How far can Strikeforce's heavyweight grand prix raise the organization's profile? If you ask Strikeforce President Scott Coker, it could be a game changer.
I recently spoke with Coker on my radio show (MMA Nation on 106.7 The Fan) about this tournament. He opened up about the very real challenges, the potential rewards for a successful run, whether Josh Barnett would be able to compete, the talent of Alistair Overeem, whether the organization is ready for pay-per-view and so much more.
Luke Thomas: The guest of honor at today’s show is the president of one of the biggest MMA promotions on planet Earth. He is staging a heavyweight tournament throughout the course of 2011, which kicks off February 12th at the Izod Center in East Rutherford, New Jersey with Fedor Emelianenko taking on Antonio Silva. The one and only, Scott Coker joins the show here on MMA Nation on the McDonald’s hotline. Scott, how are you, sir?
Scott Coker: Good, how are you?
Luke Thomas: Good, well, thank you for joining me and thank you for taking time out on your Sunday evening. As we get closer to the 12th of February, how are your nerves? How are you dealing with all the pressure? There’s been a lot of media talk about this. This is easily the biggest Strikeforce event ever. How are you feeling heading into the 12th?
Scott Coker: Yeah, I feel pretty good. The fighters are ready and really, it’s up to them to perform and we just want to put all this together. But ever since we got the sign off from Showtime to do this tournament and we locked down the fighters to do it, it’s been like any other event except for, you’re right, the media’s been very kind to us for the most part. There’s been a lot of hype on this fight and arguably it’s the largest event in the history of our company.
Luke Thomas: Let me ask you about that media. You mentioned they were kind for the most part. Tell me if I’m wrong. Listen, we’ve certainly had our criticisms of Strikeforce. We’ve had our praises of Strikeforce on this show and on BloodyElbow.com. First of all, I think the tournament is a brilliant idea personally; I can’t speak for the rest of the guys on the site. But I have noticed you guys make yourselves available in a way the rest of the MMA landscape doesn’t. Does it bother you that the media tends to get a little braver in their criticism when it comes to you guys? Does that in any way annoy you?
Scott Coker: Nah, as far as annoy, sometimes. The bottomline is if we did it one way, they’d complain about "you should do it this way". And if we did it that way, they’d complain about "ah, you should’ve done it the other way". At the end of the day we’re going to do what makes sense for our company and for our television partner Showtime and for the fighters. This is going to be a great tournament. This is something I feel is going to be historical. It’s going to be significant in the world of MMA and people should enjoy it. Why sit back and try to throw darts at it when you can sit back and just enjoy it?
Luke Thomas: Personally, I’m a boxing fan and I know you are as well Scott, especially since I’ve seen you ringside at several boxing events on Showtime. The Super Six Classic, when it started out had a lot of promise and it still, I think in general they tried to do the best they could with what they had, but it had some failings. I’m wondering if some of the failings that the tournament had, did that impact the bracket structure that you guys adopted heading into your heavyweight tournament?
Scott Coker: Not at all. The boxing tournament was a monumental task by Showtime. He was dealing with – and when I say "he" I mean Ken Hershman – eight different boxing promoters to try and put that together. I’m sorry, six different boxing promoters to put that together. That could’ve been an amazing feat on it’s own. I wish I could’ve been a fly on the wall in those meetings. The MMA tournament that we are putting on together, the Strikeforce Grand Prix, we basically, these fighters are already under contract. We’re the only promoter. So, I think it’s a lot easier.
As far as people dropping out in boxing, hey, in MMA, people can get hurt as well. I feel pretty confident the way this is structured because as you know in the past, MMA tournaments have all been one night. Or, two fights in one night for the finals – semi-finals and finals. So, we’re making it a lot easier on the fighters to compete and if somebody does get injured along the way and we can wait, 6 weeks or 2 months, we’re going to do it. And if we can’t, we’ll have our reserve match ready to go. And we’ll go in place.
And regarding the boxing tournament, believe me, I think at the end of that tournament the guy that should win or – let’s say, for instance, all the fighters would have stayed in and not some dropouts in that boxing tournament, I still think Andre Ward’s the guy. I still think that he’d be fighting for the finals and I think he’s going to win the whole thing.
Luke Thomas: Fair enough. Strikeforce President Scott Coker joins us on the McDonald’s hotline. To what extent, Scott, is CBS – we know that they might air the second round of the fights – but are they going to be involved in anyway in advertising this tournament for the Showtime audience? What role is CBS going to play in promoting this tournament?
Scott Coker: Those are conversations that are ongoing. I really don’t have an answer for you right now. That’s something where maybe we’ll have an announcement in a couple of weeks or a month. There’s dialogue between all three parties, especially as we develop further into the tournament, going into the semi-finals and finals. Look, we have a good relationship with CBS and they’ve been very good to us and hopefully we can get them back airing MMA soon and get them involved.
In saying that, though, February 12, listen: if you have Showtime you get to watch it for free. So you get to watch Fedor fight Bigfoot, and Kharitonov, he’s another guy that I’m sure you know who he is, but a lot of guys don’t know who this guy is. But here’s a guy who was Alistair Overeem’s last MMA defeat as well he has beat Fabricio Werdum who beat Fedor. This guy is going to come out and show his skills for the first time. Actually, the second time. The first time was when he was in PRIDE in Vegas, but I think the world is going to get to see who Kharitonov is on Showtime and Fedor vs. Bigfoot is going to be fantastic.
Luke Thomas: But he's a little bit older - he's past 30. He's got a lot of competitive experience and to me he has far and away the best wrestling of all the guys involved in the tournament, even if he doesn't have the rest of the skills like Overeem has striking. Was Daniel Cormier ever in the mix about being included as even an alternate in the tournament?
Scott Coker: Yeah, he will be. Don't get me wrong, we do have those three fights so we're going to keep those as reserved matches but Daniel is going to be a guy who is right in that mix. What I mean by that is that the only reason he wasn't invited to fight on the 12th of February is because he has his fight on January 7th scheduled. We look at Daniel as a strong, up and coming guy that if people get to point where they are falling out - which I highly doubt - he will be one of the candidate for reserve.
Luke Thomas: Alright, about the tournament. First of all I think it's fantastic that we're going to get Overeem finally back against some really competitive guys. Not that, I mean, Brett Rodgers was competitive, but we're talking elite, elite fighters. But one of the things I'm not happy about the tournament, I'll be honest, is the inclusion of Josh Barnett. Some people aren't super happy about it, we've got a guy here in DC who is a big fan of Josh Barnett, but, for me, I think i echo Dave Meltzer's concerns about it which is - we don't really know his licensing concerns yet and if he makes it to the finals, unless he really resolves his licensing issues in California, you can't hold the fight there or probably Nevada or probably New Jersey. How do you respond to that criticism and what do you think is going to be the likely outcome, the commission process that Josh Barnett has been involved in?
Scott Coker: Well, here's what I can tell you. Josh is going to continue trying to clear up his issue in California, but we've gone on the record, I feel, personally, as a promoter, that the guy has already been out as a contestant in the competitive landscape of North America for how long? A year a half? Probably a year and half I would say, right? Josh's issue is in the past, he has to clear up, but we're going foreword and I think Josh is going foreword. He's in our tournament so, hey guys, you know, to say he's not a top ten competitor in the heavyweight division in mixed martial arts? I think that's crazy because the guy obviously is and I feel he is. He deserves to be in this tournament. Saying that, we're going to test him along the way just like every other athlete and if he has a problem? We're going to have a real problem. But he went to California six weeks ago, went to the California State Athletic Commission's offices and passed the test. He was completely clean and after that point I felt comfortable inviting him into the tournament. It's a double edged sword. Does he deserve to be in the tournament? He passed the drug test completely clean. He sat out a year and a half sitting idle in North America. Let the guy fight. Let's just move on.
Luke Thomas: Strikeforce president Scott Coker joins us on the McDonald's hotline. Any concern in your mind that this competitive layoff has affected Barnett's ability to fight at the level that he is believed to still be at?
Scott Coker: That's going to be a good question. I'm sure he's always been in training and looking for the right opportunity and after the situation with the Fedor fight canceling he kind of went on a dry spell and fought a couple guys who went really MMA stars over in Japan and did a lot of Pro wrestling. Now he's coming into this tournament fighting Brett. A lot of people say 'oh, Brett is just going to be taken down, but if Brett hits you he's going to knock you out. He's got that kind of power. It's going to be interesting to see what happens there but the winner of Kharitonov and Arlovski is going to be quite a match up for Josh or for Brett. Has be fought the kind of guy who are going to be in the competition now, lately? No. But that's the beauty of this tournament. Now he'll get to test his skills at the highest level.
Luke Thomas: What's the biggest fight Strikeforce can make? Is it Fedor vs. Overeem? Or is it the tournament final?
Scott Coker: The reason we make the brackets the way we did is because the fans get to see the fights they want to see and - not that they'll be guaranteed - but there's a much higher percentage that they would happen. Look at the NFL playoffs. A week ago, I thought the Patriots and the Falcons would be in the Super Bowl, right? Now, they're completely out. In my years of doing the K1 fights, one thing I've learned is that the guys who you think will be there in the end - very rarely do you get the match up you were hoping for. This way, Fedor should win. He's going to have a great matchup between either Alistair or Werdum and that's something we wanted to give to the fans. Nomatter how you cut this, you're going to see great fights. Alistair fighting Fabricio is something Alistair wanted. Fabricio beat him three or four years ago and when I saw Alistair in Japan he said, 'I wanna fight Fabricio and I want to fight him first.' So Fabricio said, 'let's get it on.' He said he's going to choke Alistair out. Let's see what happens.
Luke Thomas: The rules, as I understand it, is that the three commission judges will render their decision and if the fight goes to a draw a fourth judge - appointed by Strikeforce - will determine who goes forward. Their records - as far as the commission is concerned - will still be a draw but the fighter that the Strikeforce judge designates as the winner will move forward in the tournament. If Fedor and Antonio Silva draw, Fedor is the bigger promotional guy, is he going to get the nod? What is the conflict of interest there? Make the case to the fans that the arrangement you have is appropriate.
Scott Coker: It's not the promoter sitting there making that call. It's a gentleman by the name of Cory Schafer, who has been regulating martial arts events for 25 years in about 50 countries around the world. When I was in the kickboxing business he was out rules and regulations director. When I did K1 he was the North American K1 rules director. I thought it's be fantastic to bring him over to the MMA company - Strikeforce - when we started in mixed martial arts. He's going to be the gentleman who is going to be the fourth judge and he will be judging on a protective basis. It's not based on the promotion or who is more promotable. He's going to score it like he sees it. If we didn't feel like he was that guy, we wouldn't have him do it.
Luke Thomas: I'm sure he's competent, but I guess what I'm asking is - if he renders a decision will he be available to the press to account for it? Is he going to be closed off? What kind of access do we have to his thoughts about how he rendered a decision?
Scott Coker: I tell you what. I think you guys should set up a time and have Cory come on and explain who he is and what he does. He has been a great ambassador for all different types of martial arts and he's our rules director. So when there's a situation that happens in the cage, a foul, or, I think we had a situation a few months ago where Cory had to step in and explain the whole eye gouging incident between Marius Zaromskis and Waachiim Spiritwolf. Cory stepped in and saved the whole situation. he's that guy who knows the rules inside and out and can explain himself. I think you guys should have him on and let him tell you his story and how he sees the whole thing unfolding. He's also on the rules committee, as well as the tournament committee, so he's one of the five guys that put together that tournament committee along with Guy Mezger and some other promoters who had really nothing to do with Strikeforce - I don't even know a couple of them - that are going to be on that tournament committee.
Luke Thomas: I would be happy to have him on. A question about pay-per-view. Make the case why the MMA community and the sporting community are ready for a Strikeforce pay-per-view event.
Scott Coker: To me, at the end of the day, it's all about the fights, right? I think this tournament right now could be on pay-per-view. I think it's worthy of pay-per-view quality show. If we put it on pay-per-view right now I think people would buy it. I would buy it. Even if it were, let's say, a DREAM show aired here, I would buy it. I buy the UFC pay-per-views that are on OnDemand, DirectTV and DISH. As far as quality, come on. These are the best heavyweights in the world. I think everybody knows that. Why wouldn't you want to pay for an amazing show like Fedor or Overeem or Barnett, all the great heavyweights in the world, fighting in a tournament?
Luke Thomas: The UFC heavyweight division - while it certainly has some notable features and some fighters - took a lot of hits this year. Cain Velasquez, as you know, is out. Roy Nelson seems to be coming back, but there was a while there where we didn't know what was going on with him. Shane Carwin is out. Lesnar and dos Santos are ties up. It's really a good time for Strikeforce to make a move with their considerable heavyweight division. How long ago did you start planning this tournament? How long did it take, from beginning to announce date, to get this whole process moving forward?
Scott Coker: About six months. It got real serious when we started negotiating with Fedor and the extension because we needed to have more fights with Fedor to have the tournament complete and have him in there. Honestly, we could have had a tournament without Fedor, but with him, it just takes it to another level. When we came to an agreement with Fedor I thought this would be an amazing tournament if we can pull this off. It kind of ran side by side with Showtime as far as, 'hey, we want to do this tournament and get Fedor in there.' The process started probably back in September of last year. In October it got a little more serious and the ink hadn't even dried yet on Fedor's contract when we were scrambling to book the venue and get this thing launched.
Luke Thomas: In your mind, and in some of the fans' minds, I think this is the best time for the Strikeforce heavyweight division to assert itself. If there was a better time I didn't know when it was. I think now is the moment. Make the case that the winner of this tournament, all things being equal, if there aren't any eye gouge issues, if there aren't any fourth judge issues, if this just goes forward mostly normal, with most of the same characters involved - make the case that the winner is the No. 1 heavyweight fighter in mixed martial arts.
Scott Coker: It's funny because I'm sitting down with Crazy Bob at a restaurant last week and we're having this debate about Cain fighting Fedor, Cain fighting Alistair Overeem, Cain fighting Fabricio Werdum or Barnett and, as much as we debated, I think I had a good come back for every part of it and I think that those guys I mentioned would give Cain a hard time. he's an amazing fighter, but so are these guys. Just because you put the label on him, he's a UFC champion, believe me, Overeem is a beast. Until you've been hit by that knee strike or Josh Barnett - who I believe has a really amazing complete game - or Fedor who has surprised us over and over. Fedor got caught by Werdum but to have that kind of record over all those years fighting in mixed martial arts? It just doesn't happen. For our next heavyweight tournament, we'll make sure to leave a lot open for their champion.
Luke Thomas: My question about the tournament is, I guess - are you maximizing the format because of the strength of the division or is this something you plan on using for other divisions for Strikeforce?
Scott Coker: I think right now we could have a tournament in every single weight class in our Strikeforce league. Let's just get through this tournament. It's going to take through the end of the year to probably get this done. Let's enjoy it. It's going to be a great time for martial arts. I'm so proud to host and promote it have Showtime as my partner. Let's just enjoy it and let the fights happen. Sit back and let it roll out. Everyone just have a good time.
Luke Thomas: Is this the most ambitious thing you've ever done as a promoter?
Scott Coker: Definitely
Luke Thomas: Why? Why is it so categorically different?
Scott Coker: Well, you know, let's be real. It's a situation where, yea, I'm the promoter and have all the contracts on these guys but, at the end of the day, we're dealing with eight different fighters who have eight different managers who want ten different things, each. It's been quite a juggling act but I think I'm good. I think I'm going to be a juggler when I retire from the promotion business one day.
Luke Thomas: You're probably going to have some injures, a couple of guys drop out. Who the hell knows what's going to happen, but if it goes basically like you want it to go, not in terms of one guys wins or one guy loses but if the tournament itself is executed properly, where does it move Strikeforce? How far do you move the needle? What can a successful tournament do for the Strikeforce brand?
Scott Coker: I think when you think about the hype and the media attention the thing has garnished already. We had an article in the Wall St. Journal. We had an article in Newsday and ESPN, Yahoo! and AOL and all the normal guys, too. At the end of the day this thing has attracted a lot of heat and I think that having Fedor in there moves the needle a little bit more because he still has that mysterious aura about him. Antonio Silva is going to have his hands full because Fedor is going to come out like a beast. I think Antonio Silva could beat him, but he's going to have a Fedor that's been pissed off for the last eight months. Will it move the needle for the company? Absolutely. I think a lot of people are talking about the heavyweight tournament instead of other upcoming fights.
The Strikeforce grand prix begins Saturday with Strikeforce: Fedor vs. Silva at the IZOD Center in East Rutherford, New Jersey. The event will air on Showtime at 10pm ET.