December 29, 2011

1. Big-stage backlash. Now that the UFC is on network TV, with so many more viewers able to see the fights, it's inevitable that the wrong eyes will catch a glimpse. A curious football fan or let's-see-what's-on channel surfer will click over to Fox at the precise moment when a fighter suffers a broken limb, like Antonio Rodrigo Nogueria did at UFC 140, or when one drops to the mat lifelessly after being choked unconscious, as Lyoto Machida did that same night. Or maybe the cringe-worthy moment will be a bloodbath like the first Forrest Griffin vs. Stephan Bonnar fight, a bout legendary for MMA diehards but probably too brutal for the uninitiated to bear.

The UFC brass professes to not care about the possibility -- no, probability -- of something stomach-turning happening on Fox. "This is what they ordered seven years of," Dana White told reporters after UFC 140. "This is it. This is what you get." He might really be unconcerned, as he claims, or maybe he's posturing. The thing is, there's nothing White can do about it. Gruesome finishes are going to happen. Pretty much every UFC card features at least one beating that someone new to the sport will find bothersome. If the offended viewer simply punches the clicker to switch over to the safe confines of HGTV, fine. But the prediction here is that at some point in 2012 there'll be a groundswell of network TV viewers raising a stink, putting White in the uncomfortable position of having to defend his sport in the court of public opinion. At that point we'll get to experience the UFC president's well-honed skills as a diplomat.

2. Strike ... what? For a few years, Scott Coker's little operation was the UFC's leading competition. Once just a kickboxing organization, Strikeforce got into MMA in 2006 and has had its moments, particularly once the San Jose, Calif.-based company took over the contracts of fighters such as Nick Diaz, Jake Shields and Gilbert Melendez in 2009 after the bloated Elite XC went belly-up. Then Dan Henderson and Fedor Emelianenko added some luster after both failed to reach contract agreements with the Dana White Fight Club.

But all of that has faded away in the aftermath of the UFC's parent company buying Strikeforce last March. Since then, the promotion has been doing a disappearing act. Diaz, Shields and Henderson are now in the UFC, with Melendez likely to follow. There's this thing called the Heavyweight Grand Prix allegedly going on, but we see evidence of it so infrequently that they might as well conduct the fights in Loch Ness. Yeah, I realize that Showtime has just announced a new deal to continue televising Strikeforce fights, but I still say that by this time next year we won't even remember there was a Strikeforce.

3. Bellator becomes a playa. I'm trying to be hip there, using the colloquial for the word player, not the Spanish word for a beach. Because competing with the UFC is no día en la playa. But the Bellator Fighting Championship now has big dollas behind it, having been bought by media giant Viacom. Eventually that will mean a shift from current home MTV2 to the more prominent Spike, which for years has been associated with the UFC, a connection that'll do Bellator some good. With Strikeforce fading from the picture, Bellator is a clear No. 2.

An uncrowded MMA landscape is not all that this fight organization has going for it. CEO Bjorn Rebney runs a tight ship, putting his fighters in season-long tournaments that build interest and build names. And unlike past challengers to the UFC's market share, like Affliction and Elite XC, Bellator does not spend recklessly. White might not lose a lot of sleep worrying about Bellator, but this is a well-run, deep-pocketed organization whose best days are to come.

4. Cain will reign. Cain Velasquez lost his heavyweight belt to Junior dos Santos fair and square. The 64-second TKO in the only fight on the UFC's one-hour debut on Fox in November was no fluke. The champ got hit dizzyingly hard, and the Brazilian with thunder in his hands immediately jumped on him for the quick finish. Fine. But Cain is better than that. And after Dos Santos vanquishes the winner of this month's Brock Lesnar vs. Alistair Overeem bout in his first title defense, he'll likely have a return engagement with Velasquez. Next time the versatile game of the American Kickboxing Academy fighter will put him back on top. It won't be easy, but it'll be clear and decisive. And then we'll start eagerly talking about Velasquez-Dos Santos III.

5. Belt loosening. The prediction here is that Dos Santos won't be the only UFC champ to lose his leather. That's all I've got to say. What? You want names? OK, let me start by throwing out the names of a few title holders who I believe will continue their reigns. Jon "Bones" Jones is coming off maybe the best year for any fighter in UFC history, and the concept of him losing a fight is hard to compute. The same goes for featherweight champ Jose Aldo and bantamweight beltholder Dominick Cruz, who've mowed down all challengers with relative ease. But three other champs -- middleweight Anderson Silva, welterweight Georges St-Pierre and lightweight Frankie Edgar -- could face uncommon challenges.

Silva might end up fighting the one man who's made him look vulnerable (Chael Sonnen); GSP has both his own body (knee injury) and a stacked division of challengers (Nick Diaz, Carlos Condit) to contend with; and Edgar has a couple of champions staring him down -- first, former WEC titlist Ben Henderson, then perhaps Strikeforce belt holder Gilbert Melendez. At least one of those three champs will not make it through the year without slipping up.

6. No Bones about it. Jon Jones has faced former UFC light heavyweight title holders in his last three fights, and he's ravaged them all. He's as dominant a fighter as there is in his sport, and before the year is out, he will be widely acknowledged as the No. 1 pound-for-pound MMA fighter in the world. At this point, he's generally ranked No. 3 behind Silva and St-Pierre. But GSP is out until his knee heals, which could be late summer or later. And Silva, to maintain his top spot, will have to look more dominant against Sonnen than he did last time. Of course, other than that first Chael fight, Silva has thrashed everyone put in front of him. He's owned the middleweight belt since 2006, which doesn't allow him to build his legend on a regular diet of ex-champs. Meanwhile, "Bones" could add another former title holder to his conquest list if Rashad Evans wins next month to earn a title shot. It's getting increasingly difficult to deny Jones the top of the mountain.

7. Flying to the top. Joseph Benavidez will become a champion in 2012. This is not such a going-out-on-a-limb prediction, since we already know he will be one of four 125-pound fighters in the UFC's upcoming tournament to crown its first flyweight champ. Benavidez will fight Shooto champ Yashuhiro Urushitani and Demetrious Johnson will face Ian McCall on the March 3 UFC on FX card, with the winners meeting for the belt. I'm going with Benavidez because he's beaten everyone he's faced other than Dominick Cruz (twice). There's no shame in that -- Cruz is a great champion, and Benavidez was fighting above his optimum weight class. Cruz himself showed what a difference a few pounds can make. He challenged Urijah Faber for his WEC featherweight belt back in 2007 and lost, but when they rematched last summer at bantam, "The Dominator" had his way. Now Benavidez gets the chance to fight at the best weight for him. It's his time.

8. The Empire will stop fighting back. New York has held out for long enough. Back when MMA was unregulated in many jurisdictions around the country, the Empire State did not stick out like a sore thumb. But now the sport is unsanctioned only in Connecticut (which doesn't matter because fight organizations still can hold events in the Native American-run Mohegan Sun Arena), Vermont (which doesn't matter because, um, it's Vermont) and New York. You know, the home state of Madison Square Garden, once the mecca of the fight world. And what's particularly troubling with this picture is that the New York legislature's inaction on an MMA bill has little to do with the sport itself. It's a power play by the state's almighty Culinary Union, which is fighting against the UFC because its owners, Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta, also own another Las Vegas-based business, Station Casinos, one of the biggest non-union operations in the gaming industry.

Now, I put in more than two decades as a union member and am sympathetic to the Working Man, but this is a misdirected campaign whose time is running out. By the end of 2012 the UFC will be planning a fight card for the building where Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier -- and fellow heavyweights like Springsteen, the Dead, Foo Fighters and Lady Gaga -- have called home.

9. No big news. Fox is aboard to put fights on network TV and ESPN is showing main-event highlights on SportsCenter, but don't bother looking for the UFC in the sports pages of a major daily newspaper. With a few exceptions, notably the two Las Vegas dailies, The Los Angeles Times and USA Today, papers tend to cover MMA events only when they're in town. Other than that, you not only don't see original reporting but also rarely even a full wire-service story; if the main event is a title bout, you might get a sentence or two in a sports roundup. A lot of papers won't even include UFC events in the TV listings. That's not going to change soon. New media gets MMA; old media doesn't. And while it's tempting to dismiss newspapers as outdated and irrelevant, a lot of people still gauge the sports day by what they see in the paper. The UFC will never get the kind of coverage the NFL or NBA sees, but maybe someday it'll be like boxing or soccer. Not in 2012, though.

10. One more, eh? I don't have a good one to end with, so let me throw out a few that have been spinning around my skull:

10a. Sometime in 2012, all three cageside judges will get a decision right. This unprecedented event will have harrowing consequences, however, as both fighters will be so shocked by this turn of events that they'll pass out and be rushed to a hospital.

10b. The UFC, concerned that the growth of its business has screeched to a halt, will hire a feng shui expert, who'll point out that the octagon is the shape of a stop sign. So the company will build a ring shaped like a lucky horseshoe, allowing for the flow of energy, but its luck will run out when a pair of grappling fighters spill out of the horseshoe's open end.

10c. Chael Sonnen will suffer a debilitating injury. No, it won't be his knee. And he doesn't train with Frank Mir, so his upper limbs are safe, too. The essential body part that will fail for Sonnen will be his vocal cords. The guy talks and talks and talks, and no matter how much one trains his voice, at some point laryngitis is bound to set in. When it does, Chael will be robbed of his most essential tool.

10d. Speaking of Mir, he will be at the center of a UFC scandal. This is the man who snapped Big Nog's arm earlier this month, and back in 2004 he did the same to Tim Sylvia. So he's responsible for two of the three most gruesome injuries in UFC history. (Mir has an alibi putting him thousands of miles away from the cage on the night in 2008 when Corey Hill grotesquely broke his shin bone during a UFC Fights for the Troops event in Fayetteville, N.C.) So what's the scandal? An intrepid reporter will dig up canceled checks showing that Mir is getting kickbacks from a Las Vegas orthopedic surgeon. For referrals.

10e. MMA news outlets will hear whispers that Fedor Emelianenko is retiring. But no one will report this news because everyone is under the impression that the onetime Russian legend called it quits at least a year ago. However, months later every MMA website will be on top of the breaking story of Emelianenko's comeback. Hoping to build on 2011's losing-streak-ending triumph over Jeff Monson, Fedor will agree to step in with Ken Shamrock. Apparently Tank Abbott was unavailable.

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