By BOB EMANUEL JR. | Scripps Howard News Service
Cancellations of three major events, the addition of women fighters to the Ultimate Fighting Championship, upheaval on “The Ultimate Fighter” and Bellator Fighting Championships’ talent surge will define 2012 in mixed martial arts.
When former PRIDE and Strikeforce champion Dan Henderson sustained an injury mere weeks before he was to fight UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones in September, the UFC scrambled to find a replacement. UFC president Dana White offered the bout to several high-profile light heavyweights, but was unable to find a taker. Chael Sonnen, fresh off a loss to UFC middleweight champion Anderson Silva in July, volunteered and was awarded the bout.
The UFC’s publicity machine went into high gear overnight, and new promotional materials were produced. Then, the unthinkable happened. Jones, citing a lack of preparation time for Sonnen, turned down the fight. For the first time in the UFC’s history under Zuffa, which purchased the promotion in 2001, an event was canceled.
“The one thing that I never thought in a million years happened,” White said. “Jon Jones said, ‘I’m not fighting Chael Sonnen on eight days notice.’ Again, something’s that never happened in UFC history, a guy who’s a world champion and considered one of the pound-for-pound best turns down a fight.”
Jones successfully defended the title against Vitor Belfort later that month.
Zuffa, which also owns Strikeforce, suffered two additional cancellations over the next few months when Strikeforce cards in September and November were nixed due to injuries to the main event stars. Strikeforce planned its next event in January amid speculation the company could be folded into the UFC in 2013.
With the uncertainty around Strikeforce, the UFC signed its first woman — former Strikeforce 135-pound champion Ronda Rousey, who was immediately installed as the UFC champion. Rousey will make her first title defense in February against Liz Carmouche. After 14 seasons on Spike, “The Ultimate Fighter” debuted with a live show on FX in 2012. The traditional fights between the season’s coaches did not materialize after either season as Season 15 coach Dominick Cruz and Season 16 coach Shane Carwin each sustained injuries and were replaced. Two international editions of the show — “TUF Brazil” and “TUF: The Smashes” (United Kingdom vs. Australia) — also made their debut.
Bellator, which finished its final season on MTV2, will finally make its debut on Spike in 2013. In anticipation of the move and the higher profile Spike will deliver, Bellator made several high-level additions to its roster, including Muhammed “King Mo” Lawal, Renato “Babalu” Sobral and Paul Daley.
Here’s a look at some of the other defining moments of 2012:
• New champions: Demetrious Johnson won the inaugural UFC flyweight title. Other new champions include Renan Barao (interim UFC bantamweight), Benson Henderson (UFC lightweight), Nate Marquardt (Strikeforce welterweight), Daniel Cormier (Strikeforce World Grand Prix tournament winner), Pat Curran (Bellator featherweight), Eduardo Dantas (Bellator bantamweight) and Alexander Volkov (Bellator heavyweight).
• UFC 148: More than 35,000 people attended a two-day fan expo in Las Vegas. The event coincided with UFC 148, which saw Anderson Silva defeat Chael Sonnen for the second time. More than 10,000 fans attended the weigh in, and the MGM Grand Garden Arena was packed for the fight.
• Suspensions: UFC heavyweight contender Alistair Overeem, UFC welterweight contender Nick Diaz and then Strikeforce light heavyweight contender Muhammed Lawal were among the biggest names to be suspended for various reasons.
• Returns and departures: Georges St-Pierre returned from several injuries to defeat Carlos Condit and unify the UFC welterweight title. Former two-division UFC champion B.J. Penn returned from retirement and lost to Rory MacDonald. Former UFC light heavyweight champion Tito Ortiz announced his retirement before a loss to Forrest Griffin. Ortiz was inducted into the UFC Hall of Fame hours before his final fight. Bellator heavyweight champion Cole Konrad retired with a 9-0 record and vacated the title.
• Invicta: After the UFC purchased Strikeforce in 2011, uncertainty surrounded the women’s division. Shannon Knapp helped found Invicta Fighting Championship, a league comprised exclusively of women. Invicta held three shows this year and will hold its fourth in January.
• AXS TV: AXS, which formerly operated as HDNET, continued to pump its weekly talk show — “Inside MMA.” The show attracted the biggest names in the sport and served as a promotional tool for the network’s numerous live MMA events. One of Inside MMA’s co-hosts, Bas Rutten, also appeared in the movie “Here Comes the Boom,” which starred Kevin James.