As the UFC prepares to get its year in full swing, we take a look at the organization's potential landmark moments.
MMA’s premier league, the Ultimate Fighting Championship, is arguably at the peak of its powers. A preeminent force in all corners of the globe, the Dana White-fronted company has all but shed its subcultural roots and became an integral cog of the landscape. Experiencing a period of sustained evolution that took it from the outskirts of social acceptability and into the homes of ESPN+ viewers the world over, the past 10 years have set the stage for an exciting time in the organization’s history.
More eager than ever to skirt weight class dogma in the name of a super fight, the Endeavor regime of the UFC has the same sense of unpredictability that came with the glory days of Japan’s Pride Fighting Championship. Often referred to as the “entertainment era” by fans and commentators alike, the financial demands of putting on upwards of 35 cards a year means that MMA’s premier organization has to hurtle from one hyped bout to the next in order to retain its momentum -- all while striving to retain some adherence to rankings and other logical matchmaking factors.
With their year set to get underway on Saturday, January 18th with UFC 246, the arrival of 2020 brings a fresh batch of hypothetical scenarios that have burrowed into our brains and refused to disperse. Compiled in no particular order, it’s time to break down the fights and potential paradigm-shifting announcements that we hope to see before the year is out.
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DARREN TILL VS ROBERT WHITTAKER
When a champion or top-ranked contender feels the bitter sting of defeat, it can leave them scrambling to regroup. For both Robert “The Reaper” Whittaker and Liverpool’s favorite son Darren Till, this was a grim reality that they had to dishearteningly face in 2019. The recipients of brutal stoppages from Israel Adesanya and Jorge Masvidal respectively, Whittaker found himself in the unfamiliar terrain of the losing column for the first time since a 2014 TKO from Stephen Thompson, losing his middleweight strap in the process.
Till faced yet another setback when he was left unconscious within two rounds. Touted as a future welterweight champion at one stage, the charismatic 27-year-old from England took a daring leap by abandoning 170 in favor of pastures new. Debuting at 185 in late 2019, his back-and-forth bout against Kelvin Gastelum led him to walk away from UFC 244 with the split decision victory, instantly catapulting him up the divisional ranks.
Absent from the octagon since losing to Stylebender in his home nation, the hard-hitting Whittaker will attempt to overturn his fortunes when he fights Jared Cannonier at UFC 248 in March. If he should deliver an impressive showing, a title eliminator between himself and Till wouldn’t only be a logical next step for the division, but would promise to be an enthralling kickboxing clinic be unlikely to make it to the final bell.
ZABIT MAGOMEDSHARIPOV VS. YAIR RODRIGUEZ
For one reason or another, some fights gestate for so long that it feels like they might never arrive. Fostered by a concoction of injuries, scheduling conflicts, and other misadventures, the bout between featherweight’s destructive hot prospect “Zabeast” and Yair Rodriguez has become one of them.
Initially scheduled for UFC 228 in September of 2018, an injury that the Mexican striking specialist sustained stopped the fight in its tracks with only two weeks left to go. In the meantime, both men have continued to tear through the FW ranks, each picking up victories over Jeremy Stephens and in El Pantera’s case, doling out one of the knockouts of the decade against Zorean Zombie. Said to have been “impressed” by the dominant Zabit after his submission victory over Brandon Davis, the two are undoubtedly in contention for a shot at Alexander Volkanovski’s recently acquired title. Putting this lingering debate to rest once and for all would make perfect sense.
NUNES VS SHEVCHENKO III
After eking out the decision victory against Germaine De Randamie at UFC 245, it seemed all but a foregone conclusion that when it comes time for her retreat from the limelight, Amanda “The Lioness” Nunes will go down as the best female fighter to ever approach the cage. Since dispossessing Miesha Tate of the women’s bantamweight title at UFC 200, Nunes has looked nigh indestructible, thwarting every opponent sent her way. But if there was one recurring challenger that she just can’t evade, it’s Valentina Shevchenko.
Currently holding court as the UFC’s flyweight champ, the menacing 125-pound fighter has been laying waste to high-level competition at every turn. And if she ever had a chance to do what she’d previously failed to and dethrone Nunes in a cross-division super fight, it’s now. Operating at the absolute pinnacle of her game in the modern era, the fact that their second square-off at UFC 215 led many to call it in favor of “The Bullet” means that a third fight should promise to be the most hard-fought and explosive yet. Although Amanda has been quick to rebuff the idea of a trilogy, it would give her an opportunity to enshrine her status as women’s MMA’s all-time greatest beyond any shadow of a doubt. On the other hand, Shevchenko has been adamant that “it’s going to happen one day” and the redemption that she’s craved may still arrive.
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STYLEBENDER VS PAULO COSTA
Over the past few years, there have been mounting allegations that the UFC is incapable of producing stars of the same magnitude as a McGregor, Liddell or Rousey. Overrun with fighters that are attempting to emulate The Notorious’ trash talk-fuelled formula, it can be hard for any one fighter to truly stand out from the crowd and captivate the audience’s attention. Israel “The Last Stylebender” Adesanya is the antidote to that. A jovial, anime-loving individual capable of breath-taking feats when the time comes to throw down, the New Zealander/Nigerian’s flashy yet technically masterful style of striking offense has made him into a phenomenon in waiting.
After besting Robert “The Reaper” Whittaker in front of a hostile Australian crowd, the answer to the question of where he goes from here has remained up in the air. Yet no matter how eager the UFC is to get him to square off against Yoel Romero, this fight pales in comparison to an encounter with Paulo Costa. Better known to MMA fans as “Borrachinha,” the hulking, undefeated Brazilian boasts a record of 13-0 with a repertoire of highlight-reel finishes to his name. Ever the showman, Stylebender has belittled him as a “Ricky Martin wannabe” and “a swimsuit model” before claiming that he wasn’t impressed by his basic skillset. Coupled with Costa taking things into personal terrain by labeling Adesanya a “pussy African,” it seems that their eventual showdown will yield nothing short of fireworks.
MCGREGOR VS MASIVDAL
No matter how much we cling to the concepts of honour, integrity and the valor of competition in martial arts, the simple fact is that money fights keep the MMA world spinning. And when it comes to lucrative contests that could actually live up to the hype, they don’t come much bigger than Jorge Masvidal Vs “The Notorious” Conor McGregor. Peering back a few years, the “Gamebred Fighter” from Miami wouldn’t have even been a speck on McGregor’s radar and may have gotten a similar dismissal to the one Jeremy Stephens received when attempting to throw his hat in the ring for a fight with the former double champ.
A resilient and obscenely tough competitor that cut his teeth on the street-fighting circuit alongside the late Kimbo Slice, Masvidal had some big wins over accomplished brawlers such as Donald Cerrone and Ross Pearson but had never perforated the glass ceiling until 2019. Widely recognized as the fighter of the year, Jorge went on a tear, seeing off Darren Till and Ben Askren in showstopping fashion before capturing the newly minted BMF title from Nate Diaz at UFC 244.
Now with McGregor returning to the fold, he spoke about the chance to pit his skills against those of Masvidal in an interview with The Mac Life, stating, “Yeah, I’d face Jorge. I’m not going to 170 just for Jorge. He hasn’t got really anything. I wasn’t happy with how that bad motherfucker thing (BMF title fight against Nate Diaz] ended. In my opinion, that bout is unfinished. It was only getting into a good bout I believe.” Seemingly assured in the belief that Jorge would present no problem for him, the Gamebred fighter is enticed with the financial rewards that this bout would spawn and would be willing to turn down a welterweight title fight just to make this blockbuster main event happen.
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COVINGTON VS WOODLEY
When two outspoken fighters collide, the result can often be incendiary. The verbal jabs have certainly come thick and fast between Tyron Woodley and Colby Covington. Regularly pictured with a MAGA hat atop his head, Colby has willingly adopted the role of a leading agitator within the MMA world and has delighted in watching the vast majority of the fanbase rooting for his demise. But whether you love or loathe him, you can’t deny the mix of grit, determination and talent that Colby has displayed, not least of all during his recent welterweight championship opportunity against the reigning welterweight king Kamaru “The Nigerian Nightmare” Usman.
Coming away with a speculated broken jaw, Covington coming up short against the champ means that the next logical step is an eventual collision against former WW titan Tyron Woodley. With Covington claiming that he’s “whooped” Woodley during previous sparring sessions and T-Wood openly upfront about his disdain for the man that he sees as a “disgrace” to the sport, their combined wrestling pedigrees, finishing abilities and the vats of bad blood between them should ensure that their eventual collision will be a fascinating contest.
THE RETURN OF GSP
When a fighter takes a hiatus from competition, there’s often a lot of speculation over where they’ll still have their killer instinct upon return or if the dreaded “ring rust” will set in. Four years since he’d last set foot in the octagon, Georges St Pierre returned to fight Michael Bisping for the middleweight title at UFC 217. The story was simple: new era, new weight class, same old GSP.
Capturing a belt with the ease of a man that’d never left, he then declared that once again, he’d be bowing out at the top. After another extended reprieve from the competition, the rumor mill has ramped up that the legendary French-Canadian may return for one more go-around. “I don’t want to speak for the guy. I don’t think he’s done,” declared his longtime coach Firas Zahabi at the start of the year. “I just think he’s so competitive that one day he’s going to see a guy that everyone thinks is unbeatable and then he’s going to want to come back. Khabib is one of those guys. But it’d have to be a 165-pound fight. Will the UFC do it, that’s the question.”
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HENRY CEJUDO VS JOSE ALDO
After he stepped in to face Marlon Moraes and capture the vacant bantamweight strap at UFC 238 in the process, Olympic gold medallist and reigning flyweight champ Henry Cejudo set himself on the course to become one of the sport’s undeniable greats. As opposed to fighting a canonical challenger to either of his straps, Cejudo has set his sights on fighting a legend of the octagon in Brazil’s Jose Aldo. Renowned as one of the greatest featherweights of all time, Aldo's storied run at the top of the 145-pound division was defined by hard-fought wars, an impressive list of scalps and the fiercest leg kicks in the history of the UFC or WEC.
A divisive move that’s rubbed everyone from Petr Yan to Patricio Friere the wrong way, the nostalgic side of our brains can’t resist the allure of seeing Aldo take one final stab at the upper echelons of the sport. Although it may be a loss on paper, it’s arguable that Jose defeated Marlon Moraes in his last bout and it’s hard to deny that out of the current pack of challengers that’s pursuing Cejudo, the Brazilian legend will undoubtedly bring the most eyes towards the bantamweight title.
THE RETURN OF NICK DIAZ
Brash, fearless and dangerous whether on his feet or off his back, Nick Diaz is one of those transcendent competitors that could take a casual viewer and morph them into a diehard MMA obsessive. Dormant ever since his exhibition against “The Spider” Anderson Silva in January 2015, the appetite to see the Stockton native return and end his career on a less sour note has refused to subside. Freed from the suspension dramas that he’s been battling with over recent years, his little brother Nate’s recent defeat at the hands of one Jorge Masvidal galvanised something within Nick that hasn’t reared its head in many years.
Enraged by Masvidal’s claim that he’d “baptised” Nate, Nick’s manager Kevin Mubenga has made Diaz’s stipulations known to the public; “Nick has already begun training for the Jorge Masvidal fight. He intends on fighting in late April or May 5th, Cinco de Mayo, in Arlington, Texas at AT&T Stadium.” Exciting as this prospect may be, what remains to be seen is whether Nick can recapture the relentless pace and meticulous boxing that he’d once had after so many years on the side-lines --- but there’s no denying it’d be a marquee fight for the organization.
JON JONES VS. STIPE MIOCIC
In March of 2019, UFC light heavyweight champ and general GOAT contender Jon “Bones” Jones posed a query to his Twitter followers: “don’t think you guys are ready to witness @stipemiocic and I, would July give you all enough time?” Six months on from his proposed date for a fight between the two, it’s safe to say that it was more than enough.
Alluded to since 2017 when Stipe felt the need to remind Bones that he was “the baddest man on the planet,” the concept of the LHW king squaring off against the reigning heavyweight champion is the stuff of fantasy MMA matchmaking dreams. Plus, where it’s often hard to envision Jones on the losing end of a fight, Stipe’s knock-down-drag-out style is reminiscent of one of the only men to truly give Bones a run for his money in Alexander Gustafsson. Add in Miocic’s size and this could be the toughest test that Jonny Bones has ever faced in his storied career.