In 2023, mixed martial arts as a whole was full of milestones. Promotions celebrated their birthdays, many prominent fighters retired, and championships changed hands.
Most prominently, the UFC turned 30. During its anniversary year, much happened. Sean Strickland and Alexa Grasso, among others, authored massive upsets to win titles against dominant opposition whom many believed they stood no chance against.
But the events that transpired inside the cage were not the only ones to dominate the MMA landscape. These five moments that happened outside of it serve as a reminder that fighting is not the only thing that keeps the sport active in the consciousness of its fandom.
PFL buys Bellator to create MMA powerhouse in 2023
For as long as mixed martial arts has existed, the UFC has had a near-monopoly in its scene, not unlike its current sister company WWE in professional wrestling. Pride and Strikeforce were once thought of as near-peer competitors until Dana White and the Zuffa brothers bought them out.
But in 2015, the UFC began its aforementioned Reebok deal, and millions upon millions of sponsorship money disappeared from the accounts of many fighters, and they started seeking other options. The biggest of them was Bellator.
Founded in 2008 by Bjorn Rebney, the California-based promotion had established itself as a cult classic with its annual tournament-based seasons that would produce legends like Ben Askren, Patricio Pitbull, and Michael Chandler. But it did not truly hit the wider consciousness until 2014, when Viacom (today Paramount Global) acquired it from Rebney and put former Strikeforce CEO Scott Coker at the helm.
Coker immediately undertook an ambitious approach, signing UFC castoffs like Rampage Jackson and Tito Ortiz to attract as much attention as possible. Still, detractors thought it was too ambitious to succeed - until the likes of Rory MacDonald and Benson Henderson decided that their meager Reebok coupons were not enough and saw a life-changing opportunity.
Eventually, however, the UFC just proved too strong to surpass, and even Bellator's later strategy of turning wrestling prospects like Aaron Pico into homegrown MMA stars was just not working as well as expected. Then in 2023, erstwhile-broadcaster Showtime announced that it would stop broadcasting sports, including boxing and MMA, raising doubts over its future.
Enter the PFL. The former World Series of Fighting was not the first to use a seasonal tournament format, but it arguably had the most success, most notably spawning the career of Kayla Harrison. On November 20, it announced that it had acquired Bellator, creating a massively stacked "super-promotion" boasting a wealth of immensely talented champions and contenders.
Only time will tell whether this succeeds, but for now, MMA could be in for a massive paradigm shift not seen since the Strikeforce-UFC merger.