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2011 In Review: Biggest MMA Stories

By on December 29, 2011

Welcome to part one of my two-part look at the year in mixed martial arts, which will focus on the biggest stories and happenings of the year. On Saturday, we will feature the second part of the year end special, which will cover the best performances of the year and year-end awards. I should give those who are fighting on Friday a chance after all, right?

I won’t put these in any particular order, but all were stories during 2011 that not only had big ramifications at the time, but will likely continue to in the future. I wanted to answer the question, “If someone was in a coma/shot out into space/stuck in a cave eating seaweed and bat meat for sustenance during the entire year, what would be the most important things to tell them, other than the outcomes of the fights themselves?” Here’s my list.

Zuffa Buys Strikeforce

Though many might favor the UFC/Fox story, I still think this is the biggest MMA story of the year. We all expected the UFC to move to greener pastures than Spike TV at some point, so the TV deal didn’t come out of left field like the Strikeforce purchase did.

Strikeforce was in the midst of an exciting heavyweight tournament and appeared to be picking up some steam, even if they still weren’t exactly threatening the UFC in any real way. All of a sudden, Zuffa made the purchase and now most of Strikeforce’s champions are fighting in the UFC, Strikeforce shows are being advertised on UFC programming, and only Bellator Fighting Championships remains as decent competition.

Bellator Has a Strong Year

Though the UFC continues to get the lion’s share of coverage and fan interest, Bellator continued to impress savvy MMA fans with great fights, suitable production values and an ever-improving roster of fighters who are fun to watch.

Bellator maintains a few top ten fighters in various weight classes, had one of the best fights of the year when Eddie Alvarez clashed with Michael Chandler in November, and will be moving to Spike TV to fill the massive void that the UFC left. It seems like whenever the UFC purchases its leading competitor, a new one steps up to take its place, and Bellator is clearly the best promotion outside of the Zuffa umbrella right now.

Zuffa Expands Fighter Insurance

Zuffa not only made headlines for purchasing Strikeforce, but also turned heads earlier in the year by offering improved, expanded health insurance for its fighters. Fighters were extremely pleased with the changes, which covered injuries sustained in training as well as injuries sustained in actual competition, which were already covered previously.

With many fighters unable to pay high insurance premiums as “independent contractors”, this kind of insurance has made a big difference in their lives. Of course, it also may be a contributing factor to the ridiculous rate of injuries that caused fighters to withdraw from bouts in 2011, but that’s a necessary evil, I suppose.

Injuries Plague the UFC

Whether because fighters knew their training injuries would now be covered, plain old bad luck, or as I suggested, because the stakes are just too high nowadays to risk fighting when you’re injured, this was inarguably the worst year for injuries that the UFC has had yet.

How bad was it? Well, just 15 of the 27 UFC events in 2011 occurred without injury-forced changes to any big fights. For the purposes of this stat, I defined a “big fight” as either a title fight, main event or co-main event. This makes sense to me because most likely, these couple of fights are the main reasons why people are likely to order a UFC card. They are the fights that are promoted heavily. If you want to look at entire cards, I don’t think any UFC card escaped without an injury replacement in 2011.

There is reason for hope, though. Nine of the first 14 UFC events this year had replacements in big fights due to injuries, whereas only three of the final thirteen events did. So maybe bad luck accounted for more of the injury substitutions than we all thought.

Dream Survives, Sengoku Doesn’t

We ended 2010 wondering whether Japanese MMA as we know it was just about done for. Dream had no events planned for the first few months of 2011, Sengoku had given away some of its best fighters, such as Jorge Santiago, to competing promotions in the United States, and things just didn’t look good.

Although Dream’s late start was a cause for concern, it may not have been as big of a deal as we all thought at the time. Though the promotion didn’t ring in 2011 until late May, Dream has historically never held an event until March or later in any calendar year. Also, with four events in the last seven months of the year (including Saturday’s New Year’s Eve show), Dream seems to be in it for the long haul.

Sengoku didn’t fare so well, with Japanese discount store Don Quijote ceasing funding to the organization’s promoter in March. Sengoku is now finished, and didn’t even run a show in 2011. Meanwhile, even K-1, once ultra-popular in Japan, didn’t run its annual World Grand Prix tournament for the first time ever in 2011. K-1 and most of its related trademarks were sold by FEG to Barbizon Co., Ltd. in July, and the future of the storied kickboxing promotion is still unclear.

Strikeforce Will Stick Around, But For How Long?

It appeared as if the writing was on the wall when Strikeforce’s top fighters began leaving for the UFC, despite protests from the UFC brass that it was “business as usual”. However, it was announced recently that Strikeforce has extended its contract with Showtime, after all. So, we will be getting some sort semblance of Strikeforce for the forseeable future.

Will it even be recognizable, though? The UFC has already cherry-picked most of the better fighters in the promotion, and now it has been announced that the heavyweight division will no longer exist in the near future, though the heavyweight tournament will conclude as planned. Perhaps Strikeforce can stick around with a few marketable fighters like Gilbert Melendez and the distinction of having the best female fighters of any promotion in the United States. However, we can’t forget that when the WEC started losing weight classes, it all ended with the promotion simply folding into the UFC for good.

Long-Needed Changes Made to Sport

Lost amidst all of the big stories this year were some important changes that finally occurred within the sport itself. For instance, we at long last received five round non-title bouts, although at this time they are only used when a UFC main event is not a title fight.

One change that has not received as much publicity is the addition of monitors at judges’ stations, which ensure that such lame (yet valid, I suppose) excuses such as “we don’t see what you guys see on TV” won’t be heard after awful decisions anymore. Has it improved judging? That’s questionable, but at least we’re taking steps to help judges come to the right conclusions after fights.

UFC Continues Inconsistent Disciplinary Actions

This could be a whole column in and of itself, but let’s get to the highlights:

–Chael Sonnen returns from having a revoked license for unapproved testosterone replacement therapy (TRT) nearly in time to be rewarded with a coaching spot on The Ultimate Fighter. Meanwhile, Nate Marquardt is unable to fight at UFC on Versus 4 because of an elevated testosterone level due to TRT and is immediately cut from the promotion altogether.

–Within a week of both Rashad Evans (who said he would “put hands on [Phil Davis] worse than [Penn State coach Jerry Sandusky] did to those other kids at Penn State”) and Forrest Griffin (“Rape is the new missionary,” he tweeted) making unfortunate rape-related comments, Miguel Torres is fired altogether for making a joke about how if “rape vans were called surprise vans, more women would get into them”, saying that “everyone likes surprises”. The line wasn’t even his; it came from the Comedy Central show Workaholics. It should be noted that Torres was “re-hired” by the UFC within the month.

–Nick Diaz lost his title shot against Georges St. Pierre for missing consecutive press appearances to promote the fight. Of course, it didn’t matter because GSP would ultimately injure his knee, withdraw from the event, and then tear ligaments in his other knee when training for the apparently-doomed Diaz fight when it was rescheduled for early 2012.

The UFC Debuts on Fox

It was hardly a surprise, but represented a huge milestone for both the UFC and the sport itself nonetheless. The UFC signed with Fox Media Group in 2011, paving the way for UFC events and programming to appear not only FX and Fuel, but also Fox, itself. The UFC held its first network televised fight on Fox in November, featuring a historic(-ally short) one-minute clash between former champ Cain Velasquez and the new king, Junior dos Santos.

The sport’s representation on network television means one thing above all others: that MMA forums the world over will continue to be well-stocked with new fans that will inform us all that anyone not in the top ten of his weight class is a “can” and that Fedor Emelianenko was always overrated. Thanks, Fox!

E-Mail Jon Hartley

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