After UFC's most ambitious week in its history, with shows on three straight nights, and with the last event of the year coming up on Saturday, it's amazing to look back at the year that was.
Largely due to the rise of Ronda Rousey as a mainstream celebrity, and Conor McGregor as the most charismatic star fighter in company history, the UFC has had its biggest year since 2010 if not ever. That was coming off a down year, where there was growing talk of UFC being lost past its peak and that pay-per-view was a dying business.
It's been a year of shocks and changes. One champion after another thought to be dominant and next to unbeatable went down hard. Rousey's loss to Holly Holm became, by far, the most talked about fight after the fact in company history. Yet, at the start of the year, most would have been shocked if they looked into a crystal ball and found that of the champions thought be well ahead of the pack at the start of 2015, Cain Velasquez, Jon Jones, Chris Weidman,.Anthony Pettis, Jose Aldo, Demetrious Johnson and Rousey, that only one, Johnson, would still be champion at the end of the year.
Of course Jones never lost his championship in competition. But Weidman and Aldo going down in consecutive matches just weeks after Rousey just underscores how tight the competition is at the top and how unpredictable outcomes really are in this sport.
That's both a positive and a negative for the sport. Company success and failure when it comes to big shows is built more than ever on a few stars. Stars, even if they appear to be unbeatable, nobody really is and the biggest names can be toppled at almost any time. From a business standpoint, the UFC is solid, as it was very profitable in 2014 when it seemed almost everything went wrong when it came to injuries. The key is strong television deals, particularly in the U.S. and Brazil, that give them a cushion even in bad times.
McGregor's win over Aldo gives him legs as far as the future goes. McGregor will probably be a money player as long as he could be competitive at the top. Chael Sonnen's track record of being a good draw and attention getter even though he never won a championship, due to his talking, would have been McGregor's career path with a loss. But with the spectacular title win in 13 seconds, McGregor will be able to survive multiple losses and still draw as long as the public believes he at least has a chance against the top competition and is still in a position where he can viably chase the title. One look at Urijah Faber, who is still being talked about in the title picture after multiple losses in big bouts over the past seven years, shows that McGregor can remain in big fights for years to come if he remains in the sport.
Rousey, on the other hand, probably can't afford a second loss. People will still want to watch her fight for some time. The question is whether she'll want to stay, given she was talking of retirement even before the Holm fight. Faber is also the example that the axiom that a second loss will kill her isn't the case. But will a second loss kill her as far as being someone who can pull in 800,000 or more pay-per-view buys every time out, that is probably the case.
As good as many of the other fighters are on the roster, with the exception of Jones, whose return will be big next year, no other champion on their own looks to have the ability to at this point even threaten a 500,000-buy level show.
And yet, 2016 looks strong. Rousey vs. Holm could set company pay-per-view records. Jones vs. Daniel Cormier 2 will be big. McGregor's fights will be big. A return of Georges St-Pierre would be big. And yet, as 2014 showed, it only takes a few injuries, in a sport with a high injury rate, for things to go down fast. With all the unpredictability of this year, looking past that point is foolish. It's also most likely the current period will be looked back on as a golden era of the sport for having mega-draws like Rousey and McGregor at the same time. Just as 2014 wasn't a true test of the sport's drawing power, the success of 2015 and probable success of 2016 isn't necessarily an indication that this is the level the company will remain at for the long-term.
Normally we do Fortunes Changed for Five fighters after major shows. But with so much that has happened over the past week, let's instead look at how fortunes changed in five weight classes:
FEATHERWEIGHTS - The power of McGregor is such that featherweights, a division that was never a big draw during Aldo's long title run may now be the company's marquee division. Frankie Edgar (19-4-1) was already a viable title contender, given his history as champion as a lightweight even though being severely undersized. While he lost a close decision to Aldo, he's come back with five wins in a row over names like Charles Oliveira, B.J. Penn, Cub Swanson, Urijah Faber and now Mendes.
If McGregor wasn't such a good talker, Edgar would have already had his title fight.
McGregor, after his win, spoke of different options, including moving up to lightweight to challenge for the title. He emphasized he wasn't vacating the featherweight title. Dana White talked about Edgar vs. Aldo as a way to crown a new champion if McGregor moved up to challenge for the lightweight title.
Given how long he's been as champion, and that the history of UFC shows that rematches often end completely different, there is the argument for Aldo to get a return match next. Just recently, both Velasquez and Rousey were granted returns after decisive title losses. But there is a difference. While heavyweight had some contenders, none had put together a string of wins even close to that of Edgar while not getting a shot. And Aldo has nowhere near Rousey's name and drawing power, or even that of Velasquez.
If Aldo (25-2) gets a strong win, he should be given a shot. For a next foe, Mendes (17-4) would be a tough one to make. Mendes has lost of three of his past four fights and they've already facing each other twice with Aldo winning both times. That leaves Max Holloway (15-3), who didn't have a great outing on Saturday, but still got his hand raised against Jeremy Stephens, as the most viable opponent that Aldo hasn't already beaten.
McGregor talked about bouncing between divisions. If someone does hold titles in two divisions, it greatly slows down both divisions and creates fewer title matches and longer waits for viable challengers.
This is a unique situation. If McGregor actually could win both titles, his drawing power is such that his being champion would invigorate both weight classes. The money his title defenses would draw would more than make up for the fact there are fewer title matches in each division. As a general rule, a guy holding two belts is not the best thing for UFC business. But in this case, it would be for all involved.
If McGregor faces the lightweight champion next, Edgar's choices would be to sit it out and wait, or take a match and risk that title shot. If he takes a fight, Aldo and Holloway would be the most viable foes.
LIGHTWEIGHTS - With Rafael dos Anjos defending against Donald Cerrone on Saturday in Orlando, Fla., a lot rides on the result. If Cerrone wins, a McGregor vs. Cerrone fight would likely be bigger than McGregor vs. Edgar. McGregor vs. Edgar, as far as name value, beats McGregor vs. dos Anjos.
Even if dos Anjos retains the title, there is still the story of McGregor trying to become the first man to hold titles in two weight classes.
Tony Ferguson (21-3) made himself a viable contender on Friday scoring his seventh straight win in stopping Edson Barboza in one of the best fights of the year. Still, should Pettis beat Eddie Alvarez on Jan. 17 in Boston, he'd be more likely to get the next title fight, particularly if Cerrone wins. Pettis finished Cerrone by strikes in the first round in 2013.
If McGregor takes the title fight, a Ferguson vs. Pettis fight, or Ferguson vs. Alvarez if he should win, are all viable. When you throw Khabib Nurmagomedov (22-0, with a win over dos Anjos) into the mix, as well as Michael Johnson (17-9), should he beat Nate Diaz next week, and there is no shortage of potential high quality contender fights on the horizon.
MIDDLEWEIGHT - Saturday was supposed to make very clear the next middleweight title fight -- the winner of Chris Weidman vs. Luke Rockhold, the champion, would defend against the winner of Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza vs. Yoel Romero.
It's now not that simple. Rockhold (15-2) vs. Romero (11-1) is a viable direction, but it's not the only direction or even arguably the best direction.
For one, there is the question whether Romero deserved the win. It appeared to most that Romero won the first round big, and that Souza won the second and third. If you gave Romero a 10-8 first, which is a viable score, the fight would be a draw. But two judges gave Romero the second round. In a list of media scores at MMADecisions.com, 14 of 16 judges gave Souza rounds two and three, with 11 giving him the fight overall. Three others, including myself, had it a draw based on a 10-8 round. Only two went for Romero.
Rockhold threw out the name Vitor Belfort as an opponent he wants to race. Belfort knocked out Rockhold in 2013, a result the new champion is very bitter about because Belfort was on TRT at the time. Belfort has been talked about as an opponent for Anderson Silva in March. If that fight happens, it probably rules Belfort out as a next opponent.
Rockhold vs. Romero is probably not a big box office fight, but still seems the most likely. Weidman vs. Souza and Silva vs. Belfort could be the other key matches to make. The best hopes of a big money fight in 2016, if all the cards go the right way, would be Rockhold vs. Silva. But Silva, now 40, has indicated he's no longer interested in going after championships.
BANTAMWEIGHT - Urijah Faber (33-8), immediately went on the offensive in talking about wanting a title fight against the winner of the Jan. 17 bout between champion T.J. Dillashaw and challenger Dominick Cruz.
Faber, of course, has history with both. He and Cruz have split two fights and were scheduled to face off when Cruz started his run of injuries. Faber was positioning a potential Dillashaw fight with a "Rocky V" analogy. In his story, he's Rocky, the mentor who takes a promising younger fighter under his wing and then the fighter has some success and turns on him. Faber said that like in the movie, the good guy was going to win.
The immediate reaction is that Faber is 36, has had six championship fights in the last seven years, losing all of them. In all cases, his getting the shots were the right call at the time. Whether it was Faber beating a top contender, or injuries changing the situation making Faber the most viable contender at the time, it wasn't just his popularity that got him so many chances. But it also clearly helped a lot.
On the big weekend, Faber was still either the second (behind McGregor) or third (behind McGregor and Weidman) most popular fighter. The Irish fans, in particular, loved him even though he was positioned as McGregor's adversary in the last season of The Ultimate Fighter.
Faber pushed the narrative that the fans want to see him face Dillashaw in particular. And in the rankings, the only people ahead of him besides Dillashaw and Cruz, are Renan Barao, who has talked about moving up, and Raphael Assuncao, who Faber noted that he's beaten, even if that fight was six years ago.
Interest in Cruz or Dillashaw against either Barao or Assuncao would pale in comparison to Faber.
On Thursday, Aljamain Sterling (12-0) finished Johnny Eduardo, putting himself in the discussion. Sterling and Thomas Almeida (20-0) are the two fighters to watch in the division and either could be one signature win away from a shot. John Dodson, who is very small for the division, is also returning. He's challenged Almeida, and does have a knockout win over Dillashaw four years ago, and has only lost in UFC competition to Demetrious Johnson.
STRAWWEIGHT - Most of the attention going into Thursday's show was on Paige VanZant. But Rose Namajunas (5-2) beat VanZant in every aspect of the game, finishing the first non-title women's main event in UFC history in the fourth round.
While no date has been announced, it's expected that Joanna Jedrzejczyk (11-0) will face Claudia Gadelha (13-1) in the next title fight early next year. Namajunas is the most viable contender for the winner, in a division that doesn't have a lot of depth. Namajunas could face Tecia Torres (7-0), who beat Jocelyn Jones-Lybager on Saturday's show, next in what could be a bout with a title shot at stake. Former champion Carla Esparza (10-3) has wins over both Namajunas and Torres, the latter on The Ultimate Fighter in a match that doesn't count on the fighters' records. It's been done, but if Esparza, who hasn't fought since March due to a shoulder injury, is ready, her facing Namajunas for the shot would make more sense.