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. (Read Part 1 – UFC 208 – right here)
FEBRUARY 11, 2017: BARCLAYS CENTER, BROOKLYN, NEW YORK
170 LBS: Robbie Lawler (27-11) vs. Nick Diaz (26-9)
Nick Diaz’s eighteen-month drug suspension resulting from testing positive for marijuana metabolites concluded on August 1, 2016. With this dead space coming up on UFC’s schedule, UFC 209 being the promotion’s annual “Superbowl” card, and this event being the company‘s second outing in New York City after the success of UFC 205, it’s imperative that the UFC make a strong impression with this show. And being out of champions to utilize, right now is the time to bring back Diaz in a big marquee bout against Robbie Lawler—who is coming off an extraordinary run as the welterweight champion.
Many expected this rematch to be inevitable. The first fight between Diaz and Lawler occurred in 2004, when 22-year-old Lawler was consistently knocking out opponents en route to a title shot, and 20-year-old Diaz was being labelled as a “jiu jitsu specialist” who was the last stop on Lawler’s road to a championship clash with B.J. Penn. Both prospects at the time, Diaz stunned Lawler with a right hook that flatlined the eventual champion. As both men’s careers paralleled against each other through the early UFC years, the regional circuit, Elite XC, Strikeforce, and back to the UFC where both are still top welterweights, it seems like fate that Lawler and Diaz would be destined to meet again.
Similar styles seem to ensure a boxing match between the two strikers in the octagon, not unlike the original bout, and will tell us where Diaz stands in the welterweight division after years of infrequent bouts caused primarily by drug suspensions. Lawler likewise needs to rebound after a knockout loss to now-champion Tyron Woodley as he looks to begin his road back to title contention. A win over Diaz in the main event of the Superbowl card is the most lucrative way forward for Lawler.
155 LBS: Tony Ferguson (22-3) vs. Nate Diaz (20-11)
Top welterweight contender Tony Ferguson blew his opportunity for a lightweight title shot after an impressive outpointing of former champion Rafael dos Anjos on November 5, 2016, when given coveted microphone time after the bout and instead of calling out the winner of Eddie Alvarez-Conor McGregor, squandered the opportunity altogether by saying “Viva Mexico” before abandoning the interview. Other top lightweight contender Khabib Nurmagomedov made no such error, and challenged the “Irish Chicken” Conor McGregor (who would go on to win the lightweight championship that night at UFC 205) in a heated post-fight interview.
Therefore, and as much as purists might dislike that speech has anything to do with how fights are booked, Nurmagomedov is likely next for McGregor—especially if the UFC is targeting a major Russian event in mid-2017.
Also high on the shortlist to fight McGregor is Nate Diaz, who did massive PPV buyrates exchanging wins with McGregor in 2016, and along with Nurmagomedov, was already being considered to possibly be McGregor’s very first lightweight title defense at this very show: UFC 209. But the news of McGregor’s sabbatical until at least May of 2017 forces the lightweight division to continue mechanizing until the champion returns.
Neither will likely see a title shot until at least the end of 2017, and especially considering Diaz is coming off of a loss (to McGregor in the rematch), a trilogy fight is only logical if Diaz secures a win over another top contender in the meanwhile. Ferguson is dangerous, but is primarily a striker, and thus a far more winnable fight for Diaz than a wrestling machine like Nurmagomedov would be.
Concurrently, Ferguson needs to do something to make up for his utter lack of personality, which does indeed play a factor as to who McGregor will want to fight for a big PPV number. Perhaps pairing him with the rambunctious Diaz, who always seems to find a way to get under his opponents’ skin, will encourage Ferguson to joust with Diaz en route to a win, and ensure that next time, Ferguson won’t blow his chance at promoting a big money fight against McGregor.
170 LBS: CM Punk (0-1) vs. Takanori Gomi (35-12)
“Uh oh. Not this again.”
While this is definitely going to be the reaction for a lot of the hardcore audience to this booking, there’s one major reason CM Punk needs to be on this card: business.
Punk slightly elevated the PPV buyrate of UFC 203 due to the significant professional wrestling audience he brought with him, and for a card like UFC 209 which will most likely be lacking a championship headliner, UFC needs to utilize star power wherever they can get it—especially when it comes to using Punk’s popularity to give exposure to the Diaz brothers, whose personalities’ might also resonate with pro wrestling fans. Nonetheless, there is an intrigue as to if Mickey Gall just happened to be an excellent prospect that not only overmatched Punk, but will become a future contender in the division, and a curiosity to if Punk would fare better against someone else.
However, with Punk, a few handicaps have to be given to make his second go-around at least somewhat competitive:
Weight: Gall was significantly bigger than Punk, and although Punk is fighting at welterweight, it would just be more fair to book him against a lightweight at 170 pounds to achieve a better equivalency.
Age: From the miniscule amount of Punk’s stand-up we were able to see (and from the pre-fight training videos), it didn’t seem like speed is something Punk has in his athletic arsenal. Perhaps we can chalk this up to age, or perhaps not, but regardless, if the Gall fight taught us anything, it’s that putting Punk against a young prospect is a mismatch by any stretch, and he should be paired with a fighter closer to his age.
Although we , most of our list comprised of talent who were no longer with the UFC, and it would be perceived poorly if they were brought back specifically to fight Punk. So to find the next logical opponent for Punk, we look to the lightweight division for a somewhat recognizable competitor who has had just as disappointing of a time in the UFC as Punk has.
We find him in former Pride Lightweight Champion Takanori Gomi, who was once considered the second-best lightweight in the world (under B.J. Penn), and when expected to represent the supremacy of Pride in the UFC after his 2010 signing, lost seven of his eleven UFC bouts (and is currently on a three-fight skid, having been finished by punches in the first round by all three opponents), and is now on the cusp of getting cut from the promotion.
This is likely the easiest possible fight for CM Punk choosing out of the active roster, and will determine if Punk can realize any of his once-expected potential, or if Gomi can use this as an opportunity to revitalize his lost greatness.
135 LBS: Valentina Shevchenko (13-2) vs. Julianna Peña (8-2)
If Ronda Rousey defeats Amanda Nunes and wins the bantamweight championship, then it’s a given that either Cristiane “Cyborg” Justino or Holly Holm will be next for her—based solely on marquee value and maximizing the business of one of these rarefied final Rousey bouts. If so, the two women who are ahead of both Justino and Holm in the bantamweight rankings will end up being screwed out of a title shot—much as it has become the norm (just ask Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza, Demian Maia, José Aldo, Khabib Nurmagomedov, Tony Ferguson, and other top contenders on the sideline waiting for their championship bouts).
However, if Nunes defeats Rousey, then chances are Rousey’s trajectory will still be facing either Justino or Holm (if not retiring altogether), while either Valentina Shevchenko or Julianna Peña would be next for Nunes. If this is what happens, it has to be decided who truly is the number one contender in the division based on merit, and to determine that, Shevchenko and Peña need to fight each other in the meanwhile.
115 LBS: Claudia Gadelha (14-2) vs. Carla Esparza (11-3)
Claudia Gadelha just barely scored an uninspiring decision over unranked Cortney Casey, and needs to make a very quick turnaround to regain the momentum lost.
When Invicta FC was the only home for 115-pound women years ago, Gadelha and Carla Esparza were set to fight each other for the promotion’s strawweight championship on December 7, 2013. Alas, Gadelha suffered a bacterial infection on the day of the fight and pulled out—leaving Esparza frustrated and claiming Gadelha instead couldn’t make weight.
Since then, Esparza won TUF 20 and became the first UFC Women’s Strawweight Champion—shortly after Joanna Jędrzejczyk won a split decision over Gadelha, and would go on to eventually defeat Esparza to become champion. Jędrzejczyk recently defeated Gadelha for the second time, leaving Gadelha far away from a third crack at the strawweight queen. The long-anticipated bout between top-five-ranked strawweights Gadelha and Esparza is the best fight in the division right now not involving Jędrzejczyk.
155 LBS: Gilbert Melendez (22-6) vs. Will Brooks (18-2)
145 LBS: Chan Sung Jung (13–4) vs. Maximo Blanco (12-8)
205 LBS: Jan Blachowicz (19-6) vs. Steve Bossé (12-2)
170 LBS: Albert Tumenov (17-4) vs. Tom Breese (10-1)