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Top MMA storylines of 2018: 3. An historic trade, rise of non-UFC promotions

One Championship: Dynasty of Heroes Photo by Suhaimi Abdullah/Getty Images

Ben Askren had been trying to get into the UFC for years. Back in 2013, when he left Bellator as its undefeated welterweight champion, Askren was spurned. UFC president Dana White said publicly that Askren wasn’t ready for the UFC and he should go to a smaller promotion like World Series of Fighting to gain some more seasoning.

Undaunted, Askren didn’t give in to what very well might have been a White negotiating tactic. He went elsewhere, signing a pretty lucrative deal with Singapore’s ONE Championship.

Askren retired last year after seven fights with ONE, retaining his undefeated record and stepping away once again as champion. The days of hoping “Funky,” the former wrestling Olympian, would make it to the UFC seemed long gone.

Interest was renewed this year, though. Askren was still under contract with ONE, but CEO Chatri Sityodtong seemingly had an ace up his sleeve. Sityodtong and the UFC came to an unprecedented agreement — the first-ever trade of two fighters in the history of mixed martial arts. Askren thought the whole thing was preposterous at first.

“Is that legal?” Askren said he asked Sityodtong.

Indeed it was, at least in principle. ONE would ship Askren off to the UFC and in exchange the Asian promotion would get former longtime UFC flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson. In other words, ONE would release Askren and he would sign with the UFC; the UFC would release Johnson and he would sign with ONE.

And voila, an historic deal that could reverberate throughout MMA for a long time, perhaps opening the door for future transactions between promotions.

ONE was far from done in 2018 — Sityodtong hit the hot-stove league (to compare it to baseball’s offseason) hard. Weeks before the acquisition of Johnson, one of the best fighters of all time, ONE signed Eddie Alvarez, the former UFC lightweight champion and one of the most exciting fighters of his generation who has won titles all over the world. Johnson and Alvarez will both debut March 31 in Japan as part of grand prix tournaments in their respective divisions.

In addition to all that, ONE penned an agreement with “Super” prospect Sage Northcutt, who left the UFC for what he said was a lucrative offer with financial avenues outside of fighting. Northcutt, just 22 years old, was someone the UFC built well as a future star and it was surprising to see him bolt on a three-fight winning streak, seemingly just starting to figure out his potential.

All this moving and shaking came shortly after $166 million financing round for ONE, led by investment firm Sequoia Capital. ONE didn’t waste much time attempting to make a major jump after incremental growth since being founded in 2011.

To cap the year, ONE signed a multi-year distribution deal with Turner Sports, which will put the promotion on the Bleacher Report Live streaming service next year with shoulder programming on TNT.

While ONE made the splashiest additions, the promotion was not the only one outside the UFC that found success in 2018.

In June, Bellator announced a nine-figure, multi-year distribution deal with budding streaming service DAZN. The California-based promotion sold the rights to its welterweight grand prix tournament to the digital service. With that deal and other solid moves, Bellator is set to double its revenue this year, per Bloody Elbow’s John Nash.

In the cage, Bellator had a strong year with several memorable events, including a back-to-back nights of fights in Hawaii earlier this month. In the Bellator 213 main event, Ilima-Lei Macfarlane retained the Bellator women’s flyweight title over UFC veteran Valerie Letourneau by second-round submission in front of a sold-out crowd at Blaisdell Arena in Honolulu.

Bellator 206 was a big card, headlined by a superfight between middleweight champion Gegard Mousasi and welterweight champ Rory MacDonald. And the Bellator Heavyweight World Grand Prix has been a success, highlighted by back-to-back cards in the New York area that saw Fedor Emelianenko and Ryan Bader advance to the tournament finals, which is set for Jan. 26 in Inglewood, Calif. Meanwhile, the promotion also made major inroads in Europe.

ONE and Bellator were not alone. There were big stories all over the MMA world in 2018, not just in the UFC. Rizin will close out its year with Floyd Mayweather — yes, that Floyd Mayweather — taking on 20-year-old kickboxing phenom Tenshin Nasukawa in an exhibition bout on New Year’s Eve. Former UFC title challenger Kyoji Horiguchi will fight Darrion Caldwell, the Bellator bantamweight champion, on that card, too.

PFL began its inaugural season in June and will crown six champions — all of whom will win $1 million — on New Year’s Eve in New York. Viewership wasn’t strong on NBC Sports Network for PFL, but there is a good amount of investment behind the promotion and the athletes are being paid well. Two-time Olympic gold medalist in judo Kayla Harrison is set for a breakout year and MMA stardom in 2019.

Combate Americas, Invicta FC and LFA continued to put on quality events in 2018 and seem very solid heading into the new year. Titan FC expanded to Kazakhstan. Poland’s KSW has some of the best production and pageantry in combat sports right now and Brave CF out of Bahrain is on the come up. ACB unfortunately tied itself late in the year to Chechen warlord Ramzan Kadyrov, whose region is being sanctioned by the United Nations for human rights abuses.

One of the biggest non-UFC stories over the last few months was the return of Chuck Liddell to the cage. He fought his longtime rival — and fellow UFC Hall of Famer — Tito Ortiz under the Golden Boy MMA banner in November. It was Oscar De La Hoya’s boxing promotion’s first try at mixed martial arts and it was mostly panned, with no louder critic than Dana White. Many felt Liddell should not have been fighting at 48 years old after eight years away with a history of violent knockout losses. Ortiz ended up knocking Liddell out in the first round to get his first victory over his fellow legend in three outings.

De La Hoya has vowed to continue on with more Golden Boy MMA cards next year, despite the criticisms. He said he wants his promotion to be an alternative to the UFC where fighters can make more money, though the purses for the November card were not impressive.

It will be interesting to see if Golden Boy’s presence and the added money from streaming services — Golden Boy, Bellator, KSW, Combate Americas, Fight Nights Global, EFC and ROAD FC have relationships with DAZN — will lead to a buyer’s market when it comes to free agency in 2019.

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