June 01, 2009

If the adage and contrasting styles make fights, maybe Dana White and ScottCoker ought to match up. The UFC's controversial chieftain, White has a celebrity force field to rival that of any fighter in the organization. In the other corner, even the most hard-core MMA fans would have a hard time placing the face of Strikeforce CEO Coker. In advance of the June 6 Strikeforce card in St. Louis that will broadcast live on Showtime, SI.com caught up with Coker.

SI.com: As a long-time martial arts practitioner as well as promoter, what's your opinion of the current state of MMA?

Scott Coker: MMA is in a really exciting state right now. It's continuing to grow at an unprecedented level and I feel that Strikeforce's growth will help the sport expand even further as we place live events in new markets with our Showtime TV platform like we are doing in St. Louis on June 6.

It's really amazing to see the extent to which martial arts, through MMA, has grown on the general public in the United States. I've been in the business of martial arts promotions since 1985, and I dreamed of one day seeing and hearing the average sports fan here talking about martial arts in conversation and wearing martial arts-themed clothing in the street. But I wasn't sure if and when that would happen. It has, though, and MMA is getting bigger every day.

SI.com: In all, how many cards does Strikeforce plan to promote in 2009?

Coker: We will produce 12 live events for Showtime in 2009.

SI.com: Robbie Lawler obviously trains nearby, but, nevertheless, St. Louis is not known as an MMA hotbed. How did you arrive at St. Louis as the venue for next show?

Coker: There were a number of factors that contributed to our decision to go to St. Louis. First, was our consistently strong ratings on NBC on Saturday nights. We launched the weekly series on the network in April 2008 and, since then, we have sustained very high ratings in this market.

We also analyzed the TV ratings that EliteXC generated with its live events on CBS. St. Louis consistently ranked among the top 10 markets.

Our partner, Silicon Valley Sports and Entertainment, is a member of The Arena Network. They have a strong relationship with Scottrade Center where we are holding the event. As the home of the St. Louis Blues, Scottrade Center is a landmark in that city so putting a Strikeforce event there was a no-brainer.

Finally, we were able to establish a relationship with a strong local promoter in this market. Having someone on the ground in St. Louis has made everything from our marketing campaign to our p.r. initiatives a lot more turnkey than it would have been had we had to activate everything remotely from our headquarters in San Jose.

SI.com: To what extent does a strong television partnership change the way you put on a show?

Coker: Having a major TV partner like Showtime will allow us to effectively mature into a national brand capable of producing events in different markets throughout the country, rather than remain a regional promotion as we did, for the most part, in our first three years of existence.

We produced our first Showtime event in 2007 -- Shamrock vs. Baroni -- and a second in 2008 -- Shamrock vs Cung Le. Now that we have a multi-year agreement with the network, though, we will be able to visit a number of new markets.

Showtime has an incredible team of talented and passionate individuals that are capable of helping build our stars into household names. The bigger these names become, the bigger our fights will be.

SI.com: Seldom the case with other promoters, Dana White speaks quite highly of you. How would you characterize your relationship with him and the UFC in general?

Coker: We have a very good relationship with Dana and UFC. I think that the positive nature of our relationship with them stems from the respect that we have for their place in MMA. I've been in the martial arts fight business for a long time so I was around long before Zuffa purchased UFC. When they set out to re-define the sport, they were facing such a steep, uphill battle that most people would not have the stomach to endure. They managed to beat all the odds and bring UFC and MMA to the forefront of mainstream America.

If Dana and his team didn't do what they did, I wouldn't be speaking with SportsIllustrated.com. That's the way my team and I look at it and that's why it would be ignorant of us to come out and blast them when they're the ones that put MMA on the map in this country. We only have the utmost admiration and respect for them as pioneers of the sport.

SI.com: To what extent do you see the UFC as competition?

Coker: We are definitely both in the same industry. Our business models are different, though. Their business is Pay-Per-View and reality-show driven, and ours is live-event and premium-cable-TV driven.

Any further growth that UFC and Strikeforce sustain is just going to help make MMA bigger as a sport and create new opportunities for both leagues.

SI.com: We have yet to see a female fighter in a UFC event. You're obviously more comfortable putting women on cards. What's the basis for this?

Coker: I owned a martial arts school and women trained there every day. When we started Strikeforce kickboxing, we had women competing at the highest level on a regular basis and some of the best fights we ever produced in the Strikeforce kickboxing series were between women. So to me, having women fight on our shows is nothing new.

SI.com: Some big name fighters are at interesting points in their careers. Where do they fit into your plans: Frank Shamrock, Fedor Emelianenko and Kimbo Slice.

Coker: Frank is still on board with us. His loss to Nick Diazwas a definite setback, but his spirits are high and he is feeling very good about coming back later this year. We are going to support Frank in his comeback efforts and are looking forward to having him return.

Whether its Fedor, Andrei Arlovski, Takanori Gomi, or another top fighter, we want to keep our doors open to any free agents of this caliber. Our goal is to build the best roster that Strikeforce can create, and I think we're on our way to doing so.

As far as Kimbo goes, we would like to have him fight in Strikeforce at some point.

SI.com: In the past two years alone, we've seen some pretty seismic shifts-organizations come and go, the EliteXC downfall, a UFC heavyweight champ who'd yet to have his first MMA fight. What's your short-term view? Where is the sport is heading?

Coker: I think that we have done and are continuing to do some great things, as well as our part to further the growth of the sport as a mainstream entity in this country. The skill level of the athletes in the sport is at its highest since the sport was founded in the '90s and it is continuing to evolve. As fighters become better fighters, competition in the sport will become more intense, and fights will become even more compelling than they are now. I think that as big as MMA has become, it has only touched on its potential as far as its mainstream appeal goes.

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