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If you pride yourself on staying on top of all the biggest MMA fights, you know that 2018 has been a tough year to keep track of. It seems that every major Ultimate Fighting Championship announcement -- whether it’s a title fight anchoring a Las Vegas pay-per-view, or a fight night headliner in some nondescript corner of Asia -- is immediately followed by an addendum with a list of changes. A main event is cancelled or re-arranged due to injury, a weight cutting mishap, public demand, or all of the above; showcase fights are re-distributed to accommodate the latest casualty; and cards that looked fantastic on paper are unrecognizable by fight week. A sign that this trend will continue unabated in 2019 is that the year’s first pay-per-view, UFC 233, originally scheduled for Jan. 26 in Anaheim, California, has already been postponed for want of a worthy headliner.
Given the UFC’s determination to put on a fight card almost every week -- there are over 40 shows planned for 2019 -- shape-shifting is more or less a part of the devil’s pact they’ve signed. Considering the precarious nature of unarmed combat, and the added risks associated with extreme weight cutting which no one seems prepared to do anything about, the UFC’s event calendar has basically codified a state of permanent flux, with a few emboldened fighters willing to play their hand only making the organization’s job harder.
Operating in concert, these factors -- and the UFC’s increasingly short-sighted, money-hungry decision-making -- have conspired to create instability and uncertainty in over half of the divisions on the roster. Add in the organization’s ongoing fetish for super-fights, a lack of turnover in some of the key weight classes, and some problematic promises UFC president Dana White keeps making, it seems like almost everywhere you look, a division is rudderless or on life-support.
But don’t take my word for it – allow me to break it down division by division.
HeavyweightChampion: Daniel Cormier
Next Contender: Uncertain
Cormier currently resides as the champion of both the heavyweight and light heavyweight divisions, but the “Daddest Man on the Planet” stands to vacate the latter title later this month, and it’s not quite clear whom he’ll defend the former against in 2019.
The original plan was that “DC” would meet former champion and current World Wrestling Entertainment stalwart Brock Lesnar, but Lesnar’s ongoing USADA drug suspension and his recently contract extension with the WWE have cast doubt on whether he can be coaxed back into the Octagon. The fact that he’s 41 years old and hasn’t won a fight since July 2010 should also give him pause -- but this is MMA so that kind of logic doesn’t necessarily apply.
If Lesnar doesn’t work out, there’s no clear Plan B as far as I can see it. Four of the five top contenders -- Stipe Miocic, Derrick Lewis, Curtis Blaydes and Alexander Volkov -- are coming off losses, and though Francis Ngannou was impressive in his last outing, prudence dictates he be given more time to develop before getting a second shot at the throne.
With Cormier self-imposed retirement date of Mar. 20 (his 40th birthday) fast approaching, you have to think that the UFC will pull something out of the bag, but right now that’s anything but certain.
Light HeavyweightChampion: Daniel Cormier
Next contender: Jon Jones will fight Alexander Gustafsson for the soon-to-be-vacated belt on Dec. 29
For a change, there is actually a degree of clarity -- and excitement -- around the 205-pound division, which has been the UFC’s Siberia since Jon Jones cleared out the division between 2011 and 2015 before going on an extended hiatus due to -- clears throat -- some legal matters outside the cage. “Bones” will return in December opposite Alexander Gustafsson, where the two men will rematch five years removed from their timeless war at UFC 165.
After Jones and “The Mauler” go at it, Anthony Smith staked his claim to the winner with a gutsy submission victory over former title contender Volkan Oezdemir, though if Gustafsson wins you’d think the promotion pursues a rubber match. There’s also the possibility Jones moves up to heavyweight and challenges “DC” for a third time with the victory, though he’s shown only tepid interest in this proposition.
For now, light heavyweight gets a pass from me. There’s a Plan A, B and C, and that’s more that can be said for most of the other divisions.
MiddleweightChampion: Robert Whittaker
Next contender: Kelvin Gastelum
For at least the last several years, the only division that could rival lightweight for depth at the top has been middleweight. Big names like Yoel Romero, Chris Weidman, Anderson Silva, Luke Rockhold and Ronaldo Souza are still holding it down in the Top 10, while a new generation of promising contenders -- Kelvin Gastelum, Paulo Costa and Israel Adesanya among them -- are vying to cut through their predecessors in the most dynamic and devastating way possible. Incumbent champion Whittaker will have his hands full if he wants to piece together a dominant reign over the next few years and overcome the less-than-ideal way that he assumed the throne.
The 27-year old Gastelum is first up to the plate, facing “Bobby Knuckles” in February at Melbourne, Australia’s UFC 234, but after that things get murky. Adesanya and Silva will fight as the co-main event on that card, and if “The Last Stylebender” wins, the undefeated 28-year-old is a shoo-in for the next shot; however, White promised Silva -- winless in four of his last five – he’d be in the same position.
“Jacare” is also in the mix, and arguably earned a shot at 185-pound gold with his come-from-behind KO of Weidman last month -- so don’t be surprised if that line of reasoning comes into play if Silva beats the odds makers and tries to call White on his undertaking. If Costa can get healthy and resume melting the faces of former champions in the first quarter of 2019, he might also be up there soon after that.
WelterweightChampion: Tyron Woodley
Next Contender: whoever can fight in January/February
The 170-pound division may be brimming with contenders, but the question is which one will be next. After trying to nurture the beef between Colby Covington and Woodley by offering the former an interim title fight in July -- he snatched the strap by taking a decision over former lightweight champion Rafael dos Anjos -- the UFC now seems determined to spoil its plans for a “unification” fight in any way possible.
First it stripped “Chaos” and let then-undefeated Darren Till jump the queue in September, who was outclassed and submitted by the champion in the second round. Now it’s flirting with giving Kamaru Usman the shot to accommodate its event schedule and/or “moving on” from Woodley altogether.
White’s erratic and idiotic behaviour with respect to his welterweight champ is obviously a hindrance for the company, as is its refusal to make a decision and stick with it. Woodley-Covington makes sense from a rankings perspective and is the fight we probably need to get out of our systems on account of their genuine distaste for one another -- even if it does happen slightly later than is convenient. After that, Usman should face the winner.
That being said, don’t be surprised if the company creates another interim title involving Ben Askren, or something else equally nonsensical.
LightweightChampion: Khabib Nurmagomedov
Next contender: Conor McGregor rematch? Tony Ferguson? Max Holloway? Dustin Poirier?
There have been a grand total of four lightweight title fights in the past two years, involving no less than six different men. First McGregor took out Eddie Alvarez at Madison Square Garden before promptly escaping into the boxing world to fight Floyd Mayweather Jr., then Ferguson submitted Kevin Lee for the interim strap at UFC 216, theoretically booking a unification bout with “The Notorious” some time in early 2018. That didn’t happen, and somehow Nurmagomedov ended up winning the “vacant” 155-pound title in April by jabbing off Al Iaquinta’s face at UFC 223, before defending the throne at UFC 229 against McGregor in October in the biggest fight in the company’s history.
With the belt firmly in tow and millions of dollars in escrow, Nurmagomedov decided to make things unnecessarily complicated by jack-knifing off the cage and trying to assault McGregor’s coaching staff, creating a melee that is yet to be resolved more than two months removed. As of right now the Nevada Athletic Commission holds the fate of both men and their teams in its omnipotent clutches -- but the prognosis is that big suspensions and big fines could be imposed in early 2019 for the incident.
There’s simply no clarity around what will happen if that’s the case, and both Nurmagomedov and McGregor have received continuances pushing back the NSAC hearing. If an interim title is booked, it should be a no-brainer to match up Tony Ferguson, currently riding an 11-fight win streak, against Dustin Poirier, who’s TKOed three former champions in his past three fights. But White is publicly pressuring featherweight champion Max Holloway to move up to 155 pounds -- compounding an already convoluted situation.
Lightweight may be the deepest and highest-profile division in the UFC, but it’s anyone’s guess where it’s heading.
FeatherweightChampion: Max Holloway
Next contender: Frankie Edgar (probably)
Max Holloway made light work of highly touted Brian Ortega over the weekend, landing a record 290 punches on “T-City” before the doctor put a stop to the contest between the fourth and fifth rounds. “Blessed” is now within striking distance of becoming the greatest featherweight of all time, and a win over former lightweight champion Edgar might just give him over the line. If that isn’t enough a smorgasbord of young contenders are filing in behind -- Alexander Volkanovski, Renato Carneiro and Yair Rodriguez just to name a few.
But getting in the way of those plans is UFC president Dana White, who is pressuring Holloway to move up to lightweight to lessen the toll of the weight cut and possibly set up a superfight with Nurmagomedov, whom Holloway almost fought in April at UFC 223. If that happens -- and Holloway seems on the fence at this point -- a tournament to figure out a successor to the throne would make the most sense.
Knowing the UFC though, they’ll probably leave the division on ice until they need fodder for a poorly trending pay-per-view, and then book Jose Aldo against whoever’s available on short notice.
Bantamweight and FlyweightChampions: T.J. Dillashaw and Henry Cejudo
In 2018, bantamweight and flyweight had only one title fight apiece, both taking place at UFC 227 in Los Angeles. Since then, all signs point to the 125-pound division being scrapped, with bantamweight champion Dillashaw hoping to be the one to “kill off” the division and become its third and final titleholder.
That’s left bantamweight effectively on ice -- with deserving contenders like Raphael Assuncao and Marlon Moraes effectively being made to tread water in the meantime. They should get their shot if “Killashaw” is successful and moves back up to his natural weight, but should Cejudo pull through it could be a whole other can of worms.
Women’s FeatherweightChampion: Cristiane Justino
Next contender: Amanda Nunes
“Cris Cyborg” has fought exactly zero natural featherweights since she captured the 145-pound title. First she pulverized late-replacement Tonya Evinger back at UFC 214 to kick-off her title reign, and since then she’s turned back Holly Holm and Yana Kunitskaya at UFC 219 and 222 respectively in her first and second defences.
She’ll now face perhaps the toughest test of her illustrious career when fellow Brazilian and reigning bantamweight champion Amanda Nunes moves up a weight class in the first female super-fight in the company’s history at UFC 232.
If “Cyborg” is victorious, it’s anyone’s guess who will be next for her. If Megan Anderson -- the second-ever legitimate featherweight to be signed with the company -- can get a UFC victory under her belt on the UFC 232 prelims, it’s possible the organisation will put her debut loss to Holly Holm aide and give her the shot. Otherwise, Macy Chiasson, who will make her second walk to the Octagon in 2019 after winning the “Heavy Hitters” season of The Ultimate Fighter, might get the call -- though with only three professional fights that would be premature, to put it mildly.
And if Nunes is victorious? Don’t be surprised if the UFC shutters the whole division and moves on.
Women’s BantamweightChampion: Amanda Nunes
Next contender: uncertain
Amanda Nunes has four title victories under her belt, stopping Miesha Tate to win the strap in one of the biggest events in company history before brutalizing former champion and UFC poster girl Ronda Rousey in her first defense.
Since then though, the UFC hasn’t seemed particularly interested in being in business with the “Lioness,” putting minimal promotional effort into her last two defenses -- a split decision over Valentina Shevchenko and a fifth-round TKO of Raquel Pennington. What’s worse is that there’s been very little effort to build new names in the division, with top-15 fighters like Leslie Smith being let go due to her organizing efforts and others, like Juliana Pena, taking maternity leave.
When the UFC gets around to attending to the bantamweights, it’s likely that they’ll put together Nunes and Holm based solely on the name value of the latter. Ketlen Vieira should also get her due down the track, if the organization can ever get around to promoting her.
Women’s FlyweightChampion: Valentina Shevchenko
Next contender: uncertain
After a year’s worth of brainless decisions that could only be described as a symphony of errors, the women’s 125-pound division is finally in something of a healthy position, with Valentina Shevchenko besting Joanna Jedrzejczyk over five rounds to snatch the vacant strap over the weekend.
With the weight class still sorting itself out, it’s not immediately clear who will be her first defense, but Jessica Eye, who extended her winning streak at flyweight to three over the weekend with a split decision over No. 3-ranked Katlyn Chookagian, seems like as good a choice as any.
Women’s StrawweightChampion: Rose Namajunas
Next contender: Jessica Andrade
It’s been more than a year since Rose Namajunas shocked the world with her first-round knockout of Jedrzejczyk, and in the succeeding period “Thug Rose” has only defended her title once, taking out Jedrzejczyk in a scintillating five-round decision.
Since then, Namajunas has been relatively quiet, but with a new swath of contenders moving up the ranks -- including former Olympic hopeful Tatiana Suarez and veteran striker Nina Ansaroff -- she can’t afford to be inactive much longer.
In the short-term, Namajunas has her hands full with Andrade, who brutally knocked out Karolina Kowalkiewicz at UFC 228 to stake her claim to the No. 1 contender spot. After that, the division stands to get very interesting, very soon.
Jacob Debets is a recent law graduate who lives in Melbourne, Australia. He has been an MMA fan for more than a decade and trains in muay Thai and boxing at DMDs MMA in Brunswick. He is currently writing a book analyzing the economics and politics of the MMA industry. You can view more of his writing at jacobdebets.com.