Saturday night in Oklahoma City marks the final chapter for Strikeforce mixed martial arts, ending a turbulent and groundbreaking period in the sport.
Moving from regional promotion to one of global significance, Strikeforce offered a compelling model for how organizations could rise to a place of national prominence during the Zuffa era. And, of course, the subsequent demise of Strikeforce produced a cautionary tale that indicated trying to put on big-boy pants in this business is a fool's errand.
Over his six years in the MMA business (following 20 as a kickboxing promoter), Strikeforce CEO Scott Coker took risks, made his vision come to life, then saw it come down like a house of cards. During that time, however, his promotion delivered many moments -- good and bad, in the cage and out.
Regardless of the promotional brand, mixed martial arts delivers furious conflict. And under the Strikeforce banner, no two fighters delivered on that promise better than Nick Diaz and Paul Daley.
Headlining the first major Strikeforce card of the Zuffa era, Diaz and Daley, competing for the promotion's 170-pound title, unleashed a furious opening round that ended with three seconds left when Diaz put the Englishman down. Strikeforce often delivered action in part because the rules encouraged it (no elbow strikes on the ground) and the types of fighters Strikeforce looked to promote (it wasn't wrestler-heavy).
9. Heavyweight Grand Prix
Well-intentioned as it was, the Strikeforce heavyweight grand prix -- a multi-stage tournament that in theory could have crowned the baddest man on the planet -- was a flop. From injuries to postponements to a reserve fighter winning the whole thing, the ambitious effort never delivered what it billed. Daniel Cormier, by all rights a terrific alternate, handled Josh Barnett in the finals. And Zuffa, which ceded control of Strikeforce shortly after the tournament's open round in February 2011, decided to move heavyweights out of the promotion entirely.
From what could have been to what was, the heavyweight GP proved to be many things, especially a great source of frustration for Strikeforce and Showtime.
8. Emelianenko loses to Werdum
There weren't many people that gave Fabricio Werdum a shot to upend Fedor Emelianenko. But lest you forget, MMA is sport. Anything can happen. And Werdum made it so, stunning the Russian in 69 seconds to win by triangle choke. Forgetting everything he'd accomplished over the previous nine years, the result gave all the ammunition Emelianenko deniers needed to chip away at the Pride champion's legacy. Emelianenko would go on to lose three straight before righting the ship and retiring in 2012 with a 35-4 record. Werdum, meanwhile, was propelled into the upper echelon of the heavyweight division, where he remains.
7. Brawling in Nashville
Of all the times to start an in-cage melee, doing so on network television will go down as one of the worst moments in the promotion's history. Following a card that featured three lopsided championship contests on CBS, Jake Shields and his team were confronted in the cage by Jason Miller. It was a combustible scene yielding punching and stomping and all sorts of nonsense that prompted play-by-play man Gus Johnson to utter the infamous line: "Sometimes these things happen in MMA." As it turned out, the event in Nashville marked the final time Strikeforce appeared on CBS.
6. Carano versus Cyborg and the rise of women’s MMA
To credit Strikeforce with the growth of women in MMA would require forgetting many passionate players that preceded its efforts. But there's no question that the promotion eagerly adopted women into the fold, and allowed them tremendous visibility. Such was the case when Gina Carano, whose stardom rose out of the ashes of EliteXC, met her match in Cristiane "Cyborg" Santos. A couple weeks after the announcement that Fedor Emelianenko would join the promotion's heavyweight division, Carano, who by then was an extremely marketable commodity, suffered a beating at the hands of the Brazilian mauler -- the first major event to feature headlining female combatants. 2013 could deliver Ronda Rousey against Cyborg in the UFC, a fight unquestionably forged under the Strikeforce banner.
5. Signing Fedor Emelianenko
On the upswing following its acquisition of EliteXC talent and a quality television platform, Coker took a risk on the Russian heavyweight star regarded at the time as the world's best heavyweight. This wasn't just any deal. With Fedor Emelianenko came his promoter, M-1 Global, and a bull's-eye on Strikeforce's back that signified a regional show had evolved into a global venture. That meant it would be perceived as a "competitor" to the UFC, which was rebuffed in its attempts to sign the Russian. Emelianenko provided a big boost, as his debut on CBS scored just under 5.5 million viewers. In the end, despite the interest he generated, the deal for Fedor forced a relatively frugal promotion to accrue debt and that ultimately led investors to bail.
4. Strikeforce purchases ProElite assets, partners with Showtime
Strikeforce was already making waves in 2008 when it signed a broadcast deal with NBC to air taped programming, but the promotion didn't mature until the following year. Gobbling up assets from ProElite, including fighter contracts that included Nick Diaz, Jake Shields and Robbie Lawler, Strikeforce was now capable of producing enough content to fill a regular series of live fights. Thus the relationship with Showtime, which previously aired ProElite, was born. In addition to the deal with Showtime, Strikeforce also signed on to deliver live fights to CBS.
3. The talent
From the start of its venture into MMA, Strikeforce's small band of scouts and matchmakers pulled a wealth of talent from West Coast gyms, making the most of local relationships, particularly with American Kickboxing Academy and Cesar Gracie jiu-jitsu. Soon enough Strikeforce had signed internationally recognized fighters and lived as one of the few viable alternatives to the UFC. There's no question that history will be kind to Coker and his team when it comes to their ability to identify, showcase and develop fighters, all the while agreeing to more flexible partnerships that gave talent the option to compete in other venues.
2. First regulated event in California draws record turnout
California cleared the path toward MMA regulation, yet it took six years for the Golden State to actually oversee an event. On March 10, 2006, Strikeforce promoted the state's first MMA card, packing the HP Pavilion in San Jose, Calif., with 18,265 eager fight fans -- then a record in North America. Frank Shamrock returned to the cage for the first time in three years and in the headliner knocked out Cesar Gracie. His effort, along with fighters who became Strikeforce and UFC mainstays, made a memorable night for Strikeforce, and more broadly the sport in the U.S.
1. Zuffa purchases Strikeforce
Just as it appeared Strikeforce was set to be a true competitor to the UFC, Zuffa swooped in and rattled the landscape. The move, announced in March 2011, was monumental for several reasons. Though Zuffa said it planned for Strikeforce to operate independently, that never happened. Much of the promotion's staff was ousted in favor of Zuffa employees. Strikeforce fighters began matriculating to the Octagon.
Hope of Zuffa's promotional prowess augmenting what Strikeforce already had in place was dashed. Insiders took to calling Strikeforce a "zombie promotion," and as with the other organizations Zuffa purchased during its rise to the top of MMA, Strikeforce was eventually assigned to the dustbin of history.