Some Christmas Wishes for MMA in 2019

By Jacob Debets Dec 25, 2018
UFC 232 is now available on Amazon Prime.

Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed below are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Sherdog.com, its affiliates and sponsors or its parent company, Evolve Media.

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If I had to choose one word to describe MMA in 2018 to a casual fan, I would have to go with “convulsive.” There has been no shortage of otherworldly, this-is-why-we-love-the-sport moments, but all too often they’ve been bookended by happenings of the head-scratching, cringe-inducing or gut-wrenching variety.

The Ultimate Fighting Championship signed a landmark broadcast and streaming deal with ESPN in May and then marred the first show on its ESPN Plus platform in controversy by booking domestic violence perpetrator Greg Hardy’s promotional debut alongside Rachael Ostovich’s first fight since (allegedly) nearly being murdered by her estranged husband; the international MMA scene has swelled with seemingly legitimate promotions competing for fighters and market share, only for questions to be raised about the financial viability and sustainability of Asian powerhouse One Championship; Conor McGregor overcame the excesses of his ego and the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office to make his long-awaited Octagon return at UFC 229, just in time for his dance partner Khabib Nurmagomedov to spark a post-fight brawl that has thrown both their professional futures -- and the 155-pound division -- into a state of suspended animation.

True to form, the final event of 2018, UFC 232, has also descended into chaos in the most on-brand way possible, with the promotion’s go-to basket case Jon Jones being refused a license to compete in Nevada as originally planned due to an “atypical” drug test. In response, the organization has opted to move the entire event 300 miles southwest to Inglewood, California, on six days’ notice; and, of course, it didn’t bother to inform or consult the other fighters on the card before announcing it to the public.

With the many lessons from 2018 almost in the rearview mirror, here are a handful of Christmas wishes for MMA that would make the water a little less choppy in 2019.

1. End Extreme Weight Cutting


This is the most important one on the list and also the most ambitious, but if fighters, fans and media keep beating this drum, maybe -- just maybe -- we can begin moving towards a less-hazardous status quo for fighters in 2019.

This year, there were plenty of reminders of the dangers that come with allowing fighters to deplete their bodies for the purposes of making the scales. A shortlist would include the footage of Darren Till temporarily losing his vision while attempting to cut over 40 pounds for his fight with Stephen Thompson in Liverpool, England; Craig White admitting he cut 46 pounds in two weeks to get a UFC contract and fight Neil Magny on short notice at the same event; then-women’s flyweight champion Nicco Montano coming close to cardiac arrest in attempting to get down to 125 pounds for the first defense of her title in Texas; and strawweight Cynthia Calvillo’s disturbing walk to the scales for the UFC’s first trip to Argentina, where she looked barely able to keep upright.

At this point, it’s strange when a major MMA card isn’t affected by weight cutting-related drama, and it’s only a matter of time before an athlete does irreversible damage to his or her body or -- and we can’t allow ourselves to ignore this possibility -- loses his or her life. It’s incumbent upon athletic commissions, promotions, coaches and the fighters themselves to move towards challenging the cultural norm that says the only sensible way to approach a fight is lose 10 percent or more of your body weight 30 hours before stepping into the cage to dole out some reciprocal head trauma.

I’ve written in detail about how this might come about elsewhere. State athletic commissions must put aside their differences and move towards a uniform approach to weight cutting that monitors athletes’ weight in the build-up to scheduled bouts, prevents them from fighting in a division for which they’ve missed weight before and eventually ban weight cutting via dehydration. Before that, promotions -- especially the UFC, which is the only organization with the money and political capital to truly set a precedent in the industry -- must acknowledge the scale and seriousness of weight cutting and explore strategies for managing its excesses, including green lighting more weight divisions, forcing more fighters to move up a weight division and curtailing the practice of calling up risky late replacements.

2. Stop It with the Superfights


I’ll admit it, I was hyped for the Stipe Miocic-Daniel Cormier fight at UFC 226, as well as the Rory MacDonald-Gegard Moussasi showdown under the Bellator MMA banner in September. I’m also looking forward to Amanda Nunes and Cristiane Justino at UFC 232 on Saturday and the clash between T.J. Dillashaw and Henry Cejudo on ESPN Plus in January.

The issue is that the excitement that frames a champion-versus-champion matchup, and perhaps a marginal bump in ratings or pay-per-view sales, doesn’t offset the confusion and inertia in the divisions that are put on hold to accommodate them. Right now, confusion and instability are pervasive features of many weight classes -- especially in the UFC -- and that has implications for fighter goodwill and the coherence of the product.

There have been only four UFC bantamweight title fights in the last three years, and the division is bursting with deserving contenders, yet the organization is putting it on ice to accommodate Dillashaw’s unsettling desire to “kill off” the 125-pound division by becoming its final champion. The UFC seems to have finally gotten around to signing some female featherweights, yet it opted to force “Cyborg” into a nine-month hiatus to fight another bantamweight. MacDonald looked invincible as the 170-pound champion in Bellator and was pegged as the favorite to win the promotion’s welterweight grand prix in 2019, but Moussasi just melted his face, robbing the enterprise of some of its momentum.

We’re at the point now where it’s possible to turn this ship around and re-commit to the notion that champions should be defending their belts against the No. 1 contender 99 percent of the time, but time is running out. Here’s hoping 2019 is the year that short-termism gives way to the long game.

3. Let Nurmagomedov, Ferguson Finally Throw Down


There has been a grand total of four attempts to book a fight between lightweight standouts Khabib Nurmagomedov and Tony Ferguson over the years, two of which -- in March 2017 and April 2018 -- were to be championship affairs on pay-per-view. However, an increasingly comical series of events have conspired to rob the sport of one of the most intriguing stylistic matchups of this generation, with injuries, hazardous weight cuts and an obtrusive TV studio cable being the primary antagonists.

With the fate of “The Eagle” set to be determined early in 2019 by the Nevada Athletic Commission, it remains to be seen when the Dagestani superstar will be cleared to compete and whether it will be before the holy month of Ramadan, a period over which the devout Muslim does not fight. Assuming he’s able to compete at least once in the calendar year, it absolutely must be against the enigmatic “El Cucuy.”

Ferguson has after all pieced together the longest winning streak in the history of the UFC lightweight division, an achievement that is tied only with -- you guessed it -- Nurmagomedov. He’s also in possession of 12 ounces of gold, whether the UFC still recognizes it or not, that puts something of an asterisk next to Nurmagomedov’s title as the “undisputed” champion.

Owing to the fact that the matchup seems parked-my-car-on-an-pagan-burial-site-level cursed, one strategy for avoiding disappointing MMA fans for the fifth time would be to secretly greenlight the matchup, book it in a well-lit bomb shelter and then release it via pay-per-view tape delay. We just want to see who is the better man, Santa. What do you reckon?

4. (Plot Twist) for a Thousand More Wishes


For which I would use to ask for the following:

For Bellator to be broadcast in Australia
• For the UFC to keep its flyweight division
For the sport to acknowledge and take steps towards rectifying its domestic violence problem
• For the antitrust lawsuit against the UFC to finally get moving
• For an end to the UFC’s interim belt era
• For Max Holloway to stay healthy
• For a 165-pound division to become a thing
• For UFC President Dana White and Golden Boy MMA’s Oscar De La Hoya to stop moronically jawing at each other and focus their energies on promoting their fighters
• For Rose Namajunas to finally fight Jessica Andrade
• For Brock Lesnar to stay retired
• For Floyd Mayweather to never be mentioned in an MMA headline again

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.

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