MMA's biggest news stories of 2012

Michael Nagle

The year was filled with headlines, from shows being canceled, to drug suspensions, high-profile injuries, the impending demise of Strikeforce and beginning of women in UFC. But overriding it all, has been UFC's move to the FOX umbrella, which after one year has been a mixed bag.

In looking back at 2012, there's little question what the biggest news story is. How to evaluate the story is a lot more difficult.

The UFC moving from Spike as its main television outlet to the FOX family, the FOX network for four big shows, FX for The Ultimate Fighter (TUF), live shows, pay-per-view prelims and prime time hype specials as well as Fuel becoming essentially the UFC channel with endless hours of taped and first-run programming is the key story. There are more hours of UFC programming, by far, than ever before. There are more televised events, by far, than ever before.

But a year later is UFC really any more popular in the United States? The truth is, you get a lot of mixed signals.

The hope was what this deal would expose the product to millions of new people, given the value of being on the FOX network for the big shows, and moving so much programming to FX, which is a significantly higher rated network than Spike. Fuel was more of a project, the idea of having programming that would have UFC fans complain to their cable companies and thus pressure them into getting in more homes. At that point the shows like UFC Tonight would add another layer in creating interest to the big shows.

When signing the deal more than a year ago, UFC President Dana White talked about drawing 3 million viewers weekly for TUF reality show with the combination of the new network and the fights going live for the first time in the history of the show.

CEO Lorenzo Fertitta's hope was that by running major shows on FOX, that would be viewed by more people than have ever seen a live UFC event on television, the creation of new fans would create 100,000 or so new regular pay-per-view buyers.

Neither came close to happening.

But this was also only the first year of a seven-year deal. One of the biggest sports stories in general has been the escalating rights fees that the major sports franchises - the NFL, Major League Baseball, College Football and Basketball and the NBA - have been able to get. Rights are skyrocketing because of the fear the DVR will change programming habits, causing people to watch television at their convenience and most importantly, skip over the commercials.

The feeling is live sports will become king, because of the importance of immediacy that most television doesn't have, and thus, the ads become the most valuable on television. If UFC can establish itself as a near top tier sports franchise and these rights continue to climb, they could be in great position to command more money, perhaps lessening the need to rely so heavily on pay-per-view. Of course, this deal doesn't expire until the end of 2018. The money television is paying sports for rights fees could be a bubble that bursts next year, let alone the situation being the same six years from now. And it's impossible to predict six years down the road where UFC will be.

But after a year, this is how the landscape changed:

UFC proved it can do good ratings, and great numbers in the target male 18-49 demo for Saturday night network television under the right circumstances. It appears the circumstances are either when it either provides a show with fights that capture the public's interest, or perhaps simply presents a show during football season with FOX's promoting it constantly to the largest target sports fan audience possible.

A late January show that featured name fighters Rashad Evans, Michael Bisping and Chael Sonnen in matches that would determine title shots did well. A show in May headlined by Nate Diaz vs. Jim Miller did about half the audience, but with hindsight there was a silver lining. While not a good network sized audience, around 3 million people saw Diaz score an impressive win, and that likely made the Benson Henderson vs. Diaz lightweight title fight at the end of the year a very successful TV event. An August show with Mauricio 'Shogun' Rua vs. Brandon Vera and Lyoto Machida vs. Ryan Bader didn't do well, but nobody expected it would against the Olympics.

The Dec. 8 show, with Henderson vs. Diaz, plus B.J. Penn vs. Rory MacDonald, seemed to prove that with the right card, UFC is very viable on FOX in prime time. If the next show, on Jan. 26, with Demetrious Johnson vs. John Dodson for the flyweight title, a non-marquee bout, does well it probably indicates more the value of having shows during football season. If it doesn't do well, it indicates success is dependent on having the right amount of star power on the show.

This exposure, as far as helping PPV, the effect seems to be minimal, if any. Numbers were in the same ballpark as last year, far lower than the pre-2011 levels. FOX didn't create a new audience, but pay-per-view numbers not picking up was more because of the plethora of injuries and suspensions to headliners, wrecking havoc with original lineups.

Friday night turned out to be a disaster for The Ultimate Fighter reality show. The live season was the lowest rated season in history. Then a move back to the season being on tape fared even worse, to the point even ardent UFC fans weren't talking about antics on the show. The show moves to Tuesdays in January, and with Jon Jones and Chael Sonnen as coaches, that star power is also way up.

By and large, the FX programming didn't do what the same shows on Spike did. The difference is that while Spike was a lower rated network, UFC was its main priority and they promoted UFC events and programming constantly. FX had a wide variety of more successful shows to promote.

UFC has helped Fuel grow as a network, with huge increases over the previous year in viewers. But growth as far as it being in more homes has been a lot slower. The live Fuel events usually draw less than 250,000 viewers, and with the Countdown shows being on Fuel instead of Spike, their value has greatly diminished.

The next four biggest stories in MMA in 2012 are:

2. The Death of Strikeforce - While the patient still has its heart beating as the year closes, Strikeforce essentially will end a second time after its Jan. 12 show in Oklahoma City. Yet, it had been in many ways the most successful non-UFC promotion of the modern era in North America.

Many would argue it died the first time when Silicon Valley Sports Entertainment (SVSE), its parent company, sold the promotion to Zuffa. It still operated a regular schedule on Showtime, but it was clearly a different animal. The second death was hardly as newsworthy or as shocking as the sale was in early 2011.

Yet there are major ramifications. The big question is what is Showtime's next move? The channel has featured MMA programming on a regular basis dating back to 2007, and ratings this year were strong. But Showtime under Stephen Espinoza has gotten more aggressive with boxing, and with no strong MMA promotion on the horizon, may concentrate in that direction.

For the fighters, it is believed the top 40 or so fighters in Strikeforce will wind up getting shots in UFC, which would include names like Gegard Mousasi, Daniel Cormier, Gilbert Melendez, Josh Thomson, Nate Marquardt, Ronaldo 'Jacare' Souza, Lorenz Larkin and Luke Rockhold.

The most noticeable and talked about change is the women moving to UFC. The Zuffa contract with Showtime would not have allowed any of the Strikeforce fighters, except heavyweights, to move to UFC even if the fighters' contracts with Strikeforce had ended. As long as Zuffa was in bed with Showtime, the aforementioned names except Cormier could not sign UFC deals.

The women, or more succinctly, a woman named Ronda Rousey, who UFC feels has great marketing potential that couldn't be realized in Strikeforce, could only be brought in if and when the Zuffa/Showtime deal ended. That deal ending made the idea of a Strikeforce brand obsolete.

The success of Rousey, and the women in general on UFC shows, will almost surely be one of the biggest stories of 2013.

3. Drug suspensions cost the sport some of its biggest fights - While injuries cost a lot of big matches, keeping champions George St-Pierre and Jose Aldo out for much of the year, and Dominick Cruz out the entire year, a lot of that is inherent to the sport.

The drug issue is more difficult and also has no easy answers. Every major sport hasn't been able to fully come to grips with the problem. But UFC lost a number of major matches due to fighters testing positive.
Alistair Overeem, who was signed for a heavyweight title match with Junior Dos Santos on May 26, ended up out the entire year after testing positive for artificial testosterone.

Cris "Cyborg"Santos, who most would consider one of the two best female fighters, also didn't compete all year due to a positive steroid test from December of 2011, delaying what could have been the biggest women's fight of this generation with Rousey.

Nick Diaz's second marijuana positive in Nevada resulted in a one year suspension, eliminating him from at least one, if not two main events, and possibly a shot at St-Pierre that is now scheduled for March 16.

"King" Mo Lawal, set for a Strikeforce light heavyweight title match, also tested positive, which set into motion a chain of events that saw the title vacancy never filled. For reasons related and unrelated, he was eventually fired, and ended up in Bellator as well as TNA pro wrestling.

4. UFC cancels September 1 show in Las Vegas - For years, UFC officials had stated that unlike boxing, when something bad happens they never cancel the show. But a series of circumstances led to a costly cancellation of a pay-per-view event, which company officials estimated when all was said and done cost them as much as $20 million.

Jon Jones was scheduled to defend the light heavyweight title against Dan Henderson at that event. Henderson suffered a knee injury, which he kept quiet from UFC officials, believing he could rest it and go through with the fight. But he didn't recover and it was less than two weeks before the show before those at UFC were aware there was a problem.

Dana White was able to get Chael Sonnen to take the fight on late notice, but ended up shocked when Jones and his camp refused the fight against a middleweight moving up who was taking the fight without training. While fighters turn down fights all the time, at no point in UFC history had a scheduled headline fighter who was just about finished with a long camp turned down a late replacement who hadn't even been in training.

Plenty of blame was given, but the result was the show was canceled, partially because injuries had hurt the undercard and there was no No. 2 bout on the main card that could have headlined. Ironically, one of Jones' arguments for turning down the fight was Sonnen wasn't a worthy contender. Yet, Sonnen is no more worthy now and is facing Jones for the title in his next title fight on April 27 in Newark, N.J.

While it didn't get nearly the publicity, UFC also canceled a planned March show in Montreal, but it was before tickets were put on sale because so many injuries made it impossible to schedule a viable pay-per-view main event. Two Strikeforce events late in the year were also canceled due to injuries to headliners.

5. Fedor Emelianenko retires - While it was a fight somewhat out of the spotlight, Fedor Emelianenko, who was the sport's dominant heavyweight for nearly a decade, announced he was retiring after knocking out Pedro Rizzo in 1:24 of a fight on June 21 in St. Petersburg, Russia. Emelianenko won the Pride heavyweight title on March 26, 2003, from Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira and held it until the organization folded in 2007. Several attempts to bring him to UFC for bouts with the likes of Brock Lesnar or Randy Couture failed. Eventually the bloom was off his rose when he suffered consecutive losses to Fabricio Werdum, Antonio 'Bigfoot' Silva and Dan Henderson in Strikeforce. He teased retirement after all of those losses, before finishing his career with wins over lesser likes like Jeff Monson, judo gold medalist Satoshi Ishii, and Rizzo. He finished with a 35-4 record that included one no-contest.

Other major stories:
Anderson Silva's win over Chael Sonnen is UFC's biggest fight in more than a year
Bellator to debut on Thursday nights on Spike TV in January
Women's MMA comes to the forefront behind Ronda Rousey
Georges St-Pierre survives a scare, with a successful return after major knee surgery
Two knee surgeries sideline bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz all year

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