by George Chung, Publisher
Over the past few days, the MMA world has been filled with news and stories of the consolidation of the MMA industry, with the recent announcement of the PFL buying Bellator. We have been following the recent developments and focusing on the key players as any media company would. In keeping with Black Belt Magazine’s pursuit of authentic coverage of martial arts, I thought it would be more appropriate to feature a story that talks about Bellator’s president Scott Coker through the lens of martial arts. For the thousands of people who know Scott, most may only know him as a promoter, but I would like to celebrate his career as an accomplished martial artist.
Scott Coker saw the future and led the world to it. He moved martial arts combat from high school gyms to packed arenas and stadiums, went from cable networks to network television, and launched the careers of so many people we now refer to as legends in MMA. He did it all with humility and respect, tenets he learned as a lifelong student of the martial arts.
Scott was a key player in the early days of the ISKA in the 1980s, moved to K1 in the 90s, and reimagined a sport called MMA with Strikeforce, the first legally sanctioned MMA promotion in California.
He disrupted the industry by featuring women as main events, thereby creating legends like Rhonda Rousey, Cris Cyborg, Gina Carano, and Miehsa Tate. This practice is now considered common because of Scott.
In an interview, he was once quoted as saying, “I grew up as a martial artist, and I'm still a martial artist at heart.” This was evident in his career as Scott related to fighters and trainers on levels so deep that only a person who grew up in the arts could understand.
The perspective of this story is unique because I had the privilege of witnessing his growth as a promoter from a backstage vantage point, as a close personal friend, and yes, a fan of Scott for almost 50 years.
The story is about humility and vision and a chance for me as a friend and publisher of Black Belt Magazine, to celebrate my friend and share his story from a personal vantage.
To begin, let's start with the end. On Friday night, Bellator promoted its last event of 2023. Scott sat ringside and quietly presented championship belts and then graciously moved out of the cage allowing the champions to have the limelight and the spotlight, a practice he's been known for for years. Making it about the fighters and never about himself.
In an egocentric social media-obsessed world, Scott has always demonstrated the opposite characteristics he has consistently portrayed throughout his entire life.
I want to go back to the beginning way before we knew Scott as the promoter, the businessman, and an MMA pioneer. Although it is known that he has a martial arts background, what is often rarely discussed is the actual skill level Scott possessed.
How do I know? I trained next to him as a teenager through our early stages, earning our Black Belts at our hometown dojo West Coast Tae Kwon Do in San Jose, California.
Scott was always a standout as the most talented, energetic, and skillful martial artist in the class. That's saying a lot considering we trained under the tutelage of Ernie Reyes, Sr.
We looked up to our martial artist heroes who demonstrated the skills and character that we as young men wanted to emulate. Movie star Bruce Lee had the biggest impact on Scott but he was also inspired by Chong Lee, author of Dynamic Kicks, and of course our teachers Ernie Reyes Sr, Tony Thompson, Roland Naku, and Hieu Dang.
Nothing ever got past us as students. We were micro-focused on every nuance and absorbed every word our martial arts teachers shared with us because our only goal was to become great martial artists. Oh, how simple times were back then.
Scott had a chance to display his skills as one of the first members of the legendary West Coast Demo Team and toured the country for several years as a member of that famed performance squad.
I always believed and said that had Scott just desired to compete in martial arts, he would have also been a world champion because he truly had the talent and the skills.
But that was not the path he chose. At one point, Scott dabbled as a stuntman. In fact, you can find footage of him on YouTube fighting Jet Credit: West Coast World Martial Arts Association.
Li or in the Last Dragon with Ernie Reyes Jr. Even then Scott did not aspire to be a star, only to be part of something that showcased the martial arts.
What destiny really had in store for him was to become one of the most prolific martial arts promoters in history. As early as his teenage years, Scott was already involved in the promotion of professional combative sports with West Coast Martial Arts promoting a kickboxing company that fed programming to the PKA.
Scott understood even in those early years that a real promoter has one job and that's to put “butts in the seats”, and to do so, he showcased the most amazing martial arts talent at that time on the West Coast.
As he grew his organization, his kickboxing programs began to draw national attention on ESPN. Throughout the 1980s, kickboxing was the rage and Scott became a central figure in the ISKA, the kickboxing sanctioning body that grew the sport on cable TV.
Now let's pause for a second before we go into the chronological history of his promotional career. It's important to mention that all this time Scott was also a martial arts instructor and an amazing one at that. In fact, his legacy as a teacher still remains today with one of his most prized students being the legendary MMA coach Javier Mendez. Javier refers to Scott as Kwang Jang Nim, Korean terminology for master and is now the owner of the famed AKA in San Jose, California and trainer to legendary Khabib Nurgamedov.
In the 90s, Scott partnered with the Japanese promotion company K1. He later became President of K1 USA and went on to promote some of the most memorable fights at the Bellagio in Las Vegas. Scott again provided a platform to showcase some of the greatest kickboxers of our generation including Maurice Smith, Ray Sefo and Ernesto Hoost.
It was during those promotional years that Scott understood the importance of presenting his product to a full house and was able to monetize his promotions into a successful business, all the while creating an atmosphere, environment and ecosystem that would continually support fighters and their growth.
In the early 2000s, as MMA began to gain mainstream popularity, Scott created Strike Force MMA. On March 10, 2006, he held the first sanctioned mixed martial arts event in San Jose, California with a record 18,265 in attendance, an attendance record that stood for many years. It was during the Strike Force days he forged relationships with major sponsors that stayed with him for decades and television relationships including Showtime and CBS.
Strikeforce champions included a legendary list of who's who of fighters like Frank Shamrock, Cung Le, Nick Diaz, Josh Thompson, Gilbert Melendez, Jake Shields, Alistair Overeem, and so many more. The organization grew in dominance and competed with the UFC. In 2011, Strikeforce was purchased by the UFC and Coker entered a new phase as a UFC employee where he stayed until his contract ran out.
This could have been the end of the story as it would have been easy for Scott to walk away, but that's when in 2014 Bellator came knocking. Scott then started the next leg of his journey, continuing his vision of promoting the best MMA fights around the world.
Courtesy of Bellator
Most of us already know Bellator’s story. Over the last 9 years under Scott Coker’s guidance, Bellator went to promote 180 shows, achieved international growth, and included sell-out shows in the USA, Europe and Asia with epic co-promotions in Japan with RIZIN. All the while, Scott never forgot what his role was as a promoter, putting butts in the seats and giving the people a great show.
Courtesy of Bellator
So let's get back to Friday night as I sat in my office in Hollywood watching the Bellator 301 show on television. I was texting Scott and complimenting him on the great fights. True to form, Scott replied just like a fan sharing his excitement in the fights, analyzing the battles, and truly enjoying the sport from a martial artist perspective.
We don't know Scott's next move professionally but here's what we do know and what I care about. Wherever he goes and whatever he does, Scott will continue to carry with him the heart of a martial artist, remembering the same principles he learned as a lifelong participant of the martial arts, which are respect, humility, and discipline. These are traits we all aspire to live by and it's great to know we can still look to role models who do.
We don't know Scott's next move professionally but here's what we do know. Wherever he goes and whatever he does Scott will continue to carry with him the heart of a martial artist, remembering the same principles he learned as a teenager which are respect, humility, and discipline. We all aspire to live by these traits and it's great to know we can still look to role models who do.