Scott Smith authored one of the greatest comebacks in MMA history in December 2009. | D. Mandel
Comeback for the Ages
December 19, 2009 | San Jose, Calif.
In late 2009, it would have seemed improbable that the best comeback ever involving Scott Smith was still yet to come. Smith’s career was built on impressive comebacks, from his delivering split-second knockout against Pete Sell while on the verge of being finished to a remarkable come-from-behind victory over Benji Radach. Still, few comebacks in MMA history can match the one Smith authored at Strikeforce “Evolution.”
Cung Le was one of Strikeforce’s biggest stars at the time. He was coming off the most impressive win of his MMA career against Frank Shamrock and was undefeated in MMA. Against Smith, he showed why. Punishing Smith with a brutal array of strikes for the better part of three rounds, Le looked to be on a completely different level than his opponent. Through two rounds, Le out-landed Smith 76 to eight. He even out-landed Smith in the final and decisive round. Unfortunately for Le, it only took one punch for the bout to change. Smith landed a left that dropped Le to the canvas. He followed with strikes on the ground, and Le was done. It was a stunning reversal of fate.
Le would avenge his loss to Smith easily in a rematch, but the man they call “Hands of Stone” can always remember his most improbable of comebacks. Fans, too, remember that event fondly, as an exciting fight card also featured the classic second bout in the Gilbert Melendez-Josh Thomson trilogy.
San Jose Showdown
March 29, 2008 | San Jose, Calif.
Strikeforce was built on the backs of two key fighters: Shamrock and Le. Like Chris Mullin and Rick Barry represented the Golden State Warriors decades earlier, Shamrock and Le were the primary representatives of Bay Area MMA and Strikeforce.
Shamrock was well known locally for his success in the UFC, while Le was Scott Coker’s top sanshou attraction well before Strikeforce came into existence as an MMA entity. Shamrock and Le had trained together in their native San Jose, Calif., but never fought. It was the California city’s clearest “dream” fight, and in 2008, it finally came to pass.
In front of a raucous, divided crowd that leaned a little bit more towards Le, San Jose finally got its fight. The two aging legends stood and traded for 15 minutes before Le broke his rival’s arm with a kick and Shamrock could no longer continue. Le had city bragging rights once and for all.
Women Make History
August 15, 2009 | San Jose, Calif.
Women’s MMA had its doubters from the moment EliteXC and Strikeforce began featuring female fights. The skeptics argued that women could not capture MMA fans’ attention like men. In August of 2009, they were proven wrong. Gina Carano and Cristiane Santos squared off in the biggest women’s fight in MMA history. Santos won the exciting one-round bout, which proved to be one of the biggest financial successes in Strikeforce history.
The clash between Carano and “Cyborg” was a perfect contrast in style and personality. The soft-spoken Carano was the popular girl next door, while the muscular Santos carried the intimidating name and was more akin to the female Wanderlei Silva. That dynamic packed in nearly 14,000 fans in San Jose and set a then-record viewership for MMA on Showtime.
As Ronda Rousey gets her opportunity to main event for the Ultimate Fighting Championship at UFC 157, she owes a debt of gratitude to Carano and Santos.
They proved the viability and potential mass appeal of female fighting. Rousey has not yet captured the box office or ratings appeal of Carano, but many are betting she will. She might not have had the chance if it were not for Carano-“Cyborg.”
Fedor Finally Loses
June 26, 2010 | San Jose, Calif.
Nothing lasts forever. Even as Fedor Emelianenko dominated heavyweight MMA for years on end, it was inevitable his run would eventually come to a close. It just so happened that the historic end would come in a Strikeforce cage.
When Emelianenko stepped into the cage to fight Fabricio Werdum in the summer of 2010, he had not lost in nearly a decade; many questioned the legitimacy of his only loss to Tsuyoshi Kohsaka in the first place. The stoic Russian had shown vulnerability against the likes of Kazuyuki Fujita and Mark Hunt, but many had to see Emelianenko defeated decisively in order to believe it could happen.
Emelianenko, a competitor whose career was marked by quiet humility, was done in by a fighter’s overconfidence. Thinking he had Werdum in trouble from a punch, he recklessly dove into the jiu-jitsu star’s guard and began pounding away wildly. It was a formula he had used successfully against Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, but he found himself quickly in trouble against Werdum. The two-time Abu Dhabi Combat Club Submission Wrestling World Championships gold medalist locked up a triangle choke and applied an armbar as Emelianenko tried to escape. The Russian was forced to tap, and the reign of “The Last Emperor” was over.
March 10, 2006 | San Jose, Calif.
It is easy to forget looking back at Strikeforce’s many successes how improbable that rise was in the first place. This was a promotion without television. It had no MMA history. The MMA media was not what it would eventually become. Yet following very savvy local promotion built on a personal grudge between Shamrock and Cesar Gracie, Strikeforce drew a sellout crowd of 18,265 at the HP Pavilion and turned away thousands more. Strikeforce overnight became a phenomenon in its hometown of San Jose.
Given its boxing history, Las Vegas was a natural MMA hotbed. San Jose was almost an accidental one, built on timing and a preponderance of available, high-quality fighters who trained in the area. Most important to that rise were promoter Scott Coker and main event fighter Shamrock.
Coker knew how to succeed in San Jose, with years of experience promoting kickboxing in the area. He even brought in one of his top kickboxing attractions in Le.
Shamrock, meanwhile, appealed to MMA fans who knew his legacy as one of the top fighters in the history of the sport. Shamrock could also sell a fight with his trash talking and did so time and time again.
Strikeforce’s first show was a harbinger of big things to come. The card was littered with future stars, from Melendez, Le and Thomson to Nate Diaz, Clay Guida and Krzysztof Soszynski. Shamrock’s quick knockout of Gracie set up a series of future major fights for the former UFC champion. The city of San Jose was ready, and Strikeforce was on its way.