There are murky waters up ahead. In UFC’s voyage to ensure a smooth passage to complete a record-breaking year, they’ve completely exhausted their top-level talent to deliver a string of (mostly) strong cards to close out 2016.
2016 will indeed be a fantastic year when it comes to UFC’s total revenue, but the credit for that can be placed primarily with resident megastar Conor McGregor, who will as he awaits the birth of his first child and negotiates an equity stake in the company.
The only other superstar on the roster who can make up for the lost performance is former women’s bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey. However, it has been made very clear that Rousey is on her way out, and if she herself loses on the final PPV of 2016 to Amanda Nunes, it’s entirely possible it will be the last time we see her.
Of the champions left in each weight class, it seems that none of them will be available for UFC 208 or UFC 209.
- UFC Heavyweight Champion Stipe Miočić is on a break, and will wait to face the winner of Fabricio Werdum-Cain Velasquez—both of whom will rematch at UFC 207 on December 30, 2016 and won‘t be available for UFC 208/209 in January/February.
- UFC Light Heavyweight Champion Daniel Cormier is fighting number-one contender Anthony Johnson at UFC 206 on December 10, 2016.
- UFC Middleweight Champion Michael Bisping just fought at UFC 204 on October 8, 2016, and is in the spring of 2017 to fight Yoel Romero.
- UFC Welterweight Champion Tyron Woodley drew with top contender Stephen Thompson at UFC 205 on November 12, 2016, and likely won’t be able to make a three-month turnaround to fight at UFC 209.
- UFC Lightweight and Featherweight Champion Conor McGregor will probably return in mid-2017.
- UFC Women’s Bantamweight Champion Amanda Nunes will compete against Ronda Rousey to main event UFC 207 on December 30, 2016.
- UFC Bantamweight Champion Dominick Cruz will be co-headlining the same event against Cody Garbrandt.
- UFC Flyweight Champion Demetrious Johnson will be fighting the winner of “The Ultimate Fighter 24” at the Finale on December 3, 2016.
- UFC Women’s Strawweight Champion Joanna Jędrzejczyk just fought at UFC 205, and like Woodley, might not make the same turnaround.
With all of the bolded names above excluded, we’ve got our work cut out for us. We have to assume that not a single champion will be available to headline UFC 208 or UFC 209. This becomes the truest test of how deep the UFC’s roster really is.
Once upon a time, it wasn’t a problem to have Quinton “Rampage” Jackson and Rashad Evans main event a show without a title on the line, and still deliver near one-million PPV buys. However, those times are long past.
The UFC will need to utilize whatever marquee talent is left on their active roster to kick off 2017 in a respectable manner. Some of these choices will not be appreciated by the hardcore audience (spoiler: a certain professional wrestler), but nonetheless, the business of MMA only flourishes when fertilized by star power.
Let’s book UFC 208 and UFC 209.
JANUARY 21, 2017: HONDA CENTER, ANAHEIM, CALIFORNIA
185 LBS: Luke Rockhold (15-3) vs. Anderson Silva (33-8)
There’s only one non-champion on the active roster who can carry a PPV on his own right now: the legendary Anderson Silva.
After saving a marquee light heavyweight bout on UFC 200 by stepping in for the scandal-ridden Jon Jones against Daniel Cormier on mere two days’ notice, Silva put on a courageous performance against the wrestler—highlighted by a body shot that had Cormier in trouble near the end of the final round before dropping a unanimous decision to the champion, and receiving a round-of-applause for saving the show.
Cormier’s teammate Luke Rockhold was supposed to fight top contender Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza on November 27, 2016, but an ACL sprain to Rockhold in late-October forced the former middleweight champion to pull out of the scheduled bout. Although Silva has been back-and-forth on whether he would fight teammates like Souza and Lyoto Machida, the real challenge for Silva is whether or not he’s still at championship level, and he can only prove this by fighting a recent champion like Rockhold—who came into 2016 as an invincible middleweight to seemingly reign supreme over the division for years to come. One who could easily defeat the likes of “over-the-hill” Silva—until a left hook from Michael Bisping changed that perception. Bisping actually had a far more difficult time barely squeaking past Silva than he did knocking Rockhold out in the first round—to which he exclaimed, “that was easier than I thought it would be!” It makes an observer wonder where Silva truly ranks in the middleweight division.
Depending on severity, the recovery time for an ACL sprain can span from a couple of weeks to several months—with the median being somewhere around two months. We didn’t get a prognosis of how severe Rockhold’s sprain was, but assuming he would be unavailable for January 21, Souza would be the natural choice to fight the returning Silva.
140 LBS: Cristiane Justino (17-1) vs. Holly Holm (10-2)
There are many things riding on the Amanda Nunes-Ronda Rousey bout at UFC 207, and Cristiane “Cyborg” Justino’s future is one of them.
The UFC took a shot and signed Justino despite years of harassment towards her for Justino’s inability to make 135 lbs and realize a “dream fight” with Rousey. Refusing to build a 145-pound division for Justino, the UFC has instead found a compromise with booking the imposing Brazilian annihilator in 140-pound special attraction bouts. The issue is, of the two she’s had thus far, these can be characterized as “squash matches” against fighters who would normally fight outside of the top ten at bantamweight. Justino has yet to fight a top 135-pounder to solidify her as the best female fighter worldwide in the eyes of the UFC audience.
Enter Holly Holm—who shocked the world one year prior when she knocked out women’s phenomenon Ronda Rousey and won the bantamweight championship, only to drop the title to Miesha Tate due to a chance rear-naked-choke submission after outpointing Tate for four-and-a-half rounds, and subsequently also losing a unanimous decision to slightly superior Muay Thai kickboxer Valentina Shevchenko. The 35-year-old Holm now finds herself on a two-fight losing streak, and needs another “Rousey moment” to also re-establish herself as one of the top female mixed martial artists in the world.
Justino and Holm have many similarities. Perhaps the two biggest women in the UFC in terms of size and musculature, both are strikers (Justino an aggressive Muay Thai kickboxer, Holm a defensive boxer) whose styles are in conflict with each other. Holm used her evasive boxing to defeat Rousey when the champion rushed into Holm’s distance to get bludgeoned, and Justino is even more intrusive a striker than Rousey. However, could Justino’s aggression be more than Holm can handle, and lead to “Cyborg” being the first person to knock her out in MMA?
If Rousey defeats Nunes on December 30, 2016, everyone is going to be wondering who’s next for her. The answer is either the long-anticipated dream fight against Cyborg, or a mainstream-appealing rematch with Holm. Booking Justino against Holm immediately after the Rousey PPV is the best possible booking in women’s MMA.
185 LBS: Ronaldo Souza (23-4) vs. Hector Lombard (34–6)
Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza should be booked and training for this card as a contingency in case a replacement is required in the main event. The problem for Souza is that he should be the number-one contender after dropping a close split decision to Yoel Romero (who later had a PED controversy that seemingly pushed him out of title contention), but “Jacare” rebounded by finishing off Vitor Belfort with punches at UFC 198. However, a returning Romero knocked Chris Weidman out at UFC 205 and somehow swept a title shot away from Souza—leaving the latter in limbo as he likely waits until mid-to-late-2017 to receive his championship opportunity.
The problem for Souza is: no other top middleweight will be available for January. Romero will challenge Michael Bisping in the spring, Weidman was just knocked out, and Gegard Mousasi, Uriah Hall, Derek Brunson, and Robert Whittaker have either fought or will be fighting each other in late-November. Re-booking the rematch between Rockhold-Souza leaves Anderson Silva without an opponent, and this card relies heavily on Silva fighting a former middleweight champion to gauge where he should rank in the weight class. Someone has to get the short end of the stick here, and like usual, it’s Souza.
Hector Lombard debuted in the UFC as a welterweight, but after an upset loss to Neil Magny, was on his way to ensuring a successful return to middleweight until a back elbow from Dan Henderson flatlined the former Bellator Middleweight Champion, and sent Henderson on his way to a title bout while Lombard hasn’t been seen since.
Lombard would now find himself in a similar position of playing “spoiler” against Souza, who many feel should rightfully be considered as the number-one contender in the middleweight division. A classic striker-versus-grappler match with the explosive Lombard trying to steal the jiu-jitsu master Souza’s thunder (and rank) would be a compelling watch to see who can execute first with their martial art of choice.
Yes—this would be a very high-risk fight for Souza to take, but unless he stays active, former foe Mousasi could easily follow up on his Hall mauling with another big win in the meanwhile, nudging Souza’s title shot away from him yet again.
135 LBS: Bryan Caraway (21-7) vs. Jimmie Rivera (20-1)
Rivera was able to pull off a major upset against veteran Urijah Faber, but at the expense of a serious eye injury that left him blind out of the eye-in-question on the night of the fight. If the issue is rectified, Rivera’s one step away from title contention—as is Caraway, who has been on sabbatical since pulling off an upset win over previously-undefeated Aljamain Sterling. Caraway will now look to repeat the success of his significant other Miesha Tate by contending for the UFC Bantamweight Championship, but needs to seal his championship opportunity with a win over another top five contender like Rivera.
125 LBS: Wilson Reis (21-6) vs. Damacio Page (19–10)
Wilson Reis was originally scheduled to fight Demetrious Johnson on July 30, 2016 at UFC 201, but an injury to Johnson robbed Reis of his title shot, and circumstances have Johnson instead defending his title against the winner of TUF 24 on December 3, 2016. So much like Souza, Reis has to reinforce his title shot, but finds himself out of suitable contenders as they’re already booked. This creates an opportunity for recent TUF 24 competitor and UFC/WEC veteran Damacio Page to upset Reis and secure a place in the flyweight division’s top ten.
205 LBS: Mauricio Rua (24-10) vs. Ed Herman (23-12)
115 LBS: Tecia Torres (7-1) vs. Maryna Moroz (8-1)
155 LBS: Rashid Magomedov (19-2) vs. Michel Prazeres (21-2)
170 LBS: Li Jingliang (11-4) vs. Shinsho Anzai (9-2)
*In the second installment of “Let’s Book UFC 208 and UFC 209,” we’ll (obviously) book UFC 209 with more marquee fighters not currently holding a belt. Do these fighters even exist? Well, it is UFC 209, so despite the fact that they don’t like being booked together on a single card, it might be the one-off exception to have a certain pair of cantankerous brothers co-headline the UFC’s yearly Superbowl card—but against who? Return to us for part two of “Let’s Book UFC 208 and UFC 209”—only on the MMA Manifesto!