This past weekend, the UFC closed out 2012 with its annual New Year's Eve event. The card itself was a strange mixture of bland and epic, as the forgettable and unforgettable alike played out inside the Octagon in Las Vegas.
The night's final two bouts put a dramatic stamp on a year wrought with injury and chaos, and while the books are officially closed on 2012, all signs are pointing to an explosive 2013 for the sport's most prominent organization.
A solid mixture of high-profile title bouts, fan-friendly tilts, and fights that are set to shape the pecking orders in several weight classes fill out the UFC's first-quarter schedule. After a year that saw the UFC's machine forced off the track with several pit stops, Dana White and Co. appear to have their foot on the gas pedal coming out of the gates in the new year.
In addition to the moving pieces already set in motion, several variables have the potential to make the coming year not only historic, but one which could raise the bar in the sport of mixed martial arts.
Strikeforce Dies and the Next Chapter Begins
Everyone in the business of MMA saw the demise of the San Jose-based promotion lingering on the horizon for some time, but with the official announcement coming in December, the doors will finally close for good on what was the second-best promotion in the sport.
Strikeforce will host one final event on Jan. 12, but the impact of the merging roster is already making noise on the MMA landscape.
In the final event, the spotlight will fall mainly on the shoulders of a promising heavyweight/potential light heavyweight contender and a resurgent champion looking to take the next step, as Daniel Cormier and Nate Marquardt look to close out their Strikeforce career's in proper fashion. Both figure to have a solid impact when they cross over into the UFC, and strong showings in their final pre-merger fights could send them into the UFC ranks with momentum.
For Marquardt, the return to the sport's biggest stage is a shot at redemption.
The former middleweight contender was looking to establish himself as a threat in the 170-pound weight class, but a drastic turn of events in Pittsburgh not only cancelled his welterweight debut, but forced him out of the organization entirely.
Marquardt proved his resilience by not only weathering the public relations storm, but by charging back into action to become the Strikeforce welterweight champion. Should he defend the belt successfully against Tarec Saffiedine, Marquardt will most likely enter what is undoubtedly the UFC's most competitive division on a hot note. While champion Georges St-Pierre's dance ticket is stacked for the time being, "Nate the Great" will certainly draw a high-profile matchup in his return to the UFC.
Current circumstances have things looking a bit different for Cormier.
This past weekend, his friend and teammate Cain Velasquez reclaimed the heavyweight crown, making an immediate title fight between the two AKA fighters non-existent. D.C. has previously talked about dropping down to light heavyweight if Velasquez sat atop the division, and in the UFC 155 post-fight press conference, White stated a shot at Jon Jones's light heavyweight crown could possibly be on deck for Cormier.
There is also a challenge issued by former two-time champion Frank Mir on the table for the Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix winner, but only time will tell which direction Cormier will choose to take.
The other looming factor, and what could perhaps make the biggest splash, will be what happens with Strikeforce's lightweight champion Gilbert Melendez. "El Nino" told me several weeks ago, in an interview, the fight he wants most is UFC champion Benson Henderson.
A champion-versus-champion bout makes a tremendous amount of sense, but there has yet to be an official commitment from White on this fight becoming a reality. Should the winner of the upcoming scrap between Donald Cerrone and Anthony Pettis determine who gets the next shot, it would seem likely that former No. 1 contender Gray Maynard could welcome Melendez to the big show.
In the same position of uncertainty as Melendez will be middleweight champion Luke Rockhold. With the UFC 185-pound picture in the midst of chaos with the recent stunting of potential contenders at UFC 155, Rockhold could transition directly into the upper tier on the UFC side of things.
While a champion-vs.-champion bout against Anderson Silva is highly unlikely due to the lure of potential super-fights, a title-eliminator bout against Chris Weidman could be possible.
Outside of the champions crossing over, a collection of talented fighters have the potential to shake up the scene in the UFC. Former belt-holders Gegard Mousasi, Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza and Tyron Woodley should draw upper-tier matchups in their respective divisions, and scrappy veterans Josh Barnett, Tim Kennedy and Pat Healy could all make huge statements in the coming year.
The Ronda Rousey Show Takes Center Stage
When Dana White introduced the organization's first women's bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey at the UFC on Fox 5 press conference, the moment stole the show. There is no denying Rousey's star power and the UFC is putting its chips on her side of the table in 2013.
In the past, White has shown reluctance about committing to a women's division under the UFC banner. While signing Rousey and making her debut fight against Liz Carmouche the main event of UFC 157 is certainly breaking new ground for the promotion, the UFC's venture into WMMA is still very much in the experimental stage.
White himself has made zero attempts to mask the fact that this is the "Ronda Rousey Show" and the key to women's longevity in the UFC depends on her.
Despite the organization wanting her first opponent to be Brazilian wrecking machine Cris Cyborg, the bout with Carmouche is not a gimme by any means. "The Girlilla" is as aggressive as they come and the only female campaigning for the Rousey fight using a Twitter movement to storm White's timeline. The tactic worked, and Rousey vs. Carmouche is set to make history.
Outside of the first women's bout under the UFC banner, other potential contenders could help shape the next steps in the future of the women's bantamweight division. A lot will depend on Cyborg's ability to make the weight limit, but should the promotion decide not to wait on the former Chute Boxe fighter to come down, former Strikeforce 135-pound champion Miesha Tate or the always scrappy Alexis Davis could find themselves in the next title fight.