All I Want For Christmas is Khabib-Ferguson

By Jacob Debets Dec 26, 2019
Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed below are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of, its affiliates and sponsors or its parent company, Evolve Media.

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2019 was another big year for the sport of mixed martial arts. The Ultimate Fighting Championship touched down in no fewer than 15 different countries over 42 different events, significantly expanding its footprint across Oceania, Asia, Russia and the Middle East whilst solidifying their dominance as the major player in the United States. A potential superstar in Israel Adesanya was crowned in Melbourne before a record-breaking 57,000+ people, reigniting the UFC’s 185-pound division, which has been in a state of flux since Michael Bisping pulled the upset over Luke Rockhold way back in July 2016. Conor McGregor continued to write his career obituary, copping criminal charges for two separate assaults and coming under investigation for a second alleged sexual assault, all the while remaining conspicuously absent from the Octagon. Amanda Nunes, Khabib Nurmagomedov, Jon Jones and Valentia Shevchenko consolidated their dominance courtesy of a combined seven title defences in their respective weight classes, whilst several of their counterparts – Daniel Cormier, Robert Whittaker, Tyron Woodley, Max Holloway, TJ Dillashaw, Henry Cejudo, Rose Namajunas and Jessica Andrade – were toppled by challengers, inactivity or EPO.

Outside the UFC, Bellator MMA wrapped up both its heavyweight and welterweight Grand Prixs, with Ryan Bader becoming the promotion’s first “champ-champ” with his 35-second KO of Fedor Emelianenko and Douglas Lima capturing the 170-pound strap for the third time in six years after beating Rory MacDonald via decision in their rematch. Its 16-man featherweight tournament also got underway, the promotion has continued to import more hot commodities and aging legends to fill out their roster. Over in Singapore, One Championship made its move West, opening offices in Los Angeles and New York in July after signing a TV deal with Turner Sports hot off the back of “trading” Ben Askren for Demetrius Johnson -- though it continued to raise eyebrows with its hyperbolic assertions about the promotion’s success and standing in the broader MMA ecosystem. The Professional Fighters League is days away from handing out six more $1M pay checks and just signed Rory MacDonald for its 2020 season.

With 2019 (almost) in the rear-view mirror, here are some Christmas wishes for the impending New Year.

Wish No. 1: That No UFC Fighter Should Have to Work a Second Job to Afford Christmas Presents

2019 may have been a banner year for the organisation, with court documents filed as part of the ongoing antitrust lawsuit against the promotion indicating that it anticipated revenues of almost $1B, but the organisation’s athletes continue to see only a fraction (approximately 20%) of that income.

In between failed attempts at unionisation, a stalled campaign to expand the Muhammad Ali Boxing Reform Act and the aforementioned antitrust lawsuit entering its sixth year, fighters remained an un-unified and highly exploitable group in 2019 – whilst Dana White & Co swam in an Olympic swimming pool of cash courtesy of their ESPN deals and countless other endorsements and partnerships.

Whilst fighter pay remains a hot button issue, and multiple champions have come out this year in criticism of the promotion’s pay structure, 2019 has seen little appetite for collective action to challenge the UFC’s hegemony or bargaining power.

The result is a predictable batch of headlines speaking to the absurd lengths that fighters must go to make ends meet. Ranked fighters are working second jobs deep into their Octagon tenures or selling Reebok gear to afford fight camp; others are begging for bonuses so they can move out of their parent’s basement.

You know that for a large portion of UFC fighters Christmas is going to be a particularly precarious time financially, an unjustifiable state of affairs given (a) the revenue their fights generate and (b) the extreme physical risks associated with the sport.

Here’s hoping White is visited by the Ghost of Christmas Past and dishes out some extra cash to his hard-working employees “independent contractors” and 2020 sees fighters finally developing a shared labour consciousness.

Wish No. 2: That UFC 249 Goes Down as Planned

I wrote about Khabib Nurmagomedov and Tony Ferguson in last year’s Christmas wish list, and we all know what happened there, so I’ll try to keep this quick and to the point so as not to tempt the Fight Gods into thwarting this fight for a fifth time.

Nurmagomedov is well on his way to becoming the greatest lightweight in UFC history, with an undefeated record of 28-0 and 12 consecutive victories in the Octagon. But his path to pound-for-pound supremacy will not be complete until he overcomes “El Cucuy,” who is also riding a 12-fight winning streak in the UFC and who is coming off the back of nasty finishes over Anthony Pettis and Donald Cerrone.

This fight was booked in 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018, and every time it has fallen apart due to increasingly absurd reasons. Now, with “The Eagle” two defences deep into his rule over the 155-pound division and T-Ferg still seen sporting his interim hardware from two years prior, UFC 249’s headliner is on the shortlist for the most anticipated fights of all time.

There’s a lot that can happen between now and fight day – currently slated for April 18 – so it’s important that we only talk about the fight in hushed tones and touch wood whenever we say something hopeful or presumptive. Just 115 days to go…

Wish No. 3: That We Cool It with the Hypothetical MMA-Boxing Crossovers

2019 was many things for combat sports, but business-as-usual it was not. There were three fighters who achieved “champ-champ” status across the UFC and Bellator (four if you count Amanda Nunes, who captured the 145-pound title two days before the New Year), the UFC created a “BMF title” for Jorge Masvidal’s scrap against Nate Diaz at UFC 244 and Eddie Hearn’s Matchroom boxing went all-in on promoting YouTuber-versus-YouTuber fights on Dazn.

As a result of all the norm-disrupting silliness, the boundaries between the Sweet Science and MMA felt increasingly malleable, with a long list of fighters on both sides of the fence flirting with crossover “super fights” and the media doing their darndest to amplify these inane hypotheticals.

Lineal heavyweight boxing champion Tyson Fury called out UFC heavyweight titleholder Stipe Miocic for his MMA debut, with the latter showing all kinds of interest despite reprimanding his predecessor Daniel Cormier for ostensibly the same kind of behaviour vis-à-vis Brock Lesnar a year earlier; Jorge Masvidal captured the aforementioned BMF title, then used his platform to mosh for a bout against pound-for-pound great Canelo Alvarez; reigning middleweight (160-pound) boxing champion and two-time Olympic gold medallist Claressa Shields set her sights on Amanda Nunes (who hilariously responded by inviting her to the cage where she would “wrestle the s—t out of [her]”); and Floyd Mayweather announced he was coming out of retirement, triggering a predictable tsunami of call outs from the UFC’s ranks, with everyone from Khabib Nurmagomedov to Bryce Mitchell making their case for why they could beat “Money” in the squared circle.

Given the historical susceptibility of the casual sports fan to these kinds of narratives, and the enormous success of the Mayweather-McGregor bout in 2017, even Father Christmas will have a hard time dissuading fighters and promoters from chasing these crossovers. However, considering we know exactly how these bouts will end, it would be nice if the media would stop fanning the flames – and we could get back to focusing on meaningful, competitive fights in our respective sports.

Jacob Debets is a law graduate and writer from Melbourne, Australia. He is currently writing a book analyzing the economics and politics of the MMA industry. You can view more of his writing at Advertisement


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