It’s a new year, so Combat Press is taking a look back at the best of MMA in 2018. Throughout the next few weeks, Combat Press will announce its award winners in multiple categories, covering everything from the action in the cage to the biggest stories surrounding the sport.
In 2018, several global MMA promotions made headlines in their attempt to grow a reputation as one of the most elite combat-sports organizations in the world. None of that would be possible without the companies’ executives, who are much more than just a public face of the organization. These men and women are largely responsible for handling the behind-the-scenes negotiations that lead to the headline-making announcements and deals that can dramatically enhance their respective promotion’s standing in the MMA world. The three people who had particularly impressive years as the head of their organizations are Rizin Fighting Federation’s Nobuyuki Sakakibara, Bellator MMA’s Scott Coker, and ONE Championship’s Chatri Sityodtong.
Sakakibara, the former president of Pride FC, founded Rizin in 2015. In only four years, he has built the promotion into the most recognizable Japanese combat-sports promotion worldwide. Following a similar model that made Pride successful from 1997-2007, Rizin blends high-level bouts between elite fighters with jaw-dropping match-ups that don’t seem to make much sense to U.S. fight fans. These non-traditional fights draw in fans from outside Japan that probably wouldn’t otherwise tune in. In the Process, these fans get exposure to the world-class fighters also taking part in the event. Traditionally, New Year’s Eve is the biggest night in Japanese MMA, and 2018 was no exception. Rizin held a boxing exhibition between all-time great boxer Floyd Mayweather Jr. and surging young kickboxer Tenshin Nasukawa. Sakakibara deserves recognition for being able to negotiate any deal whatsoever with the Money Team. Mayweather scored the TKO of the much smaller Nasukawa within the first round, but the publicity alone made the contest a success and opened the eyes of a new, younger generation of fans who only know Pride from replays and second-hand accounts. Kyoji Horiguchi also defeated Bellator bantamweight Darrion Caldwell on the card, marking the highest-profile cross-promotional fight in over a decade. Sakakibara ensured that Rizin made waves and has fans waiting to see what’s coming next for the premier organization in Japan.
Coker is a lifelong martial artist who turned his passion for MMA into the Strikeforce promotion that produced several fighters that would go on to be champions in the UFC, including Daniel Cormier, Luke Rockhold and Ronda Rousey. After Strikeforce was bought by the UFC, Coker eventually made his way into the role of president for Bellator. He has largely righted the ship and given legitimacy to Bellator as a world-class MMA organization by signing highly sought-after free agents and instituting the tournament-style Grand Prix events that helped make Strikeforce a success. The year 2018 marked the beginning of landmark tournaments in the heavyweight and welterweight divisions. These tournaments combine the fan-friendly format with some of the elite recently signed fighters, including current welterweight champion and former UFC title challenger Rory MacDonald and current light heavyweight and heavyweight champ Ryan Bader. Two of the biggest free-agent signings in the organization’s history, these two fighters will be paramount (no pun intended) to Bellator’s ability to draw in a larger audience of casual fans through the name recognition these fighters gained with their success in the UFC. With the introduction of the Grand Prix events and Coker allowing the aforementioned Caldwell to fight Horiguchi in the Rizin cross-promotion, 2018 can largely be considered the biggest year for Bellator as the company sought to establish itself as a legitimate competitor to the UFC.
Adding former Dream, Bellator and UFC lightweight champion Eddie Alvarez and highly touted prospect Sage Northcutt would have been enough to put an MMA executive in the conversation for the 2018 Combat Press “Executive of the Year” award. However, these moves largely became footnotes in 2018. This is because of an unprecedented move in which former UFC flyweight champion and pound-for-pound great Demetrious “Mighty Mouse” Johnson was “traded” to ONE Championship for former Bellator champion and world-class wrestler Ben Askren. The man who was behind the landmark deal was ONE founder and chairman Chatri Sityodtong. Johnson recently lost a controversial split decision to Henry Cejudo, thereby relinquishing the belt that he had held since its inception. The loss, combined with his ongoing feud with UFC President Dana White, opened the door for ONE to try to sign the legendary fighter who is still in or near the prime of his career at age 32. It also didn’t hurt that Mighty Mouse had a familiar face within ONE: his longtime coach Matt Hume serves as VP of Operations for the company. Johnson was in the middle of his UFC contract, prohibiting him from fighting in any other organization. Finding a way to get him out of that contract would be the most impressive part of Sityodtong’s orchestration of the trade.
Not unlike Johnson, Askren had long been at odds with the UFC’s White. The two men took shots at each other in the media. White famously criticized Askren’s fighting style by saying that when Ambien can’t sleep it takes Ben Askren. Askren has never been one to bite his tongue, and he repeatedly called White a liar, insecure and bitter, among other insults. Many MMA fans and even UFC commentator Joe Rogan considered Askren’s absence from the UFC one of the biggest travesties in MMA history. Undefeated in 19 professional fights, Askren is considered one of the greatest fighters never to fight in the UFC. After recently declaring his retirement. Askren seemed unlikely To ever join the UFC roster. At the time of his retirement, “Funky” had two fights left on his contract with ONE. However, it was clear he would only fight again if it was in the UFC for a chance to cement his legacy among the greatest of all time.
Sityodtong was able to work with the UFC on a deal that was almost unthinkable, and each promotion agreed to release these fighters from their respective contracts so they could sign with the other organization. Never seen before in MMA, it was no easy task for Sityodtong to lead the charge to make this trade a reality. The addition of Johnson while also opening a new avenue for interaction between combat-sports organizations will go down as one of the most significant developments in fight-organization history. It also makes Sityodtong our 2018 selection as “Executive of the Year.”
Other finalists: Scott Coker (Bellator MMA), Nobuyuki Sakakibara (Rizin Fighting Federation)
Make sure you check out the rest of the Combat Press 2018 MMA Award winners.