Top 10 MMA stories of 2010
UFC 112's dud in Abu Dhabi was one of the worst cards in organization history
Fedor Emelianenko, the decade's most dominant heavyweight, finally took a loss
Chael Sonnen came close to defeating Anderson Silva, only to lose at the end
1. UFC sells 10 percent share to Abu Dhabi-based Flash Entertainment. Despite several offers to go public or take on additional investors, the Ultimate Fighting Championship remained a private outfit since Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta purchased it in 2001. Amid explosive growth in the decade's second half, UFC president Dana White repeatedly said the promotion's parent company, Zuffa LLC, would never dilute its ownership. But in January, that's exactly what it did when it sold a 10 percent stake in the UFC to the Abu Dhabi-owned entertainment company Flash Entertainment. Fertitta said the sale would benefit the UFC's strategic goals in the Middle East and other developing countries while keeping intact its management structure. One month later, the promotion announced its entry into the Middle Eastern market with UFC 112, held an arena to be constructed specifically for the event. The first event would later prove challenging -- to put it charitably.
2. UFC cracks down on piracy. Tiring of losses incurred by illegal pay-per-view broadcasts, White in January said Zuffa LLC would throw the book at individuals and websites who posted illegal streams of UFC events. The Las Vegas-based company soon made good on the threat when it targeted the owner of a Boston bar who allegedly stole a feed of UFC 104 and broadcast it to his patrons. Not long after that, it went after another man it claimed was selling pirated UFC content on the web. And over the summer, it subpoenaed streaming video sites justin.tv and ustream.tv for the names of users who posted illegal feeds of UFC events. For a sport that survived on the Internet a decade ago -- like other niche sports, hardcore fans gathered online and often traded VHS tapes -- the move signaled a stark change in the digital landscape. It's unclear, though, whether it did much to stop the spread of pirated content.
3. Disaster strikes in Abu Dhabi. Everything seemed to be going according to schedule in the UFC's first trip to Abu Dhabi at UFC 112, with the exception of a tremendous upset delivered by lightweight challenger Frankie Edgar over then-dominant champ B.J. Penn. Reigning middleweight kingpin Anderson Silva stepped into the cage to defend his title a sixth time against Demian Maia, a replacement for an injured Vitor Belfort, in the sweltering evening's headliner. Almost from the first bell, it was clear Maia was way out of his league as Silva toyed with him and knocked him down twice in the fight's first frame. The bout went downhill from there. Silva remained content to clown and evade his overmatched challenger as the crowd struggled to keep its patience. Silva berated Maia and slapped the mat in mock-protest; he did impersonations of other fighters; he circled and occasionally reminded Maia who was boss with a quick kick or punch. White urged the fighters to get going as the third round teetered toward a thud. By the fourth, the audience gave way and began to cheer for Maia, who continued unsuccessfully to press the action, and then showered its praise on welterweight champ Georges St-Pierre, who was cageside and off for the night. By the final round, Maia chased an unwilling Silva and the champ was warned -- far too late -- for breaking rules on timidity. Meanwhile, a furious White had handed Silva's middleweight belt to manager Ed Soares, unable to put the strap around the champion's waist. White pulled no punches at the post-fight press conference and later threatened to cut Silva in the event of another listless performance. (Silva had come under fire twice before for snoozers against Patrick Cote and Thales Leites.) It was one of the biggest duds in UFC history.
4. Strikeforce fighters brawl under the CBS eye. "Sometimes these things happen in MMA." So said announcer Gus Johnson in a now-infamous phrase as he struggled to explain a swarm of amped-up young men, including three Strikeforce champions, brawling in the final moments of the CBS-televised "Strikeforce: Nashville." A few moments earlier, Jake Shields had been talking to him after defending his middleweight title against decorated veteran Dan Henderson. Then, a stranger butted in. It was Jason "Mayhem" Miller, who had five months prior lost a unanimous decision to Shields for the vacant title. Miller thrust himself in front of the mic and asked for a rematch, prompting a smile from Johnson. Shields' camp wasn't smiling at all; Gilbert Melendez quickly advanced on Miller, who turned to face the lightweight champion as Shields shoved him. All hell broke loose. Strikeforce welterweight champion Nick Diaz was quick to join the fray, as was his brother, UFC regular Nate Diaz. Other Shields teammates jumped in as officials tried to break it up. "Gentleman, we're on national television," Johnson added, though the damage had already been done. Miller, Shields, Melendez and the Diaz brothers were later suspended and fined by the Tennessee Athletic Commission, and Strikeforce soon after revised its post-fight security policies.
5. The legend of superhuman Fedor dies. It was a small miscalculation with one big price. Fedor Emelianenko, the decade's most dominant heavyweight, believed he had PRIDE and UFC vet Fabricio Werdum hurt after a flurry of punches inside the one-minute mark of a June Strikeforce event bearing their names. The Russian shucked his opponent's legs to the side, as he had often done to devastating effect, and evaded a triangle choke as he hacked at Werdum's face with his right arm. But the Brazilian wasn't as hurt as he seemed, and rolled to his back before re-setting the choke, this time including the offending arm. Suddenly, there was no more shucking. Emelianenko, a fighter whose name transcended promotional loyalties in the fear and respect he commanded, was caught dead to rights and tapped out 69 seconds after the contest began, thus ending a win streak virtually unblemished by loss in a career spanning 10 years and 35 fights.
6. The return of Lesnar. Brock Lesnar's fighting future wasn't looking good by the end of 2009. Diagnosed with a severe case of diverticulitis -- a disorder that caused his intestines to swell and later become infected to the point of severe pain -- the former WWE wrestler and then-UFC heavyweight champ laid in a hospital bed for 11 days and lost 40 pounds as the result of his illness. Several doctors recommended he undergo surgery, which would have likely ended his career. Lesnar decided instead to take another doctor's advice that he make lifestyle changes that could allow him to recover naturally. The gamble paid off, and Lesnar in January announced that he'd beaten the disease with a new diet and would fight in the summer.
When he did return in a July bout against interim champion Shane Carwin, it was no picnic. Carwin took him to the brink of a TKO stoppage with a fearsome flurry of ground and pound in the opening frame. But in doing that, Carwin burned out his gas tank, and that allowed Lesnar to take the fight down and lock in a fight-ending arm triangle choke. It was a miraculous recovery made all the more poignant by his earlier recovery.
7. Michael Kirkham becomes second death in sanctioned MMA. On June 28, tragedy again touched the sport of mixed martial arts when 30-year-old Michael Kirkham, a six-foot-nine, 155-pound fighter known as "Tree," became the second fighter to die as the result of a sanctioned MMA competition. Two days prior, he collapsed following a first-round TKO loss at an event in South Carolina and never regained consciousness. Doctors said he died of a severe brain hemorrhage, which, others said, may have been caused in part by a TKO loss he suffered a little over a month from his professional debut. Kirkham had a 3-3 amateur record and had little formal MMA training before turning pro. He wasn't required to submit a neurological exam or a physical prior to the bout, and he did not disclose his recent TKO loss. Kirkham wasn't well-known in mixed martial arts circles, but his death was a grim reminder of the dangers involved in the sport and the need for strict regulatory standards. The results of an investigation conducted by the South Carolina Athletic Commission on Kirkham's death have yet to be revealed.
8. Chael Sonnen falls short and pops positive. It was the performance of a lifetime. Chael Sonnen, once a preliminary attraction in middleweight circles, took middleweight kingpin Anderson Silva down and beat on him for four rounds in August's UFC 117. He appeared to be well on his way to backing up a prodigious trash-talking campaign with a decision victory. Then it all went south.
Midway through the title fight's fifth and final round, as Sonnen pounded away in delirious exhaustion, history repeated itself. Silva quickly threw up a triangle/armbar submission hold, and he tapped. It was the same frantic, instinctual tap he'd given more than three years ago in the WEC against Paulo Filho -- another fight he was supposed to lose -- and the same referee, Josh Rosenthal, who was forced to wake him from autopilot and deliver the bad news. He had cried foul on the first call, but on this one, he told Rosenthal, "I believe you." Electrified by the last-minute turnaround, the UFC set its sights on an immediate rematch for early 2011. But those plans were shot in early September when Sonnen tested positive for elevated levels of testosterone and was fined and suspended by the California State Athletic Commission. He later appealed CSAC's one-year suspension and fine, arguing that he'd been approved to compete while undergoing testosterone therapy for low levels of the hormone. In a disjointed and often disorganized hearing -- par for the course with CSAC -- Sonnen's suspension was halved while a $2,500 fine remained in place.
9. WEC closes shop, merges with UFC. A chock full of exciting fights, World Extreme Cagefighting in the end befell the same fate as other promotions that tried to co-exist with the juggernaut known as the UFC: brand confusion. Once a local show that gave many of the UFC's current stars their first gig, the California-based promotion was acquired in 2007 by Zuffa LLC and moved to Las Vegas with a new look and a cable TV deal in the works. The new WEC found its home on the Versus channel but had a hard time peaking out from its parent promotion's shadow; save for the work of breakout star Urijah Faber, it struggled to keep an audience that justified its expense. Not more than a year after the Zuffa purchase, the WEC shed its heavier weight classes in favor of fast-paced, lighter-weight fighters. Despite respectable ratings on cable, UFC president Dana White announced in October that the promotion would be shuttered and its talent folded into the UFC.
Although some 70 fighters were promised jobs when the merger became official, it's widely expected that many will be cut from the roster before changeover takes place, particularly in the WEC lightweight division, which overlaps with the UFC.
Perhaps "The California Kid" put it best after the announcement when he expressed relief that he'd no longer have to explain the difference between the fight promotions.
10. Keeping the "fight" in Ultimate Fighting. UFC welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre answered criticism of a dominant yet action-light title defense at UFC 111 against Dan hardy by openly admitting he fights "safe" inside the octagon. That sent thousands of fans into a froth; some called the champ a coward; some called him smart; others demanded he refund the money they spent on his pay-per-views. It also prompted his former opponent, B.J. Penn, to proclaim a wish to keep the "fight" in Ultimate Fighting on the eve of a rematch against Frankie Edgar, the man who took his lightweight belt. Several fighters responded in kind to the statement, and fighting safe remained a hot topic among fans. White in November revived the issue when he attacked St-Pierre trainer Greg Jackson for training fighters to value decisions above all else. The trainer subsequently issued a stat sheet on the performance bonuses of his fighters that shot down the idea that they don't fight to finish.
Swim Daily, Elsa Benitez in Montauk
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