Top Ten MMA Stories in 2009

2009 was a year full of great in-ring action as dominant champions such as George St. Pierre and Anderson Silva took the sport to new heights with breathtaking performances, while heated grudge matches such as Henderson-Bisping or Lesnar-Mir provided visceral entertainment. However, often the big stories were outside the ring with backstage developments and feuds often dominating the headlines in the MMA press.

Here are the top ten news stories from the past twelve month.

10. Continued UFC international expansion

The international expansion of the UFC continued throughout 2009 with the promotion holding its first ever event in Germany and debuting on Mexican television. The promotion also built on its British expansion with the UFC signing a British network television deal and becoming a key part of ESPN UK’s schedule. Not content with their success in Western Europe and North America the UFC is close to announcing an event in Abu Dhabi and has had good ticket sales for 2010’s UFC 110 in Australia.

09. Zuffa signs new broadcast deal with Versus

In a strange way one of the biggest news stories of 2009 was something that never happened – despite the increased interest in mixed martial arts UFC has still not signed a television deal with either a US Network or a sports broadcasting heavyweight such as ESPN or HBO. On the 16th December Zuffa did announce a new deal with Versus which for the first time covered not just the WEC but also included rights for two UFC ‘fight night’ specials. This is the first time since 2005 that UFC programming have been shown on a US television station other than Spike. That in itself is a big story, but with the NBC-Comcast merger and the plans for Versus to be developed into a NBC Sports channel that rivals ESPN this may be the first step towards a much bigger deal between NBC and Zuffa.

08. UFC videogame does record business

In May 2009 the UFC was introduced to a whole new audience with the release of the UFC Undisputed videogame on the XBOX 360 and Playstation 3. The game was well received, with many commentators praising the effort put in by the developers to accurately simulate a mixed martial arts match and capture the unique feel of the UFC. In addition to this critical acclaim it was a huge commercial success, selling over a million copies in its first month. A sequel was officially announced at the recent Video Games Awards and will be released in Spring 2010.

7. Chuck Liddell’s Retirement and Return

When Chuck Liddell laid on the canvass after being knocked out by Shogun Rua in Montréal he may have thought that his year had came to a premature end. However that loss was merely the first act in what may have been the strangest year in the former light heavyweight champion’s career. After UFC 97 Dana White followed through on his promise to ‘bench’ his friend due to concerns about the damage that continuing to fight would do to Liddell’s long-term health and the belief that there was nothing left for the Iceman to prove. After a bitter war of words between the UFC President and Liddell’s trainer John Hackleman over his future, Chuck Liddell was inducted into the UFC Hall of Fame and played a starring role in reality show Dancing with the Stars. His year ended with the announcement on December 4th that his benching was over and that he would return in 2010 as a coach in the eleventh season of The Ultimate Fighter against erstwhile rival Tito Ortiz.

6. Quinton Jackson’s Retirement and Return

Going into the autumn the biggest fight on the horizon was seemingly Quinton Jackson vs. Rashad Evans. The feuding former light heavyweight champions were the coaches on the tenth season of The Ultimate Fighter and after they had to be separated at UFC 100, Dana White promised everyone that their fight would be the biggest of the year. However, the preparations for the match were disputed by Quinton Jackson landing the role of B.A. Baracus in the forthcoming remake of the A-Team movie, a commitment that would stop him fighting Evans at UFC 107 as planned. The delay soon turned into a cancellation after an angry Quinton Jackson retired from fighting following Dana White publicly criticizing his decision to accept the movie role. Jackson has since relented and announced that he will return to the Octagon in 2010 to face Rashad Evans.

5. The collapse of Affliction

It was always unlikely that Affliction would be able to keep their MMA promotion operating throughout 2009 but few would have expected the end to come in such a rapid and chaotic way. After another high quality but money losing event in January, Affliction was busy preparing for its August ‘Trilogy’ event that was to be headlined by Fedor Emelianenko taking on Josh Barnett. However before the show Barnett failed a drugs tests and was barred from taking part. After frantic attempts to find a replacement Affliction eventually admitted defeat and reached a deal with the UFC to once again become a sponsor of the promotion and its fighters. As part of this deal Affliction closed its MMA division and sold key assets to the UFC.

4. Kimbo Slice signs with the UFC

In June a shocked MMA world learned that Kimbo Slice had joined the UFC. Throughout 2008 Dana White had ridiculed the skill level of the former youtube sensation and criticized EliteXC for making him their main attraction. After the collapse of EliteXC and his failure to agree terms with Strikeforce, Kimbo Slice had few opportunities left other than to accept Dana White’s offer for him to be a contestant in The Ultimate Fighter. His time on The Ultimate Fighter saw the UFC successfully repackaged Kimbo Slice as a humble, down-to-earth guy who was willing to work hard to improve as a fighter. Any concerns people had about whether his controversial TKO defeat to Seth Petruzelli had damaged his drawing power were quickly dispelled by the show’s high ratings. His match against Roy Nelson in the third episode draw a peak of 6.1million viewers and his match against Alexander Houston on December 4th live finale was watched by 5.2million people.

3. UFC Injury Crisis

Following its record-breaking Summer the UFC has been frustrated with an unprecedented series of injuries to its top fighters with several shows including UFC 105, UFC 106 and UFC 108 being effected. While Welterweight Champion George St Pierre, Middleweight Champion Anderson Silva and Light Heavyweight champion Lyoto Machida are all still in the middle of lengthy layoffs it is the health of Heavyweight Champion Brock Lesnar that has attracted the most attention. When his title match with Shane Carwin was first postponed it was due to the champion suffering from mono and it was hoped that the delay would only be a matter of months. However it soon became clear that the situation was far more serious than first thought with Dana White announcing after UFC 105 that Lesnar’s career was threatened by what would later be revealed to be diverticulitis. With no official word on when Brock Lesnar will again step into the Octagon plans are already well-advanced to have Frank Mir and Shane Carwin meet at UFC 111 in an interim championship match.

2. The rise of Strikeforce

2009 was a year of growth for Strikeforce although the San Jose-based promotion failed to hit the home-run that would have announced them as genuine challengers to the UFC’s market dominance. In February 2009 they acquired the tape library and several fighters from EliteXC and quickly followed this by signing a television deal with Showtime to produce sixteen events a year. After strong ratings for several Showtime shows (especially the long awaited meeting between Gina Carano and Cris Cyborg) the promotion debuted on CBS with a well received show that draw strong enough ratings to justify a second CBS special in 2010. With the backing of Showtime/CBS, the promotion has shown greater ambition and has successfully signed high profile fighters such as Bobby Lashley, Dan Henderson and the man widely recognized as the best heavyweight in the world, Fedor Emelianenko.

1. UFC celebrates fifteen years with UFC 100

No MMA story was bigger in 2009 than UFC 100. The biggest UFC event of all time saw unprecedented levels of interest from the general public and the mainstream media. With a record-breaking 1.7million people watching on North American PPV, UFC 100 was a staked card of action that saw fighters from across the world compete at a high level comparable with any other sport. While some worried about the controversial comments made by Dan Henderson and Brock Lesnar in post-fight interviews the expected backlash failed to materialize as both the public and the media were impressed by the major-league nature of the event. The event was a true milestone for mixed martial arts, confirming the UFC as a force in the mainstream sports world with a talented roster of fighters and a growing worldwide fan base.

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