Best of 2009: The Top 10 Stories in MMA

 It’s been quite a year in the world of MMA, and here at the Bang! we present our countdown of the 10 biggest stories to come down the pike in 2009.
10. New Year’s Eve brings rumors of Sengoku’s demise

 The MMA market in Japan has traditionally been the strongest, but has fallen on harder times since the collapse and Zuffa purchase of PRIDE in 2007. Despite this, Dream, Sengoku, and K-1 have continued the MMA game in Japan. However, rumors began surfacing over the summer than Sengoku was having some financial problems. Then, plans for a New Year’s Eve show were canceled due to their inability to secure a TV deal, as well as the loss of their primary sponsor, Don Quijote. Despite this, Sengoku officials claim that they will promote events into 2010. Even more suspicions were raised when Sengoku, Dream, and K-1 announced that they were all co-promoting Dynamite 2009!!!, the annual New Year’s Eve supercard. The event will feature 7 Dream vs. Sengoku match ups, the finals of the Dream Super Hulk tournament, the K-1 KOSHIEN 62kg Class Tournament, and the M-1 retirement match of kickboxing legend Masato. Overall, it is a card that should be a huge draw for any MMA fan, but on the flip side, raises serious questions about the stability of one of Japan’s biggest promotions.

9. Is the Iceman done?
Chuck Liddell’s spot in the annals of MMA history is very secure, but 2009 was not a banner year for the Iceman. In his only fight of the year, he was knocked out by Shogun Rua in April. Following the fight, he faced many questions about his future, promoting even Dana White to speculate that he had fought his last fight. Liddell participated in the latest season of Dancing with the Stars over the summer and recently signed on to coach the next season of the Ultimate Fighter, opposite Tito Ortiz. If TUF tradition is continued, then Chuck and Tito will meet for the third time following the show. If it is the final year for the Iceman in the Octagon, let’s hope that Liddell’s entire body of work is remembered and not just his last 2 KO losses. After all, Liddell is part of the reason that MMA is a big as it is today.
8. The Return of Tito Ortiz
After back surgery, a fallout with UFC president Dana White, and 18 months away, Tito Ortiz is back. The argument over whether he is still relevant will go on, especially after his split decision loss to Forrest Griffin at UFC 106 in November. But, for a large number of MMA fans, the result won’t matter. Tito Ortiz was MMA’s first mega-star following the emergence from the dark ages of the late 90’s and
early 2000’s. He’s been a draw in the mainstream sports media and has always been an engaging and interesting, if not cocky, personality. In December, the UFC announced that Tito would coach his second stint on TUF, facing off against fellow UFC legend Chuck Liddell. A renewal in training in Brazilian Ju-Jitsu may very well make 2010 a year of resurgence for the former UFC light heavyweight champion.
7. Top P4P’s, champions dominate
It has been a year that the best in the sport showed why they were. The four men generally considered to be the best pound-for-pound fighters in the game all had tremendous years and showed why they were so highly regarded.
Fedor: Little needs to be said about The Last Emperor. He is still the best in the sport, period. He finally opened America’s eyes in 2009, by dropping Brett Rogers in prime time on CBS in November. But he opened the year by dropping former UFC heavyweight champion Andrei Arlovski in
the first round of their January Affliction bout. A highly anticipated fight with Josh Barnett never happened due to Barnett’s positive steroids test. And if the MMA accolades weren’t enough, he also won the 2009 Russian Combat Sambo Championships at 100kg+. Overall, not a bad year for the best heavyweight in the game.
Silva: The Spider continued his dominance of the UFC middleweight division in 2009 by breaking the UFC record for consecutive title defenses when he defeated Thales Leites in April. The Leites win was his 9th successful defense. Silva’s held the belt since October 14, 2006. And if dominating one division wasn’t enough, he made a foray at light heavyweight, embarrassing Forrest Griffin at 101. He looked crisp, quick, and nimble against Griffin, something that was lacking in his past title defense. His performance fueled speculation that he would and should move up and take on the best at 205, Lyoto Machida. Unfortunately, he underwent elbow surgery which has pushed his next title defense against Vitor Belfort to April 2010.
GSP: Rush began 2009 in impressive fashion, stopping B.J. Penn’s quest to regain a 2nd belt at 94 with a 4th round corner stoppage. Then, he wore down Thiago Alves to earn a unanimous decision at 100 to retain the welterweight title. A groin injury kept him from a 3rd fight this year, but in both showings GSP looked dominating, controlling most of both fights. He looks to continue dominating all welterweight contenders when he defends his belt against Dan Hardy at 111 in March 2010.
Penn: The Prodigy continued his winning ways in the lightweight division with successful defenses over Kenny Florian and Diego Sanchez. He ran into a brick wall in the form of GSP in January, but looked to control both the Florian and Sanchez fights. He was explosive against Florian, taking little damage through 3 rounds of stand up before taking the fight to the ground and winning with a rear naked choke. Against Sanchez, Penn showed top-notch takedown defense, avoiding all 27 of Nightmare’s attempts to take him to the ground before finishing in the 5th round with a high kick that gashed open Sanchez, causing a doctor’s stoppage.
Overall, the fighters at the top of nearly everyone’s pound-for-pound lists dominated their respective division. Aside from each taking time to heal, all four should be in main event fights in the first quarter of 2010.
6. Rampage goes Hollywood, and comes back
On September 22, the former UFC light heavyweight champion announced in his blog that he was done fighting and would be concentrating on acting. As can be imagined, this caused quite the uproar and sent Dana White off in multiple mediums. Then on December 4, Rampage made a u-turn, saying he would return and finish his UFC contract. Rampage said he wants to shut up both White, and his opposing coach on his last stint on the Ultimate Fighter, Rashad Evans. The loss of Rampage, another massive fan favorite, was another blow to the scrambling UFC roster. White should be doing everything he can this time around to get as much out of Rampage’s remaining fights, knowing that he can’t count on Jackson to come back. White has said that if Evans beats Thiago Silva on January 2, the much-anticipated match-up between TUF coaches would finally happen.
5. Josh Barnett busted for PED’s…again
Over the summer, Josh Barnett was riding high once again. The former UFC Heavyweight champion was slated to face the top pound-for-pound fighter on the planet in Fedor Emelianenko in the main event of Affliction’s 3rd pay-per-view. It looked like The Baby Faced Assassin finally had the opportunity to redeem himself. Then, almost on cue, Barnett was suspended by the California State Athletic Commission ten days before the event for testing positive for anabolic steroids…for the 3rd time. The August 1st event was canceled because of the promotion’s inability to get another opponent for Fedor in time, although there may have been some other financial considerations. While the test surprised few, Barnett has permanently tarnished one of the most promising heavyweight careers in the history of MMA. Although he’s been granted the opportunity to appeal the positive test, Barnett’s future may be fighting in Japan exclusively as he will most likely never be welcome back in the UFC and Strikeforce may not want to jeopardize any momentum they’ve built in the American market with a known doper in a time when the American sports fan is highly critical of athletes using PEDs.
4. UFC bitten by the injury bug bad
Injuries have always been an issue in professional sports and of course, in MMA. 2009 seemed to be the worse year for the UFC when it comes to injuries, torpedoing a number of main events and contender fights. To compile a short list of guys who were forced to pull out of events for one reason or another in the latter half of the year was a bit of a task. The biggest was heavyweight champion Brock Lesnar having surgery for an intestinal disorder, putting him on the shelf indefinitely. Former lightweight champion Sean Sherk was forced to pull out of a 104 bout with Gleison Tibau, then dropped again from a scheduled bout at 108 with Rafaello Oliveria. Also pulling out of 108 is Carlos Condit and Gabriel Gonzaga because of a staph infection. Welterweight champion Georges St. Pierre was also on the shelf for part of 2009, suffering a groin injury after his victory over Thiago Alves at 100. While the injury wouldn’t require surgery, his next fight won’t be until March 2010. Middleweight champion Anderson Silva has surgery on his elbow following his dominance of Forrest Griffin at 101, pushing a title defense against Vitor Belfort back to April 2010. Staph infection also hit Antônio Rodrigo “Minotauro” Nogueira, keeping him from a bout with Cain Velazquez at 108. Mark Coleman was originally scheduled to fight Tito Ortiz in his comeback fight at 106, but was forced to pull out with a knee injury. Jon Fitch was originally scheduled to face Ricardo Alimeda on the 106 undercard, but Alimeda was forced out due to a knee injury. Then he was set to face Thiago Alves at 107, before Alves pulled out because of an injury. Todd Duffee was also hit, pulling out of his 107 fight with Paul Buentello. If anything, 2009 may be remembered as the year of the injury.
3. The Collapse of Affliction
As a promotion, Affliction seemed to have momentum on its side. Sporting an impressive heavyweight roster that included Fedor, former UFC champions Josh Barnett and Andrei Arlovski, as well as former UFC light heavyweight champ Vitor Belfort, Babalu, and Matt Lindland. The first PPV event in 2008 reported a $2+ million gate. And yet, all it took was one positive to bring it all crashing down. Josh Barnett’s positive steroid test ten days before the third event, Trilogy, was scheduled to take place sent the promotion into a tail spin. After a search to replace Barnett in the main event against Fedor, it was announced Vitor Belfort would more up to face the WAMMA heavyweight champion. Then they announced on July 24 that the event was canceled, leaving their 20+ man roster without fights or income. Affliction went back to being a UFC sponsor, Fedor opened talks with the UFC before agreeing with Strikeforce, Belfort went back to the UFC, and Barnett went back to oblivion. Never in the history of the sport had a promotion come close to challenging the UFC’s dominance in the American market and it will take a similar collection of talent to present another challenge.
Strikeforce is working on building the roster, but seems to be a far more stable promotion, providing hope for more serious competition in the American fight game.
2. UFC Heavyweight Champion Brock Lesnar sidelined with intestinal disorder
Dominant heavyweight champion Brock Lesnar handled Frank Mir to become the undisputed UFC heavyweight champion at 100 and was on his way to a highly anticipated showdown with top contender Shane Carwin at 104 before being stricken with diverticulitis, a painful intestinal condition. UFC president Dana White later revealed that Lesnar had been dealing with the disorder for a year. The fight with Carwin was pushed back to 106, and later to some point in 2010. Lesnar has undergone surgery for his illness and recently released a short video of him signing autographs. He looked smaller than his last appearance in the Octagon. Recently, White announced that Mir/Big Nog at 111 may be for an interim title. In a year when the UFC say many, many fights have been postponed, canceled, or changed, Lesnar’s loss is the biggest. Undoubtedly, Lesnar’s star is the brightest in the UFC, bridging the gap between the devoted MMA fans and the mainstream sports landscape. In a division where the UFC just came down off of more than a year of a clouded title picture, Lesnar’s loss clouds that picture once again. And since there is no timetable for his return, the title picture will be muddled until well into 2010. While the UFC can always promote a huge unification match when Lesnar returns, his loss, however long, has the ability to impact the UFC for months and leave it struggling to put together main events well into 2010.
1. Fedor comes to CBS
For years, the argument against whoever held the UFC Heavyweight title was that they were not the top heavyweight in MMA. Not as long as Fedor Emelianenko reigned supreme. The former Pride Heavyweight champion, and current WAMMA world heavyweight champion flirted with the UFC for a week in August before signing a three-fight deal with Strikeforce. The Last Emperor made his first appearance in a cage against the undefeated Brett Rogers on November 7 in Chicago, taking all Rogers had to offer, before ending the bout in the second round by TKO. While Fedor had fought on US soil before as part of the Pride and Affliction promotions, this was his largest exposure to an American audience. He left the 5+ million who tuned into CBS with answers to the question of why there was so much hype around him. Fedor is slated to face Fabrico Werdum on Strikeforce’s next CBS card on April 17, 2010. Whether or not that fight is for the Strikeforce heavyweight belt, which Alistar Overeem has not defended in more and two years, is irrelevant. Fedor = ratings. Period. And as long as they have him atop cards on network television, Strikeforce will be a threat to the UFC, all thanks to The Last Emperor.
More of our review of 2009, including our awards for 2009 coming this and next week.

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