Mixed martial arts is a sport that demands a lot of its fans. Primetime Saturday nights. Viewing fees. The masochistic ability to listen to “Face the Pain” for 16 years running. In return, we have the right to offer feedback on the operation and make a few requests along the way. While there is much to like about the sport right now, we all have hopes for the next 12 months and beyond.
Santa, all I want for Christmas is Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Tony Ferguson to finally take place. I know, we’ve tried to book this fight in 2015, ’16, ’17 and ’18, with each man pulling out twice. It has been the most frustrating rivalry never to reach the cage. The thing actually seems cursed! (Which should come as no surprise when one of the participants is literally called the bogeyman.) But, still, it must be booked again (and again after that, however many times is necessary). There is no division with such a clear-cut No. 1 against a clear-cut No. 1a. Nurmagomedov, with his 27-0 career record, against his top contender, riding an 11-fight win streak. In fact, there’s no historical equivalent; in the UFC’s 25-year existence, there has never been such a distinguished challenger who has not faced the champion for the lineal title. The contrast of styles would be fascinating, boasting the division’s top improvisational talent against its methodical champion. Can you imagine the scrambles, the freneticism, the energy? It must happen!
As always (and of course), there remains a barrier between them. Nurmagomedov still has a bit of legal work ahead of him stemming from his participation in the UFC 229 post-fight brawl. His original hearing with the Nevada Athletic Commission was postponed, and is expected to take place in late January, though officials are hoping to reach a resolution before then.
Nurmagomedov is almost certain to face a suspension; the question is how long. The general belief is that he would face somewhere between 6-9 months. With time served, that would make him eligible to fight somewhere between April and July. Hopefully the UFC can resist the lure of putting Ferguson into another fight until Nurmagomedov’s case is adjudicated, and then pair off the only two fighters in MMA that absolutely need to face each other.
We need it, want it, gotta have it. Santa, please make it happen.
A few other things for under the tree:
Better pacing in the ESPN era
Could this be any more self-explanatory? The UFC on Fox era was meaningful and memorable, but it was not what I would call fan-friendly. Events would drag on endlessly, with promotions, analysis and commercials wedged between seemingly every match. Some of this is tolerable. Everyone understands they have a business to run and are trying to accomplish a lot during an event, but it must be within reason. When watching becomes equal parts interest and aggravation, the pendulum has gone too far. It’s kind of like the difference between a pinch of pepper and a Carolina reaper. Sometimes, less is more.
A happy ending for Daniel Cormier
The current champ-champ is winding down his career, with birthday No. 40 fast approaching. If he sticks to his March 20 retirement date, he has a single fight left. While he’d like it to be against Brock Lesnar, that’s far from a sure thing at this point. A third fight with Jon Jones is a possibility; so is a rematch with Stipe Miocic.
Cormier has been such a wonderful ambassador for the sport that I hope he gets exactly what he hopes to get: Lesnar. While the current WWE star doesn’t deserve the fight, this is a case where I would be happy to look past the integrity of the championship lineage to make sure a special person gets a big-money golden parachute on his way out the door.
McGregor vs. Diaz III
In a sport with precious few riveting rivalries, Conor McGregor vs. Nate Diaz stands out. The Irishman and the Californian had two electric encounters in 2016, but then walked away from each other for other pursuits. A rubber match is a necessity. With McGregor decisively losing to Nurmagomedov, his lightweight title window is closed for now, and he likely doesn’t want to cut down to featherweight. Diaz has basically been on vacation since their last fight, biding his time with the knowledge that the third fight is inevitable. The time is nigh. Let’s do this thing.
More trades and cooperation between promotions
In 2018, we saw the UFC “trade” Demetrious Johnson to ONE Championship for Ben Askren, and Bellator send its bantamweight champion Darrion Caldwell to Rizin to face Kyoji Horiguchi. Now this is fun! Imagine a world where that kind of cooperation was the norm. To be sure, it’s probably rare to create situations that serve both promotions as well as the fighters, but it’s worth at least exploring.
Who wouldn’t want to see a clash between UFC middleweight champ Robert Whittaker and Bellator’s Gegard Mousasi? Or Michael “Venom” Page meeting Israel Adesanya at a catch weight? Or Cris Cyborg vs. Kayla Harrison?
Health for Dominick Cruz
Cruz just recently revealed that he will have to undergo surgery to fix an injured shoulder, a setback that is likely to cost him a year.
It was just the latest in a string of injuries that has cost Cruz a huge chunk of his athletic career. In the seven-year stretch spanning from January 2012 until now, Cruz has only been able to make it to the cage four times, largely due to multiple knee injuries as well as a broken arm. Cruz, who turns 34 years old in March, is undoubtedly one of the great analytic minds in the sport, with the ability to translate his knowledge both athletically in the cage and through words as a commentator. He created his own style of movement that flummoxed opponents for years, and is one of the most decorated lighter-weight champions we’ve seen, but his appearances have been far too rare, through no fault of his own. Here’s hoping this is the last time Cruz has to work his way through injury rehabilitation.
Some good fortune for Ray Borg
Few in the UFC had a 2018 as stressful as Ray Borg, who never made it to the cage due to various events largely out of his control. In April, Borg was on the bus that was infamously attacked by McGregor at the Barclay’s Center, resulting in glass in his eyes. Borg was unable to compete in the fight, and for his troubles, faced mocking from fans, who somehow came to the conclusion that a guy who went through an entire training camp and weight cut was too afraid to step into the cage.
Just prior to that, Borg’s son Anthony had been born with hydrocephalus, a dangerous fluid buildup within the brain. Since then, he’s had five surgeries to address the issue. Little Anthony remains on the mend, but one can barely comprehend the burden the parents carry in such a situation.
Somehow through it, he trained to face Joseph Benavidez in November, only to withdraw due to health reasons — all this against the backdrop of the UFC potentially eliminating his division, threatening his livelihood in the process.
If ever there were a fighter who could use some good fortune, Mr. Borg is it.
- Jon Jones on the straight and narrow
- The next step for A.J. McKee & Aaron Pico
- Less Oscar De La Hoya press conferences
- The continued rise of Tatiana Suarez
- A definitive declaration of Georges St-Pierre’s status
- A few rolls of bubble-wrap to cover both Nurmagomedov and Ferguson until fight night, just to be safe