’08 MMA stories: Slice of life

For mixed martial arts, 2008 was a year of business flux. And that probably will be the theme next year as well for a sport that finished an ’08 filled with growing pains.

The name brand, Ultimate Fighting Championship, had its best year to date in establishing a new guard of champions. Some, like Georges St. Pierre and B.J. Penn, were fully expected. Others, like Forrest Griffin and Brock Lesnar, could be considered pretty big surprises. The only champion who lasted the year was Anderson Silva.

Also, UFC reached a level on pay-per-view above even its strong 2006 and 2007 numbers and is likely to end the year setting a record for any company for annual pay-per-view revenue.

But for others, the year wasn’t as good. Even though Pro Elite made a huge breakthrough in getting MMA on CBS in primetime, drawing more viewers to the sport than ever before in North America, its doors were closed before the year was up. The International Fight League lost its MyNetworkTV deal, continued to suffer heavy losses and filed for bankruptcy. Affliction debuted, spending a ridiculous amount on fighters’ pay, and promptly canceled its second show – but it at least is still alive and kicking.

During the year, there was talk of all kinds of big names getting into the promotion business – from Donald Trump, who was affiliated with Affliction, to Golden Boy Promotions, who talked about a joint show with Affliction that has yet to be announced, to Mark Cuban, who runs endless hours on his HDNet station but didn’t promote a live event this past year.

Next year? The most likely themes include UFC expanding into new markets. While no dates are official, there has been talk of the Philippines and Germany, and the organization has strengthened its television situation in places like Mexico, Brazil and Japan. The big story domestically likely will be, like this year, from the television side. Will CBS run shows next year, and with whom? Will NBC, which airs Strikeforce at 2 a.m. on Saturday, take the plunge into a live show in a primetime slot? What will Showtime do for MMA product? Will HBO get into the game? And will MMA in Japan be able to reclaim its former glory on television?

Top 10 stories of 2008

10. Carano emerges as a legitimate drawing card: In the short history of MMA on U.S. television, only five matches have added one million new viewers while on the air. Two of them were Gina Carano’s two matches on CBS television. The second match, on Oct. 4 against Kelly Kobold, saw the audience grow 1,643,000 people from the prior match, breaking the record set by Tito Ortiz vs. Ken Shamrock’s 2006 match on Spike of 1,424,000. Women’s MMA existed before Carano and will exist when she no longer is around. And while Carano has been knocked for weight issues and the idea that her looks are more important than her fighting ability, every woman in the sport owes her a debt of gratitude for opening both eyes and doors.

9. Japan fails to reclaim former glory: Japan had been the hotbed of MMA for most of the past decade. But from a mainstream standpoint the sport took a huge hit in 2006 when the Fuji Network canceled Pride after a scandal involving allegations that the company had connections with the Yakuza (organized crime in Japan). Pride, the main promotion, was sold to UFC in 2007. This year, Dream, billed as a combination of Pride and K-1, was organized, but with an inability to create new stars coupled with injuries to current stars, TV ratings were poor and its long-term future is in doubt.

8. Griffin wins UFC light heavyweight title: The star of the first season of “The Ultimate Fighter” never was considered among the elite in the fight world, but Forrest Griffin scored two straight wins over No. 1 ranked fighters. First was Mauricio “Shogun” Rua in late 2007, then came a close decision win over Quinton Jackson on July 5 to take what has long been the marquee championship in North America.

7. First UFC live event in Canada: This one couldn’t have been scripted any better. On April 19 in Montreal, the big city near the small town where Georges St. Pierre grew up in, St. Pierre regained the welterweight title from Matt Serra, who had upset him the year before. The show sold out on the Internet presale before even being available at usual outlets and set a company record with 21,390 fans. It also was the largest pay-per-view event of any kind in Canadian history.

6. Quinton’s Rampage: Less than two weeks after losing his title to Griffin, Jackson was involved in a series of accidents and a police chase while driving from Costa Mesa to Newport Beach, Calif. Jackson, driving a truck with his photo on the side, allegedly ignored an officer trying to pull him over because of a flat tire, and reportedly was weaving in and out of traffic, driving on the wrong side of the road and driving on a sidewalk, sending pedestrians scurrying for cover. After being released, Irvine police took Jackson in the next day after being told by his friends that he was behaving unusually. Charges in the case, including a felony hit-and-run, reckless driving and misdemeanor evading arrest charges, still are pending. Jackson faces longtime nemesis Wanderlei Silva on Dec. 27 in his first match since the title loss.

5. Debut of Affliction: Affliction, the T-shirt brand that seemed almost as synonymous with UFC as cauliflower ears, started its own promotion. “Affliction: Banned,” took place on July 19 at the Honda Center in Anaheim, Calif. Built around Fedor Emelianenko – considered the top heavyweight in the world, destroying former UFC heavyweight champion Tim Sylvia in 36 seconds – the show drew a full house of 13,988, gating $2,085,510. UFC ran competition with a live TV special on Spike, headlined by Anderson Silva. Affliction paid several heavyweights, including former UFC champs Andrei Arlovski and Josh Barnett, far more than they could have had guaranteed in UFC, and boasted Trump as having an ownership stake. But fighters who thought they had a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow ended up disappointed. A second show in October in Las Vegas was canceled, and the group won’t return until Jan. 24.

4. Rise of Lesnar: 2000 NCAA heavyweight champion Brock Lesnar, who made a name for himself in World Wrestling Entertainment and became a curiosity story with a failed Minnesota Vikings tryout, debuted with UFC on Feb. 2 against former heavyweight champion Frank Mir. Lesnar battered Mir senseless for nearly 90 seconds, until making a rookie mistake and tapping to a kneebar. But the promotional effort around the fight was a huge success, doing one of the biggest pay-per-view numbers in company history. Two fights later, Lesnar, the most athletic 280-pounder MMA has ever seen, was UFC heavyweight champion and had drawn three of the seven biggest pay-per-view numbers in UFC history.

3. Return of Couture: In 2007, 44-year-old Randy Couture became the modern-day George Blanda as he upset Tim Sylvia to win the UFC heavyweight title. But Couture lashed out at the company and Dana White in October 2007, ultimately quitting. Couture claims he wanted a match with Emelianenko, and with Emelianenko and UFC negotiations having fallen through, he would have to leave to get it. But with two fights left on his contract, it turned into a year-long legal battle that ended with Couture returning, still as champion. Couture lost his title to Lesnar in his first fight back on Nov. 15.

2. MMA debuts on major network television: It was not UFC but rival Elite XC that inked a four-fight contract to put MMA in primetime on CBS. And it was a lesson for everyone. The first show, heavily criticized for being built around Kimbo Slice, an Internet backyard fighting legend, was a huge ratings success, drawing 4.85 million for the nearly three-hour show. The show peaked with 7.28 million viewers for the Slice-James Thompson debacle, a three-round fight where Slice was exhausted and nearly beaten but came back to punch Thompson in a messed up ear that exploded and win the fight. But a second show in July, built around higher-quality fighters but sans gimmicks, was a disaster, drawing 2.6 million viewers. The verdict: MMA with Slice and Carano was a big success on Saturday-night TV. MMA itself, built around fights, was not.

Photo MMA Heavyweight Kimbo Slice is seen during the Workout/Media Day on September 17, 2008 in Los Angeles, Calif.
(Robert Laberge/Getty Images)

1. Death of Pro Elite after third CBS special: Oct. 4 appeared to be do-or-die for Elite XC. The company had lost $55 million in two years, but with Slice-Ken Shamrock, Elite XC figured to have a match that would deliver ratings and prove it wasn’t a one-hit wonder on network TV. Everything went wrong from there. Shamrock cut himself warming up hours before the fight and wasn’t cleared by the athletic commission. A sub, Seth Petruzelli, knocked Slice out in 14 seconds.

Still, the audience of 4.56 million viewers was considered an encouraging sign as CBS and Showtime were in talks to buy the financially-strapped brand. Then Petruzelli went on an Orlando radio show and claimed he was paid extra to stand with Slice. While he repudiated the remarks later, and a Florida commission investigation revealed no wrongdoing, the verdict came after CBS and Showtime pulled out of the talks. Out of money, Elite was forced to cease operations. Exactly what will happen with CBS and Showtime, both of whom were encouraged by the numbers, and MMA in 2009 will be one of next year’s key stories.

Dave Meltzer covers mixed martial arts for Yahoo! Sports. Send Dave a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Monday, Dec 29, 2008