How will we remember 2011 in Mixed Martial Arts history? So much happened in our sport this year, from huge business moves to epic fights to legends falling. Here, we'll attempt to recap some of the biggest stories of the year and figure out just how to define MMA in 2011.
As I think back on the events of 2011, there is one glaring gap in my year - an event that was consistently one of my favorite nights of the year, and one that I sorely missed this year. That event? The K-1 World Grand Prix.
Now, I know that some are rolling their eyes right now, saying "that's not MMA" and "who cares?" but consider this: since 1993, the K-1 World Grand Prix has, every year without fail, crowned the best heavyweight in kickboxing. It's a highly prestigious title, whose roots actually predate the UFC. Before there was Royce Gracie winning UFC 1, there was Branko Cikatic winning the first K-1 Grand Prix. Since that time, the best strikers in the world have held the crown - men like Peter Aerts, Ernesto Hoost, and the late Andy Hug. Two current UFC fighters are former champions (Mark Hunt and Alistair Overeem), with the current GP champion set to headline UFC 141 in one week's time. Whatever your opinions on K-1's business side, or your personal take on kickboxing, there is no denying that the Grand Prix is a big deal.
And this year, it was gone.
We've covered the roller coaster ride for K-1 in 2011 in detail previously, but the short version is this: the company had been in financial turmoil for some time, with numerous fighters owed large sums of money. At the start of 2011, they went into hibernation, with all signs pointing to the end. K-1 was sold in mid-2011 to a group of investors who is still not 100% clear, but little else happened. Late in the year, K-1 founder Kazuyoshi Ishii announced the formation of FIKA, a new organization that would manage K-1 and bring the Grand Prix back in 2012.
Will that happen? I remain skeptical. But I certainly hope it does. There is something about the Grand Prix that always grabs you. It adds an element of rankings, and something like a post-season championship, that is so common in most sports, but absent from MMA. In K-1, if you fought and won, and kept winning, you would be crowned the best kickboxer of the year - and every year we knew who that best in the world was. That's something you can't say for MMA, and that is a shame.
What has the loss of the GP meant for MMA? So far, it's actually been somewhat of a good thing. Top kickboxers like Tyrone Spong and Gokhan Saki are looking at a move to MMA, and could help to elevate the level of striking in the sport over the next few years. In 2013, will I be writing a piece about the arrival of K-1 kickboxing in MMA? It's possible. And that is a definite silver lining.
For MMA fans, that is probably enough. But for those of us who have ever stayed up until the wee hours of the morning to watch the Grand Prix - who have seen fights like last year's Peter Aerts vs. Semmy Schilt semi-final, or Badr Hari vs. Alistair Overeem from 2009, or Jerome Le Banner vs. Mark Hunt in 2002 or so, so many more - far too many to name - the loss of the Grand Prix is a hard blow. Now, all our hopes rest in the hands of Ishii and FIKA. Let's hope they make it happen, and 2012 sees the K-1 Grand Prix champion crowned once again.
Check back all week for more of 2011 in MMA History.