With such an enthralling year of mixed martial arts winding down, what do us lonely souls known as fight fans have to look forward to once the ball drops and Carson Daly wishes everyone a Happy New Year? Here are nine reasons to be excited for 2009:
1. New York and expansion
Ultimate Fighting Championship may advertise on Times Square billboards, but the Octagon can't come to New York.
Marc Ratner, the UFC's vice president for government and regulatory affairs, will try to change that in 2009. Ratner will have lobbying firm Brown, McMahon & Weinraub as well as media relations political consulting firm Global Strategy Group at his disposal in the push to legalize MMA in 2009. Momentum from donations to both Democratic and Republican parties in New York can't hurt, either. Also, the New York State Athletic Commission chair is Melvina Lathan, a backer of legalizing MMA.
With the attention it will bring to the sport, arrival in the nation's media capital is integral to domestic expansion. In addition, it sets a precedent for sanctioning MMA in remaining holdout states.
Of course, the UFC has international expansion plans, as well. There have been talks of Mexico and the Philippines, and the promotion is scheduled to touch down in England, Ireland and Germany next year, proving the UFC's dedication to cultivating markets and growing MMA internationally.
2. Tito Ortiz
Ortiz, who departed from the UFC after a May loss to Lyoto Machida, expects to return to action in the summer of 2009. The sport's top free agent is still recovering from back surgery and is looking for a fight home. Affliction could be the front-runner, as Ortiz will serve as a commentator for the promotion's January show. But "The Huntington Beach Bad Boy" has been a longtime UFC employee. Despite a tumultuous relationship with UFC president Dana White, the former light heavyweight champion reportedly still speaks to Lorenzo Fertitta about re-entering the Octagon.
Ortiz has fallen out of favor since posting an 0-2-1 record in his past three showings, including only two fights in the past two years. His bout with Chuck Liddell in December 2006 remains the UFC's top pay-per-view event, though. A divisive figure for his entire career, Ortiz is a draw regardless of setbacks.
3. The 135 and 145 divisions
With World Extreme Cagefighting nixing its middleweight and light heavyweight divisions, the 135- and 145-pound classes have gone from nonexistent to a legitimate lightning rod of excitement and exposure.
In 2008, Urijah Faber defeated Jens Pulver in a coming-out party for "the little guys." Faber-Pulver is the most-viewed featherweight fight in history and followed up another Fight of the Year candidate, a bantamweight title tilt between Miguel Torres and Yoshiro Maeda.
Torres remains at the top of his division and likely will fight hot prospect Brian Bowles in 2009. Meanwhile, Faber and Pulver have fallen down their respective ladders but will battle each other again in January in an effort to start climbing back up. An expected bout between new featherweight king Mike Thomas Brown and the Greg Jackson-trained Leonard Garcia is also worthy of anticipation.
Joachim Hansen also saw his stock rise. "Hellboy" emerged as a late replacement for Alvarez -- the man who had axed him from the lightweight tournament -- and brutally stopped grappling wizard Shinya Aoki. The win propelled the Scandinavian to prominence in the shark-infested waters of the division while avenging a 2006 loss.
Alvarez returns to tournament action early in 2009 under the Bellator Fighting Championships banner. A fighter of his caliber lends credibility to the upstart promotion, which will feature a plethora of eight-man tournaments on ESPN Deportes in the featherweight, lightweight, welterweight and middleweight divisions. Jorge Masvidal is another talented potential participant.
Also, look for more tournaments from Sengoku. The elimination style of fighting is important to Japanese MMA's shaky landscape post-Pride. Additionally, with Strikeforce promoting a successful one-night tournament in 2007, the San Jose-based organization could deliver more elimination-style fighting.
5. Fan benefits of fighter self-promotion
Like all professional athletes, mixed martial artists have a finite shelf life. Commoditizing their personalities brings in sponsorship money and communicates to those who write their checks -- the fans.
Bjpenn.com has been a leading example of interactive fighter-fan relationships. Jon Fitch took to the stage during comedian Kristopher Tinkle's "Steel Cage Comedy" series to endear himself to local fans before his championship clash with Georges St. Pierre. Mike Swick did the same and frequently updates his YouTube page. Andrei Arlovski has launched his own documentary series leading up to his fight with Fedor Emelianenko.
As promotional control of fighters' likenesses continues to inspire strong debate, fighters have to remain innovative in order to stand out in an environment that's competitive on all fronts. Fighters are known for being resourceful, which means fans will benefit more than ever in 2009.
The UFC's unofficial tournament between Brock Lesnar and the winner of Frank Mir-Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira ends in 2009, generating excitement and controversy for a division that has been the UFC's sour spot for years. For touted prospects Shane Carwin and Cain Velasquez, '09 will be a defining year. Bobby Lashley's career should begin to take shape, too, and he might just punch his ticket to the UFC by year's end.
7. "UFC Undisputed 2009"
The UFC will go interactive and into the homes of gamers everywhere in 2009. Breakfast-time Xbox 360 sessions or PS3 binges are not in everyone's diet, but gamers are a fervent base not unlike hard-core MMA enthusiasts. Merge the two and add online gaming, and insomnia hits the 18-35 male demographic in astronomical numbers.
THQ, which has had major success developing WWE games, is on board and seems dedicated to doing justice to the UFC experience. Impressive trailers, however, only go so far. The game will have to speak for itself. Still, judging by the lackluster arcade style of UFC games of yesteryear, "UFC Undisputed 2009" should be the best offering yet.
San Jose-based Strikeforce had another stellar year, promoting one of the most exciting battles outside an Octagon: Cung Le vs. Frank Shamrock. The company followed with a five-round war that saw longtime champion Gilbert Melendez lose his belt to Josh Thomson. Strikeforce then closed out the year with a devastating knockout win by Scott Smith over Terry Martin at the Playboy Mansion.
A return to the mansion in 2009 is more than likely, as the promotion still has a contract with the magazine empire. International talent like Kazuo Misaki and Mitsuhiro Ishida will return as Strikeforce continues to expand its international talent pool. Le's star power may get a boost from his major Hollywood connections, but in any case, the middleweight champion will see action again. Frank Shamrock may also be free from his ProElite duties and able to return home. Gilbert Melendez is contractually obligated for one more fight (and wants to make it memorable), and the demise of ProElite may open up doors for solid fighters to compete under the Strikeforce banner.
Furthermore, NBC, which is home to Strikeforce's late-night fight program, is rumored to have interest in promoting live fights. CBS hasn't quit on fighting yet, either, and is said to have interest in a relationship with an established organization like Strikeforce.
9. Penn vs. St. Pierre II
Pound-for-pound supremacy has never been up for grabs like this. UFC lightweight champion B.J. Penn continues his travels across weight divisions to fight welterweight champion Georges St. Pierre on Jan. 31. The fight is a clash of pure talent against well-oiled machinery, with the magnitude of the meeting setting the highest of expectations for MMA in 2009.
Danny Acosta is a contributor to Sherdog.com.