I have a feeling 2011 will be the UFC's biggest year to date, as the sport continues to gain attention from all corners of the world.
Don't be surprised if the promotion cracks twice the markets they did last year, moving from Toronto to China and the Philippines to Mexico by the end of the year. Their high success ratio when it comes to breaking the barrier of newfound territory is a testament to the intensive, non-stop drive from Dana White and co.
For every New York that fails to get the hint, there are handfuls of local and international business opportunities falling like dominoes, as the UFC banner continues its world domination as the lone top-tier MMA entity.
Every party has a pooper, and in this case, it continues to be politically-motivated public figures like New York Assemblyman Bob Reilly, who is hell-bent on preventing the legalization of MMA in his home state. But, the more he spreads his hallow message to his constituents, UFC continues to get closer to orchestrating massive events in countries like Brazil,—possibly Japan, once their notable organization goes bankrupt and calls it quits—the birthplaces of iconic martial arts like Jiu-Jitsu, Judo and Shotokan Karate.
Add new television deals and creative online mediums to the equation, and you've got more ways to watch fights—even if your funds are too tight to purchase a Pay-Per-View—in more countries around the globe.
Broadcasting prelims started on SpikeTV, giving the fans a chance to see some of their favorite fighters, who would normally never see the light of day, compete. Of course, getting prelim fights more of this type of exposure not only helps UFC's financial agenda, but it also gives the more underpaid fighters a chance to bolster their sponsorship deals.
Personally, I had no real complaints with the Facebook stream. Everything ran smoothly, I was able to connect with friends to dissect the action and enjoyed some high-resolution battles without commercial interruption. Hopefully, this trend becomes a permanent fixture.
For viewers without Spike—the same poor saps like myself, who enjoy around 15 sporadic channels thanks to irritable antennae—have the chance to catch the occasional ION broadcast. Despite their lower ratings, it shows UFC is being patient and testing the waters for the right television deal in the future.
So, what does all this expansion and exposure mean in the grand scheme of the sport's growth?
If you're like me, you cringe every time a person unfamiliar to MMA calls the sport "ultimate fighting"—unfortunately some of the people responsible for making laws and regulations find themselves erroneously proclaiming it as such far too often.
On the other hand, it proves that newcomers and casual fans make a strong association with MMA's popularity and the UFC. Based on that approach, the state of MMA is pretty healthy for the most part.
Now, let's touch on what really drives the potential longevity and legitimacy of a young sport that has experienced such rapid growth/gains and continues to march upward into the stratosphere of mainstream acceptance.
UFC, along with MMA as a whole, produces a quality product that fulfills their market niche with a special type of untainted excitement that only exists in a few combat sports (most of which are not "mainstream" like the NFL).
Love him or hate him, Dana White is a fight fan and has been all his life. UFC brass has a unique connection with what their consumers of all levels want in their fighters and fights. Their empathetic approach is not only rare in modern-day business, but equally effective when done right.
Historically, as a company starting to balloon into a worldwide juggernaut, the quality and pureness of their product suffers as they decide to cut corners and costs to improve their bottom line to ensure next year's unreasonable profit margins meet ridiculous expectations.
In our rapid world of consumption and instant gratification, corporations are only interested in the fastest methods of growth. They're never happy with the previous year's numbers; profits must surpass old marks in impressive fashion—at any cost.
Typically when a well-intentioned company grows at the UFC's rate, the consumer is rewarded with cheaper prices and more accessibility, but the product becomes watered down and hallowed out.
Look at two of the biggest companies on the planet: Walmart and McDonald's. The quality of their foods and textiles reach the minimum standard to maintain their dominance in their own respective markets.
That same concern could be shared by MMA purists as the UFC moves forward. Luckily, they have bucked the trend so far, starting off the new year with five entertaining events filled with memorable fights—two of which can easily be considered Fight of the Year candidates.
As the UFC is expanding their reach with more outlets and events per month—the days of one show a month are long gone—it's a good sign for fans that the quality has been retained and kept as a high priority, even as the number of events increase.
Just take Diego Sanchez vs. Martin Kampmann at UFC on Versus 3 and Frankie Edgar vs. Gray Maynard at UFC 125 for example. These fights are in the front-running for Fight of the Year honors, really stacking up against all previous main events in the latter half of last year too.
It may only be March, but these tremendous bouts are living proof that UFC is still offering their best product during their most successful period to date. Let's hope these classic headliners are just a sign of things to come, a status quo actually worth the investment.
Examining the two matches that get top honors leading up to UFC 128 is a difficult assignment; each battle possesses the very qualities that will continue to expedite the UFC's global success in years to come.
From a fan's perspective, is it possible to say which headliner is currently Fight of the Year? That is exactly the type of question and debate the UFC wants its followers to engage in at this stage of the year.
In an ambitious effort, let's attempt to briefly dissect which main event trumps the other.
On the very first day of 2011, fans were delighted by what transpired in a rematch between Edgar and Maynard at UFC 125. On paper, not too many casual fans or pundits saw this playing out the way it did, and the hype machine hit a snag leading up to the event.
Boy, were they wrong.
Out of the gate, the defending champion, a proclaimed "David" going up against a wrestling Goliath, saw his reign slipping from his hands when Maynard landed a devastating right that sent Edgar's focus (along with his equilibrium) onto the infamous "Queer Street" during the entirety of round one.
The Jersey native must have felt like he just survived a 12-hour long Jersey Shore marathon, sitting on his stool collecting his marbles and wondering what just happened.
After failing to finish Edgar at his most vulnerable moment, Maynard started the second with gassed arms against a freshly-determined opponent.
Within that minute or so between rounds, Edgar was able to regain his senses enough to score his own takedowns on Maynard, who is a highly-decorated collegiate wrestler. Much was proved by both fighters throughout the rest of their highly-contested five-round war. Unfortunately, the climatic decision was deflated by a draw, crushing both fighters' expectations.
Despite the draw, that fight was an instant classic and a great way to kick off 2011.
Moving onto last Thursday's headliner, Sanchez vs. Kampmann, fans saw more of the same dramatic moments in what ended up being a historic—in a Griffin vs. Bonnar sense—turning point for the UFC's TV ambitions outside of Spike.
Similar to the Edgar vs. Maynard fight, this barn-burner shared all the nail-biting excitement produced by both fighters: resiliency, tenacity, determination, survival and elite skill. Let's not forget the agonizing decision as well.
Kampmann's superior striking accuracy and dominant sprawl were a nightmare for Sanchez throughout the fight, especially in the first round where he got dropped and failed to execute any of his numerous takedown attempts.
Despite the slow start, Sanchez displayed zero quit throughout the rest of the fight, coming forward with a barrage of hooks, clipping Kampmann in the last two rounds and finally scoring a takedown in the third.
Which main event takes Fight of the Year honors right now?
Whether or not you thought Sanchez or Kampmann won, or if MMA scoring continues to be plagued by misinterpretations, Dana White was right in a post-fight interview when he said, "Nobody loses in a fight like this."
Everybody won, including the fans, the fighters, the UFC bosses, Versus and the sport.
Where does that leave our own little judging challenge of scoring the "better" main event? I'd have to obnoxiously declare it a draw—an appropriate, but disappointing decision considering the current climate.
Moving forward this year, everybody should be on the edge of their seats with fights like Shogun vs. Jones, Aldo vs. Hominick and Couture vs. Machida on the horizon. The bar has been set very high with two titanic fights already this year.
At this point, I’m licking my chops—as you should be—to see where this mindful, yet successful, company called the "Ultimate Fighting Championship" takes us by the end of December.
"In Corazon we trust!"
Be sure to check out Sprawl N Brawl Radio every Wednesday at 7 p.m. CT.
Also, go to the iTunes store to download any of our previous shows for free.