Commentary

Top 10 stories of the past 10 years

Updated: December 22, 2009, 3:08 PM ET
By Jake Rossen | Sherdog.com

Financially and functionally, the mixed martial arts scene of the 1990s had the organization of an upended wastebasket. There are moments valued with nostalgia -- if you need a remedial course on Royce Gracie's influence or the proliferation of opposing styles, grab a book -- but on the whole, it was just one big experimental phase, with everyone searching for the sense in a superficially disgusting sport. To stage a show without being chased out of town or arrested was considered an achievement. This is an environment that thrives on survival, not invention.

Beginning in 2000, the changes were very nearly immediate (and, for the purposes of this article, convenient). Fighters began to understand layered training, and policymakers were finally clued in to the idea that an uptick in cage fights was never referenced in Revelation. Distanced from the label of ruining civilization, the sport was free to make its own kind of history. More than just being a key decade in mixed-fighting, it's really been the only decade.

There's really no viable way of boiling down 10 years of stories -- life, death, trends, competition -- into a single list. It would almost be preferable to throw out 100 events and let readers prioritize them. But it's the holidays, and time is short, so what follows are the 10 stories that kept coming to the surface in examining what really shook the fight industry from 2000 to 2009. (And by examining, I mean to say, "Staring at a giant toy Octagon until the Chinese food came.")

The 10 stories that mattered most:

10. The New Year's Eve Wars in Japan (2001-Present)

It's easy to be the only bakery on the block. You set your own hours, pick your own weddings and charge whatever you like. There's no nudge from competition.

Give a customer options, though, and that's when things get hot. In MMA, that was the arrival of the end-of-year spectaculars in Japan, when promotions from Dream Stage (which housed Pride), K-1, Inoki and others began to angle for a slice of the staggering television market. (In Japan, New Year's Eve is big for television.) Top fighters were booked, and sometimes stolen wholesale, from under the noses of competing promotions; actors and other ill-equipped celebrities became grappling dummies. While some matches made little sense to Western audiences, it was a mega-budget, mega-high-risk game of chicken that forced multiple companies into promoting some absolutely terrific fights.

Although Pride's demise and waning interest in fighting overseas has largely dimmed the competition, Fedor Emelianenko continues to talk of the night in spirited, reverential terms. As well he should: He's a five-time veteran.

9. Gina Carano (2007-Present)

Not women's MMA, but Gina Carano. An important distinction.

Prior to Carano's EliteXC debut in 2007, the idea of hosting female fighters was seen as too absurdly progressive for a sport that still nauseated a good portion of mass media. If they couldn't accept men exchanging blood, observers figured, seeing a woman mounted and pummeled might be cause for a defibrillator.

[+] EnlargeGina Carano
Robert Laberge/Getty ImagesWith moxie and talent, Gina Carano redefined how women in MMA are perceived.

"Conviction" -- the daughter of football great Glen Carano -- rejected that sexist attitude not by challenging it, but by ignoring it. She conducted herself as a fighter, displaying sharp skills in the ring and presenting herself as an articulate personality outside of it. Her looks? Absolutely a factor, but curiosity would've quickly given way to disgust if she had nothing to offer as an athlete.

It's rare for any sports figure to have the weight of an entire genre on one's shoulders. Even Ali, in rewriting boxing's history, was still toiling in an institution that had a past before him and would have a future after him. But try to find even one piece about the females of the sport without a mention of Carano. She didn't just define a division; she was the division.

8. The Death of Evan Tanner (2008)

Heath Herring once told me that, while mired in the Texas circuit, he came out for a fight with Evan Tanner in a ring set up over a dirt-encrusted rodeo floor. A year later, Tanner was in Japan and Pancrase. A year after that, he was in the UFC. For a man who started learning the intricacies of submission fighting through videotapes, eventually achieving a winning stretch in the UFC that culminated with a middleweight title in 2005, he was a better fighter than he probably had any right to be.

As he got older and fell in and out of shape, Tanner took to posting bizarre confessionals online, writing candidly about his issues with alcohol and diluting motivation. Seeing him in a Grizzly Adams beard, pickax slung over his shoulder, you got the sense that he wanted out of his own skin.

Tanner was found dead in September 2008, victim of extraordinary heat conditions during an ill-planned trek through Southern California desert territory. His sport had never really known tragedy in a face so familiar to them; the morbid nature of his death brought up issues about whether athletes were being as psychologically battered as they were physically -- whether some hike so far away from their sense of self-preservation that they never find their way back home.

7. Lee Murray (2002-Present)

If you can't get enough of prizefighting and crime stories, the idea of a talented puncher wrapped up in one of the biggest money heists in history should be enough to completely arrest your attention. And it did: Lee Murray's hop from mid-card attraction to antihero seized headlines from ESPN, Sports Illustrated and a full-length book, "Heist," which documents Murray's (alleged) master plan to walk away with more than $92 million in bank robbery winnings. He fled to Morocco; he was thrown in prison; he walked out of prison; he bought tacky, gold-plated furnishings; he inspired a kind of perverse reverence among observers who had to admire his audacity. Murray is not the sport's only personality, but he's perhaps the only one worth making a movie about. And that's coming soon.

6. The Irony of 'Rampage' (2008)

What really breaks your neck in fighting: Saturday, you're somebody. Sunday, you're just another body. Quinton Jackson, a man who had come from neighborhoods more dangerous than cages, learned that lesson the hard way when he lost a five-round decision to heavy underdog Forrest Griffin in a summer 2008 UFC title match.

After knocking out Chuck Liddell and knocking back Dan Henderson, Jackson looked to be settling in for a lengthy run; Griffin countered those expectations by pulling Jackson into a dogfight, scoring with kicks and frustrating Jackson with sheer persistence. Ten days later, Jackson was careening down a California roadway, evading police and risking the lives of pedestrians in an attempt to cure his ill feelings.

It nearly left him with another title: the first UFC fighter to suffer death by misadventure. TMZ hasn't missed a step since.

5. The Death of Sam Vasquez (2007)

For all the macho boasting about killing, being ready to die and training like the devil was chasing you, athletes can't really take enough punishment from four-ounce gloves to actually expire. (They'll bleed or go to sleep first.) The two who did -- Douglas Dedge in 1998 and a Korean fighter known to stateside press as "Lee" in 2005 -- received little attention beyond some borderline-selfish fretting over what the incidents would "do" to the sport's reputation. And besides, supporters reasoned, Dedge and his other trivia partner were halfway around the world. Who knows what precautions were taken?

The death of Sam Vasquez was different: It transpired in Houston under the eye of the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation, and at a time when mixed martial arts was finally entering its adolescence. Vasquez was said to have had a blood clot going into the bout; his opponent, Vince Libardi, inadvertently aggravated it, and a comatose Vasquez died in the hospital 42 days later.

The predicted hysteria over the gore-hound nature of the sport never came; even bullying journalists had to acknowledge one death in North America after 14 years of regular competition was statistically insignificant. That's little consolation to Vasquez's family.

4. Mark Kerr (2001)

Sports from basketball to boxing have had the benefit of provocative documentaries made about their personalities: It's impossible to view collegiate athletics -- and the passing smoke of NBA potential -- quite the same after "Hoop Dreams," and it's difficult to fully understand Ali's cultural imprint without a viewing of "When We Were Kings."

It's far from perfect, but John Hyams' "Smashing Machine," which premiered on HBO in January 2001, was the first sternly critical look of what men do in order to compete at the highest levels of violent spectacle. Mark Kerr, who had been feared in Brazil, the U.S. and Japan for years, trusted Hyams enough to bare his soul for the cameras. He shot in painkillers, collapsed in emotional agony after losses and eventually found himself near-comatose in a hospital bed, sobbing as friends begged him to stop polluting his body with under-the-counter courage. "Machine" was the first real proof this sport would make its share of monsters.

3. Bob Sapp (2002-2009)

Both Kimbo Slice and Brock Lesnar proved to have appeal far outside the normal fan circles, bringing in millions in revenue that might otherwise be lost to other outlets. (That UFC 100 pay-per-view just happened to be the cost of a video game -- and yes, some consumers need to make that choice.) And there is danger in omitting them from a list like this one. But in crunching hard numbers, no one -- not Lesnar, not Slice, not even the mighty Jose Canseco -- can compare to the elevation of Bob Sapp in Japan.

[+] EnlargeBob Sapp
AFP/Getty ImagesBob Sapp quickly became one of the most popular MMA fighters of the decade.

Sapp, who spun a well-worn story about being an NFL benchwarmer who once blacked out his windows out of depression, played to that country's bare instincts: They were absolutely in awe of a 375-pound giant who snarled at cameras, had shoulders like bowling balls, forearms like pins and an affected laugh -- Hah, Hah, HAH!" -- that tickled everyone in diapers to dorms.

Sapp's celebrity became exaggerated to the point that he couldn't cross the street without congesting traffic. He recorded albums. Hundreds of products bore his image: You could lose your paycheck on a Sapp slot machine, cry into your Sapp pillow, then take a Sapp multivitamin to snap out of it. Accounting for size and cultural context, it is not much of an exaggeration to call him the fifth, sixth and seventh Beatle. At his height, 54 million viewers tuned in to watch Sapp exchange with the top-heavy Akebono in 2003. But that level of audience euphoria had a price: Publicity demands siphoned training time for Sapp, and later encounters with real, hungry professionals frequently ended with Sapp's getting hurt. Today, the sun is setting on that insane appeal. He's down to a few dozen people following him on the street.

2. The Death of Pride (2007)

There is something strictly mercenary about the absorption of the competition. Driving a rival company into bankruptcy is fine, but to seize their assets and control their future -- however short -- is a different kind of achievement.

In a war fought primarily on message boards, Zuffa's UFC product in the first half of the decade was largely found lacking against the talent pool and spectacle of Dream Stage Entertainment's Pride brand. Vegas arenas with 10,000 seats? Pride could pull 20,000 or 30,000. The best fighters in the world? Chuck Liddell was squashed by Quinton Jackson in an attempt at synergy. Observers delighted in painting a picture of the UFC as the hayseed product to Pride's polished chrome.

Although a good bit of Pride's legacy has been lost to excessive nostalgia -- the promotion had its share of brutally boring, brutally stupid fights -- there was no mistaking it for anything other than a big-budget celebration of martial arts at the highest levels. But when newspapers began beating drums over alleged Yakuza involvement in the promotion, TV contracts evaporated; Zuffa, on solid financial footing thanks to "The Ultimate Fighter," digested it whole.

No one is likely to miss some of Pride's silliness -- I'm reminded of Wanderlei Silva's fighting a 0-0 Kyokushin karate stylist -- but the demise of the foreign attraction was really the last gasp of MMA as a well-kept secret. The UFC was becoming as ubiquitous as the NFL, and if you didn't like it, you were officially out of options.

1. Nevada (2001)

Zuffa's purchase of the UFC in January 2001 removed one of the biggest obstacles to the sport's survival: Bob Meyrowitz.

The former owner, who had spent years and millions bailing water from the franchise, was out of money and patience. He exited just as MMA had received crucial sanctioning in New Jersey, which had adopted a form of the Unified Rules in a major concession to the sport's safety record. Zuffa would go on to put on good shows, awful shows, great shows, a reality show and an endless stream of strategic moves that put the company on steady ground.

None of it would've been possible without Nevada's consent on July 23, 2001, to sanction mixed martial arts, a unanimous vote that ended eight years of social and political rejection. Other commissions that had previously reacted with disgust had little recourse: Nevada, the most respected athletic body in the world, had set the standard.

It's possible that with the support of both iNDemand -- the pay-per-view provider who reinstated the UFC after a years-long blackout the month prior to the approval -- and New Jersey, the UFC could have found its way without Nevada. But without the financial support, status and profits of working in the major Strip hotels and casinos, it would've been difficult (Meyrowitz, after all, couldn't survive without the state). To find a bigger jolt to the fight industry, you'd have to go back to Farnsworth and the invention of television. It was that important.

For comments, e-mail jrossen@sherdog.com

Jake Rossen is a contributor to Sherdog.com.

Jake Rossen is a contributor to ESPN.com. His byline has appeared in the New York Times, Wired.com, and numerous other outlets. He began covering mixed martial arts in 1998.