When Zuffa LLC, the parent company of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, purchased the rival Strikeforce promotion for a reported $40 million in March 2011, it also inherited a Showtime broadcast deal set to expire in early 2012.
It was widely speculated that this contract wouldn't be renewed for two reasons: Zuffa already had a history of buying and stripping other fight organizations, and UFC president Dana White and Showtime Sports head Ken Hershman didn't see eye to eye. In the months that followed, Zuffa continued to fuel conjecture regarding Strikeforce's imminent demise when it lifted three of the promotion's most coveted champions for the UFC.
But then Stephen Espinoza replaced Hershman in November, becoming Showtime Sports' executive vice president and general manager while Hershman was named new president of HBO Sports. In mid-December, Zuffa and Showtime renewed the Strikeforce contract and jointly announced six to eight events on the network in 2012.
Espinoza spoke to SI.com about his new role, the network's revitalized relationship with the world's top MMA promotion and how this will affect Strikeforce and its athletes.
SI.com: What is your background in sports?
Stephen Espinoza: I started in sports, working in [renowned sports super-agent] Leigh Steinberg's office before law school. My background from that point forward was as an entertainment lawyer, primarily in film and television, with a significant presence in sports and representing athletes, as well. In MMA, besides representing Gina Carano for the last couple of years, which started prior to her last fight with Cristiane "Cyborg" Santos, I was involved in a number of ventures, including Golden Boy's endeavors with Affliction's pay-per-view events.
SI.com: You also have additional experience in boxing. Could you talk about that?
Espinoza: I represented Oscar De La Hoya individually since 1999, which included all of his biggest fights. When [De La Hoya's boxing promotion] Golden Boy got going in 2002, I represented the company as well. I also represented Mike Tyson for the last several fights of his career, from 2002 on. Ironically, I've known Scott Coker [former Strikeforce owner and now its general manager] since his K-1 days. I met him and we became friendly when we had discussions about Mike [competing] in some K-1 events.
SI.com: You obviously have strong roots in the boxing industry. How much had you been following mixed martial arts prior to taking this position?
Espinoza: It's sort of unavoidable. I'm a huge sports fan, overall. I've been watching boxing since my childhood, as my grandfather got me interested in the sport. As MMA picked up, I definitely became more and more aware of it and more and more of a fan. I've been to a number of shows and followed the UFC and Strikeforce, as well as a little bit of Pro Elite and the WEC when they were active. I was very familiar with Strikeforce, not just through Showtime, but because they were active in California.
SI.com: In mid-December, Showtime and Zuffa co-announced a contract extension between network and promotion. UFC president Dana White recently went on record saying that the deal lasts for two years. Can you confirm that timeframe?
Espinoza: It's for multiple years. I'm not sure why he said that, but it's not something we get into. Whether it's boxing or MMA, we don't publicly disclose the terms of our contracts.
SI.com: It's been an uncertain 10 months for Strikeforce and there are fighters who are concerned about the length of the deal and if they'll have jobs in a year or two. Zuffa has a track record of buying and absorbing other promotions.
Espinoza: The reality is this was formalized only five weeks ago, so I don't blame the fighters or anyone else for being a little confused about how this is going to work, particularly since there was a period of several months where this was a complete mystery. I think it will become more and more clear. The dust will settle. I think from fighters to managers to the media, everyone will become more comfortable and satisfied that we're going to be able to run this more efficiently and productively in a way that makes sense to everybody.
SI.com: Strikeforce's Jan. 7 show was the first one broadcasted on the Showtime channels since the contact extension was announced. Out of the gate, fans weren't impressed with former UFC fighter Keith Jardine, in his middleweight debut, getting a title bout against champion Luke Rockhold. What has the Showtime-Zuffa relationship been like so far?
Espinoza: In terms of the relationship, it was a long and complex process of navigating, while establishing and adopting a new relationship. I think both sides had concerns at the start if this thing was going to work. For our part, after we had the big sit-down in early January between Showtime and Zuffa, virtually all of the concerns went away. We found that whatever the negotiation history was, once we sat down in the same room, we found that we had a room full of very passionate MMA fans who wanted the same thing. There was no dispute about control. There were no disputes about brands. There were no disputes about talent. We're all pulling in the same direction. Before that meeting? Yes, they're were concerns. Since that meeting its been a much smoother process and a much more optimistic [outlook] on this endeavor.
SI.com: Did that meeting happen prior to the Jan. 7 event?
Espinoza: It was the Thursday before that January show. That event, from a technical standpoint, wasn't an event that was under the new collaboration, because it was halfway in process while we were still negotiating the new structure. It wasn't the product of our new collaboration. I'm not saying that in a negative way at all. There are probably changes that Zuffa's going to want to make. There are things that I want to change and that's just the virtue of I'm the new guy here and I have certain opinions. Just by the nature of Zuffa's and my involvement, there are going to be some changes moving forward and we're in the process of discussing what those changes are going to be. So far, it's been a very smooth process.
SI.com: Can you discuss what changes viewers may see during the next Strikeforce broadcast on March 3?
Espinoza: I'd give you the answer to that, but it's still an ongoing conversation. It looks like I'll be in Las Vegas this week to continue those discussions. It's still a moving target, but we're trying to narrow down the scope and put on the final finishing touches as we speak.
SI.com: One change we've already seen is Showtime broadcasting Strikeforce's undercard bouts, prior to the main card, on its sister channel, Showtime Extreme. Can viewers expect this from here on out for all Strikeforce broadcasts?
Espinoza: We expect that to continue. It was very successful on our part. Most importantly, we got very good feedback from our audience. Just having the availability of the entire card made a lot of sense. It gave us time to do other features. We're going to continue to refine this concept and it will be even better in the future.
SI.com: Who introduced this idea?
Espinoza: It was mutual. The structure of the [existing] deal was two levels of Strikeforce shows: its main show and its Challengers series. In the process of melding the old Strikeforce deal into the new deal with Zuffa, it no longer made sense to have this separate brand of Strikeforce Challengers. Then, we looked at the UFC's model, which is to make the entire card available somewhere, somehow. It came up from both ends.
SI.com: After his victory over Jardine, middleweight champion Rockhold utilized his post-fight speech to ask that UFC contenders be brought into Strikeforce to challenge him. What was your reaction?
Espinoza: Well, every time I go online or I turn on a show, it seems like there's another Strikeforce fighter beating a UFC fighter. And I know those are isolated cases, but I think you look at some of the coverage, depending on the source, and maybe there's an undervaluing of the Strikeforce guys. But after the result of the events in the last few months, I don't think there really is an argument that Strikeforce talent is second-tier or in any way secondary to UFC talent.
SI.com: In addition to Rockhold, middleweight contender Tim Kennedy has also voiced his wish to face UFC talent in Strikeforce to help change the perception of Strikeforce fighters as second-tier competitors.
Espinoza: I understand that Tim and Luke want to fight Anderson Silva or Vitor Belfort. There're guys in the UFC that want those guys, too, and they're not getting those fights either. It's not a one-size-fits-all solution that we move everyone to the UFC or everyone to Strikeforce and everyone gets the fights that they want.
I think one thing that is very clear, is that both Zuffa and Showtime are completely on the same page that we want the best talent matchups possible. What form that's going to take, we're not sure. To me, it's sort of the same dynamic that a lot of sports have. You're not always able to match the perceived best against the perceived best. In college football, you have conference champions and you have a limited number of games, so you're always having these discussions. Is the Pac-10 is better then the SEC? It's endemic to every sport.
I don't think we should punish Strikeforce because, under its structure, they're not necessarily able to answer those questions. Those questions don't get answered in either sport, but they contribute to the debate and popularity of the sport.
SI.com: Would Showtime be open to welcoming UFC contenders into the Strikeforce mix if Zuffa introduces it?
Espinoza: Sure. We'll always want the most competitive matchups among the highest ranked fighters and the best matchups based on styles. That's independent of whether Strikeforce fighters are equal to UFC fighters. Having said that, the one thing we know about MMA is that one event can shake up the rankings very significantly. Yes, currently the perception is, at middleweight, that Anderson Silva is arguably the best fighter on the planet and there's the perception that the top is controlled by the UFC. That could change virtually on a daily basis. So, I don't think there's going to be any problems finding quality opponents for either Tim or Luke.
SI.com: Have you discussed this option with Zuffa?
Espinoza: It's been a topic of discussion internally and a topic of discussion with the media, I think from the very start of this collaboration. It hasn't been discussed with [Zuffa] yet, but will it continue to be discussed? I believe so.
SI.com: In recent interview with MMAJunkie.com, UFC president White said he'd like more "control" of Strikeforce to improve the overall product. A lot of that control, he said, currently rested with Showtime. What was your reaction to his comment?
Espinoza: Dana and I and our respective companies have had extensive discussions. He's never expressed it to me that way and that's not the way I'd ever take it. Dana is a very passionate man and that's one of his strengths. It's my personal observation that when he starts to talk about these things, he gets very passionate. What I took away from that interview was the same thing I took away from my personal conversations, which is he very much wants more input into the production. I want more input on the production than I had for my very first show [Jan. 7] and none of that is inconsistent with what Showtime, as a network, wants to get done.
SI.com: How do you think this goal will be reached moving forward?
Espinoza: There are three moving pieces here. To some extent, there were still certain controls that were in place from Strikeforce days because Zuffa hadn't completely assumed control of Strikeforce. There are changes from the perspective that Zuffa does things differently than Strikeforce does. So, the three moving pieces: the new relationship between Zuffa and Showtime, the new merger or acquisition of Strikeforce by Zuffa and me taking the reins here at Showtime Sports. That, by necessity, is going to spark a whole new discussion about what we can do better and I think that's very much the spirit of my discussions with Dana. It's never been "he controls me" or "I control him" or "Zuffa controls Showtime" or vice versa. If we all have opinions, let's get them all out onto the table and agree on the best way to move forward.
SI.com: How will the relationship work in regards to matchmaking?
Espinoza: As with all of our sports promotions, the matchmaking is something primarily handled by the promotion. We certainly have opinions and have input on attractive matchups, matchups we'd like to see, storylines, things like that. If the promotion controls the matchups, as it should be-- I'm not a big fan of the networks [handling] matchmaking. I don't think it's what they're best suited for.
SI.com: It was my understanding that the "old" Strikeforce would put together a card and send it to Showtime, who'd then give its approval. Sometimes Showtime wouldn't approve certain matches and Strikeforce would go back and adjust the bouts. It sounds like the relationship is different in this new partnership.
Espinoza: I think words like approval, rejection and control are a little bit harsh. It's a dialogue. It's a proposal or suggestion we give feedback on. Things are tweaked and everyone reaches a point where they're happy and move forward. Putting it in those terms makes it sound a little more harsh and antagonistic than it really is.
SI.com: After women's champion Cris Santos allegedly tested positive for steroids in early January, White said that this essentially "killed" that Strikeforce division. What is Showtime's standpoint on Strikeforce's 145-pound women's division?
Espinoza: Strikeforce and Showtime have both been big proponents of women's MMA and it goes to the point that we discussed earlier. A year ago, Ronda Rousey wasn't on the radar. Now she's arguably the hottest topic of conversation in the sport. They're phenomenal athletes. I have no questions about the depth of the talent pool. I think that's been proven beyond a shadow of a doubt, so we remain committed to women's MMA with our full support.
SI.com: Specifically, with the women's featherweight division, would Showtime like to see Zuffa bring 145-pound matchups to the network?
Espinoza: I don't think limiting the women's division to a single weight class is necessarily the best thing for women's MMA. I'd like there to be enough of a depth of talent to support multiple weight classes. We shouldn't force all of the women into one division.
SI.com: A lot of women fighters will be grateful to hear this.
Espinoza: One thing I'm not worried about is the talent pool in MMA. I think we've only hit the tip of the iceberg. And that goes for both men and women. Every time MMA expands to a new territory, a new country, we discover a huge new talent pool of fighters. I don't think we've even scratched the surface of the talent pool yet.