Biggest MMA stories of 2011
The UFC's debut in Toronto on April 29, held at the cavernous Rogers Centre, was headlined by ultra-popular Montreal native Georges St-Pierre successfully defending his welterweight title against Jake Shields. UFC Hall of Famer Randy Couture, who'd made his Octagon debut in 1997, also bid farewell to a historic 30-fight career. When the final numbers were tallied, Zuffa announced 55,724 attendees for a whopping $12.075 million gate -- more than double the 23,152 spectators it had drawn for UFC 124 in 2010 and the previous record-setting $5,397,300 gate it had earned for UFC 66 in Las Vegas in 2006.
Zuffa visited Toronto one more time this year with UFC 140 in December, though it was far less ambitious the second time around. UFC 140, held at the smaller Air Canada Centre sans St. Pierre as the headliner, attracted 18,303 fans for a live gate of $3.9 million, according to the promotion.
With the game-changing purchase, speculation immediately turned to Zuffa's plans for Strikeforce. The promotion had learned a costly lesson when it tried to cultivate a second brand in World Extreme Cagefighting from 2007 to 2010, and many feared Strikeforce would share the same fate once the promotion completed its broadcast agreement with Showtime in early 2012. Zuffa fueled further conjecture as it cherry-picked three Strikeforce champions for its own UFC brand over the next year.
Still, on Dec. 15, Zuffa and Showtime jointly announced that they'd reached an extension to air 6-8 Strikeforce-branded shows in 2012. Acknowledging public outcry, the potential-laden 135- and 145-pound women's divisions will remain in place, but once the heavyweight tournament reaches its conclusion in March and its winner gets a victory lap with one more fight on the premium pay cable channel, Strikeforce will say goodbye to the big boys -- a move, no doubt, to consolidate an anemic division for the sport overall.
At the UFC Fighter Summit in May, the promotion announced another social media initiative through Twitter, where fighters would be awarded $5,000 prizes for picking up the most followers or writing the most creative tweets.
According to the promotion, the 14,000-seat HSBC Arena was sold to capacity within 74 minutes of tickets hitting general sale, leaving Zuffa to wonder why it hadn't chosen a bigger venue. Pre-fight events and activities for fans leading up to the show were well attended; most wanted to catch a glimpse of long-reigning UFC middleweight champion and countryman Anderson Silva, who'd reached iconic celebrity status there right under the U.S. fans' noses.
By the end of fight night, many Brazilian favorites had triumphed and patrons were champing at the bit for the next installment. With UFC 142 scheduled for Jan. 14 at the same venue and Brazilian edition of
Zuffa and Fox did a test-run of its quarterly-show model in November, and though the Cain Velasquez-Junior dos Santos heavyweight title bout lasted only 64 seconds, that one minute peaked with 8.8 million viewers -- besting a 2008 EliteXC headliner on CBS for the most-watched fight (live or taped). By December, Zuffa had announced and booked bouts for one live event on Fuel in February, two more on FX in January and March and its second network telecast Jan. 28 on Fox.
Carlos Condit was plucked from the UFC 137 co-main event to face St-Pierre instead, though St-Pierre would withdraw from the bout in mid-October with a knee injury. Diaz was later reassigned as the headliner to face B.J. Penn, whom he beat soundly enough to prompt the UFC to give him another title shot ahead of Condit at UFC 143 in February. However, St-Pierre announced in December that he'd need ACL surgery, which would shelve him for 10-12 months. As the year comes to a close, Diaz and Condit are training to face off for the UFC interim welterweight championship on Feb. 4 in Las Vegas.
Middleweights Mark Munoz and Chris Leben competed in the first five-round, non-title headlining bout in promotional history at UFC 138 in Birmingham, England, in November, though Munoz needed only two rounds to coax out a stoppage. The real payoff came at UFC 139 in November, when former champions Mauricio "Shogun" Rua and Dan Henderson delivered a top-three, fight-of-the-year candidate with 25 minutes of bell-to-bell, back-and-forth action.