It's an exciting time to be a mixed martial arts fan. Things have changed a lot since I wrote this column last year. In November 2010, Strikeforce was going strong and preparing for what looked like a game changing Heavyweight Grand Prix. What a difference a year makes!
And what a year it has been. When we get some distance from it and look back, 2011 will go down as one of the most important and transformative years in MMA history. A lot has happened in just 11 months - and here are the major take aways that make me so thankful to be a fan of this great sport.
1. The UFC Leads the Way
There's no question anymore that this is a one-horse race. But what a fine beast she is! Sure it was exciting when the UFC was in fierce competition with Pride and then Strikeforce. It kept things interesting. But that's a world that doesn't exist anymore and there is no sense pining for it.
The UFC is the NFL. It is MLB. This is the Kleenex of cage fighting. The UFC has taken a firm grasp of the sport and doesn't look to let go of the reins anytime soon. The best fighters in the world are in the UFC's Octagon. The shows look and sound better than their competitors. And with Fox's deft hands subtly helping make some important changes, 2012 should, aesthetically, be the best year in MMA history.
2. Bellator Ascendent
While Strikeforce has gone by the wayside, Bellator has consistently showcased great fighters and it finally paid off in a big way. It's like Bellator's struggles were all for a reason, to take us to the exact moment in time that allowed Michael Chandler's upset win over Eddie Alvarez to exist. It was the best fight in Bellator history, arguably the best fight of the entire year.
And for Bellator, this is just the beginning. The promotion is waiting in the wings to take the UFC's place on Spike TV. They have a long way to go before being mentioned in the same breath as the UFC. But fights like the one last weekend will get people talking and watching. And a stockpile of some of the sport's top young talent will pay off huge dividends in years to come.
It's a one horse race right now. But a mighty impressive foal is being groomed in Chicago by Bjorn Rebney. Things could get fairly interesting fairly quickly.
3. The Gluttony
On Thanksgiving, it's not uncommon to find me asleep, my belly distended, my pants stretched in ways only guys like Tom Arnold or Kevin James can really understand. There's just so much to choose from. Turkey, stuffing, potatoes, apparently they may serve vegetables of some sort (I've not confirmed this). It's a glutton's delight.
Which is exactly what it feels like to be an MMA fan in 2011. Take this past weekend. We had an outstanding UFC event with Dan Henderson and Mauricio Rua redefining guts and heart. A Bellator show that exceeded all expectations. And then the truly deranged got up at 7 A.M. to watch the great Fedor Emelianenko get his career back on track. Those kinds of weekends are going to become the exception going forward rather than the rule. Some might call it overkill. I embrace it. More is always the answer - if the question is 'How much fighting do you want to watch?'
4. HDNet, Go Fight Live, and the Future of MMA
There has never been more MMA on television and, yes, that does give some hardcore fans a noticeable bulge in their pants. But to me, quantity is not the primary goal. It's quality that matters - and there's never been so much good MMA. Really good.
Mixed Martial Arts will soon be like college football. The UFC will be the SEC, ACC, and Big 12 combined. The powerhouse promotion that gets millions to sit in front of the boob tube and sets the standard for everyone else. But there will be other games too. Bellator can feature a team that runs the option when everyone else is into the spread offense. Some fans will even make a point to see games from the WAC; even Division II schools can find an audience at places like GoFightLive.
That extended and tortured metaphor was designed to make one thing clear. MMA is here, everywhere you look. HDNet puts on more MMA than anyone - and supplements it with some fantastic kickboxing coverage. GoFightLive is there to help other promotions reach the masses. It's never been a better time to be a MMA fan. I hope you are taking advantage.
5. The Fighters
I'm going to steal this one part and parcel from last year's column. Because some things never change. I think it goes without saying but is worth putting into words: we wouldn't be here without the men and women who have the courage to step into the cage. Some of them are great athletes with super smart gameplans. Others are less skilled. Some will succeed. Some will fail, only to rise up and try again.
It's truly remarkable that these great athletes are often likable and thoughtful people as well. I'm proud to be a fan of this sport. Thanks for having the gumption to test yourself against an opponent, all alone with just your wits to save you from harm. I'm sure you're learning a ton about yourself and what makes you tick, who you are with all the pretenses washed away, simply staring across the cage at another human being who wants to do you harm. I'm thankful to have the chance to watch you put yourself to the test.