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SportsColumnistsMark La Monica

Strikeforce has become a very potent force

No cheeseball, seasonal beginning here about candy instead of coal in the stocking or sipping champagne a few days later. Shelf life shorter than that of an ice cream sundae on a sunny day, that stuff.

What Strikeforce and its CEO Scott Coker pulled off in 2009 will last deep in 2010 and beyond. Coker turned Strikeforce, a relatively small player, into a strong brand and the only promotion capable of not tapping out to the UFC's stranglehold on mixed martial arts.

"It started with the purchase of EliteXC's assets in February," Coker said. "There was a Showtime fight on April 11 of this year between Frank Shamrock and Nick Diaz in San Jose, and we've been on a roll ever since."

That roll continued in August with the signing of Fedor Emelianenko, the world's top heavyweight, and the first female championship bout between Gina Carano and Cris "Cyborg" Santos.

Then came the deal with CBS in September, followed by five million-plus viewers for Emelianenko's fight in primetime on the network in November. On Dec. 7, former Pride middleweight and light heavyweight champion Dan Henderson, a two-time U.S. Olympic wrestler, chose to sign with Strikeforce instead of re-signing with the UFC.

But wait, there's more.

Three days later, rising star Bobby Lashley, a former WWE champion, joined. On Tuesday, Coker confirmed with Newsday that Strikeforce will return to primetime on CBS in April 2010. Strikeforce will also be the featured league and have its fighters' likenesses included in the next year's EA Sports MMA video game. Then throw in a little Herschel Walker - yes, that Herschel Walker - and you've got yourself one heck of a year.

OK, we've caught our breath. Have you?

"Anytime a company can grow at this rate, in this economy, is pretty unbelievable," Coker said. "I feel like we have the committment from broadcasters, commitment from sponsors, we've got fighters we want under contract," Coker said. "We've got everything in place."

How did this all happen? Agreeing to co-promote Emelianenko's fights with his M-1 Global promotion sealed that deal. The folding of Affliction last summer, and IFL, Bodog Fight and EliteXC in the past few years, left room for a smart promoter to gain some position in the MMA market and give fight fans something more than just UFC and WEC, both of which are owned by Zuffa LLC.

And, of course, there's Showtime. The financial backing from the cable network, along with its broadcasting of live cards -- including last night's Strikeforce: Evolution event, is the biggest reason Strikeforce is an actual force.

"We're pleased with the quality of entertainment we're getting," said Ken Hershman, Showtime's vice president of sports programming. "And having a platform like CBS to expose Strikeforce as a brand, and expose the Strikeforce fighters, the bigger we can make these athletes, the better it is for Showtime."

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