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Story of the Year: Chael Sonnen Busted

Chael Sonnen did more to hype a fight than anyone in MMA in 2010, and he and Anderson Silva provided MMA fans with what may have been the best fight of the year. But all the pre-fight trash talk, and that great fight in the Octagon, was overshadowed a couple weeks later when we learned that Sonnen had failed his UFC 117 drug test.

Sonnen getting busted was the story of the year in MMA because of the way it overshadowed that great fight, because it canceled what would have been a lucrative Silva-Sonnen rematch, and most importantly because it shined a bright light on performance-enhancing drugs in MMA.

Unfortunately, what that bright light showed is that state athletic commissions aren't equipped to appropriately handle fighters failing drug tests. Sonnen showed up to a hearing of the California State Athletic Commission, said his high ratio of testosterone to epitestosterone was the result of doctor-prescribed testosterone replacement therapy, and was given a reduced suspension of six months. The California commission was clearly unprepared for the hearing, and it still isn't clear whether Sonnen and other fighters will be permitted to use testosterone with a doctor's note going forward.

Sonnen will be back in the Octagon in 2011, and there's a good chance that rematch with Silva will come soon. But the Sonnen-Silva rivalry will forever be clouded by Sonnen's positive drug test, and the use of performance-enhancing drugs will continue to be a major issue facing MMA -- at least until state athletic commissions can prove they're capable of policing the sport.

The other top stories of 2010:
2. UFC absorbs WEC: For years, Zuffa operated two mixed martial arts promotions, with the big boys in the UFC and the little guys in the WEC. Although WEC cards were consistently among the best in the business, it never really worked as a business: WEC fights didn't generate great ratings or big live gates, and the most common question that great WEC fighters like Urijah Faber would get was some variation of, "Why aren't you in the UFC?"

Next year, he will be. And so will Jose Aldo and Miguel Torres and Dominick Cruz and Anthony Pettis and all the other great WEC fighters who are worthy of a bigger platform. For them, the UFC ending its WEC experiment was a great thing.

It's not all good for MMA fans, however. For starters, the move means that Versus will carry less live MMA in 2011 than it did in 2010, with seven WEC and two UFC shows last year turning into just four UFC shows next year. It also means that there will be fewer great fights on basic cable. If you enjoyed seeing Dominick Cruz vs. Scott Jorgensen and Anthony Pettis vs. Ben Henderson for free at the end of this year, savor it. Next year, fights of that quality will be on pay-per-view.

3. Fits and starts for Strikeforce: Has Strikeforce put on some great fights this year? Yes. Has it also been a disappointment? Yes.

There's no arguing that there have been some phenomenal fights inside the Strikeforce cage this year, and they ended 2010 with a bang, as the promotion's Dec. 4 event was outstanding -- and much more exciting than the UFC event that was going on simultaneously.

Unfortunately, Strikeforce hasn't given fans enough phenomenal fights in 2010. Fedor Emelianenko fought only once. Alistair Overeem fought only once Fabricio Werdum fought only once. Gilbert Melendez fought only once. And CBS televised Strikeforce only once -- with a show that looked promising on paper but turned into a ratings disappointment.

Strikeforce is promising big things for 2011, but then again it promised big things for 2010, too. We'll see next year whether Strikeforce can establish itself as a strong No. 2 promotion behind the UFC, or if it continues to leave fans feeling like they deserve better.

4. Bellator keeps chugging along: Whereas Strikeforce feels like the promotion that promised big things with its talent but came up short inside the cage, Bellator is the opposite: They haven't spent big to acquire aging MMA legends, but they have acquired a good young stable of fighters and put on good shows for the (unfortunately) small crowds who have come out to watch.

Although the decision to sign some big, plodding heavyweights for an eight-man tournament in Season 3 was probably, in hindsight, a mistake, Bellator's second and third seasons in 2010 were full of good fights. And after fans were disappointed by the inconsistent scheduling offered by Bellator's television partner, Fox Sports Net, Bellator ended 2010 with the surprise announcement that it had secured a better TV deal with a bigger channel, MTV2.

There's no more important sign of MMA's growth than more promotions putting on more fights on television. Bellator is, so far anyway, doing things the right way and succeeding.

5. Changing face of the lightweight division: Think how much the lightweight division has changed in 2010. B.J. Penn has gone from undisputed champion to not even in the division anymore. Frankie Edgar has gone from lightly regarded challenger to impressive champion. Gray Maynard has gone from "boring wrestler" to No. 1 contender. Anthony Pettis has gone from virtually anonymous to highlight-reel star. Jim Miller and George Sotiropolous went from hardly in the discussion to potential title contenders. Efrain Escudero, Evan Dunham and Charles Oliveira all had turns as "next big thing," but all three suffered losses. And that's just what happened in Zuffa.

We also had Shinya Aoki coming over from Japan only to lose to Strikeforce's Gilbert Melendez. We had Roger Huerta entering the lightweight tournament -- and losing, then getting his superfight with Eddie Alvarez anyway -- and losing. We had the end of relevance for JZ Cavalcante, and thrilling knockouts for Maximo Blanco.

If the lightweight division in 2011 is anything like what it's been in 2010, we're in for a very good year.

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