Fans who left just after the last bout of Saturday's Strikeforce mixed-martial-arts event at Bridgestone Arena might have been disappointed that the fight card didn't have the type of outrageous action and over-the-top violence they had hoped for.
They should've stuck around for the post-fight interviews. In a major embarrassment to the fledgling sport, the Strikeforce promotion and CBS, a semi-riot broke out in the cage following middleweight champion Jake Shields' decision victory over Dan Henderson, when the aptly named Jason "Mayhem" Miller entered the cage to challenge the winner.
To understand exactly what happened, a little context is necessary. Mixed martial arts is dominated by the Ultimate Fighting Championship, or UFC. The company, led by foul-mouthed promoter Dana White, is so ubiquitous that the sport itself is sometimes referred to as "ultimate fighting." Several rival promotions have attempted to challenge its dominance, only to be snuffed out by the UFC and White — the latter a combination of P.T. Barnum, a 19th century robber baron, and Curly from The Three Stooges.
Strikeforce is the most serious of the upstart promotions currently attempting to compete with the UFC. It has television deals with Showtime and, most importantly, on network TV with CBS, which it has leveraged to build an impressive stable of fighters.
Strikeforce chose to come to Nashville for its crucial second network-televised show, so clearly vital to the company's future that the UFC briefly threatened to hold its own event in Nashville the same night. Speaking at a press conference before the fight, Strikeforce CEO Scott Coker claimed the location was an easy call, as the city is invariably one of their top-five rated television markets.
He was likely a bit disappointed as a moderate crowd estimated (perhaps generously) at 8,200 showed up at Bridgestone Arena, though word was that many of the tickets were sold at steep discounts. An inferior show put on in Nashville last year by the UFC drew a significantly larger crowd.
After a series of smaller fights filled largely with local fighters, the televised portion began with light heavyweight (205 pounds) champion Gegard Mousasi defending his belt against Murfreesboro native Muhammed "King Mo" Lawal. Lawal managed to win the title in a largely repetitive affair that saw him take down his Dutch opponent repeatedly.
In the next bout, lightweight (155 pounds) champion Gilbert Melendez defeated Japanese submission specialist Shinya Aoki. Aoki was unable to bring his opponent to the mat, and Melendez easily controlled the fight to win a decision.
There were scattered boos as the rounds progressed without much variation. The crowd was about what you would expect: a lot of young guys who looked to be Ron Paul supporters, with short hair, thick necks and vaguely goth T-shirts. Though they were restless at points, the booing was relatively limited compared to crowds from other cities, which often grow angry at the slightest slowdown in action. That doesn't mean there weren't a fair share of knuckle-draggers, however, including a handful of guys who gleefully took snapshots of a young Japanese woman from Aoki's team who wept gently following her fighter's loss.
The real embarrassments, though, were in the cage. In the main event, middleweight (185 pounds) champion Jake Shields was defending his title against the star of the show, Dan Henderson. Henderson was making his debut in Strikeforce after a career of fighting in the UFC and Japanese promotions. He's a former Olympic wrestler, and though 38 he's at the height of his popularity after knocking out and smashing with a flying elbow drop a much-despised British opponent in his last fight.
Strikeforce outbid the UFC for Henderson with the expectation that he would defeat the champion, Shields, who is considered likely to leave the promotion after this fight. It looked like it was going to happen during the first round, when Henderson managed to hurt and knock down Shields. But Henderson couldn't finish him. As the fight progressed, Shields began to dominate and kept the powerful Henderson on the ground. He won the fight by clear decision.
That's when all hell broke loose. After much of the crowd left the arena, the broadcast did an interview in the cage. A fellow Strikeforce fighter who had won a bout on the undercard, Miller rushed the cage to challenge Shields for the title. It wasn't clear exactly what happened amid the crush of people in the cage, but suddenly Miller was on the ground being kicked by a half-dozen members of Shields' team. It was exactly what proponents of the sport are trying to counteract in their effort to legitimize MMA as a mainstream sport. The CBS announcer pathetically tried to calm the fracas by repeatedly saying, "Gentlemen, we're on national television."
One wonders what people waiting to watch the late local news thought. While moral scolds typically overstate the event, and it's unlikely to discourage fans, it was a huge embarrassment. Combined with disappointing ratings for the event, the future of MMA on national television is in jeopardy.
Only legalized in Tennessee last year, MMA is here to stay. But after the Nashville debacle, Strikeforce might not be.
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