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Top 10 MMA Stories of the Decade

Kevin Iole
Combat columnist
Thanks in large part to Ronda Rousey, women's MMA has become a major storyline in the 2010s. (Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)

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There is rarely a slow news day in mixed martial arts, so picking the top 10 stories from the last 10 years in MMA is a tough task.

But I think I’ve nailed it with this group of 10. These stories illustrate the growth of MMA into a mainstream sport as well as illustrate the complexities of stardom in the 21st century.

Here we go:

1. Talent agency WME/Endeavor buys UFC for $4.2 billion

The Fertitta family, which bought the UFC in 2001 for $2 million and essentially saved the sport, sourced on the business and opted to sell the company. Rumors abounded for the first six months of 2016, which were confirmed on the day after UFC 200.

The company was sold to talent agency WME/Endeavor for a then-record $4.2 billion. It was a monumental sale and began a new era in the company’s history.

2. UFC lands TV deals with Fox and then ESPN

The growth of MMA was never illustrated better in the UFC’s TV rights deals. It first left Spike (now Paramount Network) for Fox in 2012, giving it not only network television exposure but an all-sports network in FS1 that would make it one of the centerpieces of its programming.

That deal lasted from 2012 through 2018. When it expired, the UFC moved to ESPN, getting the exposure that having its programming air on the nation’s largest all-sports network brings. 

The UFC also struck a deal with ESPN to sell its pay-per-view, giving the UFC guaranteed money and no risk.

3. Dana White adds women to the UFC

Women were fighting in other MMA promotions for many years, and a 2009 bout in Strikeforce between Gina Carano and Cris “Cyborg” Santos (now Justino) headlined a major card on Showtime.

UFC president Dana White had famously said he’d never have women fight in the UFC. But seeing Ronda Rousey changed his mind and in 2013, women began competing in the UFC.

The women’s fights turned out to be hugely popular and the UFC had expanded to four women’s weight classes by the end of the decade.

4. The meteoric rise and shocking fall of Ronda Rousey

Rousey won a bronze medal at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, but came home and had nothing to do with her judo success. She was briefly homeless and was working as a bartender.

When she decided to take up MMA, her life changed forever. She used her arm bar to submit opponents quickly and became a worldwide sensation. She won the Strikeforce women’s title in her fifth pro bout and then became the biggest star in the UFC, headlining pay-per-views. She was routinely winning fights in less than a minute and was in demand everywhere. 

She starred in movies, hosted “Saturday Night Live,” wrote a best-selling autobiography and appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated as the world’s most dominant athlete, as well as on the cover of its swimsuit issue.

Her 2015 loss to Holly Holm was one of the biggest upsets in the sport’s history and sent shockwaves through the sports world. She returned 13 months later, but the results were even worse, as she was knocked out in 48 seconds by Amanda Nunes. That ended her fighting career, as she became a pro wrestler.

5. Conor McGregor becomes a superstar

Conor McGregor was an unemployed plumber on public assistance at the start of 2013. By the end of the decade, he was in the biggest fights in UFC history and was the biggest star in the history of the sport.

He won the featherweight and lightweight titles, becoming the first fighter to hold two belts simultaneously. He went on to box superstar Floyd Mayweather in a lucrative PPV bout.

He only fought once in the last three years of the decade, though, as he focused on his outside-the-cage businesses and found himself in and out of trouble.

6. The Jon Jones saga

Jon Jones in 2011 not only became the youngest UFC champion in history when he defeated Mauricio “Shogun” Rua to win the light heavyweight title, but he would go on to become recognized as the greatest fighter in the sport’s history.

As dominant as he was in the cage, though, his career was just as checkered outside of it. He had numerous run-ins with the law, and was arrested after a hit-and-run accident in Albuquerque, New Mexico, with a pregnant woman.

He also failed two anti-doping tests and entered into drug rehabilitation briefly after testing positive for cocaine.

None of it impacted him in the cage, though. He was 16-0 with a no-contest and had 13 wins in title fights.

7. UFC hires USADA

The UFC in 2015 hired USADA to implement the stiffest anti-doping program in professional sports. UFC fighters were suddenly eligible to be randomly tested 24-7-365.

Former owner Lorenzo Fertitta warned it would get worse before it got better, and many top stars, including Jon Jones and Anderson Silva, had test failures. 

8. Scott Coker sells Strikeforce to UFC, then takes over at Bellator

Scott Coker developed a reputation in the first decade of the century for having a keen eye for talent, and he had elite talent such as Ronda Rousey, Miesha Tate, Amanda Nunes, Nick Diaz and Daniel Cormier come through his Strikeforce roster.

It became the major alternative to the UFC.

But Coker sold the company to the UFC in 2011. After working for the UFC for several years, he left to become president of Bellator. There, he again ran a promotion seen as the leading alternative to the UFC.

9. Conor McGregor boxes Floyd Mayweather in mega-PPV

This might have been the first fight made via social media. Mayweather was already retired but regarded as among the greatest fighters of all-time when UFC champion Conor McGregor began campaigning for a fight against him.

At first, both sides laughed it off, but the media and fans took it seriously and soon the fight became a reality. There was an elaborate pre-fight media tour that went from Los Angeles to Toronto to New York to London.

The fight did 4.3 million on pay-per-view and generated a $55.4 million gate.

10. Emelianenko shows his age

Fedor Emelianenko began an MMA legend in the first decade of this century, going 31-1 with a no-contest, winning 27 fights in a row and became the standard by which other MMA fighters are judged.

But the new decade didn’t treat him as well. He suffered a seismic upset to Fabricio Werdum in 2010 when he was submitted with a triangle choke, then lost back-to-back fights to Antonio “Big Foot” Silva and Dan Henderson. 

He’s 7-5 in this decade and nearing the end of a legendary career.