UFC in 2019: A Brief Preview

14 Jan , 2019,
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Two years have passed since Zuffa – the former owners of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, who were instrumental in bringing UFC and the sport of MMA as a whole to it’s current state – have sold the company and turned the reigns over to the new owners, WME-IMG. While the new ownership kept the long time President Dana White at the helm, many things have changed under the WME banner: the match makers and overall approach to match-making, the broadcast team, expansion of women’s weight classes, and of course the ever-changing stream of champions – regular, interim, multiple-weight-division, disputed and undisputed. The highlights of 2018 included Khabib Nurmagomedov defeating Conor McGregor in the highest-selling Pay-Per-View (PPV) event in UFC history, Daniel Cormier winning and defending the heavyweight title while simultaneously holding the light-heavyweight belt, and Amanda Nunes ending Cris Cyborg’s 13-year undefeated streak  and becoming the first woman to earn the “champ-champ” accolade. But there is a flip side to every coin: Khabib’s win was followed by a near-brawl between the fighters’ corners, resulting in a yet-to-be determined punishment for the lightweight champ, which does not help clean up the already confusing title picture at 155 lbs. Cormier was forced to give up his light-heavyweight title to pave way for the return of his nemesis Jon ‘Bones’ Jones – which turned into a huge fiasco due to Jon’s continued inability to pass a PED test, and the UFC’s willingness to sweep it all under the rug. Nunes’ win (or more precisely, Cyborg’s loss) raised serious questions about the viability of women’s featherweight division. And I haven’t even mentioned the first ever fighter trade between major MMA organizations, as UFC released Demetrious ‘Mighty Mouse’ Johnson to fight for Singapore-based ONE Championship promotion, in return for acquiring the services of welterweight wrestling prodigy Ben Askren.

The only thing that remains constant in the world of MMA is the inevitability of change. This may be mostly due to it still being a relatively new sport which is trying to establish it’s long-term identity. The behind-the-scenes turmoil only adds to unpredictability of what is already an inherently unpredictable sport in terms of fight outcomes: the fact that there are so many ways to win a mixed martial arts bout makes it significantly more likely to see unexpected outcomes in MMA than boxing, or any other combat sport with a more restrictive rule set. And don’t even get me started on MMA judging: if a relatively close bout goes the distance, you might as well flip a coin to predict the judges’ decision. This makes MMA a tricky sport to bet on; however it also makes the reward sweeter when you do get it right. It also makes watching the fights that much more exciting when you have something riding on the outcome. So if you think that you can predict the winner of the next big fight and are willing to put your money where your mouth is, there are many resources available to place a bet online. With all that in mind, here are some of my thoughts on what 2019 will hold for the UFC.

A New Broadcast Partner

In the early 2000’s, when I first started following MMA, Pay-Per-View was the only way to watch UFC events – and usually only 5-6 fights from each event were broadcast on PPV. This changed in 2005 when UFC signed a deal with Spike TV to broadcast ‘The Ultimate Fighter’ reality series, prelims for PPV events, as well as a number of Spike-exclusive events which came to be known as ‘UFC Fight Nights’. The partnership with Spike had a tremendous impact in boosting the popularity of the fledgling sport, and by 2011 UFC was ready to move on to a bigger television platform: the Fox family of networks.  The contract with Fox was for a seven-year term, and included an annual handful of events on ‘Big Fox’, as well as prelims and numerous Fight Nights broadcast on various Fox affiliates: mainly Fox Sports 1 but occasionally spilling into FS2, FX, and FXX. In 2013, UFC added their own streaming service branded ‘UFC Fight Pass’ into the mix, which was used to show early prelims, an occasional exclusive event, past fight archives, as well as content from Invicta FC and several other smaller  MMA and grappling organizations. The partnership with Fox produced mixed results: the popularity of the UFC and the sport as whole seemingly fell off a bit from the peak days and while UFC usually garnered respectable ratings for the cable events, the PPV numbers were flagging and the ratings of events broadcast on the main Fox channel were not up to par for prime-time network television.  And so when WME-IMG asked for a significantly higher price for renewing the broadcast rights in hopes of recouping their $4 billion investment in UFC, Fox understandably balked.

Fortunately, another network was able to come to terms with WME, and so in 2019 ESPN will become the new broadcast home of the UFC. However the majority of non-PPV UFC content will be streamed on the ESPN+ network, instead of being televised on the ESPN cable/satellite channel. UFC and ESPN seem heavily invested into the streaming service: of the 8 events made official so far for the first quarter of 2019, two will be televised on PPV, one on ESPN, and the rest on ESPN+. To make things more confusing for the viewer, the prelims for all events will be televised on ESPN, while the ‘early prelims’ formerly streamed on Fight Pass will be on ESPN+. So for these ESPN+ exclusive Fight Nights, the fans will have to switch back and forth between ESPN+ and ESPN if they want to catch all the fights. The future of Fight Pass remains unclear at this point.

Fewer Weight Classes

Another thing that was very different when I first started watching UFC was the number of weight classes.  In 2002, the UFC only had three official divisions: heavyweight, light-heavyweight, and welterweight. The promotion previously featured lightweight and middleweight divisions, but both were disbanded following contractual disputes with the divisional champions. Eventually these weight classes were brought back and over time developed into flourishing 155-lbs and 185-lbs divisions that we have today. When Zuffa bought out WEC and merged WEC fighters into the UFC roster, the featherweight and bantamweight divisions were introduced. In 2012 the flyweight division was brought into the fold, and the following year women’s bantamweight division was introduced due to popularity of Ronda Rousey. Eventually the women’s weight classes were expanded to include flyweight, featherweight, and finally strawweight.

Now, it looks like the trend of expanding weight classes is being reversed, as the UFC’s lightest men’s division and heaviest women’s division are both on life support, with the plug imminently to be pulled on both. After the long time flyweight champion Demetrious ‘Mighty Mouse’ Johnson lost his title in a close decision to Henry Cejudo, UFC worked out an unusual arrangement with ONE Championship, “trading” the services of Johnson for Ben Askren. DJ’s release heralded the end of the flyweight division, which apparently never fully gained traction with fans. All flyweights signed to UFC roster have been either released or asked to move up to bantamweight, with the exception of champion Henry Cejudo who will be defending his title against bantamweight champ TJ Dillashaw on January 19th on the first ESPN+ event, and Joseph Benavidez and Dustin Ortiz who will face off on the undercard of Cejudo-Dillashaw. TJ Dillashaw has been boasting that he’s Dana White’s assassin, sent to kill off the flyweight division. There is no telling of what will happen if Cejudo retains the title, but either way things are not looking promising for flyweights at the moment.

Women’s featherweight division is in even more dire straights. This has always been an anemic division, consisting of Cristiane ‘Cyborg’ Justino, a handful of over-the-hill or just plain mediocre fighters, and a few bantamweights who decided to take a chance moving up in weight to attempt dethroning the long reigning queen of WMMA. UFC wanted to sign Cyborg but did not have a division for her; they gave her two catch weight fights at 140 lbs with the hopes of easing her into the bantamweight division but when it became clear that Cyborg is just not capable of making 135 lbs, UFC brass caved in and created a featherweight division just to keep her around and put a title belt around her waist. Cyborg won the title against a bantamweight, defended it twice against bantamweights, and finally was brutally knocked out by another bantamweight in Amanda Nunes in her third attempted title defense. With Cyborg out of the picture, and no increase in the number of elite female fighters who are not able to make 135 lbs, it becomes clear as day that the featherweight division serves no purpose; in fact it has been removed from official UFC rankings immediately after UFC 232. I really can’t blame Dana White and the WME brass for shutting down a division which should have never been in the UFC in the first place. The flyweight ordeal on the other hand, I am still baffled by.

More Interim Titles

Don’t get me wrong, interim titles have always been around. At times they are a necessary evil. However, during the Zuffa era, they were reserved for rare occasions when the reigning champion was unable or unwilling to defend his title for an extended period of time, due to a contractual dispute, a serious injury, or other extenuating circumstances. In WME-UFC, interim titles are handed out like candy – and taken away just as easily. Just ask Colby Covington or Tony Ferguson. The fast and loose treatment of interim belts, and the fact that so many champions are now chasing after the ‘champ-champ’ status – which inevitably results in one of the titles being vacated, as it’s not realistic for a fighter to defend belts in multiple divisions with any kind of reasonable frequency – greatly devalues the championship titles, and makes it nearly impossible to trace continuous lineages. It’s gotten to the point where it’s difficult to say which UFC champions can be truly considered undisputed. Expect more of the same in 2019.

More PED Test Failures

File this one under ‘what the hell were they thinking?’ or perhaps under ‘money talks and bullshit walks’. In my opinion, the biggest fiasco that UFC endured in 2018 was the series of events leading up to Jon Jones’ fight at UFC 232. A quick recap: Jones was set to return to action at UFC 232 in a rematch against Alexander Gustafsson, in an attempt to regain the light heavyweight title that Jon never technically lost in the Octagon. The title was conveniently vacated just prior to the event by the dual division champion Daniel Cormier, who chose to remain at heavyweight for the time being. Of course the reason for Jon’s inactivity was a suspension for testing positive for turinabol (an anabolic steroid banned from competition) metabolites after his 2017 bout with Cormier. This was his second PED-related suspension; however he got off with a relatively short term due to alleged cooperation with USADA. No one knows exactly what his cooperation deal entailed; what we do know is that Jones again tested positive for turinabol metabolites prior to UFC 232. This lead to Nevada Athletic Comission refusing to license Jones. Instead of cancelling the main event, UFC decided to move the entire card to California, where the state Athletic Comission licensed Jones despite the recent test failure – after administering a ‘surprise’ drug test of their own.

In the fall out from this incident, it was revealed that Jones actually failed two additional tests for turinabol metabolite during his suspension, bringing his total number of PED test failures to 5 – not to mention a positive test for cocaine back in 2014, for which Jones faced no punishment as recreational drug use is not banned out of competition. Jeff Novitzky, the VP of Athlete Health and Performance for UFC, declared that the small amount of metabolites present in Jon’s system did not indicate recent use, but were a result of prior ingestion. Apparently turinabol metabolites can remain in your system for an indefinite period of time (or seven years according to Jones himself) and can cause a ‘pulse effect’ where the drug metabolites can show up in a test sometimes, but not always. This does not sound like a very plausible explanation, and while I don’t exactly have the scientific credentials to dispute it., the problems stemming from the UFC’s decision to blatantly disregard and make excuses for a PED test failure are obvious even to a lay-person. Not only does it make everyone involved – UFC, USADA, NSAC, CSAC – look foolish and completely undermines the UFC’s supposed commitment to cleaning up the sport, it also creates a convenient excuse for any athlete who tests positive for turinabol metabolites in the future. First test failure? Blame tainted supplements. Consecutive failures? Blame the pulsing effect! And who is to say that this pulsing effect is only applicable to turinabol? Essentially UFC just created a huge, gaping loophole in their PED testing protocol – at least for one prohibited substance, and potentially for others down the road. I know my opinion will not be a popular one and this will never happen, but at this point I say they should just do away with drug testing completely. Professional athletes will always attempt to gain any competitive advantage they can, by hook or by crook, and I would at least prefer honesty to this farcical system where the stars and major draws get preferential treatment for the same infractions that lesser-known fighters like Tom Lawlor get punished for with lengthy suspensions.

Great Fights!

Perhaps I am being overly harsh with my criticism of the direction that WME-IMG has taken UFC.  To be fair, there was quite a few things that Zuffa could also have improved on while the promotion was under their ownership, but overall I feel that they did a good job of balancing the need to make a profit with growing and popularizing the sport of MMA world-wide. With WME, I am not so sure that they care at all about improving the sport or maintaining it’s integrity; at times it feels like they don’t care about much beyond their bottom line, and are not even making the right steps to keep the cash cow profitable in the long run. However let’s not miss the forest through the trees. The reason we all love this sport has nothing to do with all the behind-the-scenes nonsense. For fight fans, few things are more exciting and enterntaining than watching two guys (or gals) attempt to knock each other’s heads off their shoulders, put their opponent to sleep with a choke, or make them tap out and quit. At the end of the day, we’re just here to watch fights. And everything else aside, we will certainly see many exciting fights in 2019.

Here are a few that I am personally looking forward to:

  • Francis Ngannou vs Cain Velasquez – a heavyweight scrap pitting the former two-time champion against the guy who was not so long ago heralded as the future of the division. While Ngannou’s meteoric rise has been impeded by the one-sided loss to Stipe Miocic and the horrid performance against Derrick Lewis, he’s got back on the winning track recently with the first round knockout of Curtis Blaydes. A win over Cain Velasquez may put Ngannou right back into title contention. Francis is a betting underdog in this fight as stylistically a healthy Velasquez presents serious problems for the French brawler. However Velasquez is now 36 years old and coming off another long injury-related layoff, so it’s anyone guess whether we will see Cain at his best, or the fighter who was stopped by Junior dos Santos in their first meeting or dismantled by Fabricio Werdum. One punch is all it takes at HW, and while Ngannou has questionable cardio and lacks technical skills, he certainly has the edge over Velasquez in both striking power and durability.
  • Volkan Oezdemir vs Dominick Reyes – here we have an undefeated prospect in Dominick ‘The Devastator’ Reyes, the man who finished all but two of his ten opponents in the first round, taking on Volkan ‘No Time’ Oezdemir – who went from a virtual unknown making his UFC debut on short notice, to taking the division by storm and receiving a title shot, to getting finished by Cormier and Anthony Smith in back-to-back fights. It doesn’t take much to get into title contention in the current light heavyweight landscape, so Reyes may well earn a shot with an impressive performance, while Volkan needs a win to get back on track. Either way someone is likely going to sleep in this one.
  • Jon Jones vs whoever – assuming Bones can pass his drug tests, or UFC can keep covering for him if he doesn’t, Jones claims that he wants to fight three times in 2019. Whatever you may think of his serial misbehavior, you have to admit that Jones in the Octagon is a sight to behold. He is slated to take on Anthony Smith at UFC 235, in a fight where Jones is currently a -1000 betting favorite. But anything can happen in MMA. If Jones makes easy work of Smith as everyone expects he will, I would like to see him face Reyes next (assuming Dominick gets by Oezdemir) or possibly Thiago Santos – and then complete the trilogy with Daniel Cormier at either LHW or HW.
  • Robbie Lawler vs Ben Askren – as a collegiate wrestling stand-out, you would think of the UFC as the natural home for Ben Askren after he jumped into the world of mixed martial arts. And while Askren made it there eventually, it has been a long and winding road which took him through earning a Bellator title, stagnating and eventually being released from the promotion, ending up in ONE where he stagnated further, and finally a self-imposed retirement. Now that Askren will be making his UFC debut 10 years into him MMA career, there are many questions to be answered about ‘Funky’. Is Askren still in his athletic prime? How will he deal with opponents like Woodley, Covington, Usman – guys who can match his credentials on the mat, and may be able to give him more than he’s used to handing in the striking department? Or how will he deal with the accomplished “anti-wrestlers” of the division? Looks like the latter of these question will be answered first, as ‘Ruthless’ Robbie Lawler will be welcoming Askren into the Octagon. The verdict is still out on how far past his prime the seemingly ageless Lawler is himself; however assuming that he is healthy and in fighting shape, the hard hitting brawler who is very good at keeping fights standing will provide an excellent test for Askren’s transition into the deep end of the pool.
  • Robert Whittaker vs Kelvin Gastelum – it’ difficult for me to consider Robert Whittaker a truly undisputed middleweight champion. After all, the lineal title was most recently held by Michael Bisping, until Georges St Pierre returned from a 4 year long hiatus, submitted Bisping for the belt, immediately relinquished it and indefinitely vanished back into his bat-cave in Montreal. With the title vacant, Whittaker faced Yoel Romero for the interim championship, winning a close decision. He was eventually promoted from interim to ‘full’ champion, with his first defence coming once again against Romero; this was an even closer fight than their first one and I believe Romero should have won on the scorecards due to inflicting more damage.  However Romero failed to make weight and therefore would have been ineligible for the championship title, had the split judge’s decision gone his was. So he may be battered, his title may be disputed, and he is definitely not undefeated – yet here we have Whittaker standing atop of the middleweight hill. His next challenge comes in form Kelvin Gastelum – another former welterweight who found better luck at a higher weight class where he no longer has to starve and dehydrate himself in the weeks and days leading up to every fight. So far, Gastelum has done quite well for himself at 185 lbs – perhaps there is something to be said for fighting at your natural weight. Coming off back-to-back victories over Michael Bisping and Ronaldo Souza, Kelvin is a worthy contender for Whittaker and this should be an action-packed bout between two young lions who we should see near the top of the division for many years to come.

What about you, dear readers? What fights are you most looking forward to in 2019? Which of the current UFC champions are most or least likely to successfully defend their belts? And what other surprises does the coming year have in store for us? Please let us know in the comments section!