There is no question what was the biggest news story in mixed martial arts over the first six months of 2011: the purchase of Strikeforce by Zuffa LLC, owner of the Ultimate Fighting Championship.
Putting the two biggest remaining MMA companies under the same roof was a story with gigantic repercussions for fighters. It removed their ability to negotiate back-and-forth and left a lot of people considered for years on the UFC’s “enemies list” wondering about their future. On the flip side, Strikeforce fighters have a greater chance to increase their star power through the Zuffa marketing machine. It left questions about the future of women fighters on the major-league level, but it opened doors to some intriguing fights – although with the exception of Georges St. Pierre vs. Nick Diaz on Oct. 29, none look to be happening this year.
Yet, if you talk to UFC president Dana White, the biggest news story of the year is yet to come. The company’s television contract with Spike TV expires at the end of the year. The UFC and the cable network has been synonymous in turning a sport with a small cult following into a thriving company with an estimated worth north of a billion dollars. Most expect UFC will not be on Spike come January. Where they do end up is a different story.
“It’s one of the biggest decisions we’ve ever had to make,” said White, who otherwise wouldn’t comment on the negotiations except to admit they exist and possibly involve several entities. “It’ll be the biggest story of the year when it happens.”
The Top 10 stories so far this year are a mixed bag. The UFC has been bitten by an injury bug the likes of which the company has never seen. On the positive side, they produced their most successful live event in history, smashing company records to bits with UFC 129 at the sold-out Rogers Centre in Toronto. The company had waited years for MMA to get legalized in Ontario, where the sport may be more popular than anywhere else in the world.
With that, the top 10 stories of 2011’s first half:
1. Zuffa purchases Strikeforce: After months of largely secretive negotiations, Zuffa, the parent company of UFC, and Strikeforce, owned by Silicon Valley Sports and Entertainment (which also owns the NHL’s San Jose Sharks and the HP Pavilion) and promoter Scott Coker inked a purchase deal on March 10 and publicly announced it two days later. White announced it would be “business as usual,” as Strikeforce would continue to run on Showtime as a separate entity.
For the most part, that’s looked to be the case to the outside world, as regular Strikeforce shows have continued. Fighters have been kept separate, with the exception of two Strikeforce regulars, welterweight champion Nick Diaz and Jason “Mayhem” Miller, who are now UFC fighters.
But behind the scenes, virtually the entire Strikeforce front office was gutted. Some key personnel that had been running World Extreme Cagefighting, an entity Zuffa closed at the end of 2010, are now in similar positions with Strikeforce – most notably administrator Peter Dropick and matchmaker Sean Shelby.
It appears Strikeforce will continue running separate shows for the duration of the Showtime contract. Where the brand goes from that point is anyone’s guess.
2. Card changes plague UFC: When Phil Davis went down with a knee injury earlier this week, forcing a change in his scheduled main event against Rashad Evans on Aug. 6 in Philadelphia, that brought to 13 the number of title matches or main events that have fallen through this year. The most telling is that UFC has had only two draw results – Frankie Edgar vs. Gray Maynard on Jan. 1 in a lightweight title match and B.J. Penn vs. Jon Fitch on Feb. 27. Rematches were scheduled on May 28 and July 2, respectively. In both cases, both fighters were injured and pulled out of the fight. Other headline matches that have fallen through this year include Anderson Silva vs. Chael Sonnen for the middleweight title, Mauricio “Shogun” Rua vs. Rashad Evans for the light heavyweight title, Cain Velasquez vs. Junior Dos Santos for the heavyweight title, Dos Santos vs. Brock Lesnar, Tito Ortiz vs. Antonio Rogerio Nogueira, Evans vs. Jon Jones, Jose Aldo Jr’s featherweight title matches with Josh Grispi and Chad Mendes, Anthony Johnson vs. Nate Marquardt and its replacement fight, Marquardt vs. Rick Story.
3. North American MMA’s biggest night: Company records were shattered with an April 30 event in Toronto, which drew a sellout of 55,724 fans paying a gate of $12,075,000 U.S., more than doubling the previous records in both categories. It was the largest gate of any kind for any entertainment event ever in the city. All tickets were sold out the first day they were offered to the general public, and Rogers Centre officials said demand was so high they believed they could have sold 100,000 tickets.
Canadian favorite Georges St. Pierre retained his welterweight title by beating Jake Shields in the main event. St. Pierre’s debut in Toronto and the wall-to-wall Canadian media coverage – treating it like it was the biggest sporting event in the country with the exception of the NHL playoffs – were part of the success. But the biggest reason was years of pent-up demand, as UFC had been a big seller for years on pay-per-view throughout the province of Ontario. But those fans had been forced to make the long drive to Montreal or Detroit if they wanted to see a live event before the province finally got around to legalizing MMA.
4. The ascension of Jon Jones: At the beginning of the year, Jon Jones was a 23-year-old light heavyweight who looked to be a potential champion a few years down the road. But he got the call earlier than expected when a knee injury sidelined teammate Rashad Evans and Quinton Jackson turned down a title shot against champion Mauricio “Shogun” Rua because he didn’t have enough time to get in shape. Jones walked through a previously unbeaten Ryan Bader on Feb. 5 and then, on March 19, put a one-sided beating on Rua before it was stopped at 2:37 of the third round to become the youngest UFC champ ever. For good measure, Jones apprehended a mugger in a park in Paterson, N.J., hours before the bout.
5. Diverticulitis sidelines Lesnar again: The biggest drawing card in the sport, former UFC heavyweight champion Brock Lesnar, was forced to pull out of his No. 1 contenders match with Junior Dos Santos on June 11 in Vancouver, B.C., when the diverticulitis that nearly killed him in late 2009 came back during training. Lesnar and Dos Santos had been rival coaches on The Ultimate Fighter reality show to build a fight, where the winner would get a shot at champion Cain Velasquez – who himself has been out since last October due to rotator cuff surgery. Lesnar, who doctors now believe hasn’t been 100 percent for a few years due to the illness, had 12 inches of his intestine removed on May 27. He is hopeful of returning to action early next year.
6. MMA still stalled in New York: The UFC’s longstanding effort to get MMA legalized in the last major holdout state, New York, still hasn’t paid off. For a second straight year, the bill stalled in committee in the state assembly. For years, White has said that this would be the year they would get into New York. This time, he was more subdued, just saying it would happen someday.
7. Strikeforce Grand Prix sets records: Borrowing from Japan, where eight-man tournaments have been part of the culture dating back nearly 20 years in both kickboxing and MMA, Strikeforce CEO Scott Coker put eight of the best non-UFC heavyweights on display in a planned year-long tournament. Among the participants were Strikeforce, Dream and K-1 kickboxing champion Alistair Overeem and the legendary Fedor Emelianenko. The first event, on Feb. 12 at the Izod Center in East Rutherford, N.J., drew the largest audience ever to watch the sport on Showtime. It was a spectacular show featuring Emelianenko being upset by heavy underdog Antonio “Bigfoot” Silva, as well as a quick knockout by Sergei Kharitonov over Andrei Arlovski. The tourney continued on June 18 in Dallas, in a show anything but spectacular, where Overeem won a lackluster decision over Fabricio Werdum, and Josh Barnett submitted Brett Rogers. Barnett vs. Kharitonov and Silva vs. Overeem will take place in October or November, with the championship fight early next year.
8. Zuffa announced insurance plan for fighters: On May 9, Zuffa announced an insurance program that would cover up to $50,000 per year in medical bills for all fighter injuries, whether or not they occur in training. Previously, fighters were only insured if they were injured while in a match. The policy did not cover illnesses, although infections like staph that are associated with training are covered. All fighters on both the UFC and Strikeforce rosters were eligible.
9. The Chael Sonnen saga: Sonnen came off his Aug. 7 middleweight title fight with Anderson Silva as one of the sport’s hottest stars. He lost when he was triangled with two minutes left in the match, but he had won all four previous rounds handily. A rematch was announced and was expected to be among this biggest year’s biggest bouts, but things quickly derailed.
Sonnen tested positive for testosterone after the fight, which he claimed was due to therapy for a medical condition. That led to a hearing and a six-month suspension. Then he pleaded guilty to a mortgage fraud scheme, which cost him his real estate license. Then California reopened his case, accusing him of lying in his first hearing and suspending him indefinitely. Not only did he lose his title shot, but he also was unable to coach the fall season of The Ultimate Fighter, where UFC had tabbed him and Michael Bisping to head the two teams.
A loophole involving the expiration of his California license ended his suspension at the end of June, and he has signed to return against Brian Stann on Oct. 8 in Houston.
10. Bellator debuts on MTV2: With Strikeforce’s purchase by UFC, the by-default No. 2 promotion in North America became Bellator, a tournament-based promotion. Bellator signed a multi-year deal with MTV2, and debuted with a three-month long first season in March, where they averaged about 200,000 viewers in a Saturday-night time slot. But Bellator’s biggest hopes may be coming next year. If UFC leaves Spike, as is expected, and Spike wants to continue MMA programming, which also seems likely, Bellator would seem to have an inside track, particularly since Spike officials have been seen at recent Bellator shows.