The premier success stories in the world share one common fiber in that they all involved at least one sort of struggle. Whether it came in the form of a rough upbringing, a dark time in a person’s life or a fight to do anything as part of a major organization, every athlete that experienced any sort of success in their day needed to endure something that likely prolonged their rise to prominence, but never hindered their spirits. For major sports promotions, one source of a struggle can come from the pressures of doing business with a major entertainment outlet, as the exposure to a wider audience can cause the promotion to either consider changing up its product or change the way it does business so as to attract more viewers on a regular basis.

Mixed martial arts fans wondered if the Ultimate Fighting Championship would need to endure such a struggle once its deal with the Fox Networks began, and rightfully so. Former rival promotions EliteXC and Strikeforce got into bed with Showtime and found themselves on CBS within little to no time, but EliteXC ceased operations in the aftermath of its third and final CBS card with Kimbo Slice vs. Seth Petruzelli as the headliner, and Strikeforce never saw CBS airtime again after a 2010 event in Nashville concluded with a now-infamous brawl, which followed a successful Strikeforce middleweight title defense from then-champion Jake Shields against Dan Henderson.

In short, the MMA world wondered if the UFC would need to change the way it did business in order to stay on Fox. But as the first year on Fox began, it was business as usual. Still, the promotion did endure its share of issues, as an alarming amount of injuries negatively impacted a number of cards. As a matter of fact, Henderson planned to challenge Jon Jones for the UFC light heavyweight title at UFC 151, with Henderson entering the title fight on the heels of his instant classic with Mauricio “Shogun” Rua and Jones coming in on the heels of his UFC 145 win over Rashad Evans.

Henderson suffered an injury, however, and Jones dismissed the idea of having Chael Sonnen step in as a replacement opponent, so UFC 151 became the only canceled card in the promotion’s history. Jones later challenged Vitor Belfort and survived a first-round scare to submit the Brazilian. Although that bout stood with its own significance, the landmark fight of an injury-plagued year came during arguably the year’s best card.

UFC 148 marked yet another event held in Las Vegas and featured a UFC middleweight title defense between champion Anderson Silva and challenger Chael Sonnen. Those who know their MMA history know that, prior to Silva’s recent UFC 162 defeat to Chris Weidman, only Sonnen came close to beating Silva under the UFC banner. In fact, Sonnen dominated four rounds and looked to dominate the champion in the fifth round before submitting to a triangle-armbar from which he actually almost successfully escaped.

Coming into the rematch, Sonnen’s “truth talking” escalated, which incensed Silva to where Silva, for the first time in 32 pro bouts, actually snapped on a media teleconference and threatened Sonnen, promising to hurt him worse than anyone ever did come fight time. Once the cage door closed and all the pre-fight barbs and gestures ceased, Silva needed to back his words up.

The first round saw Silva taken down after uncharacteristically coming out as the aggressor. Sonnen controlled the first round on the ground, but Silva calmed down, knowing he needed to pick his shots. After Sonnen threw an ill-timed (and ill-advised) spinning back fist, the tide turned. Silva, who defended himself better in the rematch than in the first encounter, placed a knee to Sonnen’s chest and landed some ground-and-pound en route to a TKO win over his nemesis.

Silva went on to record a first-round TKO of Stephan Bonnar later that year at UFC 153, marking the 16th and most recent win over his now 38-fight career. Meanwhile, Sonnen declared his intention to move up to light heavyweight and challenge for Jones’ title, which he would do in 2013.

As for the bout between Silva and Sonnen, it not only received what the promotion expected from a bout tagged as “the biggest fight in UFC history,” but at 925,000 pay-per-view buys, the UFC 148 card marked the most successful outing that the UFC featured on pay-per-view, even topping the final numbers of UFC 154, headlined by UFC welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre vs. Carlos Condit and co-headlined by Johny Hendricks vs. Martin Kampmann.

Even prior to the original announcement of this weekend’s UFC 167 card, which features Hendricks challenging St-Pierre for the welterweight crown, fans couldn’t bring up 2012 without somehow making a mention of Hendricks’ knockout of Kampmann, just like they couldn’t talk about the year without bringing up Silva vs. Sonnen II. When it comes to 2012, however, people often overlook the rebirth and resurgence of former WEC lightweight champion Jamie Varner.

Varner found himself on a roller-coaster ride after he stood on the outside looking in at the former WEC talent that came in to the UFC once the WEC-UFC merger went down. Varner accumulated a 2-1 record in 2011, with the latter of the two wins and the lone loss in that year coming in catchweight bouts. After forcing Drew Fickett to submit to punches, Varner offered his services to the UFC, who needed to find an opponent for then-undefeated Edson Barboza, who originally prepared for a UFC 146 bout with Evan Dunham.

Varner concluded the journey by taking Barboza down at will, pinning him against the cage and pounding away at him until the referee intervened. The bout earned Varner another big step up in competition against crowd favorite Joe Lauzon,. It’s a fight that flies under the radar, but deserves as much credit for its impact on the UFC as any fight in the UFC’s past, present or future.

Lauzon always resonates with MMA fans because he will either finish or get finished trying, but he experienced a challenge before he finally secured the triangle choke that won him the fight in the third round. Lauzon sapped some energy away from Varner, but Varner retaliated and dropped Lauzon in the first round. The first-round engagement that followed marked the start of a ground battle that fans would not soon forget.

After the first round, Varner’s plans to take Lauzon down and slow the fight down backfired. Lauzon took the back, and from there, the drama began. Varner took flurries from Lauzon, got back up, got taken down a number of times and nearly got submitted late in round two by a Lauzon armbar. However, Varner still survived, despite looking visibly fatigued.

Still, Lauzon kept on going. Noticing the fatigue exhibited by the former WEC champion, Lauzon fought valiantly to get another submission on Varner, who defended Lauzon’s takedowns, secured a takedown of his own and further defended Lauzon’s attempts to finish from the back. Initially, when Lauzon locked in the triangle, Varner looked like he would escape it, but he tapped after Lauzon adjusted.

Although the win put Lauzon closer to that all-elusive title shot he desired, it earned both men respect. With fans able to watch the fight on Fox, everyone witnessed yet another bout that proved that the most exciting action in the promotion could take place at 155 pounds. Lauzon went on to further prove this in a gutsy performance at UFC 155 against Jim Miller, and despite losing via unanimous decision, Lauzon put on another solid outing.

Despite the success that a number of UFC fights achieved during 2012, ratings did not consistently reflect the action, leaving some to wonder if the UFC had already spread itself a bit too thin by not putting on the same caliber of cards that it once did. The cancellation of UFC 151 did not help any arguments in the UFC’s favor, but by the end of 2012, the men would get some help in taking the world by storm. It only fit that they would, after all, because behind every strong man always stands an even stronger woman, and behind the best male athletes in the world’s fastest-growing sport would lie the women that the world would get to know in the year that followed.

Photo: Anderson Silva (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)