MMA in 2011: UFC goes primetime

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The biggest MMA news of 2011 didn’t involve big stars or even big matches, but rather, focused on big long-term television deals.

Dana White called UFC's debut on Fox the biggest deal in the sport's history.
(Getty Images)

Long-term, the UFC’s seven-year contract with Fox could be the most important thing for the company’s growth since its initial cable deal with Spike in 2005 put MMA on the map.

The No. 2 promotion, Strikeforce, fell victim to overspending for talent, most notably Fedor Emelianenko, and its parent company wanted out. In a unique turn of events, Zuffa, the parent company of UFC, bought out its main competition and stripped them of most of their marketable talent.

But just when it seemed Strikeforce would be no more, a deal was announced with Showtime on Dec. 15 assuring the brand will continue in 2012.

[Yahoo! Year in Review: The standout news of 2011, top 10s and more]

Inside the cage, the championship picture stayed mostly stable. Dominant champions Anderson Silva, Georges St. Pierre, Dominick Cruz and Jose Aldo Jr. retained their titles, although all four struggled with injuries.

Jon Jones, who wasn’t even expected to be in the title picture when 2011 started, became the sure-fire pick for Fighter of the Year with four big wins, all by stoppage. Lightweight champion Frankie Edgar maintained his top position with a draw and a win in two of the company’s all-time classic come-from-behind bouts with a disappointed Gray Maynard.

Heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez, out of action most of the year with a torn rotator cuff, only lasted 64 seconds before losing to Junior Dos Santos in the UFC’s first Fox card, the most-watched U.S. televised MMA match in history.

Here are the top five MMA stories of 2011:

5. Viacom purchases Bellator

Bellator, the closest thing to viable competition for the Zuffa empire in North America, became part of the Viacom family with the Oct. 25 announcement of a deal that had been in play for months. The catalyst of the deal was the realization by Spike and parent company Viacom that UFC would be leaving at the end of 2011. However, due to the terms of the UFC-Spike deal, Spike is prohibited from airing any live non-UFC MMA programming in 2012. Bellator will remain on MTV 2 next year, where it has averaged about 200,000 viewers per event in 2011.

4. UFC’s international expansion continues

On April 30, the company more than doubled its live-event records when its debut in Toronto at Rogers Centre drew 55,724 fans paying $12,075,000 to see St. Pierre retain his welterweight title against Jake Shields in a show that sold out instantaneously. It was one of the largest gates in combat sports history outside casino-driven locations like Las Vegas. The company also returned to Brazil on Aug. 27, selling out the HSBC Arena in Rio de Janeiro. Fourteen thousand tickets were sold in a hurry and a gate of $4 million for Anderson Silva’s middleweight title defense against Yushin Okami. Later, when Brazil’s Dos Santos beat Velasquez for the heavyweight title, the bout aired live on one of the major Brazilian networks, and even though the fighters didn’t get into the cage until after midnight locally, the show boasted a 20 rating (meaning one out of every five homes in the country watched the fight) and 22 million viewers.

3. Tidal wave of injuries: Under normal circumstances, a big drop in the company’s main revenue stream, pay-per-view, would set off alarms. But a drop in 2011 came in large part due to a rash of injuries.

The company’s biggest drawing card, Brock Lesnar, missed almost the entire year battling diverticulitis. Its No. 2 star, St. Pierre, only fought once this year and will be fighting once at most next year due to a series of major lower body injuries.

Silva fought twice, but has been out of action for months with shoulder problems. His main rival, Chael Sonnen, missed such of the year on a steroid suspension. Velasquez missed most of the year due to rotator cuff surgery and there wasn’t a heavyweight title match on pay-per-view all year. Jones vs. Rashad Evans never took place as they alternated hand injuries. Bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz’s UFC debut was delayed due to a broken hand.

UFC does not release its PPV numbers, but based on industry estimates, the 2011 number is at just under 6 million buys with one show left on the schedule. That’s significantly down from last year’s industry record of 9.2 million.

2. Zuffa purchases Strikeforce

Just weeks after Strikeforce had set its ratings record with the first match in a planned year-long heavyweight tournament, the organization was sold to its main competitor. The deal, in negotiation for more than three months, was announced March 12.

Over the next few months, virtually the entire Strikeforce front office was dismissed. At one point it looked like Strikeforce would be like Pride, an organization which was purchased by Zuffa and then disappeared as a brand. But with a new television deal for 2012 signed in December, Strikeforce will continue, built around top lightweight Gilbert Melendez and most of the sport’s biggest women stars.

1. UFC and Fox sign seven-year deal

Dana White called it the biggest deal signed in the history of the company, and that was no hyperbole. The seven-year deal, reportedly worth $100 million per year, not only nearly tripled the dollar figure of the company’s Spike TV deal, but opened the company up for exposure and a level of promotion like never before. The deal doesn’t officially go into effect until Jan. 1, but the one-hour test run debut on Nov. 12 from Anaheim, Calif., which aired simultaneously on both Fox and Fox Deportes, drew 6.2 million viewers for a main event that only featured 64 seconds of fighting.

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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 Tuesday, Dec 27, 2011