This past year proved to be a transition year for mixed martial arts. As MMA's profile grew locally in 2010, it declined abroad. New stars were created, some retired and others tried to find a new way forward after facing adversity. As old powers declined, new powers emerged.
There were steroid scandals, horrific judging episodes and despicable acts of unprofessional behavior. There was even an MMA death. Yet, there also were numerous megafights, an unmatched amount of mainstream attention, a new ESPN show devoted solely to MMA, the birth of organic rivalries, the development of new weight divisions and an MMA product that was better in 2010 than it was in 2009. Far, far better.
MMA continues to be the fast-growing sport in America, if not the world. The most important stories highlight its changing face and continuing evolution and growth. So, here are the top five stories from the sport of mixed martial arts in 2010.
5. The Decline of Japanese MMA
Japan will always occupy a special place in MMA. Both the quality and volume of fighters emanating from Japan, to say nothing of the country's historical and promotional significance, make the country a major MMA player. But times, they are a changin'. The pebble in the pond of the PRIDE/yakuza scandal (and subsequent Zuffa purchase) has finally pushed ripples that have reached the shore.
That isn't to say there was no combat sports action of consequence in the Land of the Rising Sun. In fact, Japan was home to many new milestones. Alistair Overeem became the first person to hold titles in MMA (Strikeforce heavyweight champion) and K-1 at the same time. Marlon Sandro raised his profile and improved his ranking by annihilating legitimate featherweight contenders. And Kazuo Misaki vs. Jorge Santiago, arguably the best fight of the year of any weight class, took place in Japan. When we underscore decline, we still must be mindful of the considerable quality of MMA that's still available and being put to good use.
But the country's major promoters are desperate for cash. Major fighters and even stars like Norifumi Yamamoto are leaving for U.S. promotions. Fighters aren't being paid. Ratings and attendance are down. And the major event in Japanese MMA, the New Year's Eve show, features match-making this year that has all the gimmickry the Japanese have come to expect combined with a healthy dose of desperation. It's not clear if outright collapse is imminent or if this is a new normal. And if this is a new normal, how much farther will there be decline before the market evens out? No one really knows.
What everyone knows for sure is that UFC and North America are now unequivocal homes of professional MMA. And while the loss of Japan as a powerhouse for MMA certainly isn't good for MMA, with new markets opening and developing worldwide it's also not as catastrophic as some experts suggest. As Japan declines, Brazil had a banner year in 2010. European fighters continue to improve. Canadian legalization efforts will make the mecca of MMA even more of a hotbed.
For longtime MMA fans, watching what's happened to Japan is rather sad. The decline of a country that hosted a huge chunk of the most important fights ever -- and did so with unmatched production values -- is a lamentable event to witness. But MMA will survive and flourish with or without Japan. And what made the sport popular to begin with was a tenuous and time-sensitive gimmick. That the sport's popularity has declined is unfortunate, but understandable.
MMA will be fine, just not in Japan.
4. UFC Sets Pay-Per-View Record
This "story" in and of itself really isn't one. There are no accolades, no major write-ups in the Wall Street Journal and no recognition from the casual MMA fan of what a real achievement this is. But it's worth acknowledging. First, UFC could top 9 million buys this year and will if projections for UFC 124 are correct. Second, as Dave Meltzer points out, UFC has "already become the first promotion in history to crack 1 million on three occasions in a single year."
Third, and perhaps most importantly, the UFC not only continues to thrive in a down economy, but they are operating under a business model that doesn't cripple them when advertising revenue declines. While sports like NASCAR were and still are in trouble due to advertising pullback, the UFC is able to have banner year after banner year on the strength of a business model that largely insulates them from trouble.
There's a question about what future Brock Lesnar has in the UFC and he's the easily the sport's top cash cow. Matching that success in 2011 will be a very difficult feat for the UFC, but with an ever-expanding roster of top-tier fighters and major grduge matches to be settled, another blockbuster year would not be even a little surprising.
3. The Last Emperor Is Dethroned
Nobody saw this coming. Most experts, including this writer, believed that while Fabricio Werdum was a capable elite heavyweight fighter, he wasn't the one to end one of the most amazing win streaks in mixed martial arts history.
Despite what naysayers say, UFC-rival Strikeforce had a banner year. They expanded their number of shows, grew their roster and earned more mainstream media attention than ever before. They also were using a fighter widely considered to be the No. 1 heavyweight in the sport as part of their efforts to grow their profile.
Fedor Emelianeko's previous Strikeforce bout against upstart Brett Rogers had not gone quite as expected. While Fedor was able to stop the challenger with strikes, he was at a considerable size disadvantage. Fedor was pushed around and bloodied before a second-round stoppage. Still, most critics attributed the performance to Fedor being a "slow starter" and Rogers being underrated.
Then came the bout with Werdum. Before the fight criticism was following Emelianenko. Some were suggesting while his reign in the division and particularly in the defunct Japanese organization PRIDE was exceptional, he wasn't facing the best competition. There was also an open question about just how good he was. Sure he was tough in 2004, but what about 2010? Despite the nagging naysayers, most believed a fight with Strikeforce heavyweight champion Alistair Overeem was the best available fight Strikeforce could make for Emelianenko. That was the only fight where Fedor's might could be tested.
Then came the triangle choke heard 'round the world. Werdum slipped in an early exchange with Emelianenko and was fighting off of his back. Fedor was looking for the pass, but Werdum -- who was not sweaty and is a world champion Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt -- wasn't letting him have it. An overly aggressive Fedor tried to circle past Werdum only to run into the fence and ultimately into Werdum's death grip. Once the choke was locked on, Fedor tried desperately to escape as his Brazilian foe squeezed with all his might. But he could do nothing. Fedor righted his hips and gave the single most important tap arguably in MMA history. The streak was over. Mighty Fedor had struck out.
The truth, though, is that while Emelianenko's streak is likely to never be reproduced in modern MMA, it was a product of selective matchmaking and the destruction of easy prey. Fedor's run at heavyweight from 2002 to 2005 is filled with a who's who list of top contenders interspered with fighters who had no business being in the ring with the Russian. So when he wasn't beating legitimate opposition, he was annihilating jobbers. It gave the impression he was indestructible. The reality: He was talented, but also stacking the deck and using sleight of hand.
Emelianenko's reign also marks a changing of the guard at heavyweight. For years he was No. 1. No longer. First Brock Lesnar took that position after his win at UFC 116. Then Cain Velasquez with his win over Lesnar at UFC 121. Fedor was the top heavyweight in the sport for nearly a decade, but his loss was the final bookend to an era of MMA that had long expired, but was being kept alive by Emelianenko's streak.
The sad news is given the complete mismanagement of his late career by M-1, he isn't likely to regain the No. 1 spot anytime soon, even if he wins. Emelianenko is set to face Antonio Silva, a capable heavyweight, but not the sort that possess the real danger of Overeem or the rematch value of Werdum. Where he goes is anyone's guess. At least we have what he had -- a nearly 10-year run of being undefeated in MMA. Quite the accomplishment.
2. UFC-WEC Merge to Form Super UFC
Naming this the No. 1 development in 2010 would be inappropriate, mostly because the major effects of the merger won't be felt until 2011. However, what this merger means cannot be overstated. Consider this: for the first time in MMA history, one promoter has the number one fighter in every single weight-class (the UFC). That is a positively staggering achievement. Normally promoter hype is so hyperbolic it can be easily dismissed on evidentiary grounds. In this case, when UFC President Dana White says his organization has the best fighters in the world, he's largely telling the truth.
Why the merger? Any number of reasons. Despite a consistently critically-acclaimed product, the WEC never delivered the ratings on Versus Zuffa had hoped it could. There's also the issue that UFC cards were beginning to feature subpar talent due to the huge amount of shows the company pushes. With the influx of the bantamweight and featherweight divisions from the WEC, the UFC could not only offer more pay-per-view shows with title defenses, but also fill out the rest of the card with more talented fighters from other divisions instead of also-rans from existing UFC weight classes. Whatever the issue, the move made sense for Zuffa and for MMA fans. The WEC fighters will now earn UFC acclaim and riches, the product will be improved and the fans will get to enjoy a wider variety of high-level MMA fighting. There are few losers here.
1. MMA Yanks Marquee Heavyweight Fighting From Boxing
Pop quiz: Name just a couple of the major heavyweight fights in boxing that you enjoyed, remember or that really moved the needle this past year. Don't worry, I'll wait. And no, Klitschko vs. Peter does not count.
Now, let's try the same quiz with MMA: Name just a couple of major heavyweight fights in MMA that you enjoyed, remember or that really moved the needle this past year. Not nearly as difficult, is it?
Mostly due to the return of Brock Lesnar and his subsequent dismissal as the heavyweight king at the hands of American Kickboxing Academy's Cain Velasquez, 2010 was the year MMA formally took the mantle as the combat sport of choice for preeminent and meaningful heavyweight fighting.
Heavyweight fighting. It's a tradition in America that was the sole province of the sweet science for decade upon decade. Until now, every adult can remember the major heavyweight boxer of their childhood, his epic battles, his ferocious opponents and where they were when some of the most monumental fights took place.
Now, every one talks about Brock Lesnar. They remember Shane Carwin. And they know about the ferocity of Cain Velasquez. MMA's got many years of investing in heavyweight action before it can match boxing's rich history, but the shift in polarity is now impossible to ignore.
The truth about this story is that it's just the sum of its parts. It's the human interest story of Brock Lesnar returning from grave illness to retain his UFC heavyweight title against Shane Carwin, but only after taking one of the worst first-round beatings in championship history. It's also the story of the quiet but ferocious Cain Velasquez, who is the first combat sport heavyweight champion of Mexican heritage. He is the first MMA fighter to have any meaningful crossover into the Latino community, an audience that is more involved with and attached to boxing.
Boxing's Manny Pacquiao and the UFC's lightweight division prove smaller fighters can still be financially lucrative for promoters while delivering the kind of action fans come to expect from elite prize fighting. But heavyweight fighting is different. Aside from historical precedence, there's something innate about watching the largest of the large alpha males tangle in unarmed combat. Even when they sacrifice technical acumen for strength, the trade off often makes sense. The truth is heavyweight fighting never lost it's value to the North American audience, it just needed a new home.