Year’s top stories at the halfway mark

With records broken, major upsets, expansion frustrations, the involvement of decorated celebrity athletes, and more television than ever, the first half of 2010 has been filled to the brim with big MMA news stories.

There have been several major title changes. Mauricio “Shogun” Rua took the UFC light heavyweight title from previously undefeated Lyoto Machida. Frankie Edgar won the UFC lightweight title from B.J. Penn. Ben Henderson, then interim champion, defeated WEC lightweight champion Jamie Varner to unify the titles. Dominick Cruz won the WEC bantamweight title from Brian Bowles. “King” Mo Lawal won the Strikeforce light heavyweight title from Gegard Mousasi. And Nick Diaz taking the vacant Strikeforce welterweight title with a win over Dream welterweight champion Marius Zaromskis.

At the other end of the spectrum, Anderson Silva continued his path of domination, setting UFC records for most successful title defenses (six), most consecutive wins (11) and longest championship reign (46 months and counting). But his victory on April 10, a five-round decision over Demian Maia which turned into a combination track meet and dance contest, was considered among the worst title fights in company history.

The 10 biggest news stories of 2010’s first six months:

1. UFC on pace for pay-per-view record: Led by two recent shows, the May 29 card headlined by Rashad Evans beating Quinton “Rampage Jackson,” and the July 3 event where Brock Lesnar defeated Shane Carwin, Zuffa LLC has already registered approximately 5.5 million buys on 10 pay-per-view events this year, including the inaugural WEC show in April. The company set the North American record for any PPV organization last year with nearly 8 million buys. Barring a slew of major injuries to headliners, which actually happened to the company last year, even conservative predictions for the rest of the year would have the company easily beating that mark.

Another possible mark would be the first year in history that one company topped the 1 million mark for individual events on three occasions. Boxing did it twice, in 1991 and 1996. UFC has cracked a million on both Jackson-Evans and Lesnar-Carwin. There is no sure-fire third match this year to pull that number, but both Lesnar vs. Cain Velasquez on Oct. 23 and Georges St. Pierre vs. Josh Koscheck in December have at least a shot at hitting the mark.

2. Emelianenko loss leads major upsets: MMA’s very nature, with so many different ways to win and lose, lends itself to upsets. But very few people would have expected Fabricio Werdum, a fighter UFC cut in 2008, to beat Fedor Emelianenko, the most dominant fighter in the sport’s history – let alone a submission in one minute, nine seconds. Emelianenko, who had never been in submission danger in his entire career, was caught in a triangle on June 26 in San Jose, ending an undefeated streak of 10 years, seven of which he was generally regarded as the sport’s top heavyweight. From an oddsmaker’s standpoint, an even bigger upset was Edgar’s title win over Penn on April 10 in Abu Dhabi via a close five-round decision. While anyone, like Emelianenko, can get caught, Edgar outworked Penn over a 25-minute fight and while the decision was close, in no way can it be called a fluke.

3. Zuffa LLC sells 10 percent to Flash Entertainment: It was no secret that casino magnates Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta absorbed several years of losses running the UFC early in the last decade and looked to get out. But after hitting it big on television in 2005, the brothers seemingly never looked back, turning down offers to sell stock and ideas to cash in and take the company public. But on Jan. 11, company president Dana White announced that, after eight months of negotiations, the company had sold a 10 percent stake to Flash Entertainment, an arm of the Abu Dhabi government.

The purchase price was not revealed but was believed to be well in excess of $100 million. White claimed the sale made sense because it would enable the company to speed up its efforts at international expansion, although nothing has been announced in that regard directly related to the deal. Others noted the Fertitta brothers’ other main business, Station Casino, was in bankruptcy and the family needed to put up significant cash to regain control, although Lorenzo Fertitta denied one had anything to do with the other. Currently, Zuffa is owned 41 percent each by Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta, 10 percent by Flash and 9 percent by White.

Brock Lesnar (above) returned to the Octagon and successfully defended his title against Shane Carwin.
(Eric Jamison/AP Photo)

4. Lesnar rebounds from life-threatening illness: After being taken down by a severe case of diverticulitis, the UFC heavyweight champion and the sport’s biggest drawing card ended 2009 having to fight for his life. When 2010 started, the odds were that he would need surgery on his intestines that would put him out of competition for nearly two years, and possibly end his career.

But in January, Lesnar was told he didn’t need surgery and received the go-ahead to start training. The battle to stay in the sport was mirrored by his return to the cage, where he was on the verge of losing his championship in round one, only to come back and submit the previously unbeaten Carwin in round two. In a one-year period, because of his battles, Lesnar went from easily the most despised fighter in the sport to someone who won over the majority of the fans through both his struggle outside the cage and the heart displayed in the Carwin fight.

5. Strikeforce’s disastrous CBS card: Strikforce’s April 17 event from Nashville was probably the most important show this year for the sport’s network future. A three-championship fight card that on paper looked to be “can’t-miss” somehow did. The show had three straight largely dull five-round decisions, followed by an in-ring brawl that led to three-month suspensions for Jake Shields, Jason Miller and Nick Diaz.

Shields, in the last fight of his contract, upset Dan Henderson to keep his middleweight title, but it was his last fight with the company as he’s expected to move to UFC. The worst news of all was the 1.76 rating, with 2.86 million viewers, unacceptable as prime-time network numbers. Strikeforce hoped the show would usher in an era of quarterly prime time specials, but at press time no decision has been made about another one.

6. Slow going on legislative front: Even with the MMA’s increased popularity, lingering perceptions over the sport’s banishment in the mid-’90s have kept UFC out of several key markets. The company pushed hard to get legislation passed that would allow them to host major events this year at the Rogers Centre in Toronto, which seats more than 60,000 fans and would be the biggest live event ever in North America; Madison Square Garden in New York and the T.D. Garden in Boston. Thus far, it looks like the company is one-for-three, with a Boston debut on Aug. 28 after Massachusetts brought MMA under the jurisdiction of the state athletic commission. Legislation in New York stalled again, and the province of Ontario hasn’t budged in allowing the sport live in the city where it is as popular as anywhere in the world.

7. Flood of celebrity/crossover athletes: Whether good or bad, a host of decorated athletes and sports entertainers have gotten publicity with attempts to get into the sport. One of the great college football players of all-time, Herschel Walker, at 47 seemed to defy age in his Jan. 30 debut win over unheralded Greg Nagy. Satoshi Ishii, the 2008 Olympic super heavyweight gold medalist in judo, debuted on New Year’s Eve to great fanfare in Japan, but looked unimpressive losing to a long past-his-prime Hidehiko Yoshida. James Toney, 41, one of the most accomplished boxers of the generation, debuts on a UFC show on Aug. 28 against MMA legend Randy Couture.

And while he has not signed yet, there has been lots of noise in recent weeks regarding Dave Bautista, 41, one of World Wrestling Entertainment’s top stars who Scott Coker has openly talked of trying to match up with fellow pro wrestler Bobby Lashley. Bautista was a bigger pro wrestling star than Lesnar, but doesn’t have the college wrestling background of Lesnar, Lashley, Dan Severn and Kazushi Sakuraba, who all were first pro wrestlers.

Not everyone who wants to get in has been able. Jose Canseco, who fought last year in Japan, was turned down flat by Strikeforce.

8. WEC moves to pay-per-view: Since the WEC became a nationally televised promotion in 2007, every successful Versus network event had one thing in common: Urijah Faber was the headliner. Faber’s challenge to featherweight champion Jose Aldo Jr., then, made for the natural move to pay-per-view on April 24 in a show from Sacramento. While the local fans were disappointed as Aldo Jr.’s low kicks destroyed Faber’s legs, it did establish the champion as one of the sport’s top pound-for-pound fighters. The show was considered among the best MMA events in recent years, paced by a fight-of-the-year candidate in which Leonard Garcia won a controversial decision over The Korean Zombie, Chan Sung Jung. With that match live airing on Spike TV right before the PPV started, it may have led to a slew of late buys. The estimates of more than 150,000 buys were hardly UFC level, but were about double what most had predicted when the show was first announced months earlier. As part of the deal with Spike TV to help market the show, all references to “WEC” were eliminated, the card featured UFC announcers, UFC ring announcers, and White front and center promoting the show. No second WEC pay-per-view event has been announced.

9. Chuck Liddell retires … or does he?: Liddell, 40, the UFC light heavyweight champion when the sport hit television, was announced as retired by boss White last year after being knocked out by Mauricio “Shogun” Rua. Liddell himself never agreed, though, and asked to come back. White and Liddell agreed the latter could come back if he cleaned up his lifestyle and dedicated himself fully to the sport. Originally, Liddell was to face Tito Ortiz on June 12 in Vancouver, but Ortiz pulled out due to neck surgery. Liddell physically appeared to be in his best condition in years, as advertised, when he walked into the cage against Rich Franklin. He broke Franklin’s arm with a kick early, showed a diversified offensive attack of punches, kicks and wrestling, but was still knocked out with seconds left in the first round on a punch that would have never rocked him in his prime. White has again said Liddell is retired, but Liddell, who has lost five of his last six fights, four by knockout, again says he’s not sure.

10. Strikeforce vs. Dream co-promotion: In a sport where at the top level exclusive contracts have made putting together certain intriguing fights impossible, the No. 2 U.S. group and top Japanese group started working together. The results have been disastrous for Japanese MMA. In five company vs. company fights the U.S. side has won all five. Dream lightweight champion Shinya Aoki got virtually no offense in against Strikeforce champion Gilbert Melendez in the most significant of the five matches. A depressed Aoki, when asked after his loss what it said about the quality of fighters in each country, said, “The results speak for themselves.”

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 Friday, Jul 16, 2010