mma / Columns

Remembering Strikeforce: Nashville & Aldo vs. Faber

April 23, 2018 | Posted by Dan Plunkett
Strikeforce: Nashville

This time eight years ago, the MMA word was in the midst of an eight-day period that featured two of the most significant non-UFC events since the closure of Pride.

On April 17, 2010, Strikeforce: Nashville marked the promotion’s second—and ultimately final—event on CBS. One week later, the WEC, the UFC’s little brother promotion, headed to pay-per-view for the first and only time, but the promotion was not present in name. Billed as “UFC Presents: Aldo vs. Faber,” the show featured a pair of “world title fights,” a key distinction from “WEC title fights.”

Each show represented finality, but that finality emerged from opposite directions. Strikeforce: Nashville’s failures kept the promotion from staging future events on CBS. Aldo vs. Faber’s success factored into the folding of the WEC, resulting in a larger platform for lighter-weight fighters.

Strikeforce: Nashville was preceded by a year in which the promotion became a viable #2 to the UFC. In April 2009, a new Strikeforce, one that had scooped up key assets of the failed EliteXC, including broadcast deals with Showtime and CBS, emerged as a national player. In August, the promotion set ratings records and made history with Gina Carano vs. Cris Cyborg, the first women’s bout to headline a large-scale event. Its next show was its CBS debut, which was a successful outing in every sense. Fedor Emelianenko, the promotion’s new top star, won in the main event and drew good ratings. After that, Strikeforce delivered what still stands as its best show ever, Strikeforce: Evolution. Then Strikeforce kicked off 2010 with a strong show that delivered good ratings in Strikeforce: Miami.

This was the momentum that Strikeforce carried into Nashville, a night on which everything would go wrong.

With the possible exception of side show attractions like Herschel Walker and Bobby Lashley, Fedor Emelianenko was the only fighter on Strikeforce’s roster that could draw a major audience on CBS. (Gina Carano would have fit the mold, but she was off pursuing movies at this point.) But a recurring hand injury and his management’s insistence on renegotiating his contract made Emelianenko unavailable for the April 17 CBS show.

While Strikeforce’s backup plan was never going to draw strong ratings, it was an intriguing show for fight fans. The promotion booked three title fights to fill the entirety of their CBS time slot. The show would kick off with undefeated wrestling standout “King” Mo Lawal challenging light heavyweight champion Gegard Mousasi, who had won fifteen consecutive fights. Then Shinya Aoki, long considered one of the best lightweights in the world at a time when most of the best lightweights competed in Japan, would make his United States debut by challenging lightweight champion Gilbert Melendez. Both were generally ranked in the top three of the division, right behind the UFC’s BJ Penn. In the main event, Jake Shields would defend his newly-won middleweight championship against Dan Henderson, a high profile free agent that Strikeforce had lured away from the UFC.

What could have been a good show turned into a snoozer. All three title fights went the 25-minute distance. Lawal, who had previously shown a willingness to throw hands and won five of his six career bouts by (T)KO, reverted to his wrestling and easily took Mousasi down on his way to a one-sided decision. Melendez kept grappling-centric Aoki on the feet and picked him apart in a non-competitive bout. Henderson almost reversed the show’s course by obliterating Shields in the opening round, but the champion survived, Henderson tired, and the next four rounds saw Shields dominate Henderson on the mat.

When Shields vs. Henderson concluded, it was a bad show that promised to do bad ratings. If Strikeforce was lucky, that would have been the end of it.

As Jake Shields gave his post-fight interview with play-by-play announcer Gus Johnson, Jason “Mayhem” Miller entered the cage unimpeded. Shields defeated Miller the prior November to win the vacant Strikeforce middleweight title. “Where’s my rematch, buddy?” were the words Miller chose to invoke some reaction from Shields, not expecting that reaction to be fists from Shields and his team, which included Melendez, Strikeforce welterweight champion Nick Diaz, and UFC’s Nate Diaz. A full-scale brawl—if one can accurately describe a many-against-one attack as a brawl—ensued. “Sometimes these things happen in MMA,” Johnson explained to a television audience that had tuned in to watch their local news and were instead abhorred to find a sea of Affliction t-shirts on their screen.

Strikeforce probably would have survived a bad show and a bad rating on CBS, but the brawl nailed the coffin shut. They never appeared on CBS again.

The ultimate fate of Strikeforce—being sold to Zuffa in early 2011 before shutting down in January 2013—probably wouldn’t be any different whether or not the promotion had the CBS platform to work with. The sale happened because Silicon Valley Sports & Entertainment, major stakeholders in the promotion, were eager to accept Zuffa’s offer and focus on their other businesses. Although it’s impossible to say definitively, most likely the benefit of one or two more shows on CBS would not have given the promotion enough momentum to change SVS&E’s mind.

One week after besting Dan Henderson, Jake Shields was the prettiest girl at the dance at the ARCO Arena in Sacramento, California. A free agent following the Henderson fight, the UFC was heavily courting Shields, who made his interest in making the jump to UFC apparent by appearing with UFC President Dana White on camera during the Aldo vs. Faber pay-per-view. “He’s mine!” White mouthed to the camera, and it was clear he was right. Strikeforce CEO Scott Coker wasn’t about to allow Shields to play both sides against each other for a better deal. He released Shields of any remaining obligations to Strikeforce, which allowed Shields to sign with UFC immediately, but also weakened his negotiating power. UFC wins again.

According to the UFC, the WEC, which mainly featured lighter-weight fighters, was never a money-making venture for them. They scooped up the promotion in December 2006 with the main idea being to keep a television spot away from competitors. (WEC aired on Versus, now NBC Sports Network, which has consistently aired MMA programming ever since.) A pay-per-view event, if successful, was a way to get some return on the promotion.

Urijah Faber was WEC’s biggest ratings mover. He was its dominant featherweight champion as the promotion was first gaining national exposure and was one-half of its biggest fight ever opposite Jens Pulver. Just as he was gaining significant momentum, Faber lost his title to Mike Brown, who also beat him in a rematch. Brown then lost to Jose Aldo, which set up a big Aldo vs. Faber bout on April 24, 2010.

Priced the same as a UFC pay-per-view, the UFC took every step to make the show successful. Rather than air the live preliminary card fights on WEC’s home channel Versus, they aired on UFC’s home channel Spike, a much more popular station. Reportedly to get around the contractual difficulties of airing the WEC on a channel other than Versus, they dropped the “WEC” name from the show entirely. UFC Presents Aldo vs. Faber was essentially a UFC show with WEC fighters. Familiar UFC commentary duo Mike Goldberg and Joe Rogan took the headsets for the broadcast.

According to the Wrestling Observer Newsletter, the UFC budgeted the show for 60,000 buys. Non-UFC shows had traditionally failed on United States pay-per-view, so expectations were kept much lower than the normal UFC pay-per-view event (the lower end of which was pulling around 300,000 buys in those days).

The first real sign of life for the show occurred with the last preliminary fight on Spike TV. Leonard Garcia and Chan Sung Jung—immortalized hereafter as The Korean Zombie—brawled in a fight that rocked both the ARCO Arena and the television audience. The fight began with 832,000 viewers, and by the end viewership had nearly doubled to more than 1.5 million viewers. A net viewership gain of 668,000 viewers is not close to record levels, but an 80% audience increase for a single fight is outstanding (there does not appear to be well-kept records for audience increase percentages for single fights, but 80% would likely be at or near the top of the list).

That fight, along with the star power of Faber and UFC blurring the line between it and the WEC boosted the pay-per-view to a reported 175,000 buys. For years, there were questions regarding whether lighter-weight MMA fighters could draw on pay-per-view (although they were silly questions since boxing had answered all of them years before). BJ Penn proved the lightweight division could draw. On April 24, 2010, without the full UFC push, Urijah Faber helped prove that featherweights could draw a paying audience and showed that weight is not a barrier to drawing as much as the personality and appeal of a specific fighter.

Before the end of 2010, the UFC decided to ramp up its international expansion efforts, which a significant increase in content. One can also assume desire to increase content output also came from a desire to have more television content to sell, as UFC television rights were up for negotiation in 2011. In 2010, the UFC promoted 24 events. They would increase that to 27 in 2011, and then 32 in 2012. An increase in events also calls for an increase in roster, and at least partially attributable to the success of WEC’s lone pay-per-view, they announced on October 28, 2010, that they would fold the WEC and brings its fighters and additional weight classes to the UFC.

All this strongly linked to an odd eight days in the MMA world.

Dan Plunkett has covered MMA for 411Mania since 2008. You can reach him by email at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @Dan_Plunkett.