MMA predictions for 2011
The long-anticipated Strikeforce eight-man heavyweight tournament will happen
The in-demand fight between George St-Pierre and Anderson Silva will go down
Brock Lesnar will fight for the UFC heavyweight championship again ... and lose
1. WEC makes its mark on TUF. Although the UFC's seminal reality show has maintained an impressive watermark of about 1 million viewers per episode going into its 13th season, the show could use a jump-start. And who better to give that then the Tasmanian devils of World Extreme Cagefighting, who are set to cross over to big-brother UFC as 2011 gets underway. Newly minted UFC bantamweight champ Dominick Cruz and recent 135-pound transplant Urijah Faber get my vote to coach TUF 13. They've got history (Faber handed Cruz his only professional loss early in his 145-pound title reign), beef (Cruz rubs the normally hang-loose Faber the wrong way), and good support squads (Faber with Team Alpha Male and Cruz with Lloyd Irvin and Alliance MMA). That's all the makings of good reality TV. (Now if only Spike producers could shoot the show higher than 30 frames per second.)
2. We'll see a Strikeforce eight-man heavyweight tournament. Already rumored to be in the pipeline, the California-based promotion was unable to assemble a middleweight tournament in 2010. But it will revive the idea in a big way when it puts eight of its best heavyweights in a tournament that begins in February with four pairings. The second round will take place in Ohio in March, and the finals in May. Standouts such as Sergei Kharitonov, Josh Barnett, Antonio Silva, Andrei Arlovski, Brett Rogers, Fedor Emelianenko, Valentijn Overeem, Shane Del Rosario and Lavar Johnson will be invited. The tournament winner will meet the winner of a title bout between Alistair Overeem and Fabricio Werdum likely slotted for May or June.
3. New York MMA bill will stay on hold. New York MMA fans are going to need the equivalent of a Hail Mary pass to break a moral divide within the state legislature that on two separate occasions has prevented a proposed law to legalize and regulate MMA from receiving a vote on the legislative floor. With MMA antagonist Bob Reilly recently re-elected to the state assembly, it's all but certain he'll use the same polarizing arguments about violence to sway members of the state's Tourism, Parks, Arts and Sports Development committee away from the sport. The state's Speaker of the Assembly, Sheldon Silver, was also re-elected and is reportedly aligned with Reilly. UFC parent company Zuffa LLC is planning another lobbying push for this year's session, and it could find a sympathetic ear with incoming governor Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat. (The fight promotion donated $75,000 to Cuomo's election campaign.) But recently re-elected Tourism chair Steve Englebright, a Democrat who's sponsored previous MMA legislation, said his party needs to resolve its misgivings about the sport before it opens a bill to a floor vote. And with a $315 million budget shortfall still looming large for the state, MMA will probably take a back seat once again.
4. Strikeforce will return to prime time. Yes, the infamous brawl at "Strikeforce: Nashville" jeopardized the promotion's network future -- but MMA on CBS wasn't put to sleep. The Tiffany Network just needs to be certain that the promotion can assemble a bankable card when it gives the sport another shot. So far, only a few names have been able to move the needle in ratings: Kevin "Kimbo Slice" Ferguson, Gina Carano and Fedor Emelianenko. Strikeforce has dibs on Carano and Emelianenko, and though it's anyone's guess when the two will get back in the game, it's a good bet that CBS will come calling when one or both do. Packaged with a compelling main card, Gus Johnson could be screaming away before we know it.
5. The UFC will invade China. The industry-leading fight promotion opened its first office in mainland China this year with former NBA China executive Mark Fischer heading operations, and UFC president Dana White has said a Chinese version of The Ultimate Fighter will spearhead an expansion into the highly populous country. With a virtually untapped market of about 250 million males in the 18-24 demographic, the move could play a huge part in sustaining the explosive growth enjoyed in recent years by Zuffa LLC. It will be a long time before Chinese fighters reach parity with their U.S. counterparts, but a "Fight Night" event featuring several standouts appears likely for 2011.
6. DREAM will go on sale. It's no secret that the Japanese MMA promotion's parent company, Fighting and Entertainment Group, is in deep financial trouble and may not be able to finance operations without a significant infusion of cash. There's been little word on the results of the company's partnership with investment bank PUJI capital. If additional funds can't be raised and TV revenues remain weak, expect DREAM to go on the auction block and FEG to take on additional partners, who will continue to seek investment money while promoting events -- possibly under a different name.
7. Georges St-Pierre vs. Anderson Silva. In the fourth quarter of 2011, the UFC will announce that welterweight St-Pierre is moving up a division to challenge Silva for the middleweight title. St-Pierre will have spent the better part of 2011 bulking up for the challenge after stopping Jake Shields by TKO in April in Toronto, and will feel confident enough to match the speed of lightning-fast Silva, who will have stopped Vitor Belfort on points in February at UFC 126. It won't be enough, however, to protect the welterweight champ from the Brazilian's pinpoint accuracy, and he'll get popped with flurries of strikes that continue Silva's record-breaking reign. St-Pierre then returns to welterweight, where he squares off a second time against Jon Fitch.
8. Fedor will retire. Hear me out before you grab the pitchfork. I see a variety of possible scenarios here: Fedor runs the table in Strikeforce's heavyweight tournament and takes the title from the winner of champ Alistair Overeem vs. Fabricio Werdum; Fedor loses in the tournament and then avenges a loss to Werdum late in the year; Fedor's management company, M-1 Global, is unable to come to terms with Strikeforce and he sits on the shelf until he calls it quits. Pick your favorite, but I foresee "The Last Emperor" hanging up his hat in order to focus on his duty to family, to God and perhaps to the people of Russia. I've observed a shift in his demeanor this past year. No matter how much his loss to Werdum stoked his competitive fire, that cold, ruthless glare that characterized his PRIDE fights now shares space with a warm glint. It's the result of a man who's almost come to terms with his legacy, found stability in family life and is frankly tired of bearing the burden placed on him by both his management and millions of fans. All this waiting and renegotiation with Strikeforce has probably burned the candle a little bit more, and even if he strikes a deal for four additional fights next year, I see the 34-year-old retiring before he meets the full obligation. He'll never have fought in the UFC, and that's unfortunate to those who spent years fantasizing about him in the octagon. Some things just aren't meant to happen.
9. Brock Lesnar will fight for the title again ... and lose. Lesnar's deep dislike for eating leather was further exposed when Cain Velasquez took his belt in October at UFC 121. Bu he'll be back in a mid-year tuneup fight that will serve as a springboard for another shot at the heavyweight title. My best guess is that he'll meet Velasquez again, though it's entirely possible that Junior Dos Santos could prevail against the current champ when they meet in the spring. Dos Santos is a better matchup against Lesnar's wrestling skills but could hurt the former WWE star before he gets the fight to the ground. As we just saw, Velasquez is just a bad matchup all around: good wrestling, sharp hands and killer instinct. Lesnar will be forced back to the drawing board when a bid to regain the title fails.
10. The judging controversies won't end. This is perhaps the safest prediction of all. Despite several high-profile scorecard gaffes in recent years, and repeated calls for change within the industry, it's certain that fans will see more bad decisions and a molasses-slow response from those tasked with regulating the industry. Until undermanned and underfunded athletic commissions get the resources they need to conduct a meaningful review of scoring criteria and reach a consensus on what equals what in a complex and fast moving sport, judging will be skewed by the backgrounds brought to the position. A new scoring system -- more attuned to the subtleties of MMA -- is set to debut next year in California's amateur leagues, and it could provide a valuable contrast with current standards. But even if the system finds its way to professional martial arts, and commissions across the country are persuaded to adopt it, there's going to be a lot of red tape to cut before fans see any change. In the meantime, a lot more popcorn will be spilled as scorecards are announced.
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