Scott Coker: Looking at the Path of the New Bellator Boss

Matthew Ryder@@matthewjryderFeatured ColumnistJune 24, 2014

Strikeforce CEO Scott Coker at a Strikeforce mixed martial arts event on Saturday, Aug. 15, 2009, in San Jose, Calif.  (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)
Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

It's 1985.

Wham! is the hottest thing in music, and movies like The Breakfast Club and The Goonies are reinventing the "random kids come of age, often while wearing awesome '80s clothes" genre.

The jungles of Brazil are home to no-holds-barred combat, but America knows nothing of it aside from what they see outside the bar on a Saturday night.

And Scott Coker just founded Strikeforce.

It's a kickboxing promotion, a modest West Coast thrill for martial arts fans to be run by Coker, an experienced martial artist himself. He's known regionally, but the idea that he'd be a global force then, or even within the next two decades, is far away and not particularly feasible.

In a combat sports world dominated by Mike Tyson's growing legacy, Strikeforce is simply a fun alternative in a sunny corner of the world.

Fast forward that two decades, though, and the world is a very different place.

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Kickboxing is as niche as niche can be in the sporting world, Tyson's legacy is one marred as much by antics out of the ring as any within it (plus a wonderful redemption story), and combat sports looks nothing like one would have anticipated in the 1980s.

Boxing is largely in doldrums, and for a little over a decade, mixed martial arts has been literally and figuratively fighting to become recognized across the country.

The UFC, originally conceived by a Brazilian family who became famous for fighting in their home country, has been everything from a cultural phenomenon to a ruthlessly targeted political chess piece. It's now running a reality show as a last gasp of air on the sporting landscape.

Coker is still in California, 20 years of fight promotion behind him and time spent on various boards and governing bodies as well. He's even appeared in a few movies thanks to his combat experience.

Martial arts has been good to him.

But as he sees the UFC growing, sees its reality show quickly changing the climate and forcing the ultimate martial arts proving ground to the cultural forefront, the wheels begin to turn.

His home state is close to regulating MMA, either this year or by 2006, and he's thinking there might be room for Strikeforce to get in on the new wave early. It's an itch he's considered scratching since as early as 2001, but now is truly the time.

There's so much talent in the Bay Area, so many kickboxers and wrestlers and big personalities with serious athletic pedigrees floating around, that he might just be able to do something special.

And he's already plugged into them all. It's his scene.

Scott Coker is going to put on an MMA show.

PHOENIX - AUGUST 13:  Jason Richey is introduced to the Strikeforce Challengers Undercard bout at Dodge Theater on August 13, 2010 in Phoenix, Arizona.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

2006 arrives, and with it comes regulated mixed martial arts in California. Coker is determined to be the first man to promote the sport in the state and, with a little help from his friends at the athletic commission, books Frank Shamrock to fight Cesar Gracie on March 10.

It's an epic success, with Shamrock stopping Gracie early in the first round in front a salivating, sold-out crowd at the HP Pavilion in San Jose.

Strikeforce is dead. Long live Strikeforce.

The coming years see the former kickboxing promotion grow first into the preeminent regional MMA promotion in America, then into a legitimate national threat to the UFC (which has also exploded after its reality show gambit) thanks to a deal with Showtime Sports.

The promotion creates stars like Gilbert Melendez and Josh Thomson and poaches others like Alistair Overeem and Fedor Emelianenko. They even put on the first truly massive fight in the history of women's MMA, one that sees Gina Carano take a licking from Cyborg Justino (then Cyborg Santos).

Fans come to know and love the signature red, black and white. They know they're going to get their money's worth when they tune in.

Then, on an otherwise random night in March 2011 as the cool set in on the Nevada desert, Strikeforce as they know it is gone. Coker's vision is gone.

UFC president Dana White appears with the inimitable Ariel Helwani at his office in Las Vegas, humbly announcing his company's acquisition of Strikeforce while sitting on a couch in a T-shirt.

Hardly the pomp and circumstance one would have expected from a merger many fans thought impossible even hours earlier.

Though "business as usual" is the phrase thrown around regularly and Strikeforce hangs around for nearly two years, it's clear that business is quite unusual.

Coker is a sallow, sunken puppet. His quiet charm, a signature that made him the most powerful man in California martial arts, is muted. He's toeing the company line and serving as the figurehead for his promotion, but the writing is on the wall.

Strikeforce died for real on January 12, 2013. Its final resting place is the Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City, where around 15,000 mourners could come to pay their final respects.

For the interest the event garners, it might as well be 15.

The road from that night to June 18, 2014 is a quiet one for Scott Coker. Part of the deal that saw Strikeforce absorbed into the UFC saw Coker make his way to the front office there, but he's hardly ever heard from.

It seems an incredible waste of talent for a promotion bent on expanding globally to bury one of the best promoters in martial arts history in some mystery cubicle, but that's what happens.

Bjorn Rebney
Bjorn RebneyUSA TODAY Sports

During that time a new contender emerges, one that was a seedling when Coker's Strikeforce was growing into a mighty tree on the sport's landscape. Bellator MMA, a tournament-based concept from former boxing promoter Bjorn Rebney, has become pretty good at what it does and earned the financial backing of media giant Viacom for its efforts.

Except Viacom doesn't much care for Rebney or his fixation on tournaments crowning contenders while champions sit on the sidelines and wait for them.

They want the property, not necessarily the man who conceived of it.

And so, after nearly three years of trying to run it with Rebney at the helm, they axe him. There's a vacancy at the top, and it comes right after the promotion ran its first pay-per-view in relatively successful fashion.

They have big names on the roster like Eddie Alvarez and Michael Chandler, and full-on crossover stars like Tito Ortiz and Rampage Jackson. There's a foundation to work with there, progress to be made for a man who knows how to make it.

Scott Coker is a man who knows how to make it.

He's been making it some way or another for nearly 30 years.

That fact isn't lost on Viacom. Since he's free to leave the UFC offices thanks to the expiration of a non-compete clause, they get him on the horn.

Vacancy filled.

So June 18, 2014 is the day.

That's the day that Scott Coker's journey in martial arts begins anew. He's announced as the new head of Bellator MMA and immediately gets back to what made he and his previous work so great.

He speaks of "Bellator 2.0" and how things will look a little different than they have. He deflects any line of questioning that could start a conflict in the media, instead opting for a quiet calm and a smooth confidence.

This is a guy who started in the game listening to Wham! and watching The Breakfast Club and hasn't spoken much above a whisper since. And he's been a success.

Can he be again? Only time will tell.

But it's clear that, based on his career, a bet on Scott Coker is a pretty safe one.

For more on Scott Coker and the incredible rise and fall of Strikeforce, check out Bleacher Report's own Jonathan Snowden's oral history of the promotion: Part 1 and Part 2.

Follow me on Twitter @matthewjryder!

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