhammed “King Mo” Lawal overcame a 43-pound weight difference to knockout Mike Whitehead for the first time in Whitehead’s career after making his typical grand entrance. A fight with Antwain Britt coud challenge Lawal’s still-developing skills and Whitehead should see if he has better luck against Mike Kyle.

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