135 LBS: Ronda Rousey (12-2) vs. Julianna Peña (8-2)
Everyone assumed that Ronda Rousey would retire after her 48-second victimization by bantamweight champion Amanda Nunes.
But she didn’t.
Though some expect that announcement to come eventually, it’s entirely possible that it won’t. After Rousey suffered her first defeat to Holly Holm in late-2015, she went out-of-sight, and as a result, out-of-mind. Suddenly, we weren’t hearing about the big Hollywood offers that we had become accustomed to when Rousey was on top. The truth probably is—and Rousey is most likely aware of this—that her opportunities in motion pictures are completely contingent on her success as a mixed martial artist. Rousey lacks acting ability, and doesn’t share the same gifts that previous pioneer Gina Carano has to sustain a full-time acting career independent of MMA. And though her mother has insisted that Rousey has “a lot of options” at her young age of 29, those opportunities aren’t nearly going to be as gratifying to Rousey as what she’s already tasted in MMA and Hollywood. Given her personality, and what we’ve seen of it, Rousey absolutely depends on gratification in order to achieve self-worth. She would be throwing too much away at this age by simply retiring into obscurity, and chances are, she’ll be lured back with one more big money fight to mount yet another “comeback story.”
The fighter Rousey needs to fight is Julianna Peña. Why? Because Julianna Peña could be the next Ronda Rousey. Not necessarily in the manner of becoming the next crossover superstar, but rather, as the most hated mixed martial artist in the industry.
Peña was the winner of the eighteenth season of The Ultimate Fighter as Miesha Tate’s first pick. Tate coached opposite of Rousey, who blamed the producers of the show for showing her as a classless, petulant child who repeatedly flipped off Tate at every turn. Rousey’s negative portrayal was so domineering that mixed martial arts fans turned on her—shortly before the oblivious mainstream media and general public began to accept her as a trailblazing heroine in a male-dominated sport. Rousey’s disrespectful behavior became the story of the show, and Peña winning an eight-woman tournament was an afterthought.
Peña has since watched Rousey submit her mentor Tate, go on to achieve incredible amounts of success (while sharing a similar amount of fights as her), and has been blasting Rousey every chance she gets.
“That spoiled brat has gotten everything handed to her, and she’s getting everything handed to her again. It’s bullshit… Never in history have I ever heard of somebody have a no-controversy brutal knockout, then quit the sport, and then come back and get a title shot right away. The girl is mentally weak and Amanda Nunes is going to f**king knock her out and expose her ass. She’s literally the worst fighter on the roster, and I can’t stomach the fact that I’m not getting the title shot. ” – Julianna Peña on Ronda Rousey receiving a title shot at UFC 207 (Segura, 2016)
Meanwhile, Peña has displayed examples of her own belligerence—being arrested in late-2015 for assaulting bar employees (with low blows, nonetheless), not accepting a title eliminator bout with Valentina Shevchenko and threatening to quit if she didn’t receive a title shot next (she eventually acquiesced and accepted the Shevchenko fight), and making statements which raised the ire of MMA fans, like females “deserve to get paid ten times more than men” because “women rule the world.” (Martin, 2015)
If pro wrestling has taught us anything (and principles from the similar worlds certainly do carry over to MMA) it’s that a good “heel” is always good for business—because people will pay to watch them be defeated. Since Rousey’s exit is imminent, it would be interesting to see her pass the torch of “most hated female fighter” to Peña on her way out.
125 LBS / 135 LBS: Demetrious Johnson (25-2-1) vs. T.J. Dillashaw (14-3)
A lot will ride on the inevitable Cody Garbrandt-T.J. Dillashaw bantamweight title fight: it will determine Dillashaw’s future in the division. If he’s successful, Dillashaw will reign as bantamweight king once more and will need to fend off top contenders like Jimmie Rivera, Bryan Caraway, and a rebounding Dominick Cruz. If he fails to defeat Garbrandt, moving down to flyweight would be much more apropos for the lighter Dillashaw. Since champion Demetrious Johnson has cleaned out the division, Dillashaw could very well enter the weight class as the number-one contender by default.
In an alternate reality, Johnson might have no choice but to move up to bantamweight after one more possible title defense against Wilson Reis, lest he take any more rematches with fighters he’s already defeated (and in Joseph Benavidez’s case, more than once).
If Dillashaw manages to recapture the bantamweight title from Garbrandt, Johnson has also done enough to warrant an immediate title fight upon moving up a weight class (and inarguably, has done far more than McGregor did to warrant his lightweight championship opportunity).
145 LBS: José Aldo (26-2) vs. Dominick Cruz (22-2)
Before Dominick Cruz lost his bantamweight championship to Cody Garbrandt, he was angling for a fight against current featherweight champion José Aldo.
Both have incredible similarities when it comes to their career path. Aldo and Cruz were the last champions of World Extreme Cagefighting before it was bought out by the UFC, and they were ported over as the inaugural UFC featherweight and bantamweight champions (respectively). Both were longtime kings of their division before suffering surprising defeats to their successors, Conor McGregor and Garbrandt. And as a result, despite their unique striking styles, they fell off their thrones in recent times and have lost their superiority in the eyes of MMA fans.
Politics have reinstated Aldo as the featherweight champion, and Cruz’s performance against Garbrandt was a spirited effort even in defeat, so Cruz would be completely warranted to continue his ambitions to move up to featherweight and realize a dream bout against Aldo—regardless of the latter’s result against Max Holloway.
155 LBS: Eddie Alvarez (28-5) vs. Nate Diaz (19-11)
Both Eddie Alvarez and Nate Diaz had the biggest fights of their careers against Conor McGregor in 2016. Diaz was successful in the first outing, and then lost a narrow decision to McGregor—who himself followed up that win by knocking out Alvarez and taking his lightweight championship. In some respects, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to have Diaz ranked above Alvarez in the 155-pound division, but Alvarez at least held the title, whereas Diaz hasn’t in his storied ten-year career in the UFC.
Both are likely very eager to make a case to challenge champion McGregor once more, but must face high-ranked lightweights like each other in order to make that a reality. Diaz seems to be under the assumption (consistent with his older brother) that he’s entitled to a championship rubber match against McGregor (despite coming off of a loss to him, and inactivity since). Though this (unfortunately) is the impression the UFC has given with gifted title opportunities to Rousey and McGregor in 2016, Diaz could very well find that he doesn’t have the same leverage as the two megastars. In which case, he’ll need to make a decision as to how to secure another big money bout against McGregor, and defeating the former champion Alvarez is probably the quickest way there.
Quick Picks: Other Fights to Make in 2017
- 115 LBS Title: Joanna Jędrzejczyk vs. Jessica Andrade: Jędrzejczyk is close to cleaning out the fresh strawweight division, but has one big challenge left: Andrade, who has looked like an unbeatable destroyer ever since her move down to strawweight. Strangely turning down a title bout against Jędrzejczyk in favor for a more immediate bout to prepare, it seems inevitable for Andrade to fight the champion in mid-2017.
- 135 LBS: Aljamain Sterling (12-1) vs. Thomas Almeida (22-1): They were the two most promising bantamweights in 2016, each on an undefeated streak ready to challenge the top tier of the 135-pound division. But when they did, to Bryan Caraway and Cody Garbrandt respectively, they both lost the “0” on their record, and are now stuck in gatekeeper purgatory. For one of them to advance back up the ladder, the other must fall further down.
- 145 LBS: Doo Ho Choi (14-2) vs. Yair Rodriguez (8-1): Though both are future hopefuls for title contention, and it would be a shame to set one of them back. Choi and Rodriguez are both hovering just outside of the top ten, and with Choi’s unsuccessful entry with an amazing effort again Cub Swanson, it seems that Choi is forced to compete against fighters around his rank—of which Rodriguez has neared. Choi’s bout against Swanson was a 2016 fight-of-the-year (FOTY) contender, and with both Choi and Rodriguez being dynamic strikers, this could potentially be 2017’s FOTY.
- 155 LBS: Lando Vannata (9-1) vs. Mickey Gall (4-0): Gall wanted a marquee bout against a big name like the returning Dan Hardy, but Hardy rebuffed the challenge—insisting he wanted to fight other veterans instead. With Gall being the hottest prospect at welterweight, and looking to move down, it would be intriguing to see how he would match up with Vannata, who blazed a fever of excitement on his own when he nearly upset number-two contender Tony Ferguson, and followed it up with a spinning roundhouse wheel kick knockout of John Makdessi. This fight will come down to who can impose their style more effectively, Vanatta’s striking or Gall’s grappling, while neutralizing the other’s.
Martin, D. (2015, October 2). Peña: Women ‘deserve to get paid 10 times more than the men’. Retrieved from FoxSports.com: http://www.foxsports.com/ufc/story/ufc-julianna-pena-women-deserve-to-get-paid-10-times-more-than-the-men-ronda-rousey-100215
Segura, D. (2016, October 12). Julianna Peña furious ‘spoiled brat’ Ronda Rousey gets title shot, may leave UFC. Retrieved from MMAFighting.com: http://www.mmafighting.com/2016/10/12/13261766/julianna-pena-furious-spoiled-brat-ronda-rousey-gets-title-shot-may