In March 2007, word leaked out that the UFC had bought rival organization Pride. After years of debate about which organization had the better fighters, mixed martial arts fans were rubbing their hands together because they were about to find out. The MMA universe would realize order at last.
Or not. Most of Pride's best came to the UFC (and flopped miserably).
One guy who didn't come over, Fedor Emelianenko, essentially caused the resignation of UFC heavyweight champ Randy Couture when Emelianenko signed with upstart league M-1 Global. Couture vacated the heavyweight title just a few months after 155-pound champion Sean Sherk flunked a steroids test. Then Sherk's title challenger, Hermes Franca, did the same. That vacated the 155-pound title. And, of course, unbeatable light heavyweight Chuck Liddell lost two straight fights to go from "Entourage" cameos to wondering whether he'd ever have an entourage again.
Order? Not exactly. But all that 2007 craziness also helped this past year become the best one yet for mixed martial arts. And despite all the nuttiness, we did learn a few things.
Here are seven:
1. Don't mess with the UFC
Dana White doesn't like to lose. Pride bit the dust this past year, and White thinks the struggling IFL might be next. That's just the business side of it. When he was backed into a personal corner by uppercut bombs thrown by Couture, White covered up, then unleashed a knockout counterattack. White busted out documentation that squashed many of Couture's claims about pay. White almost did the same thing after last week's Los Angeles Times story in which Couture and Tito Ortiz tag-teamed the organization about not paying fighters enough. Speaking with ESPN.com, White said he double-checked the UFC's payouts and disputes Ortiz's claim of earning "only" $1.5 million for his fight with Liddell.
"He made well over $2 million for that fight," White said.
As tough as White has been in destroying opposition, it's even tougher to argue with his rationale in each case. In a capitalist country, in a sport where athletes try to pummel each other into submission, the strongest businesses survive. And Couture and Ortiz sound pretty silly moaning and groaning about money. They are millionaires because of the UFC. Their claims of fighting for the little guys who make up the undercards of UFC events are hollow. Both come off sounding foolish.
Call it a five-round championship title defense for White and the UFC.
2. Pride is second-best
And it wasn't even really close. Theories about why Pride fighters performed so woefully in the UFC range from superior weight-cutting ability by UFC fighters to too much wear and tear in Pride events to their fighters just not being very good. Mauricio "Shogun" Rua & Co. might yet prove to be championship-caliber. But their first attempts were flops.
3. It's Rampage's world; we're only buying his pay-per-views in it
Liddell got the ball rolling with a superb crossover year. He appeared on "Entourage" and got "Punk'd", starred in the UFC's first televised weigh-ins and graced the cover of ESPN The Magazine before dropping two straight fights. Now, Quintin Jackson appears primed to seize that mainstream appeal, and he's the sort of immense talent and live-wire character to take what Liddell did to the next level.
4. TUF is tough
Finally, the stars of tomorrow had their todays. Matt Serra KO'd Georges St. Pierre to become the first "Ultimate Fighter" alum to win a title. Then Forrest Griffin derailed Rua, who was supposed to take the UFC by storm, and Keith Jardine beat Liddell. But the true value of the reality show is seen on the undercards. Fighters such as Diego Sanchez, Josh Koscheck, Chris Leben and Stephan Bonnar are vital to filling out UFC shows.
5. Emelianenko is great, but he's no Anderson Silva
Really, there shouldn't be any debate about the world's best pound-for-pound fighter at this point. Silva dominated former UFC champion Rich Franklin again in the rematch, and he looks like an unbeatable 185-pounder at this point. He'll be tested by macadam-jawed Dan Henderson in their upcoming megafight. But as Emelianenko sat idle for much of the year, Silva asserted himself as the best on the planet.
6. Growth spurts come with growing pains
As exciting as 2007 was, it also included a serious rough patch. With sanctioning comes responsibility to follow athletic commission guidelines. And fighters flopped worse than ever on complying. Sherk and Franca flunked steroids tests, and Couture became the highest-profile mixed martial artist yet to moan and groan about salary. Becoming a major sport also means enduring major headaches. Welcome to the big time, MMA.
7. Big John says goodbye
The UFC's staple referee, Big John McCarthy, retired. He'll do commentary for Canada-based channel The Fight Network. MMA lost one of its original stars, but the sport Couture, Liddell and McCarthy helped set up can now survive without them. Big John will be missed, but the sport lives on.
Ryan Hockensmith is an associate editor at ESPN The Magazine.