(As UFC turns 20, we revisit each year from 2013 to 1993 with 20 articles in 20 days)
On a single night in 2011, the best fights of the year took place. Dan Henderson and Mauricio Rua nearly killed each other for five rounds at UFC 139 in San Jose. That fight was a tale of halves -- Hendo early, Shogun late.
Happening on the other coast, Michael Chandler and Eddie Alvarez struck a match to the barn using skill, guts and -- in a strict manner of speaking -- idiocy. No two men with any sense of preservation can be expected to fight the way they did in Hollywood, Florida. No sane men with careers still to go.
Defiantly, though, they did.
The moon wasn’t full that night. It was a standard waning crescent. But somehow the Fight Gods were in an uproar. Even fight game atheists found themselves overwhelmed by the products of Nov. 19, even if it was more chaotic coincidence than anything celestial.
Yet, both those monuments of 2011 came in under the radar because everyone was still sweeping up the confetti from the week prior.
On Nov. 12, the UFC and FOX put on its first broadcast show framed around a single fight, Cain Velasquez versus Junior dos Santos, not out of contractual obligation (that didn’t kick in until 2012), but out of the something like the goodness of giving. Historically, this was the first ever fight night bonus awarded to fans. Dana White and FOX president Eric Shanks were like kids who couldn’t wait until Christmas morning for us to open their gift. This undertaking was so crazy that Clay Guida (at the time unhindered by strategy) and Benson Henderson (pre-Toothpickgate) battled on Facebook, and this didn’t feel entirely like buzzkill.
You might remember the set up. Velasquez had played matador against Brock Lesnar a year earlier at he very same venue in Anaheim, and dos Santos had just smoked Shane Carwin at UFC 131 in Vancouver. It was two bounding momentums colliding on free TV. (Did they mention it was free? This is a gift you ingrates! Gratis!). And what a broadening it was with so much going on. Protective diehard fans were getting territorial by the forced sharing of their sacred product with something as amorphous as "mainstream" and "casual" people (both synonyms for "despicables"). These feelings were roiling underneath all the hoopla whether anyone was admitting it or not.
The fight itself lasted a very ho-hum 64 seconds. Dos Santos hit Velasquez with an end-game right and flew off to Brazil with the belt. It played out as something less than the CliffNotes to the vast and varied sport of mixed martial arts for those getting their introductions. It was more like a pull quote from War and Peace.
And still, none of these were the actual story of 2011.
The real story was Zuffa’s purchase of Strikeforce back in early spring. Strikeforce had burst the seams of its regional presence in San Jose, and was now a clear second to the UFC. When Strikeforce, with all its intriguing parts -- Nick Diaz, Dan Henderson, Gilbert Melendez, Luke Rockhold, Ronaldo Souza, Gegard Mousasi, the great Fedor, et al -- began shopping itself, Zuffa did what it does at the end of the day and when it is what it is.
It purchased the competition. The partition was about to come down to create a million new previously only dreamed of fights. Was Gilbert Melendez really a top two or three (or one) lightweight? Heaven forefend, we’d be finding out.
Only, you know, we didn’t. Not right away. Showtime was still the hub of Strikeforce, and Dana White and Showtime officials have never been what you might consider BFF. It was a relationship that from the beginning was frigid, before it thawed, before it became glacial.
"At the time [Zuffa purchased Strikeforce], it was exciting," says Strikeforce’s middleweight champion Luke Rockhold. "You thought about the crossover fights, and you thought about all the possibilities. It was really interesting at first."
And then it became something else. It became uncertainty. The partition stayed up. Strikeforce was Zuffa’s property, but Dana White was flinging around this cryptic double-speak that sounded something like "business as usual." Scott Coker, who was the soft-spoken ringleader of Strikeforce, kept saying that they’d have more details in a couple of weeks. The fights went on stoically, but the "it’s a matter of time" mantra caught fire. Strikeforce with no independent future hobbled along for another 18 months, while certain pieces began migrating to the UFC, and others found themselves on the dreaded "black list." The "black list" was created to protect Showtime/Strikeforce fauna from poaching, which felt like imprisonment to the lingering stars who were forced to ride out the duration.
"Once it started settling in, that some people were stuck and there was no crossing over and none of that was going on, it was kind of disappointing," Rockhold says. "I felt kind of trapped for a while, so it was a lot of mixed emotions.
"It was sad, too, because we had the PPV opportunity and a lot of things going for Strikeforce. I wanted to see Strikeforce survive and live on. I immediately thought it was going to die. But as a fighter, you always kind of wanted to be in the UFC. That’s my mentality -- just being able to prove yourself against the best in the world, and fight those best guys. That was an exciting factor and it definitely played in. I think there were more positives than negatives coming out of it."
Rockhold won the Strikeforce belt in 2011 in a crazy fight with Ronaldo Souza (who hasn’t lost since). The rematch became the elephant in the room in a division that just didn’t have much depth otherwise.
"That was a tough time," he says. "You’re waiting around. I had to fight Keith Jardine in my first title defense, and I was pretty upset about that. He’d never fought at 185 and was coming off a draw at 205.
"It was just a matter of when it’s going to happen. You hear all these guys like Daniel Cormier getting merged in and getting the opportunity to make the bonuses and all the little things that come with the UFC. Those guys were rubbing it in with me. The sponsors, and everything was better at the time in the UFC. It was really hard to get sponsors in Strikeforce because everyone knew it was going to die and they didn’t want to break into Strikeforce and pay the tuition and all that when there’s no security in their money."
Rockhold would end up defending his title twice in 2012, against Jardine and then against Tim Kennedy. Mercifully, at the end of 2012, the partition really did come down. Most Strikeforce fighters were fully integrated into the UFC roster. It was a matchmaker’s paradise. The most notable who didn’t crossover was Fedor Emelianenko, whom Dana White and Lorenzo Fertitta have a story about from the time they journeyed to faroff Russia in hopes of coaxing his cathedral calm into the Octagon.
What happened on that fabled visit to Stary Oskol remains a fight game mystery, one that will surely reveal itself, in pieces, throughout future scrums.