A memorable year is yet to come
2008 was historic for mixed martial arts, but here are five predictions for 2009
The negatives: the UFC will face a labor dispute and Affliction will stick to clothing
The positives: more superfights will be held and MMA will return to network TV
It's been an eventful year in the world of mixed martial arts, but the real fun may only have just begun. With the UFC's stranglehold on the market strengthening and with the popularity of the sport on the rise, there are still frontiers to conquer, as well as trouble looming just ahead. Here are five things to watch for in the coming year, which should be a memorable one:
1. A UFC labor dispute on the horizon?
This year had its share of contract squabbles, most notably when Jon Fitch was ousted from the UFC (for less than 24 hours) after refusing to sign a lifetime video game licensing deal. But those problems were just ripples in the pond. As the UFC inches closer to an MMA monopoly, its negotiations with fighters -- even the marquee guys -- will only be compounded by egos (sometimes rightly so) and the few agents who gain power with their growing clientele.
In the year ahead, as fighters and managers alike gain prominence in the industry and in the professional sports world, they will likely use their power to dispute the structure of the UFC contracts, sponsorship deals, bonus money, hardball negotiation tactics, or some combination of the four. This storm has been brewing for a long time, and in 2009, it's going to get ugly.
2. Fedor's next move
Ardent MMA fans knew of Fedor Emelianenko for quite some time before he pummeled Tim Sylvia at Affliction: Banned in July. But the man many consider the best mixed martial artist in the world faces some tough choices ahead.
If he gets past Andrei Arlovski at Affliction's second showing in January (and Emelianenko's chances of winning appear strong), then the only available top heavyweight left is Josh Barnett. That gets us as far as the summer, assuming Affliction is still around by then (see No. 4 on this list). After that, Emelianenko can either line up pointless rematches, head to Japan for more high-paying circus bouts, or swallow his pride and sign with the UFC.
Unfortunately for fans, the first two options are far more likely than the third. He may still be the No. 1 heavyweight by the end of 2009, but when the champ takes his skills overseas to face less credible and less challenging opponents, his ranking will become harder to support.
3. More superfights, please
UFC 94 on Jan. 31 is billed as the fighting organization's Super Bowl, and it's not simply because the card takes place on Super Bowl weekend. The rematch between top fighters Georges St. Pierre and B.J. Penn is, perhaps, one of the most anticipated matchups in the UFC. It's also the start of an inevitable trend.
Pairing two champions from different weight classes has the ability to make any fight feel like a clash of the titans, and the revenue it brings will only encourage the UFC -- and other lingering promotions -- to do more of it in the coming year.
Consider the outcomes: if GSP wins (the more likely outcome), he'll face Anderson Silva before the year's end. If Penn wins, he'll at least attempt to defend both the lightweight and welterweight titles, which means both divisions will see infrequent title fights. It's an unpleasant but unavoidable side affect of these superfights.
4. Will Affliction go back to making t-shirts?
You don't have to be Nostradamus to see this one coming. Affliction won't survive its second year in the MMA industry. The upstart promotion lacks organization, and its outrageous expenses won't be recouped. Doom is set to fall on a promtion some hoped would become a rival to the UFC.
It's shame, really. The MMA world could use a viable competitor to the UFC to boost fighter salaries and the overall quality of the product. But Affliction has gone about it in the wrong way: trying to buy a ticket to the big time before figuring out the infrastructure needed to stay there. The company paid its fighters more than $3 million in the first show.
UFC 92, which was billed as one of the most stacked cards of 2008, had a total payout of about $1.3 million. Sure, the UFC's pay structure is often questioned and criticized, but Dana White & Co. continues to prosper while Tom Atencio's company is already strugging. Had Affliction learned from Strikeforce -- thinking small, local and, if only at first, avoiding a fight with the UFC -- things might have turned out differently.
But at least there will always be overpriced skull t-shirts.
5. When will MMA return to network TV?
CBS gambled on MMA when it put EliteXC on primetime. And, shocking even to those in the industry, the nation's moral fiber didn't tear asunder. Even with the Kimbo Slice fiasco. Although EliteXC quickly tanked, the idea and actual execution of promoting MMA alongside mainstream sports proved to be a good one for ratings. CBS says it wants to show more MMA in 2009, either from the remains of EliteXC or elsewhere, and other networks are seeing the possibilities, as well, now that they see the critical backlash isn't as bad as they had expected. Next year, networks will battle for a slice of the MMA pie, and even the UFC will get an offer it can't refuse.
More MMA and 2008:
GROSS: SI.com's 2008 MMA awards
CNN VIDEO: UFC explodes
GALLERY: UFC 91: Couture vs. Lesnar
GROSS: Best of the best ... so far
GALLERY: Up-and-coming fighters of 2008