The first year of a landmark deal between the UFC and FOX Sports Media Group, the cancellation of UFC 151 and all of its unseemly aftermath, two scrapped Strikeforce events and its projected demise, Alistair Overeem and Nick Diaz's drug follies, and Ronda Rousey and women's MMA's meteoric rise will be among the headlines that defined 2012.
There were other stories that spoke to the sport's evolving identity in 2012. MMA fighters were interpreted through artistic visions, recognized by advocacy groups (in a good way), and shared personal experiences that humanized a sport in need of it. Barbara Walters had her list and I have mine: the 10 most intriguing people I came across in MMA this year.
1. Steven Soderbergh finds art in bloody noses and chokeholds. Academy-Award winning director Steven Soderbergh (Traffic, Erin Brockovich) was flipping through the channels when he first laid eyes on Gina Carano. Having never watched MMA before, Soderbergh would have probably kept channel-surfing if not for this young woman, her raven-colored hair pulled back tight in cornrows against a gorgeous face with a fire in her eyes. "She had incredible presence and she seemed like a really unique combination of elements," said Soderbergh. Beauty amidst controlled brutality. Soderbergh had found his next muse, and in one fell swoop, whisked away one of the sport's greatest attractions.
Haywire, which was released in January to generally positive reviews, starred Carano as a scorned black ops soldier gone rogue to try and clear her name in a frame-up. Carano shot nearly all her own stunts and fight scenes, all them stylized, moody and MMA-inspired. She chokes Michael Fassbender out between her muscular, nylons-ripped legs on a hotel-room floor before she snuffs him out with a silenced revolver through a pillow. In the film's final fight scene, Carano flies through the air with a superwoman punch that connects flush with Ewan MacGregor's chin before she leaves him for dead on a deserted beach at sunset.
But it's Soderbergh's exploration of women as fighters, trying to survive in a male-driven world, which might be a harbinger of things to come for women's MMA in 2013.
Up Next: For Soderbergh, what award-winning moviemakers do: Side Effects, a psychological thriller starring Rooney Mara and if you can believe it, a Liberace TV biopic starring Michael Douglas and Matt Damon. Carano's dance card is full through 2013 with the release of The Fast and the Furious 6 in May and shooting another lead role in the action thriller InThe Blood. A return to MMA is not on her immediate horizon.
2. Amanda Lucas can't fight the force. It's not everyday you get to interview the offspring of one of THE most famous people in the world, especially through the niche sport of MMA -- but the daughter of Star Wars creator George Lucas found herself fighting for her first title in Japan last January and all eyes were on her.
Lucas started training in 2008 as a way to stay in shape and fell in love with the sport's nuances and the challenges it posed. She kept her identity a secret from her trainers at first, and then from promoters, but the cat was out of the bag after a disastrous debut loss in Australia made national news. From there, Lucas and her husband waded a minefield of shady promoters until she booked a fight for Deep, a regional show in Japan that offered women's bouts.
She was apprehensive of the misguided attention that would come from being part of sci-fi's royal family and not her fighting, but took her newfound celebrity in graceful stride. Lucas politely squabbled with Deep on her boundaries when it came to exploiting her father's achievements. In her first fight, the promotion cued up Star Wars-themed entrance music without her permission and later tried to convince her to take Darth Vader as a cornerman for her championship bout. The promotion won out a little in the end; Darth Vader and his Storm Troopers magically appeared beside Lucas in her victory pictures after she beat aging, pro-wrestler Yumiko Hotta in an open-weight title bout at Deep 57.
Lucas, who has designs to settle in the 145 and 155-pound divisions to open up more opportunities in the States, is still a work in progress when it comes to her skills and for now, her story will be more about how she handles herself as she tries to step out of the gargantuan shadow cast by her father. So far, so good.
Up next: Lucas' first title defense this January and a stint on Robot Combat League, a SyFy channel competition show where athletes man their mechanical fighters via motion-sensory technology from the sidelines, a la Real Steel. Robot Combat League debuts on Feb. 26.
3. Tim Kennedy and the blight of Strikeforce limbo. When I interviewed Strikeforce middleweight contender Tim Kennedy in February, nearly a year had passed since UFC owners had purchased the rival promotion for around $40 million. Zuffa had a revised broadcast deal with Showtime in place to air six to eight events a year, but the relationship between the two companies was showing signs of deterioration. There were control issues over the creative end, an area both entities thought they were more than capable of running. And the Strikeforce fighters -- at least the ones who hadn't been cherry-picked by Zuffa to fight in the UFC, became unwitting pawns between promotion and broadcaster.
In 2012, no fighters were forsaken as much as the ones who were sentenced to Strikeforce limbo. They were unjustly looked down upon by UFC fighters and fans, and made to feel like second-class citizens. Kennedy, Luke Rockhold and others bravely struggled to convey these frustrations without angering their employers, attempting to salvage what they could of their stalled careers. It was hard not to feel something for Kennedy and his Strikeforce comrades. They'd done nothing wrong.
But the truth is Zuffa did far less than their norm to promote Strikeforce events, seemingly resolute to let the brand diminish in value slowly, like air escaping from a deflating tire. The fans took that cue and the live gates dwindled. By the end of the year, with two Strikeforce events cancelled amidst squabbling and posturing, the MMA community practically demanded that Zuffa and Showtime dissolve their partnership and set the innocent fighters free. After a January 12 show, rumored to be Strikeforce's last, it looks like that might happen.
4. Dr. Ann Maria DeMars, mother to the most famous female fighter in the world. It was hoped that the void left by Gina Carano would eventually be filled, but nobody expected it to happen so quickly. In March, Ronda Rousey put her money where her mouth is, backing up tough talk that had propelled her into a title bout some argued she didn't deserve yet with a champion-making turn. Five armbar finishes in five fights, all of them in the first round: women's MMA finally had its ace.
The avalanche of attention Rousey drew shortly afterward topped even what Carano had received. Accumulating magazine covers, talk-show appearances, and even TV specials dedicated solely on her, it was the kind of attention that the UFC couldn't afford to ignore. By November, Rousey was signed to a UFC contract.
I interviewed Rousey at her mother's home in early February, a few weeks before the fight that would change everything. Rousey was a bundle of emotion and vulnerability in an edgy, rockstar package. But it was her mother, Dr. Ann Maria DeMars, who was unlike any other parent I'd met in the sport before. Many of Rousey's qualities could be traced back to her mother, the first woman to win a world judo championship, but DeMars also had a certain confident wisdom that only comes from being a serious competitor. DeMars wasn't just Ronda's mother; she was her rock when self-doubt came creeping in, an athlete who'd already been there, experienced it herself and could talk about it with her daughter.
Most interestingly, though, was DeMars' skepticism of MMA and what it could do for her daughter's future.
"I really didn't have that good of a grasp of how big of a sport MMA is," said DeMars, a Ph.D. who runs a computer statistics firm out of Los Angeles, "and taking a look at it now that Ronda's involved, it seems like it's growing."
DeMars worries a little less about her daughter sustaining a good living from her fighting these days. (Rousey's UFC contract is reportedly an eight-fight deal and sponsorship money will likely be generous.) What DeMars is more concerned about is the price of celebrity, which includes one's loss of privacy and freedom.
"Every single thing [a celebrity] does is scrutinized, for good or bad," said DeMars. "If you're the average 25-year-old and you go out to a Christmas party and drink more than you should, you're one among a million who did something they shouldn't have done. You don't get your picture on a thousand different websites with everyone critiquing every little thing about you. That does worry me, but she's handling it pretty well. The staying-out-of-trouble part she's done pretty well and she hasn't picked up any loser boyfriends."
Up next: DeMars will release her first instructional book, Winning On The Ground, co-written with proven Olympic coach Jim Pedro, Sr., in 2013. Daughter Ronda makes cameos throughout.
5. Jessica Aguilar comes out on bisexuality. In May, Jessica Aguilar rose to the top of the women's 115-pound rankings by taking out Megumi Fujii at Bellator 69, but it was the six-year veteran's admission of bisexuality that made more take notice. The 30-year-old Aguilar, who noted her personal struggles with her mother's inability to accept her daughter's sexual orientation, was immediately praised on gay and lesbian websites like Advocate.com and Outsports. She was later contacted by LGBT organizations for potential appearances in 2013, signed with a sports management group in July, and has garnered additional sponsorship interest.
"I want to get more involved in the gay and lesbian community," said Aguilar, who has at least three fights remaining on her Bellator contract. ""Not only do I feel more comfortable talking about it, I think it will be something good for me and the sport, so people can talk more freely about their sexual preference."
Up next: Anticipating that Bellator will shift focus away from its 115-pound division in 2013 and possibly dissolve it, Aguilar has her sights set on a 125-pound tournament that will air this year on Spike TV.
6. The real Jon Jones. The only person to make my list whom I actually didn't interview, you have to wonder about Jon Jones and the bizarre year he had. In May, the 25-year-old light heavyweight champion was involved in a single-car accident driving while intoxicated in upstate New York, where he resides. He'd had two non-relative female passengers with him at the time. Detractors had a field day with the details.
By the end of the summer, UFC president Dana White was at war with Jones, placing full blame on the fighter for the cancellation of UFC 151 over Labor Day Weekend. White claimed Jones had forced the promotion to scrap the event because he'd turned down a fight with Chael Sonnen, a replacement challenger for the injured Dan Henderson who hadn't fought in the division for years and certainly didn't deserve a title shot. Jones was already a polarizing champion on his own; with White doing everything to sully Jones' name in the fans' eyes, the champion stood little chance.
Even if Jones was just looking out for himself, he should have been praised more for protecting the fragile integrity of the sport that Zuffa has suddenly forgotten had mattered, even though it had painstakingly worked to build it over the last decade. Maybe then Jones wouldn't have caved to the title fight with Sonnen when White offered it again later, with TUF coaching appearances now attached to the deal. By the time word had leaked that Jones had secured a Nike deal -- the first pro fighter to do so -- fans weren't celebrating the milestone achievement, but debating if it should be taken away.
With Jones, I always feel like we're missing something as bystanders to his life. Fans tend not to like him -- they just don't buy the good-guy image his handlers work so hard to perpetuate. His coach Greg Jackson says Jones is just misunderstood, that he's a good kid. If that's true, and I'd like to believe it is, the message has somehow got jumbled along the way. Jones' image seems too manufactured for its own good.
Over the summer, I re-watched a well-produced feature show done by Fox on Jones' road to his championship bout against Mauricio "Shogun" Rua in March 2011. At the end of it, Jones lamented that winning the title had been the hard part and now things would get easier. I'd like to ask Jones about this statement and his tumultuous 2012, but Jones remains muzzled most of the time. And when he does speak, it's usually in a controlled setting. Someday, I'd like to hear from the real Jones, warts and all. I suspect that Jones will find more acceptance from the fans than the version of Jones we're getting now.
7. Julie Kedzie shines light on eating disorder. It's hard to tell from Julie Kedzie's bubbly exterior that she's battled bulimia for over a decade, but she shared her greatest fight -- that of her very survival -- on the eve of her 135-pound contender's bout against Meisha Tate in Strikeforce last August. It had started at age 18, brought on by the emotional distress of her parent's divorce and a chemical imbalance that came from taking cystic-acne medication, Kedzie believes.
Thirteen years later, Kedzie credits the confidence and purpose she gained with MMA in keeping her still-palpable urges to binge and purge at bay. However, it's a fine line in the sport, said Kedzie, who believes the eating disorder is a lot more prevalent then some would like to believe.
"I've seen a lot of other female fighters talk about it a little more freely. Maybe I broke the ice," said Kedzie, who lost to Tate but gained more fan notoriety for her courage in and out of the cage. "It's pretty prevalent in the sport and not just with the females."
On a personal level, Kedzie, who's been dubbed "The Lucille Ball of MMA" by her longtime coach Greg Jackson, said her admission has been a freeing experience.
"I felt I had to hide it because I was afraid it would be viewed as a weakness, said Kedzie. "I don't feel like it's like a weakness anymore. I'm no longer ashamed of it."
Up next: Kedzie, who suffered a 360-degree labrum tear in the Tate bout and underwent surgery this fall, will play the waiting game with a handful of other Strikeforce female fighters hoping to get picked up by Zuffa for the UFC's just introduced women's division. She'll commentate her third Invicta all-women's show in January alongside longtime analyst Mauro Ranallo.
8. Bas Rutten realizes American Dream with a Boom. It only took him 17 years, but former UFC heavyweight champion Bas Rutten finally achieved his American dream to become a movie star with a co-starring role in Here Comes The Boom, Kevin James's cinematic love letter to MMA, released in October.
The role was tailor-made for Rutten, a former UFC champion and larger-than-life Dutch immigrant whose speech is accompanied by a zany sound-effects track that makes him sound funnier than crazier. A longtime friend and MMA coach to James, Rutten might have gotten the part because of who he knew, but nailing it on-screen was all his own doing. Variety called Rutten "a gift" to the film and FoxNews.com said he stole scene after scene with his "lowbrow, bear-hugging charm."
Before Boom, Rutten dabbled with fighting (he was an international martial arts star before hitting the States), but finding a way to make people laugh was always the endgame. He took acting classes, and gathered bit parts in action films and low-budget comedies along the way. Rutten also remained a well-respected figure in MMA by becoming one of its most coveted fight commentators and a host on the longrunning Inside MMA show on AxisTV. As an interview subject, it doesn't get much more entertaining than Rutten, whose upbeat energy and appealing confidence is rarely matched in MMA.
Up next: After watching his performance in Boom, Rutten was promptly signed by William Morris Endeavor, which looks to land him roles in everything from action films to TV sitcoms in 2013. "I wish more people had seen [Boom], like [Quentin] Tarantino," said the 47-year-old Rutten. "I'd love to work with him." Mr. Tarantino, your next discovery awaits.
9. Georges St-Pierre and the return worth the wait. In November, Georges St-Pierre showed us how it's done. Following major knee surgery that kept him out of the Octagon for nineteen months, the UFC welterweight champion rode back into the sport on a white horse in the nick of time. He wouldn't let himself fall victim to ring rust and he didn't make excuses to fall back on later should he lose. There was no lip service, no contractual dramas. He simply performed his job well with a top-level performance over game interim titleholder Carlos Condit and reminded many of us of what we'd been missing in MMA.
St-Pierre grew up in this sport. He had his first UFC fight almost nine years ago at the age of 22. I remember the boyish St-Pierre who hadn't quite realized his immense potential yet and he's evolved into a man who doesn't squander an ounce of it, if he can help it.
In my interview with the 31-year-old French Canadian before UFC 154, St-Pierre refused to linger on the low points of his surgery and the grueling rehabilitation that followed. He didn't want pity and he refused to go to a negative place with his thinking, no matter where my questioning led him. He'd made that mistake in the past and paid the price with his title. No interview or insightful story was worth letting that happen again and I had to respect that. For better or worse, St-Pierre is as close to the elite professional athletes we see in other sports as it gets. He keeps his private life separate from his job, and there's a lot of intrigue in that. Still, every now and then, he let's his guard down. That's when that boyish charm comes out again, which always brings a smile to my face.
10. Junior dos Santos wants to tell you his story. One of the drawbacks of the sport's far-reaching international roots is the difficulty that comes with interviewing non-English-speaking fighters -- some of them UFC champions who'd get as much ink as their counterparts if only communication were easier. Some fighters try to learn English or managers do their best as translators, but it's never the same as conversing in one's first language.
UFC heavyweight champion Junior dos Santos has taken his reign very seriously. He's strived to improve his English continuously and through the marvels of modern technology, I was able to interview him face to face -- he in his native Brazil one late night and me in California -- via video Skype. Dos Santos' bilingual manager was the third member of our video feed, stepping in when necessary to translate the champion's more detailed responses for a feature story that will run later this month on SI.com.
Dos Santos opened up about his strained relationship with his father for the first time and offered a more vivid picture of his upbringing among Brazil's impoverished class. We all laughed as Dos Santos reminisced about the good times and listened silently as the 28-year-old conjured up painful memories about the bad ones.
Dos Santos is one of the more personable champions in the sport's recent history, not spoiled by fame and fortune or guarded and removed because a manager tells him that's the way a professional athlete should be. If he can keep on winning -- not an easy task with a Cain Velasquez rematch forthcoming at UFC 155 on Dec. 29 -- he has the potential to become the next positive role model in the sport who truly connects with the fans.