As 2009 draws to a close, it’s time to take a look at what was a very eventful year in mixed martial arts and choose the top ten stories of the year. We saw the death of one organization and the birth of another. Controversy made a few appearances, landmarks were hit and there were more than a few surprising “WTF” moments, one of them a tragedy. We’ll take a look at stories 10 through six in Part One of this year-end special. Make sure to check back tomorrow for the stories that made the top five and some honorable mentions that just missed the cut.
10. The Death of Charles “Mask” Lewis
Shocking, sad and devastating to anyone who ever interacted with him, the death of Tapout’s Charles “Mask” Lewis on March 11, 2009 rocked the MMA community. The enigmatic, charismatic co-founder of the industry’s signature brand died when his Ferrari was split in two in a car accident in Southern California. Charles was posthumously inducted into the UFC Hall of Fame in July, becoming the first non-fighter to ever be granted entry to the Hall. One of the true pioneers of MMA, Mask will be missed but his message lives on…Believe.
(Georges St-Pierre en route to his controversial victory over BJ Penn.)
When a controversy changes how business is conducted inside the Octagon, it’s definitely a big story. Welcome to “Greasegate”.
UFC 94 saw what was billed as the most highly anticipated rematch in UFC history between Welterweight Champion Georges St. Pierre and Lightweight Champion BJ Penn. The fight was contested at 170 pounds with GSP’s size and wrestling proving too much for an overmatched Penn, who couldn’t make it out for the fifth round. However, videotape evidence very clearly showed that GSP’s cornerman, Phil Nurse, rubbed his shoulders and chest with Vaseline between the first and second rounds. Nevada State Athletic Commission Chairman Keith Kizer also admitted to seeing a small amount of Vaseline applied to St. Pierre’s back between the second and third rounds.
While it is legal to apply Vaseline to the face, application to any other part of the body inside the cage is illegal. BJ filed a complaint with the commission that the slippery St. Pierre compromised the fairness of the fight and made it difficult for him to utilize his world-class Brazilian jiu jitsu skills. After hearings took place in front of the commission, they took no action against any of the participants…inexplicably in my opinion. While I don’t believe that GSP intentionally did anything wrong, the fact remains that the rules were broken and an unfair advantage gained. That should have led to a no contest, no different than when a fighter accidentally takes an over the counter product and tests positive for performance enhancing drugs. The UFC did take action as a result of this fight by implementing immediate rule changes in February that only cutmen who are independent of both corners will be allowed to apply Vaseline to the fighter’s faces for future bouts.
(UFC heavyweight contender Shane Carwin works the mitts with Trevor Wittman.)
It’s hard to believe that in 2007 the UFC’s heavyweight division “sucked so bad that Randy Couture came out of retirement to challenge Tim Sylvia for the belt” in the words of Dana White. Even as recently as November, 2008, Randy sat atop the weight class that was widely regarded as having four quality competitors…himself, eventual champ Brock Lesnar, eventual interim champ Frank Mir and interim champ, Antonio Rodrgio Nogueira. 2009 saw a different story unfold as Lesnar, Mir and Big Nog (Randy went back to 205) were joined by now established contenders Shane Carwin, Cain Velasquez and Junior Dos Santos who went a combined 6-0 in ’09. Stefan Struve, Pat Barry and Todd Duffee all garnered attention this year as well with Duffee registering the fastest knockout in UFC history (7 seconds over Tim Hague). Add in Cheick Kongo, Ben Rothwell, Paul Buentello, Gilbert Yvel, Antoni Hardonk and Gabe Gonzaga and there are a load of interesting matchups in the division that is home to those between 206 and 265 pounds. UFC matchmaker Joe Silva must be a very happy man! And lest we forget…a heavyweight with a belly and nickname to match, Roy “Big Country” Nelson, steamrolled the competition on TUF 10 en route to a six-figure contract.
7. Bellator Fighting Championships
April 3, 2009 saw the birth of a financially rewarding option for fighters in the Featherweight, Lightweight, Welterweight and Middleweight divisions when the Bellator Fighting Championships put on their first event in Hollywood, Florida. The promotion aired events 11 of the next 12 weeks, using a tournament style format to declare champions in each of the four divisions. Featherweight Joe Soto, lightweight Eddie Alvarez, welterweight Lyman Good and middleweight Hector Lombard each earned $175,000 and plenty of exposure through an exclusive contract between the promotion and ESPN Deportes. YouTube highlight reel finishes, including Toby Imada’s inverse triangle at Bellator 5 and Yahir Reyes’ spinning backfist knockout at Bellator 6, spread like wildfire through the MMA blogosphere as the promotion’s fanbase expanded exponentially. The success of season one set the stage for a second season beginning in the Spring of 2010 with deals in place to broadcast on NBC, Fox Sports Net and Hispanic market giant Telemundo, giving the promotion a much larger platform moving forward.
6. Women’s MMA Crowns a Champion
(“Cyborg” helps convince Gina Carano to focus on her acting.)
Women’s mixed martial arts crowned its first ever champion when Cristiane “Cyborg” Santos TKO’d previously unbeaten Gina Carano with one second remaining in the first round. The event aired live on Showtime and marked the first time two women headlined a major event in MMA history. The event peaked with an estimated 856,000 viewers during the main event, setting new MMA ratings record for Showtime at the time, eclipsing Kimbo vs. Tank Abbot (522,000 viewers) and Lawler vs. Shields (275,000). Long considered the face of the sport, Carano landed the leading role in Steven Soderbergh’s aptly-titled spy thriller “Knockout.” Time will tell whether 2009 proved the marketability of women’s MMA or Gina Carano. However, the women’s fights on Strikeforce cards have generally been exciting battles and have often stolen the show, so the early money is on women’s MMA finding a consistent home on your flat screen.
Larry Pepe is the host of Pro MMA Radio. Check back tomorrow for his top five stories of the year.