Two weeks after Strikeforce was sold to Ultimate Fighting Championship parent company Zuffa, LLC, Mike Afromowitz found himself in an entirely unforeseen position: on the outside looking in.
Afromowitz, the director of communications, worked as former Strikeforce CEO Scott Coker’s right-hand man during the promotion’s evolution from regional kickboxing circuit to premium cable staple with network television exposure.
Today, two of the promotion’s former champions, welterweight Nick Diaz and heavyweight Alistair Overeem, have moved on, with the potential of a third, light heavyweight Dan Henderson, following suit. Strikeforce faces being merged into the UFC once a television contract between the promotion and Showtime expires in 2012 seems a forgone conclusion, though there are options to extend.
“I think [Coker] was promised that they were going to keep it around and build it and make it like an AFC to the UFC’s NFC,” Afromowitz said. “And he wanted to believe that. We all did. I wanted to believe it, too, but that quickly changed.”
Two weeks after Zuffa purchased Strikeforce, the entire front office staff, sans Coker, was cut loose. In this Aug. 17 interview on the Sherdog Radio Network’s “Beatdown” program, Afromowitz spoke candidly with Jack Encarnacao about the behind-the-scenes reality of Strikeforce’s journey from growing MMA brand to UFC property.
Encarnacao: You were one of the front office Strikeforce people who weren’t retained in the sale. Tell us a little bit about how that all went down.
Afromowitz: In the end, I’m not going to lie, it was disappointing. Not to toot my own horn, but, really, I was one of the guys that helped build Strikeforce. There were only, like, four of us to start with when we started out, and even when we were at our peak, there was only about 12 of us. When it was taken over, people said that, ‘Oh, we’re not looking to replace you; we want you to excel at your job and stay.” And then that quickly changed. I had a bad feeling when it was acquired that that was going to happen, but certain people asked me to have an open mind and listen. I did, and I went to the meetings and I tried it out, and it seemed workable from my end. And then they ... all of a sudden, the tone quickly changed, and they, really, just one-by-one, they let us all go. And so now all there is left is Scott and his assistant. It’s unfortunate. You work so hard to build something. It was a part of my life, a big part of my life. I worked day-in, day-out, weekends, nights. It was exciting. I liked the work, otherwise I wouldn’t be able to do it at the pace that I was doing it. So it sucks; it hurts. I guess from their perspective, they did what they had to do. It’s their business, so who am I to tell them how to run their business? But I would have appreciated some more respect.
Encarnacao: Do you honestly have any inkling of optimism that Zuffa will actually hang on to Strikeforce?
Afromowitz: I think the writing’s on the wall: they want one brand. It’s, like, I hope to see them just get rid of it. It’s just ... it’s a memory now. And I’m being honest with you; I think it would be better for them. I don’t even want to think about it, see it. It’s on my mind still, but it’s probably better, from my perspective, if it just goes away. Let them do what they’re going to do. Already, there’s at least one champ -- Nick [Diaz], he vacated the belt. We saw what [former Strikeforce heavyweight champion] Alistair [Overeem] did, but, apparently, he’s back in talks. I don’t know where that’s going to go. So there’s one or two champions who have vacated their belts. I don’t know what they’re going to do. It just doesn’t seem to make sense, from the way their business model [works], to keep Strikeforce around. It seems they want one brand. Whatever happens, happens.
Encarnacao: Did Coker want to sell Strikeforce?
Afromowitz: No, absolutely not. I mean, it was his baby. The day [he sold it] we talked about it, and he said it felt like he lost a kid; he didn’t want to sell Strikeforce. It was part of his life. It wasn’t just about money. It was like something you love to do; you wake up for it every morning. He didn’t want to sell Strikeforce anymore than I wanted it to be sold. He was basically told it was being sold.
Encarnacao: Right, by Silicon Valley Sports and Entertainment, the promotion’s business partner. Why did SVSE want to sell?
Afromowitz: Well, it’s a long story. There’s a lot of things. For legal reasons, I probably can’t go all into it. There’s a number of things, a number of things. And maybe they just hit their threshold, their pain threshold. And it was understandable. They’re businesspeople, and the numbers didn’t make sense at that point. So, in the end, that’s why they got out. But there’s always things happening behind the scenes that no one sees, [that] the public isn’t privy to. So there’s a lot of mechanisms that triggered. One thing led to another to another to another; it was all being in line to sell. That’s it in a nutshell. The numbers didn’t make sense. It wasn’t producing what it needed to, and it was time to get out.
Encarnacao: It seemed that part of it was Strikeforce, with a Showtime contract and eyeing pay-per-view, was looking to take a deeper plunge than was planned when SVSE bought in?
Afromowitz: I agree with that. When they first signed on, there was no sign of the CBS and Showtime deal being available a year later. That was totally ... that was not foreseen at all. So when that happened, it changed the entire landscape of the business. And, so, that right there was a big plunge. They took the risk. And I feel like they were -- we were -- one step away from some big things financially. I think we were one step away. The singing of Fedor [Emelianenko] from a brand perspective was huge. And the heavyweight tournament -- there was so much heat on it when we first announced it. We were one step away, I feel like, from making a big, big dent, and that step didn’t happen.
Encarnacao: At the end of the day, do you think Strikeforce, to be competitive and to pop ratings, had to pay guys more money than they could afford to pay them?
Afromowitz: I believe so. It’s not so much that [it was] more than they could afford but more than, let’s say, the UFC had to pay them. Because [the] UFC is obviously the bigger brand, so you have to look at the package; a fighter is looking at a package. He might be willing to take a little less money from [the] UFC than he would from Strikeforce, because there’s more eyeballs on the UFC than there were for Strikeforce. So Strikeforce might have to pay up for the same fighter.
Encarnacao: The M-1 Global co-promotional deal to bring in Emelianenko saw M-1 take 50 percent of revenue of shows he fought on, and it didn’t seem the rights fees from Showtime would cover anywhere near the costs.
Afromowitz: I can’t go into details for obvious reasons, but I think you get the picture. I think it was a deal that made it very difficult to be profitable from. So getting Fedor from a branding perspective was huge, and that was a risk that was, at the time, necessary to take. That was the biggest acquisition we had made as a company. Right away, signing Fedor put our company, put Strikeforce, in that many more households. Just the name Strikeforce -- it got out there. The same [thing happened] with Herschel Walker, signing Herschel Walker. Those are ... there are certain names that when you attach yourself to, it just elevates your brand and it takes things to new level. And, so, it’s an investment that, at the time, seemed like an investment that was necessary.
Encarnacao: You had to spend that money to get that kind of recognition, but SVSE indicated it was too much spending when it moved to sell. So, really, was it worth it to make those kinds of deals?
Afromowitz: You know, what’s funny is somebody said to me not too long ago, ‘You are never going to make money with Fedor.’ He said that to me because he thought that he understood the mentality behind Fedor’s management. He said, ‘You are never going to make money with them.’ [He] said that straight out to me. There’s a lot of different thoughts out there, and I think maybe it wasn’t the right move, but everybody wanted it at the time. And when we did it, it sure felt good. But it could have been part of the undoing.
Encarnacao: In Fedor’s case, he came to you after an intense negotiation with the UFC that fell apart mostly over the UFC’s unwillingness to co-promote his fights. In the end, is co-promotion not financially feasible in MMA?
Afromowitz: The thing with co-promotion: it really should just be about the fighters; it shouldn’t be about the league. And that’s something that Scott has always believed in, and that’s why you never really saw him out there aggressively speaking. He was up there on the dais during press conferences, but, to him, it was always about the fighter. And I believe the same way. That’s the way it’s been in boxing, and then people could respond to that [by] saying, ‘Well, look at boxing.’ Well, boxing had other problems, but you know what? As far as fighters go, look at the top boxers. [They] make a lot more money than the top MMA fighters, and that’s for a reason. Boxing had its own problems, but as far as fighters becoming household names, there’s never been a shortage of those [in boxing]. Now, yeah, it’s been marred by a lot of problems, but like I said, still the biggest boxers make a lot more than the biggest MMA fighters. And the focus is on them.
Encarnacao: In April 2010, at the end of a Strikeforce card on CBS, there was an infamous brawl in the cage involving Jason “Mayhem” Miller, Jake Shields and Shields’ teammates. What was the fallout from what happened that night?
Afromowitz: Mayhem hurt our business, in the end, by going into the cage, and, you know, Gilbert [Melendez] punching him in the face didn’t help; and then an all-out riot started. It hurt the business. It wasn’t good. We were a hair away from having a great show, and then the fights weren’t as great as people thought. But Dan [Henderson’s] fight with Jake started out as a good fight, and then it got slower and slower, the pace, and then of course the brawl started. Things quickly went downhill.
Encarnacao: We’ve heard CBS expressed no more interest in broadcasting MMA after that brawl. Is that overstating it?
Afromowitz: It’s not untrue. CBS is a public company; they have a lot on the line, so it was understandable that they turtled up. At the same time, brawls happen in all sports. What’s funny is we were backstage actually watching the fight between Jake and Dan, and on the screen in the room we were in backstage, they were showing a brawl from earlier in the night. I think it was a Celtics game; it was an NBA game. So, you know, it’s kind of funny looking back on it. But brawls happen in any professional sport. Emotions get high. But because of a certain stigma attached to MMA, it’s like it doesn’t need a brawl after a fight on top of that and guys kicking a guy while he’s down on the ground. It just didn’t need any more bad press. It’s already at a handicap, so to speak. So in the general public’s eyes ... I mean, more and more people are learning otherwise, but still, when it gets up there [through] the chain of command at CBS, I’m sure they did not appreciate that. And it’s understandable.
Encarnacao: I imagine after that Strikeforce never heard a peep from CBS about another show.
Afromowitz: The relationship was friendly. It was dialogue, but nothing came to fruition. And, you know, here we are today, so [the dialogue] was nothing to speak of really. I appreciate the opportunity those guys gave us. They were real supportive; it was really good working with hem. They had a great team. I mean [CBS Senior Executive Vice President) Kelly Kahl is a huge supporter of MMA, and it’s always great to work with a top-level executive who’s passionate about the sport that we’re in, especially at a major network. So, it is what it is. It happens, and you can’t blame them for turtling up right after the fight. They have a lot on the line.
Encarnacao: When Strikeforce purchased the Showtime contract and other assets from ProElite in February 2009, you guys went from running some four events a year in San Jose, Calif., to running a 12- to 16-show slate. That must have been a whirlwind of pressure on you guys just overnight.
Afromowitz: Oh, yeah. I remember where I was when we had first announced the deal with Showtime. I had just gotten off a plane and gone to visit some relatives in Florida, and I had to pull over and go to a Starbucks to get online and push out the announcement. So, I mean, there’s a lot of great memories. It was a great time and, hopefully, we can do it again someday.
Encarnacao: What’s your relationship with Coker these days?
Afromowitz: He was my mentor -- he gave me an opportunity -- so that’s something I’ll never forget. But, you know, going forward, we’ll see. Honestly, I don’t speak to him as much now. He’s busy on the road, I guess, with Strikeforce. We used to talk almost every day; sometimes, we’d talk 10 times a day. We were in constant communication. We had a business going. So now, I mean, it’s sad that that came to an end. I always looked up to him, looked at him, like, it got to the point where he was like family. But we’ll see what happens. I hope that it all ends well.
Encarnacao: It seemed that Scott always tucked in references to keeping Strikeforce alive under Zuffa ownership whenever he did interviews about the sale. Do you think if Strikeforce can show it’s profitable that Zuffa might want to keep it alive?
Afromowitz: I think [Coker] was hopeful, and part of it probably was he had no other options than to be hopeful. He could either be depressed about it or be hopeful. I think he was promised that they were going to keep it around and build [it] and make it like an AFC to the UFC’s NFC. And he wanted to believe that, we all did. I wanted to believe it, too, but that quickly changed. He started Strikeforce in the 90s, so it is like a baby to him. And, so, it’s not surprising that he wanted to believe that it would stay around. And, you know, maybe it will for a little while. Maybe it will. I mean, if [the UFC does] this Fox deal, there’s going to be a lot more programming, a demand for programming. Maybe they would do something with Strikeforce, place it somewhere. I don’t know. I just see it, if they want one brand. It seems that’s always been their goal, which, from their perspective, it makes sense. Why run two leagues? Unless you’re using one ... to keep others out. It doesn’t seem like they’re going to position Strikeforce that way, so, in that case, what’s the case for keeping it around?
Encarnacao: Zuffa is in the middle of working with Showtime to talk about the future. The general sense is that the contract is up in 2012, with an option to extend to 2014. Is that pretty much the deal?
Afromowitz: Yeah. I mean, I can’t obviously go into the details.
Encarnacao: So the option to extend -- is that Showtime’s exclusively, or does Zuffa also have to agree to extend?
Afromowitz: I shouldn’t go into details. I can’t really for legal reasons.
Encarnacao: As someone with experience putting together MMA cards for network television, do you think Zuffa will face pressure to sacrifice some of its big pay-per-view moneymaking fights to pull a respectable rating on Fox?
Afromowitz: I don’t think there’s anyway they would do that, because the pay-per-view is where the money is. As far as getting the ratings, the network should ... if they expect strong ratings, then they should support it with their other programming and their other assets. Look, there’s no shortage of fighters, especially now, at Zuffa’s disposal. There’s plenty that they can market using the Fox platform and build them up into ratings generators without sacrificing their pay-per-view buys.
Encarnacao: So, you really don’t see the pressure to, for instance, put Georges St. Pierre and Brock Lesnar on Fox?
Afromowitz: Oh, I do. I see pressure to deliver ratings, but I think you can deliver ratings without necessarily putting the big, big fights on [Fox]. I think there’s fighters right underneath those guys, and you can stack cards without putting, let’s say, the Brock Lesnars on. Look, the pay-per-view is where the big, big money is. Everyone knows that in the fight game.
Encarnacao: When it comes to in the cage, what do you feel was the biggest moment for Strikeforce?
Afromowitz: For me, personally, I think the first CBS fight; that was ... a huge rating and having Fedor headline that show. I guess putting him on CBS; that was packaged and that was a huge point in time for us. Plus, the heavyweight tournament was very big. So, I think those two. The Fedor-Brett Rogers fight was a great time. That was when we were just running on pure momentum. It was a great time. And the heavyweight tournament did come at the end, and, so, it was a little -- the memories won’t be as great as they were from the first CBS fight. It was a great night. The energy in the arena was incredible. It was a great comeback, dramatic ending and it delivered huge ratings, so it was a great night. I went home really happy.
Encarnacao: Fedor, of course, went on to lose to Fabricio Werdum, Antonio Silva and Dan Henderson. Was there a feeling at the end that Fedor’s stock was tumbling after two losses?
Afromowitz: Sure, for sure. I definitely think his stock plummeted, but I’m not taking anything away from his legacy. He is who he is, and he had an incredible career. But, at that point in time, yes, his stock, sure, like anyone else, two straight losses, it dropped.
Encarnacao: We talked about how financially demanding the deal was for Fedor. Was there a sense of relief that he was eliminated from the tournament early so you didn’t have to deal with M-1 every step of the way?
Afromowitz: For sure. I think there was a bittersweet feeling amongst certain people in certain circles. He had a great career, but it was a tough deal to swallow -- the whole Fedor deal. Him losing two in a row ... maybe it was for the best, from a business standpoint of course. Co-promoting is tough; there’s a lot of different interests at hand. It’s tough enough to promote a fight on your own. Then, when you have a partner, it’s a tougher business.
Encarnacao: When Shields, as a Strikeforce fighter, showed up on a UFC TV show and [UFC President] Dana White put his arm around him, what was the reaction to that?
Afromowitz: My reaction was, ‘Good, you wouldn’t want somebody like that.’ It’s, like, I worked really hard to do my part in this company and make these fighters, build their names, build their brands. And if they’re not appreciative and there’s a better deal out there, then let them go.
Encarnacao: It seemed that there was a concentrated push for Shields on Strikeforce’s part, to feature him prominently and give him big fights. Was there a bigger push for him than the standard Strikeforce fighter?
Afromowitz: I think there were other guys that we could have put in his place. Gilbert [Melendez] is a guy who puts on incredible fights, but it was just the right time, right place for [Shields] to fight Dan Henderson on CBS. So that’s why I think that happened, but [there were] fighters who were more charismatic than him, more exciting and [had] more exciting styles of fighting than him, so I think him fighting Dan Henderson on CBS was just circumstantial. But there are fighters that we had under our umbrella who we could have pushed just as easily.
Encarnacao: Nick Diaz became a big star under your Strikeforce regime. He faced mostly strikers and it produced exciting fights but was never matched with many wrestlers like GSP. Was this a conscious effort?
Afromowitz: That’s a good point. No, it wasn’t a conscientious effort. We wanted to make the most exciting fights and the fights that made the most sense in terms of title fights, and really I don’t think -- when you look at our 170-pound roster -- I don’t think there is really anyone really qualified to do what you were talking about. There were no high-level, highly accomplished wrestlers in our 170-pound division. You have Tyron Woodley, who now is getting to that point where he’s in line for a title, but back then he wasn’t. And, so, I don’t think there was anyone that fits that bill. Nick ... there were certain opponents for Nick and it just so happened that they were guys that wanted to swing it out, like K.J. Noons, [Evangelista] “Cyborg” [Santos], Frank Shamrock and [Marius] Zaromskis. It just so happened that [in] those the styles matched up that way.
Encarnacao: I’m sure come late October there will be a groundswell of people thinking Nick can beat GSP. Not to say he can’t, but do you think a lot of his hype came from his Strikeforce run and the way his matches played to his strengths?
Afromowitz: Honestly, I think it was all Nick’s doing, really, in his case. But he actually became bigger because he didn’t do press, he didn’t do media. He’s not a guy wants to play ball in that respect. He doesn’t do the media stuff, and it was frustrating working with him, I’m going to be honest. But, he became ... he came into his own and he put together a slew of wins. He fought lights out in Strikeforce, and, for that reason and for being an elusive character, he became bigger. He really created his own brand, whether it was intentional or not.
Encarnacao: I imagine you don’t envy the UFC “Primetime” production crew that’s going to have to follow him around for three weeks before the GSP fight and make interesting television out of it.
Afromowitz: No, no, no, no. I wouldn’t take that job. He just doesn’t like it. It’s the way he is, for whatever reason. Maybe he’s shy, maybe, I don’t know. He doesn’t like that part of the business, so that’s going to be a tough one. I would like to watch the crew try to follow him around. That would be entertaining, but I wouldn’t want to be on that crew because that would be tough for them.
Encarnacao: Gina Carano versus Cristiane “Cyborg” Santos in August 2009 was such a remarkable night in terms of the excitement and the ratings it drew. After that, Cyborg had fights, but we never saw Carano again. Was there a sense coming off that night that there really wasn’t momentum going forward for the women, that it was kind of the peak?
Afromowitz: Wasn’t it amazing, in a male-dominated sport, that that one women’s fight broke the all-time viewership record on Showtime for MMA? I think about that still. I think that I wasn’t surprised to not see Gina come back. She had some opportunities in Hollywood. I remember watching Gina for the first time during our K-1 days. She was on the undercard. This was back in 2005, I think, and I could see what potential she had as an athlete. I didn’t even know who her father was; I didn’t realize how he was an ex-[Dallas] Cowboys quarterback, so she had those incredible genetics. I just saw an incredible athlete and I saw what kind of potential she had. But Cyborg came out and she just owned her, and, so, I wasn’t surprised to see Gina take a long leave of absence; and, still, she hasn’t come back. She was supposed to, but she wasn’t able to make it. But I don’t know what the future will hold for women’s MMA, especially now. But I don’t think Gina won’t come back. But, regardless of whether she comes back or not, I don’t really know what the future holds for women’s MMA. There seems to be a lot of people that want it to stick around. I don’t know what’s going to happen now that Strikeforce is under new ownership.
Encarnacao: Cyborg went on to fight in Strikeforce, but didn’t move the needle like Carano did. Did it come to the point where was asking for money on the level of Carano, and might that account for why we haven’t seen her fight in so long?
Afromowitz: Yeah, I think she wanted a different deal, and I’m sure, like any fighter or any star, she has people in her ear telling her what she is worth. So, we’ll see what happens, but, really, I don’t know how many opponents there are even out there for her. This Ronda Rousey girl is coming up, but she’s not ready for her yet, I don’t think, with the number of fights anyway that she has on paper. She could be a threat to Cyborg in the near future, but, other than that, I don’t know who else is out there for Cyborg right now. There is not as much depth, obviously, as there is in the men’s division, but I think it could be maintained -- the women’s divisions. I think, with the sport growing, there are more and more women coming into it, so I think it’s something worth building, to build it aggressively as you are with the men’s. I wouldn’t just fold it.
Encarnacao: Finally, what do you hope for Strikeforce and your friend, Scott Coker?
Afromowitz: I hope that, in MMA, it might be tough to rebuild, but as far as from like a family perspective and the way we operated, I hope I can live that kind of life again at some point, sooner rather than later. And, you know, just work the same way that I had been. But it’s amazing how things can change overnight. I certainly didn’t see this coming.