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MMA execs have eyes on multiple prizes as calendar turns to 2011

Fight people work in a constant now, so that if you ask a lot of them what the stories of the coming year are likely to be you get a lot of dead silence, followed by hasty improvisations on the angles they happen to have interests in. Once you get past the angles, all the talk is of growth and expansion. Mixed martial arts has attained a state like that of the American economy. It needs constant growth just to meet its obligations.

"Global expansion," says Marc Ratner, UFC's vice president of regulatory affairs, when asked what will matter in 2011. "We're going to Brazil, we've opened up an office in China, we're talking to some of the Scandanavian countries, talking to the sports minister of Italy, and France."

This is a prudent strategy. Despite recent success -- led by two Brock Lesnar title defenses and a grudge match between Rampage Jackson and Rashad Evans, the promotion's pay-per-view cards sold better this year than ever before -- sour times are affecting revenues. Keith Kizer of the Nevada commission estimates that gates for big fights are down by a quarter compared to where they would have been two or three years ago. (Which at least beats boxing, where gates are down by up to two-thirds.) Mounting cards before moneyed locals in such exotic locales as Australia, Brazil and the United Arab Emirates is in the end a way of hedging against a domestic slump.

The road to real growth, though, leads to New York, one of four commission states in which MMA is illegal. As capital of finance, journalism and, especially, advertising, that state's elites are the ones who can make MMA's brightest stars as wealthy as they deserve to be, but they're not going to do it until they understand the sport, and they're not going to understand the sport until they see it at first hand.

"New York is square in our sights," says Ratner, who has been saying as much for quite some time. "We have to do more education, talk to assemblymen, talk to state senators, get it out of the committees, and get it to a vote."

Frank Shamrock, the great champion who was on the scene at the very moment MMA was banned in New York in 1998 just before he was set to fight there -- he had to pack a bag, pick a corner man and hightail to Alabama -- is planning to decamp to New York soon, and give a lecture similar to those he's given to big-wigs in California and Nevada in the past.

"I tell them the truth," he says, "which is that it's a lifestyle. it's a community lifestyle that's a very positive one, that's a very important one. Our country just didn't have it for many years. What we did get was a little bit of Bruce Lee and television. Now we're the creators of a brand new sport. We have an American martial art; we just don't know it, and no one's presenting it. Martial arts saved my life. I was in prison, headed further. It's the way, that shows you what to do and how to live your life."

Whether Shamrock's mysticism or UFC's more prosaic approach (its parent company, Zuffa, donated $75,000 to the campaign of incoming governor Andrew "The Lesser" Cuomo this year) proves more effective, MMA stands a decent chance in New York. Influential if relatively powerless Assemblyman Bob Reilly, who's become mildly famous among fight fans for his disdain for the sport, puts the odds of legalization at 50 per cent. That isn't bad.

Structural factors aside, what drives growth are fights fans want to see, and the one everyone is waiting for would match the consensus two best pound-for-pound fighters in the world, UFC's middleweight champion Anderson Silva and welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre, in a bout with equal chances of being the best of all time or a debacle that would remind everyone why the sport runs weight classes.

This fight has good odds of actually happening. St-Pierre has slowly been gaining weight for quite some time and a move to middleweight seems inevitable, while word from Silva's camp has mainly to do with such variables as whether the bout would be fought at a catchweight or for the title. One clear thing is that whether or not the fight delivers, the hype will.

"Anderson Silva, pound for pound, any pound, I don't care what you want to call it, says his manager, Ed Soares. "He is the Michael Jordan of our sport. He's the Muhammad Ali of MMA."

Further, Silva "is a victim of his own success. His first seven fights in the UFC didn't get out of the second round, so now if he doesn't finish a guy in the first two rounds he's screwing around, or maybe he's lost something.

"What people are forgetting is that he's been a champion for over four years. He's got 12 consecutive wins in the UFC, and only two have gone to decision. Let's compare someone. Who's the other guy that they say is the king of MMA? It's Georges St-Pierre. Look at his last 12 fights, and tell me how many have gone to decision. I can't remember the last fight that Georges St-Pierre fought in that didn't go to decision. But yet he's praised. I don't get it. I don't understand."

Something no one understands is what exactly is going on with Strikeforce's heavyweight division. In theory, the division should be a big deal. With control of, among others, Alistair Overeem, Fedor Emelianenko and Fabricio Werdum, the only man ever to fairly defeat Emelianenko, the promotion's fighters number perhaps half the top 10 heavyweights in the world, and properly promoted they could help make Strikeforce into the proper competition to the UFC that it hasn't quite been over the past few years. Difficulties, though -- injuries, the apparent unwillingness of several stars to commit to MMA or to decent fights, and so on -- have made it a hot mess.

That there have been rumors on the internets that 2011 will see a heavyweight Grand Prix -- a three-round, eight-man elimination tournament -- is thus encouraging. Criticism of the rumored field is valid -- why include Josh Barnett, an unlicensed fighter? why Sergei Kharitonov, 1-1 over the last three years? -- but misses the point, which is that a tournament would offer the prospect of Emelianenko taking three real fights in one year, something that hasn't happened since 2004.

Strikeforce promoter Scott Coker is cryptic on the subject, but does allow this: "By the end of the year, Fedor will fight Alistair, Alistair will fight Fabricio, and Fabricio will probably have a rematch against Fedor at that point. These guys are all going to fight each other."

Past Silva, St-Pierre and Emelianenko, the three most interesting fighters in the sport right now are a trio of UFC properties, none yet near his potential.

First is the heavyweight champion, Cain Velasquez. Even coming off his terrifying demolition of Lesnar in October, people may not yet realize just how good he is. A statistic might help: According to Fight Metric's Rami Genauer, the difference between the number of strikes he lands and takes per minute is the best in UFC history, at 6.01. The number two man is at 4.28. Good luck to Junior dos Santos, who will have his shot at Velasquez in Toronto this April.

Second is featherweight champion Jose Aldo Jr., whom Soares describes succinctly as "Anderson Silva's mini-me." While you can't crown him best in the world right now simply because he hasn't faced anything like the competition Silva and St-Pierre have, on sheer skill he may be exactly that. Between his size and the difficulties other top Brazilian fighters have had connecting with American crowds, he may not become a star of the level his talent would allow. But then, he might.

Third is Jon Jones, the light heavyweight prodigy who's spent the last two years shredding tough veterans like Stephan Bonnar and Brandon Vera and will, with a win in his Feburary bout against The Ultimate Fighter winner Ryan Bader, presumably enter the title picture. Bob Cook of American Kickboxing Academy, possibly the best camp in the States, names watching Jones' ascension as the single thing he's most excited about for 2011. "For Jones, athletically," he says, "there's no comparison."

Jones-Bader, as a fight matching two high-level wrestlers, might be most interesting for something other than its implications for the careers of two bright prospects. A recent trend, exemplified by St-Pierre's recent title defense against Josh Koscheck and Velasquez's destruction of Lesnar, has seen top wrestlers working the striking game, not necessarily because they especially want to bang but because the art has become so refined that it cancels out at the top level.

As Coker puts it, "In the early 1990s, you saw all the jiu jitsu guys winning, because no one knew jiu jitsu. Now, all the stand up guys from the mid nineties to the late nineties started studying jiu jitsu, and so you had fighters that were good at stand up and good at grappling. Then in the very late nineties, you started seeing guys like Coleman and Kerr and Randleman. All the Olympic quality wrestlers came into MMA, and guys said, 'Oh my God.'

"By the turn of 2000 to 2001, you had all these jiu jitsu guys saying, 'We've got to learn wrestling, we've got to learn wrestling.' Now, I think you're seeing a resurgence of the striking more than ever, because if you're a great wrestler and I'm a great wrestler, guess what? We're not going to be able to take each other down, or we're not going to be able to keep each other down. So the striking becomes more important, because the wrestling kind of negates itself."

Working against that is what might, in the end, be the most important story of 2011: Rising awareness of the danger of head trauma in sports. Recent research into chronic traumatic encephalopathy -- the disease once known as being punch-drunk -- has revealed that it takes far less damage to start the irreversible deterioration of axons than was once thought. Despite some encouraging new developments such as the Cleveland Clinic offering free medical evaluations to fighters in Nevada, though, MMA has simply not addressed new findings with anything like the seriousness they demand.

Chris Nowinski of the Sports Legacy Institute, whose advocacy on these issues is a main reason why the NFL has cracked down on helmet-to-helmet contact, suggests that dramatic changes in sparring practices are probably needed to prevent fighters from suffering from degenerative brain damage the way generations of boxers have. Those might lead to less refined striking technique, and ultimately less exciting fights. They would also lead, even more than the rise in pay that will come with expansion into new markets and the making of new stars and the rise in the level of competition that comes with the evolution of new strategies, to a sport worthy of the excellence of its best athletes.

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