Coker: Without Strikeforce 'the fans will get to see the fights they want'
Strikeforce, the California-based professional mixed martial arts circuit that's been home to the likes of Frank Shamrock, Ronda Rousey, Fedor Emelianenko and Nick Diaz, will host its final promotion Saturday night from Oklahoma City's Chesapeake Energy Arena. Strikeforce's founder and CEO, Scott Coker, reflects back on everything from the league's humble beginnings, best fights, and bold decision to include women on its fight cards. Some content below has been edited for clarity.
SI: Strikeforce's final card features some amazing matchups. Which fight are you most looking forward to watching.
Coker: That's a tough one. We have so many great fights. When I think about this fight card, there's a lot of the old guard, the guys who have been around for a long time and then there's some of the new, up-and-coming guys. It's a toss up between the [Tarec] Saffiedine-[Nate] Marquardt fight and the other fight I'm really looking forward to seeing is the fight between KJ Noons and Ryan Couture.
KJ Noons started fighting for me when he was 16 years old. MMA wasn't even legal in the state of California and here's this 16-year-old kid who shows up for a kickboxing show and I ask him who old he was and he said, "I'm 16." I said, "Well, you can't fight." He says, "No, no, no. My dad is in the audience and the commission said that if my parents signed a waiver, that way I could compete." So, I call the California commission and said is this true and they said yeah. His dad wanted him to fight so his first fight with me was when he was 16 years old here in San Jose.
And Ryan, he's such a great guy, comes from a great fighting legacy with his dad [UFC Hall of Famer Randy Couture] and everything.
There's one more fight that's really interesting to me on the card and that's the Gegard Mousasi against Mike Kyle. These two guys have personal beef, and anytime you've got fighters with personal beef, it's always a great match up. They definitely don't like each other.
SI: What particular fight or moment are you most proud of at Strikeforce?
Coker: Can I give you a couple? There is obviously the heavyweight tournament we put on. The opening round of the heavyweight tournament we put on was phenomenal.
When I think back at Strikeforce and the pillars of the company as far as fighters go, it was really Frank Shamrock, number one -- he was already a mixed martial arts star. He was our biggest star when we first started back in 2005 organizing mixed martial arts. And then Cung Le, Gilbert Melendez, and Josh Thomson. Cung Le has been fighting for Strikeforce since 1997. When I think of the fights they've had to build this company and the great matchups, I'll be forever in debt to them because they've really put [themselves] on the line and really help this brand grow and this brand rode their shoulders over the last five, six years.
SI: Strikeforce was willing to promote female fighters. What was the thought process behind the decision to include women?
Coker: To me, it wasn't a hard decision at all because in Strikeforce Kickboxing we had many female fighters and some of the best fights we had in the Kickboxing series on ESPN were female fights. I grew up in a martial arts school where there were females in the school. They trained and they fought and they grappled, just like the guys. To me, having females compete wasn't really an issue. It was more of a state licensing issue. But when we did [Strikeforce's] first fight in 2006, we wanted to have a girls fight but the state athletic commission wouldn't allow us to do it. When they finally allowed us to do it, it was Dec. 2006. That was the fight between Gina Carano and Eliana Maxwell. At that time, we had to do two-minute rounds. Six months later, they let us go to five-minute rounds like the guys.
The Gina Carano-Cristiane Cyborg Santos fight was the first five-minute-round fight allowed in the history of California. Even when the males were going to fight in March, the women were not. It took time for the commission to come around and make it happen.
That Carano-Cyborg fight was another pinnacle in the history of our company.
SI: What mistakes were made?
Coker: I would have more protection, more security at the cage for the Jake Shields-Dan Henderson fight. That was the fight when Jason "Mayhem" Miller went in there and then the Diaz brothers and they got into their little scuffle. That was live on CBS. That's something I definitely would have changed.
SI: When did you know Strikeforce was over?
Coker: To me, when I got the notice that this was going to be the last fight, that's when it hit home that this will be the last event.
Like I tell all of my friends, because a lot of people are asking me how I feel, I say this is a moment of celebration. This is a moment that took me 27 years to get to this point and I'm going to celebrate it. Saturday night we're going to celebrate the event and the history of Strikeforce and all the fights that have happened and all the great fighters and just the company as a whole.
SI: What's your next step personally?
Coker: I'll still be working for Zuffa. As far as roles and responsibilities, I'll probably come to Vegas in the next couple of weeks and sit down with Lorenzo and everybody there and figure that part out. Really, we've just been focusing so much on this event, to send it off with a big bang. We'll work all that out but I'll still be working for Zuffa.
SI: Which fighter crossing over from Strikeforce will have the biggest impact in the UFC?
Coker: I have a lot of confidence in Gilbert Melenedez and I have a lot of confidence in Daniel Cormier.
SI: What was it like for you to see former Strikeforce fighter Derek Brunson dominate UFC vet Chris Leben at UFC 155 last month?
Coker: Every time Alistair [Overeem] fights, every time any Strikeforce fighter fights, you know I'll be rooting for them. These guys are world-class fighters. I feel really good about the [UFC] matchups they'll be in as far as big stars fighting the big stars. These are fights that people want to see and that's really the beauty the deal with Strikeforce not being there. All the fans will get to see the fights they want to see. As long as we were running independently, Gilbert would have never gotten to fight [Benson] Henderson, Daniel Comier would not be fighting Jon Jones, whatever the matchups are. Now that there's not going to be a Strikeforce, these fights will all happen and I'll be cheering my guys on -- 100%.
SI: What do you anticipate it will be like for you when the final fighter steps out of the cage on Saturday night?
Coker: Honestly, I don't know how I'm going to feel. I don't know what's going to happen. I'm just going to treat the day like every other event that I've done and whatever happens, happens.