1. Zuffa shatters records with 55,000-seat sellout at UFC 129 in Toronto. Mixed martial arts turned more than a few heads in the new year, when the Ultimate Fighting Championship's parent company, Zuffa LLC, announced in mid-February that it had sold out its entire 55,000-ticket inventory for UFC 129 in Toronto within minutes of making it available to the general public. To date, only one other MMA promotion in North America had broken through the 20,000-attendee ceiling (K-1's overly ambitious Dynamite!! USA recorded 42,757 spectators at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in 2007), while the No. 2 promotion, Strikeforce, had peaked with 18,265 fans in 2006.
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.
2. UFC takes out top competitor with Strikeforce purchase. In the shocker of the year, fans worldwide spit out their coffee in unison one Saturday morning in mid-March when Zuffa announced that it had acquired full ownership of rival outfit Strikeforce. The rumored $40 million deal, which included more than 100 fighter contracts, came in response to Silicon Valley Sports & Entertainment's decision to sell its 50 percent share of the San Jose-based promotion. Strikeforce CEO Scott Coker, who had the remaining ownership, fielded other potential suitors to take over Silicon's share, but none came to fruition.
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.
3. Zuffa finds the power and perils in social media push. It was a master stroke in January when the UFC reached a deal with social-media giant Facebook to live-stream undercard bouts for free throughout the year in exchange for the simple click of a "like" button. Like all of Zuffa's online pursuits, the streamed fights were top-quality fare -- commentary from Mike Goldberg and Joe Rogan included -- and a perfect advertisement for the main-card fights that followed on TV or pay-per-view. By December, more than 7 million people had "liked" the UFC page, and boxing promoters were adopting the same model to lure in fans as well.
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. The Ultimate Fighter winner Forrest Griffin won the creative bonus in early November, then enraged sexual abuse advocates by tweeting that "Rape is the new missionary" a week later. Less than a month after that, former WEC champion Miguel Torres tweeted another insensitive rape "observation," and only hours later, former UFC lightweight champion Rashad Evans tried to make the Penn State child sex abuse scandal a punchline during a live press conference. The next day, Torres, the least consequential to the UFC, was fired. Afterward, UFC president Dana White adamantly stated that Zuffa wouldn't institute a code of conduct for its fighters to curtail instances like these from happening again.
4. Zuffa implements health coverage for 350-fighter roster. In another first for the sport, the world's leading MMA promotion began offering medical and accident insurance for its 300-plus-fighter roster in May. Fighters, hired by promotions as independent contractors, had previously been covered for event-related injuries only, if that. Zuffa's additional "training insurance" provided coverage during out-of-competition periods, and included emergency services and even dental benefits. Zuffa said it would pay 100 percent of all premiums and would dedicate an employee to processing claims. In the wake of the Strikeforce purchase and with whispers of "monopoly" in the air, Zuffa was widely lauded for the responsible move. Unsurprisingly, the insurance came in handy for many fighters this year, including UFC champions Jon Jones and St-Pierre.
5. UFC returns to Brazil and taps into next big market. As advertised, Zuffa expanded its global footprint when it brought UFC 134 to Rio de Janeiro in August. The promotion had previously set up offices in London and Toronto with a direct aim on those markets, but nothing could have prepared Zuffa for the welcome it got from MMA's birthplace.
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 The Ultimate Fighter recently announced with coaches Wanderlei Silva and Vitor Belfort in place, "the cradle of MMA" figures heavily in the UFC's immediate future.
6. UFC and Fox Sports Media Group announce seven-year, multiplatform deal. Everyone knew that the UFC would eventually land on network television, but when Zuffa and Fox Sports Media Group jointly unveiled a sweeping seven-year, rumored $700 million deal across multiple TV channels, it was still an impressive sight. In 2012, MMA fans will be able to watch live UFC fights on Fox four times a year, on FX (the new home of The Ultimate Fighter franchise) and on Fuel TV, which will air live events, pre- and post-fight shows and library-related programming. The Ultimate Fighter, now in its 15th season and in dire need of a makeover, will switch to a same-week shoot, edit and air timetable, culminating with a live fight at the end of each episode.
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.
7. Viacom buys a majority stake in Bellator for 2013 start on Spike TV. Though mostly overshadowed by the UFC's power moves this year, Viacom's decision to purchase a majority share in Bellator Fighting Championships could have a far-reaching effect on the sport. With a billion-dollar media conglomerate behind it and the Spike TV platform at its disposal in 2013 (once the final contracted year of UFC library programming expires), Bellator is poised to follow in the footsteps of the UFC's monster success over seven years on the cable channel. Spike TV president Kevin Kay said a reality show and other shoulder programming is on the way to complement two 12-week tournament blocks per year. In the meantime, Spike.com began airing Bellator undercard bouts in September and other MMA-related programming, like the recently announced MMA Junkie Live news magazine show, will debut in early 2012.
8. Nick Diaz skips UFC press conference and loses title shot. Former Strikeforce champion Diaz learned the hard way that you don't leave the UFC waiting at the altar. The prickly Stockton, Calif., native was dropped from a championship bout against St-Pierre after he missed two back-to-back press tour appearances for UFC 137 in September. Notorious for shucking publicity responsibilities in Strikeforce, the 28-year-old Diaz had unintentionally bolstered his popularity with his indifferent attitude toward fight promotion, but Zuffa wanted to send a message.
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.
9. UFC implements five-round, non-title headlining bouts. In June, midway through its 27-event schedule and with five of its champions either injured or medically suspended, Zuffa announced that all headlining bouts would be scheduled for five rounds, regardless of championship status. It was an adjustment that had been widely debated within the sport for years, and one that was perfectly justified as recently as February when Penn and Jon Fitch fought to a three-round majority draw in a No. 1 contender's bout at UFC 127.
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.
10. Upstart Jon Jones makes strong campaign for best career year of any era. A 24-year-old Jones started 2011 as a hot prospect and ended it as a proven champion, making his career trajectory the most talked-about one in quite some time. It can and will be argued that Jones' 2011 even eclipsed Rua's five-fight run for Pride's middleweight grand prix championship in 2005. How fitting then that Jones took the UFC light heavyweight title from Rua at UFC 128 in March, and defended it twice against former UFC champs Quinton "Rampage" Jackson in September and Lyoto Machida in December. With his only defeat a disqualification over illegal elbows in 2009, Jones (15-1) is on track to amassing a legendary career like the one Fedor Emelianenko built during an undefeated decade.