After purchasing “select assets” including fighter contracts from Pro Elite last week, Strikeforce quickly went from a surprisingly successful regional promotion to a major player in the MMA scene almost overnight. In this exclusive interview CEO Scott Coker talks about the deal and the acquisitions, as well as what his organization has planned for its new talent.
CagePotato.com: Thanks for talking with me, Scott. Since you purchased the fighter contracts, how has the transition been going? Do you find that the fighters are eager to fight for Strikeforce now?
I’ll tell you, we’ve had about twenty or so, or about half of the roster, that we’ve reached out to as of this morning and had good conversations about scheduling and match-ups. I think that, at the end of the day, a lot of these guys just want to get back to work and get back to fighting so they can continue their careers. So I’d say the transition has been going well.
What about any fighters who might have been hoping to get free of their Pro Elite contracts and sign with the UFC?
I’ve only had that conversation with one fighter. And we’ve had two or three conversations with that fighter since, and now I think they may be feeling a different way than they were before. And I can understand the frustration that a lot of these fighters are feeling, because they’ve been out of work for a while. Not everybody fought on the last show in October. Some of them haven’t fought since June or July of last year.
We dealt with that frustration at the very beginning and we understood where it was coming from, but a lot of these guys I’ve known for a long time, their managers are friends of mine, so I think the ice has all been broken. And the fighter who was originally looking to go to the UFC is now saying, ‘Do you think I could fight by May?’ So I think they see what we’re doing and it’s going to be okay.
What made you decide that you needed to do this deal and get these fighter contracts?
It wasn’t just the fighter contracts. It was a complicated deal. The fighter contracts were a part of the asset purchase, and what was really compelling to me was that I felt Strikeforce had a strong roster already and we’ve done some amazing fights since we got into the business. But when I looked at the roster on the other side I thought, ‘Wow, we could do some amazing fights.’ So as a promoter and as someone who helps with the matchmaking, the possibilities of some of these match-ups were very attractive.
When you say it wasn’t just the fighter contracts, are you talking about the TV contracts with CBS and Showtime?
Here’s the thing: the deal was complicated. The TV contracts were not part of the asset purchase. The TV contracts were negotiated independent of the asset purchase. What I was told was that the TV contracts with Showtime and CBS for Pro Elite had already been cancelled. The asset purchase was really the fighter contracts, which I think will give us some amazing fights, and the library, which I think we can monetize, and then once we were in the fighter business we knew that the networks were familiar with certain fighters and wanted to see them on the air again, so that piece fell into place as well. It was kind of a domino effect, but it was quite complicated and it took a long time.
Obviously one of the fighters the network is familiar with is Kimbo. You’ve been very sympathetic towards him, but how would you actually use him now? Who would you put him against?
Well, the match-up, who would he fight, I don’t know. We have to have a conversation with him and his management. But I can tell you this, to get thrown in the limelight and have the pressure of being a main event on CBS when you only have three or four fights, it’s pretty challenging for anybody in any sport. He came from a background on the internet, fighting guys for money, but that’s not the same as professional prizefighting, going up against guys who are real professionals training out of real gyms for five or ten years. I just think he was put into a no-win situation.
We’re still in negotiations with Kimbo, and when I say negotiations I mean about stuff like when do you want to fight, what weight do you want to fight at, the type of opponent you see yourself fighting, where on the card you see yourself fighting. But at the end of the day, I think he wants to fight again.
Where would you put him on the card? You say he’s not really a main-eventer. Is he an undercard fighter to you?
I think he’s the guy in the middle of the card. And let him train, let him get back, let him get four or five fights and get some experience. The way it was done with him in the past, I’m not saying it was wrong or right, but it obviously didn’t work for him.
Let’s talk about specific fighters and your plans for them. How about Brett Rogers? What do you see in his future with Strikeforce?
Yeah, Brett Rogers is someone we want to put to work right away. It looks like he’ll probably fight in our May show. We know he’s a very strong heavyweight. We’ll try and put him to work and get him back in there and maybe he and Kimbo can fight some time in 2010.
Why 2010? That fight seemed to be building momentum and Pro Elite just wouldn’t let it happen. Why not go ahead and do it this year?
Well, it’s all about timing. If Kimbo says he wants to fight as early as the summertime, he might get one more fight after that before the end of the year, but would he be ready to fight someone like Brett Rogers before the end of the year? I’m not sure. If he said he wanted to do it, then we would do it, but I would think he’d want to get a few more fights under his belt before that.
Are you at all concerned that now that you have these network deals, you’ll get pressured to prop up Kimbo the way EliteXC did and give him easier fights to keep him in the limelight for the sake of ratings?
I can say this, our company is not built on setting up easy fights for people. We’ve had some great fights like Frank [Shamrock] vs. Cung [Le] and Josh [Thomson] vs. Gilbert [Melendez] that really required fighters to put their name and their reputation on the line. To me, fights should happen when people are asking for it and when the fighters are ready. With Kimbo and Brett Rogers, I think Kimbo will be ready eventually but I don’t know if he’ll be ready by the end of ’09.
As far as the network putting pressure on us to put Kimbo out there, I get it because he is a star. I have a son who’s about 22 years old and I asked him a week ago, ‘What do you think about Kimbo?’ And he said, ‘Oh, I can’t wait to see him fight again.’ He’d watched him on the internet and on CBS, so Kimbo has his following, and the networks know that, but it will have to be a balance finding a fight that’s equitable and fair on both sides.
What about K.J. Noons? Things got ugly between him and the Pro Elite management and he left MMA for boxing.
Oh, he’ll be back.
You sound pretty confident of that.
[Laughs] Here’s the deal: [Noons’ manager] Mark Dion and I have been friends for many years. We met a long time ago and KJ used to kickbox for me. But I know he wants to fight. I saw him at the Darchinyan-Arce fight last weekend, and he told me he still wants to fight in MMA, as well as boxing. So he’ll be back.
Now that you have these contracts and these TV deals, are you worried that it will put the bull’s eye on your back and the UFC will go from praising you, as Dana White has uncharacteristically done at times, to targeting you the way they’ve targeted Affliction?
I don’t think so. I think everybody knows that this is an industry that they built. In 2001 when they took it over from Bob Meyrowitz, they put their hard work and their passion for the sport into this, and they’re the ones who created the industry that we’re now in. People ask me this question a lot and what I say is, ‘Would we be talking right now if they didn’t do what they did for this industry?’ and the answer is no. Who knows what MMA would be today if they didn’t sustain it. We’re very respectful of that and as we grow we’ll continue to try and put on the best fights we can.
As far as the question of the UFC, one thing that helps us is that we are not the company that’s going to come out and say, ‘We have better fighters than you, we’re a better organization than you.’ Every company that has done that has gone out of business. And anybody who knows me knows that’s not my style. That’s not our company’s style. We’re just going to do our own thing and continue growing mixed martial arts into the future.
I’ve heard you talk about fighters you’d like to work with, guys like Jay Hieron and even Fedor Emelianenko, for example, who are with Affliction right now. It almost sounds like you think Affliction won’t be around too much longer and those guys will be free. Is that the case?
It’s not about thinking that Affliction will be going away, but it’s more like when Affliction wanted Paul Buentello, we said fine, we’ll let him fight for Affliction. Affliction wanted to use “Babalu” [Sobral], who was under contract with us, and we said fine. So in return I would think they’d reciprocate if we wanted to use Jay Hieron.
With Fedor, it’s a little different story. The economics of that situation are so much different than with any other fighters. We haven’t had any conversation with Fedor, and we haven’t had any conversations with Affliction about Fedor. But in the future, those conversations could happen, but I don’t see why we’d want to have a closed-door policy if it made good business sense to do a fight together with somebody.
You and I talked a couple months ago and you said the numbers from your late-night show on NBC made you realize that you had a good fanbase in the Midwest, and you were planning on going to St. Louis this year because of that. Now that you’re suddenly a little more big time, do you still plan to get on the road and visit new cities this year?
Yeah, now it really calls for us to get on the road, doesn’t it? Now we have so many more fights to fulfill, we’re really going to have to get out there and travel across the country at some point, aren’t we? But yes, we will look at the demographics that we’ve been monitoring over the past year and figure out where would be good place for us to go.
Do you think you can still keep your staff small, like you have in the past, as you run a bigger organization now?
Absolutely. I pride myself on the way we run this company. We’re pretty lean and mean and that’s helped us stay in the black when other companies were in the red. One of the biggest reasons is we have a company called Silicon Valley Sports Entertainment as our partner and we have all the resources of that company behind us. We probably will expand a little bit to meet the needs of the organization, but we have tremendous resources available to us so that we don’t need 100 employees to run this company.
And now that you’ve made this big step forward, are you feeling any added pressure?
I just feel like this is really a monumental moment for our company. The fights we’ll put together are going to be really great and help push us and the sport forward.