The Top 10 Stories of the Past 10 Years

10-8

By Jake Rossen Dec 23, 2009
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.

Terry Goodlad/Sherdog.com

Gina Carano
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.

“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 their 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, pickaxe 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.
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