For the last two weeks, the biggest sporting event in the world, the FIFA World Cup, has been taking place to determine which nation gets bragging rights for the next four years. It’s as much cultural experience as sporting one, with some nations reveling purely for participating and scoring a singular goal in a 6-1 shellacking. It makes sense. After all, football is the most popular sport in the world.
But what if it wasn’t?
Though football is the most popular sport in the world, combat, in one form or another, is ubiquitous, and, not that long ago, team-based MMA was a thing. The IFL was too good for this Earth, but what if we brought back the idea for our own World Cup of Fighting?
The premise is simple: Football teams start with 11 players, so we pick 11 fighters — one for each of the premier weight classes in the sport — to represent each country in an MMA tournament. We then play out the various matches and see what country takes home the inaugural MMA World Cup. Plus, with the United States not even qualified for the World Cup, their massive advantage in MMA (8 of 11 UFC champions are American) is null!
Below is a breakdown how the group stages would play out, compiled after countless hours of research on Tapology. Some liberties were taken, but bear with me and let’s see whose combat reigns supreme.
Russia is the clear favorite in this group and one of the favorites to take down the whole tournament. Led by UFC lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov and featuring a host of UFC and Bellator talent, Russia would cruise through Group A, winning all three opening round matches handily. That leaves Uruguay and Egypt to battle it out to clear the group as Saudi Arabia isn’t able to field a full squad. In the end, Egypt would edge out Uruguay based on having a slightly more experienced team.
Results: Russia wins the group. Egypt advances.
Best Fights: Zabit Magomedsharipov vs. Gaston Reyno is the only match-up between well-known quantities.
Iran leads the way in Group B (and arguably could have a more competitive team if they pulled fighters from their elite wrestling talent). Though they lack any female competitors, Iran is anchored by a contingent of talent that populates top promotions, including Amir Aliakbari, Beneil Dariush, Ashkan Mokhtarian, and Gegard Mousasi (with The Netherlands not in the Cup, Mousasi can compete for Iran). Spain and Portugal battle it out for second place, with Portugal having more big-name fighters but Spain having slightly more depth. In the end, Spain edges it out. Morocco brings up the rear with a very young squad.
Results: Iran wins the group. Spain advances.
Best Fights: UFC flyweight Ashkan Mokhtarian vs. BAMMA champ Daniel Baraez.
A surprisingly competitive group featuring multiple legitimate contenders for the trophy. Australia features a full squad of top talent, led by UFC middleweight champion Robert Whittaker. France is equally as talented with Francis Ngannou, Tom Duquesnoy, and Thibault Gouti as the marquee names. Peru and Denmark field surprisingly solid squads, with Peru being particularly competitive in large part due to their strong female fighters anchored by Valentina Shevchenko and Antonina Shevchenko, but both teams lack the depth to make a run in this tournament.
Results: Australia wins the group. France advances.
Best Fights: Francis Ngannou vs. Tai Tuivasa, Nordine Taleb vs. Jake Matthews, Antonina Shevchenko vs. Bec Rawlings.
A curious group. Argentina has depth of talent anchored by Santiago Ponzinibbio but few other well-known fighters. Croatia is in a similar situation with Mirko Cro Cop being the standard bearer. Nigeria has a host of big-name fighters but forfeits several weight classes purely from a lack of depth. Iceland has the worst of both worlds, with Gunnar Nelson as the only marquee name and a lack of competitors in some divisions.
Results: Argentina wins the group. Croatia advances after a nail-biter with Nigeria.
Best Fights: All of the welterweight fights. Ponzinibbio, Nelson, and Kamaru Usman would all fight each other — or rematch in the case of Nelson and Ponzinibbio — in the group stages, to the benefit of all fight fans.
Featuring a plethora of top-10 talent and anchored by a strong contingent of female fighters, including bantamweight champion Amanda Nunes, Brazil is the favorite heading into the tournament. They also benefit from having an easy group stage. Switzerland features Volkan Oezdemir and a decent supporting cast but nothing to write home about, Costa Rica is made up of mostly unproven regional talent, and Serbia has a couple of UFC talents but no female competitors.
Results: Brazil (handily) wins the group. Switzerland advances.
Best Fights: Glover Teixeira vs. Volkan Oezdemir is a legitimately great light heavyweight fight. Darko Stosic vs. Fabricio Werdum is also an intriguing heavyweight tilt.
In a bit of kismet, the Group of Death from the FIFA World Cup is also the Group of Death for the MMA World Cup. All four nations sport competitive squads chock full of UFC talent. Germany is led by Peter Sobotta, Nick Hein, and Daniel Weichel; Mexico features a strong female contingent along with some elite lower-weight class fighters; Sweden is a deep group headlined by Ilir Latifi and Alexander Gustafsson; and South Korea has competitors everywhere, most notably both UFC fighters named Dong Hyun Kim.
Results: Mexico wins the group. Sweden advances.
Best Fights: Any lightweight or featherweight fight is sensational but Yair Rodriguez vs. Chan Sung Jung is a Fight of the Year contender on paper.
The most straightforward group of the bunch. Featuring a ton of UFC talent, including Darren Till and Alistair Overeem, England is a legitimate threat to win the whole thing. Belgium is a solid enough team with Tarec Saffeidine supported by some quality regional talent. More to the point though, neither Panama and Tunisia are able to field truly competitive teams.
Results: England wins the group. Belgium advances.
Best Fights: Till vs. Saffiedine is easily the best fight of this group.
One of the more competitive groups in the tournament. Unsuprisingly, Japan fields a deep team headlined by Kyoji Horiguchi and Mizuki Inoue. Poland, anchored by arguably the best group of women fighters in the tournament, has enough talent to be considered a darkhorse to win the cup. Colombia lacks depth but does feature some known commodities like Alejandra Lara and Fredy Serrano. Senegal brings up the rear here with a limited amount of talent to build a team with.
Results: Poland wins the group. Japan advances.
Best Fights: Mizuki Inoue vs. Karolina Kowalkiewicz is an absolute crackerjack of a fight.
The group stage was surprisingly competitive and, depending on the day or the fight, some of the outcomes could change dramatically. Interestingly, 12 of the 16 teams that make it to the knockout stages of the MMA World Cup are the same as in the FIFA World Cup, with Uruguay, Iran, Denmark, and Colombia making it through in FIFA but not in fighting.
In the end, here is our tournament bracket for the remaining 16 teams.
Russia vs. Spain
Spain just doesn’t have the talent to even throw a speed bump in front of Russia. Had Portugal made it through, they could have perhaps threatened to steal a fight or two but that’s not in the cards for Spain.
Winner: Russia advances after an 11-0 drubbing.
Australia vs. Croatia
The deeper we go in the tournament, the more apparent it becomes that having legitimate competitors in every weight class is a huge advantage. Croatia is talented enough to give the Australian team a work out but not deep enough to truly threaten the Aussies.
Winner: Australia advances with a 9-2 win.
Brazil vs. Sweden
This is a tough break for Sweden who could have made a run in this tournament but unfortunately draw Brazil in the round of 16. There are some competitive fights in the round including a rematch between Alexander Gustafsson and Glover Teixeira but Seleção is just too good.
Winner: Brazil advances, 10-1.
England vs. Japan
A sensational first-round match-up, Japan’s female contingent keep the contest competitive but England’s heavier weight classes are just too strong. Alistair Overeem, Jimi Manuwa, Tom Breese, Darren Till, Marc Diakiese, and Arnold Allen do just enough to squeak past Japan.
Winner: England advances in a heated 6-5 battle.
Iran vs. Egypt
Iran’s short-handedness has still yet to hurt them as Egypt just isn’t a strong enough team to compete with the top end Iran can bring to the table. Mousasi and company take care of business and send Egypt home in the elimination rounds.
Winner: Iran advances, 6-5
Argentina vs. France
The highlight of this is definitely Ponzinibbio vs. Nordine Taleb, but otherwise the match-up is pretty clearly in favor of France’s depth. Argentina can win fights but not enough to take the match.
Winner: France advances, 7-4.
Mexico vs. Switzerland
As a solid but unremarkable team, Switzerland was built to clear the group stages and get eliminated early in the knockout rounds. Mexico’s core of lighter weight fighters runs roughshod over the Swiss squad, breezing through to the quarterfinals.
Winner: Mexico advances, 9-2.
Poland vs. Belgium
Belgium is in the same boat as Switzerland, good enough to clear a weak group but lacking the talent to compete with good teams. Poland’s darkhorse candidacy continues as they annihilate Belgium with only Saffeidine and Cindy Dandois posing as threats to win.
Winner: Poland advances, 10-1.
Russia vs. Australia
Now we’re starting to get into some really interesting match-ups. Both Russia and Australia have deep teams that are stacked with talent, and this match has at least six fights that are extremely up for debate. This might be the toughest match to call of the whole tournament, as either team could reasonably advance here, but unfortunately for Australia, Russia gets the nod.
Winner: Russia advances, 6-5.
Brazil vs. England
The strength of the Brazilian team is really evident here. England is an excellent squad that can compete with almost anyone, but they just don’t have the artillery to go toe-to-toe with Brazil, especially since Brazil can exploit England’s biggest weakness — an underwhelming group of women. Amanda Nunes barnstorms the English team and sets up an incredible semifinals.
Winner: Brazil advances, 8-3.
Iran vs. France
In the quarterfinals, Iran’s undermanned (under-womanned?) squad finally comes back to haunt them, as France can take advantage of being given three free wins. Even if Iran did field a full team, they still would struggle in the match-up though, as Francis Ngannou, Francis Carmont, Nordine Taleb, Thibault Gouti, and Tom Duquesnoy is a formidable core of fighters to have to battle through.
Winner: France advances, 8-3.
Mexico vs. Poland
Though Mexico has a good team, Poland is a nightmare match-up for El Tri, as Mexico’s best asset — their strong group of female fighters — runs into a buzzsaw of some of the most elite women on the planet. Karolina Kowalkiewicz vs. Alexa Grasso is a stellar fight, but Joanna Jedrzejczyk and company prove too much for the Mexican team.
Winner: Poland advances, 7-4.
Russia vs. Brazil
Here it is, the match of the tournament. Russia and Brazil were the two pre-tournament favorites and now they’re meeting in the semifinals. Both have had fairly tough roads to make it this far and the winner is the odds-on favorite to take the whole thing down. Sadly for Russia, that team is Brazil.
Almost every single one of the 11 fights from this match are excellent (including the Alexander Volkov vs. Fabricio Werdum and Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Edson Barboza rematches) but at the end of the day, Brazil’s female fighters give them a slight advantage. There are 4 or 5 fights that could go either way, but the likeliest outcome here is a narrow victory for Brazil.
Winner: Brazil advances, 6-5.
France vs. Poland
Though both of these teams have proven themselves to be excellent, in comparison to the other match-up, this one is a bit of a let down. That’s not to say that this isn’t a good contest, because it is. These two squads are evenly matched with interesting pairings between Thibault Gouti and Marcin Held, Francis Ngannou and Marcin Tybura, plus Francis Carmont and Jan Blachowicz. One again though, Joanna Jedrzejczyk, Karolina Kowalkiewicz, and Agnieszka Niedzwiedz carry a lot of water for their country and put Poland through to the finals.
Winner: Poland advances, 6-5.
Most people probably wouldn’t have predicted Poland to make it to the MMA World Cup finals ahead of time, but here they are in a true David vs. Goliath tale, matched up against the pre-tournament favorites. Both teams have made it this far in large part due to their women’s divisions, so what happens when those two juggernauts go head-to-head?
Turns out, it actually doesn’t matter that much. Though Poland has a solid team from top to bottom, they are wildly overmatched in most of the divisional fights. Jedrzejczyk picks up a win, but most of the rest of the Polish team gets routed. In the end, a team featuring four current or former champions and seven fighters in the top five of their divisions is just too much for the darkhorse team to overcome. We would get a number of good fights — Jedrzejczyk-Andrade II, Werdum-Tybura II, Blachowicz-Teixeira, and Jotko-Jacare — but like many a World Cup before, Brazil would be lifting the trophy at the end.
WINNER: Brazil wins the inaugural MMA World Cup, defeating Poland 9-2!
Obviously this isn’t an exact science and none of this factors in things like injuries or the randomness of MMA, but a lot of time and energy was spent trying to create the best, most accurate teams and outcomes possible — and when everything is said and done, Brazil is fielding the best MMA team in the tournament.
If you have any questions, comments, or concerns, feel free to hit me up on Twitter. Also, for the sake of posterity, Russia had a fairly easy time of things in the consolation match, knocking around France 9-2 with only Ngannou and Taleb able to score wins.