Late in 2010, the UFC made an announcement that would alter the organization forever when it declared that the World Extreme Cagefighting promotion (WEC) would hold its last event on December 16 of that year.
That was the bad news for the legion of fans who loved the lighter weight action taking place in the blue cage. The good news was that the top fighters from the 155-pound weight class, including Anthony Pettis and Benson Henderson, were coming to the UFC, and even better, the UFC was going to introduce the featherweight and bantamweight divisions as well. That meant fighters like Urijah Faber, Jose Aldo, Renan Barao, Demetrious Johnson, Dominick Cruz and Miguel Angel Torres were going to be gracing the Octagon in 2011 and beyond.
But first, there would be some housekeeping to take care of, which meant that Cruz’ last WEC title defense against Scott Jorgensen at WEC 53 was going to double as a UFC title match, with the winner becoming the first UFC bantamweight champion. Cruz won, picking up a second belt. Also moving over with a new championship belt was Brazil’s Aldo, who was now the UFC featherweight champion.
With two new divisions and more events than ever, cards were filling up fast in order to keep up, and Aldo was slated to defend his new belt against Josh Grispi in the first event of 2011 in Las Vegas on January 1. Unfortunately, an injury scrapped Aldo from the bout, and upstart newcomer Dustin Poirier removed Grispi from the number one contender’s slot at UFC 125 with a shutout decision win.
Yet even with all these changes, the epic lightweight title fight that headlined the card more than made up for everything. By all rights, Frankie Edgar never should have made it out of the first round of that title defense against Gray Maynard. But after surviving multiple knockdowns in the opening frame, the UFC lightweight champion roared back to retain his belt with a five-round draw in an exciting bout that kicked off the 2011 fight year in style.
A month later, it was Anderson Silva’s time to shine, and after a tumultuous 2010 campaign in which he drew the wrath of UFC President Dana White for a lackluster effort against Demian Maia and then nearly lost his middleweight title to Chael Sonnen before roaring back to win in the fifth round, he was back in top-notch “Spider” form in knocking out his heated rival Vitor Belfort with a first-round front kick that will be immortalized in UFC lore forever.
On that card, rising star Jon Jones defeated fellow up and comer Ryan Bader and was then presented with an interesting proposition following the bout. Told that his teammate Rashad Evans was injured and unable to fight light heavyweight champion Mauricio “Shogun” Rua on March 19 in Newark, New Jersey, Jones was then offered the bout on short notice. “Bones” accepted, and six weeks later, the New Yorker was ready for the biggest fight of his career.
There was just one hitch, and that was the attempted robbery in a Paterson, New Jersey park that Jones and his coaches Greg Jackson and Mike Winklejohn helped foil. After that incident, it was remarkable that the challenger was able to keep his focus, but he did, stopping Rua in the third round to become, at 23, the youngest champion in UFC history.
While Jones etched his name in the record books for the first – but not the last – time, one of the UFC’s longest-reigning titleholders, welterweight boss Georges St-Pierre, made history of a different sort at UFC 129 on April 30, as he helped bring in over 55,000 fans – a UFC record at the time – to Rogers Centre in Toronto to watch him retain his title for the sixth time. Also in action that night was Aldo, who defended his UFC title for the first time by defeating Mark Hominick, and Lyoto Machida, who sent Randy Couture into retirement with a highlight reel head kick knockout.
In June, the Ultimate Fighter 13 finale card saw Tony Ferguson pick up a UFC contract while veteran Clay Guida spoiled Pettis’ UFC debut in the main event. Later that month, top heavyweight contender Junior Dos Santos stamped his ticket for a shot at champion Cain Velasquez with a punishing three-round win over comebacking Shane Carwin at UFC 131 in Vancouver, British Columbia.
Several intriguing storylines were flowing around the promotion’s traditional Independence Day weekend event in Las Vegas on July 2, and each one delivered. In the main event, Dominick Cruz’ first UFC appearance was a successful one, as he outpointed Urijah Faber in their long-awaited bantamweight rematch. Plus, Chris Leben scored the biggest win of his career, knocking out Wanderlei Silva in 27 seconds, and former light heavyweight champion Tito Ortiz turned back the clock for one emotional night, as he upset Bader, submitting him in under two minutes.
Looking to keep the momentum going from that stirring victory, Ortiz stepped up on short notice to face Evans in a rematch of their UFC 73 contest. This time there would be no emotional win for Ortiz, as he was stopped by “Suga” in the second round of their UFC 133 main event in Philadelphia on August 6.
Later that month, the UFC’s international tour brought them to Brazil for the first time since 1998, and UFC 134 in Rio de Janeiro on August 27 was a good one for the home team, as Anderson Silva (over Yushin Okami), Mauricio “Shogun” Rua (over Forrest Griffin) and “Minotauro” Nogueira (over Brendan Schaub) all emerged victorious in emphatic fashion, thrilling the Brazilian fans that packed HSBC Arena.
At UFC 135 on September 24, the newly-crowned Jones successfully defended his 205-pound title for the first time, submitting Quinton “Rampage” Jackson on a night that saw Hall of Famer Matt Hughes compete in the Octagon for the last time, as he was stopped in the first round by Josh Koscheck.
October saw Cruz defeat Demetrious Johnson to retain his bantamweight title, Edgar and Maynard engaged in another classic before Edgar knocked out “The Bully” to end their trilogy, Aldo turned back Kenny Florian in a featherweight title fight, and Nick Diaz pounded out a win over BJ Penn. It was all compelling stuff, but seemingly a prelude to a huge November 12 event in Anaheim that changed the landscape of the sport forever.
Earlier in 2011, on August 18, the UFC announced a landmark deal with FOX that would put the promotion on network television, as well as on other FOX channels. This is what you would call a game changer.
The first FOX event wasn’t even scheduled to be part of the deal, but the network brass was eager to introduce the UFC to their audience, so Cain Velasquez’ title defense against Junior Dos Santos was aired live on network television, the first time that had happened in UFC history. That was great news for the sport and for Junior Dos Santos, who stopped Velasquez in just 64 seconds to become a world heavyweight champion.
With momentum at an all-time high, it was fitting that the promotion’s next Pay-Per-View event - UFC 139 in San Jose, California on November 19 – produced perhaps the greatest fight of all-time, as former PRIDE legends Rua and Dan Henderson engaged in a five-round, back and forth classic that had more twists and turns than a Hollywood thriller. “Hendo” emerged as the winner after 25 minutes of battle, but there were no losers in that one.
The week before Jones made another successful defense of his title against Lyoto Machida at UFC 140 on December 10, John Dodson and Diego Brandao became the next Ultimate Fighters after winning their final season 14 bouts in Las Vegas. Little did anyone know that one of the fighters who lost in the finals, TJ Dillashaw, would go on to become a world champion less than three years later.
Also making the news in 2011 was the UFC’s purchase of the Strikeforce organization in March, and while the San Jose-based promotion continued to run its own shows, one of its top stars, heavyweight Alistair Overeem made his way to the Octagon to close out the year in a UFC 141 main event against the returning Brock Lesnar. It was a debut to remember for “The Reem,” as he knocked Lesnar out in less than three minutes on December 30, capping off another historic year for the UFC.
Dan Henderson W5 Mauricio “Shogun” Rua
Frankie Edgar Draw 5 Gray Maynard II
Ben Henderson W3 Clay Guida
Dominick Cruz W5 Urijah Faber II
Frankie Edgar KO4 Gray Maynard III
Cheick Kongo KO1 Pat Barry
Sam Stout KO1 Yves Edwards
John Makdessi KO3 Kyle Watson
Johny Hendricks KO1 Jon Fitch
Anderson Silva KO1 Vitor Belfort
Frank Mir Wsub1 Minotauro Nogueira
Chan Sung Jung Wsub1 Leonard Garcia
Pablo Garza Wsub1 Yves Jabouin
Joe Lauzon Wsub1 Curt Warburton
Nate Diaz Wsub1 Takanori Gomi
A version of this piece appeared in UFC: A Visual History, by Thomas Gerbasi