Strikeforce readies final bouts

By BOB EMANUEL JR. | Scripps Howard News Service

Founded as a kickboxing company in 1985, Strikeforce matured over the years and switched its focus to mixed martial arts in 2006.

Buoyed by a broadcast deal with Showtime, Strikeforce emerged as a viable national contender to the Ultimate Fighting Championship. The promotion signed or developed numerous stars, including Gilbert Melendez, Ronda Rousey, Daniel Cormier and Fedor Emelianenko.

In 2011, Zuffa LLC — the parent company of the UFC — purchased Strikeforce with the intention of running it as a separate company. The plan unraveled last year when a rash of injuries plagued the promotion and prompted the cancellation of its two fourth-quarter events.

Rumors of Strikeforce’s demise have swirled over the past few months. They came to fruition recently when Strikeforce’s final card was announced for Saturday.

“We are proud of our association with Scott Coker and the entire Strikeforce team,” said Stephen Espinoza, executive vice president and general manager of Showtime Sports. “ … Showtime Sports and Strikeforce have built some of the biggest stars in the sport and have produced many of the most watched and most intriguing fights in the history of MMA.”

Saturday’s card, which will air live on Showtime at 6 p.m. HST and on tape delay at 8 p.m. HST, will be headlined by welterweight champion Nate Marquardt’s first title defense against Tarec Saffiedine and heavyweight grand prix winner Daniel Cormier’s bout against Dion Staring. The event will emanate from the Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City.

“Since 2009, Showtime has been a great partner and we appreciate its support of Strikeforce and our athletes,” Strikeforce CEO Scott Coker said. “For our final event, we’ve loaded the card with some outstanding fights. This is going to be a memorable night for the sport of mixed martial arts.”

Cormier, who defeated former UFC heavyweight champion Josh Barnett in the tournament finale last May, will have options upon his entry into the UFC. Cain Velasquez, his teammate at American Kickboxing Academy in San Jose, Calif., holds the UFC heavyweight title. Cormier will likely eschew the opportunity to fight Velasquez and likely shift to light heavyweight.

“That’s the fight that has to happen,” UFC president Dana White said of a potential Cormier-Velasquez bout. “He and Cormier will fight each other, or Cormier moves to 205 pounds. Whatever the deal is, I don’t know. We’ll go from there. Cormier is a guy who can come in and do anything. A win over Josh Barnett means something.”

Under White’s leadership, Zuffa has now purchased three of its competitors — World Extreme Cagefighting in 2006, Japan’s PRIDE in 2007 and Strikeforce. The WEC was folded into the UFC in 2010 and PRIDE was dissolved.

The recent cancellations, as well as the shift of several Strikeforce stars to the UFC, signaled the end of Strikeforce. The two canceled cards, which resulted in the postponement of numerous fighters’ careers and financial difficulties, were the last straw.

After UFC 155 on Dec. 29, White addressed reporters and spoke of his dissatisfaction with the last few months of Strikeforce.

“Anybody who fought in Strikeforce that’s watching this right now, I apologize for everything that’s gone on over the last eight months. I’m really disgusted by it,” White said.

The remainder of the televised card features heavyweights Josh Barnett vs. Nandor Guelmino, light heavyweights Gegard Mousasi vs. United States Mike Kyle and 194-pound catchweights Ed Herman vs. Ronaldo Souza.

The preliminaries, which will air on Showtime Extreme at 8 p.m. HST, includes: lightweights Pat Healy vs. Kurt Holobaugh; middleweights Roger Gracie vs. Anthony Smith; middleweights Tim Kennedy vs. Trevor Smith; and lightweights Ryan Couture vs. K.J. Noons. Two additional lightweight preliminaries, Jorge Gurgel vs. Adriano Martins and Michael Bravo vs. Estevan Payan, will not be aired.