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Despite an exciting second half which allowed fans of mixed martial arts to feel like 2018 closed with a bang, it’s only natural to begin contemplating what’s next.
The new year has brought with it new excitement and expectations for the UFC after signing a landmark, multi-year deal with ESPN. Only a handful of main event bouts have been announced thus far, however, making it difficult to know exactly what the first half of 2019 might look like in terms of matchups.
Just a few days into 2019, let’s take a look at the five best fights to make for UFC matchmakers over the next calendar year.
1. Lightweight title — Khabib Nurmagomedov (c) vs. Tony Ferguson
There appears to be only two things that might stop this insanely good style matchup from taking place next: the fact that it might be cursed after being scheduled and canceled on four separate occasions and the fact that Nurmagomedov-Conor McGregor II is a lottery ticket waiting to be cashed for UFC president Dana White. It wouldn’t seem to make the most long-term sense from a promotional standpoint to book that rematch next considering how much McGregor was dominated in their October bout, which set a pay-per-view record of 2.4 million buys. It certainly would make financial sense, however, which means it’s far from out of play.
The bottom line is that between his 11-fight winning streak within the sport’s toughest division and the freak knee injury which cost him a title fight against Nurmagomedov last April, no one is more deserving than Ferguson, the former interim champion. Ferguson also might be the only fighter, thanks to his high-volume and sadistic striking style, capable of solving Nurmagomedov’s grappling dominance. Other fights could sell more but none would be this important. This is a fight fan’s fight, with violence and dramatic swings of momentum written all over it. The winner would also have a fair shot at calling himself the pound-for-pound best in the world.
2. Heavyweight title — Daniel Cormier (c) vs. Jon Jones
This trilogy superfight between current champions in their respective divisions could just as easily happen at 205 pounds, where Jones regained the title on Saturday in his rematch with Alexander Gustafsson at UFC 232 after Cormier was forced to give up his belt. Doing it at heavyweight, however, would add an interesting wrinkle to what is already the most heated rivalry in the history of the sport. It’s a change that might also make it the most competitive it has ever been considering how dominant Cormier has looked after knocking out Stipe Miocic last July in a return to his former division. Giving Cormier that potential advantage despite two previous losses to Jones at light heavyweight could be justified by the performance-enhancing drug issues that have followed Jones of late and forced their rematch to be changed to a no contest. Regardless of how it happens, it’s a fight that needs to, despite Cormier’s current nagging injuries and his self-imposed March retirement for his 40th birthday. DC simply isn’t getting any younger and with White revealing that former champion Brock Lesnar’s return may not be as imminent as originally planned, there’s no reason not to make a fight as commercially appealing and historically important as this one.
The trilogy in the making needs to happen in 2019. Getty Images
3. Max Holloway vs. Conor McGregor, lightweights
It’s difficult to tell exactly which division Holloway, the current featherweight champion, will be competing in after White stated his preference that “Blessed” move up to 155 pounds, where marquee fights like a showdown with Nurmagomedov live. A perfect introduction to the new weight class would come in the form of a McGregor fight, which wouldn’t necessarily need to have a title on the line to be an attractive PPV headliner. Holloway, who is currently riding an incredible 13-bout win streak, hasn’t tasted defeat since he dropped a decision to McGregor when both were in their respective UFC infancy in 2013. Five years later, a rematch would likely be explosive from a visual standpoint given their respective strengths in terms of striking. It’s also a style matchup that wouldn’t see McGregor as easily exposed as he was on the ground against Nurmagomedov.
4. Middleweight title: Robert Whittaker (c) vs. Israel Adesanya
It’s certainly fair to say this is a fight that UFC has huge hopes to make considering both will headline separate bouts on the marquee at UFC 234 in Australia on Feb. 9 when Whittaker defends his title against Kelvin Gastelum and Adesanya faces legend Anderson Silva. Both fighters are either native or current residents of New Zealand, which makes a potential fight between them somewhat of an Oceanic super bowl. Even more, it’s among the best fights the promotion could consider involving two fighters in their physical primes. The 28-year-old Whittaker, who is fresh off hand surgery, has evolved to become one of the toughest and most well-rounded fighters in the sport. Adesanya, 29, on the other hand, could prove to be its brightest future star thanks to his flashy kickboxing background and even more flamboyant personality. This fight has the potential to come together at the exact perfect time for the division and their respective career paths.
5. Heavyweight title: Stipe Miocic vs. Cain Velasquez
How good does this one sound between former champions who could probably split the vote when it comes to naming the greatest heavyweight titleholder in UFC history? Certainly, it’s a debate made more difficult by Cormier’s return to the division, where he is unbeaten in four UFC fights. But imagine a scenario in which DC gives up his belt through either his self-imposed retirement or, instead, a decision to cut back down to 205 pounds for a trilogy with Jones? Given Cormier’s close friendship with Velasquez and his prior history moving down in weight to avoid facing his teammate, it’s not an impossible idea. First, Velasquez would need to properly shake off a 31-month layoff when he faces Francis Ngannou in February. Should he clear such a dangerous hurdle, the 36-year-old Velasquez’s wrestling and gas tank would make for an interesting matchup opposite Miocic’s size and power.
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