What used to be UFC's traditional biggest weekend of the year, International Fight Week, nearly went out with a whimper had it not been for the main events of both weekend shows.
The week was almost apropos for a year which has seen many of the company's biggest stars not fight, injuries and other reasons place a lot of championships on hold, and matches fall apart seemingly before every show.
What used to be a huge expo with exhibits, amateur MMA fights, wrestling matches, Jiu-Jitsu tournaments and keynote speeches by Dana White and others turned into some autograph sessions. What once was three straight nights of fights turned into two. And what was hoped to be the most loaded show of the year had already been hurt by injuries to Cody Garbrandt and Donald Cerrone.
The show got its final sucker punch when Amanda Nunes, scheduled to headline and defend her women's bantamweight title in the main event of UFC 213, pulled out the day of the show. And unlike last year when Jon Jones got popped for a drug test failure at nearly the last minute, Joanna Jedrzejczyk wasn't able to be cleared to become what Anderson Silva did in 2016 by taking the fight as a late replacement who walked in with no time to train for the specific fight.
But there was some good news as well. For a company badly in need of some new stars, the two main events provided a couple of candidates.
Robert Whittaker (19-4) had an interesting career lesson. After going 3-2 as a welterweight, with his only name opponent being a loss to future top contender Stephen Thompson, he moved up to middleweight and has since gone 7-0 in a division some thought he was too small for. Even though many thought Yoel Romero was the toughest guy in the division, and Michael Bisping — championship belt or not — was never the best middleweight, the reality is Whittaker needs to beat Bisping to be considered the champion.
If he does so — and Whittaker would go in most likely as the favorite in such a fight — he would become the first Australian to be a legitimate UFC champion. Australia has always been one of UFC's strongest international markets without a native champion, and Whittaker’s success could up the popularity and allow UFC to consider another major event like the 2015 Etihad Stadium show in Melbourne.
At 26, it's entirely possible that if he wins the title, Whittaker would have years to come as a headliner.
Justin Gaethje (18-0), who had been World Series of Fighting's biggest homegrown star, made the move to UFC needing to answer questions about his true standing among the world's best. What Gaethje proved in what may have been the UFC's best fight of 2017, against Michael Johnson, is that he doesn't crack under pressure. Johnson hurt Gaethje several times in the two of the best rounds of back-and-forth action you'll ever seen.
It's hard to say what Gaethje's ceiling is. He had similar wars in his WSOF days. One or two wars like that can be great for your marketability, but consistently doing it shortens one’s career at the top. Johnson is a legit contender, but also came into the fight with 11 losses, along with signature wins over Tony Ferguson, Dustin Poirier and Edson Barboza.
Lightweight is the company's deepest division when it comes to exciting fighters, and has the No. 1 star maker, Conor McGregor, as its champion. With the combination of how impressive his debut was, and his undefeated win-loss record, Gaethje could legitimately be matched next against anyone from Ferguson on down, while the world waits to see if McGregor will actually defend a title with a potential of a nearly nine-digit bank account coming off the Mayweather fight.
Let's look at how Fortunes Changed and what could be next for five of the weekend’s stars.
ROBERT WHITTAKER — His next step is seemingly obvious: Bisping (30-7), the UFC's career record holder for most wins. After that, former champion Luke Rockhold (15-3) is waiting in the wings, as is Romero (12-2), whose loss came down to losing the final round of a close fight. For Whittaker to solidify himself as a true difference maker or for a stadium show in Australia, Anderson Silva (34-8) is still the legend of the division and someone who can give the 26-year-old a platform to make the leap from a possible champion to a being a business mover.
YOEL ROMERO — At 40, time is not on Romero's side, no matter how young his body looks. The best thing for him would be a fight against Rockhold, because that's a fight where the winner should be guaranteed a middleweight title shot. The departure of Gegard Mousasi to Bellator shuts down what would otherwise be his most logical fight. Otherwise, a rematch with Derek Brunson (17-5), given Brunson's one punch knockout of Daniel Kelly, makes the most sense.
ALISTAIR OVEREEM — Overeem (43-15, 1 no contest) scored the type of win that points out the flaw in the current scoring system. It was very clear, after dominating the third round strongly, and with a first round that saw almost nothing happen and could be judged either way, that Fabricio Werdum won the fight if it was judged as a whole. But it's not, and Overeem got the "pick-em" first round on all three judges cards, meaning Werdum's dominant third round wasn't enough to overcome Overeem's solid but less dominant second round.
The heavyweight division, besides aging out, is low on legitimate title contenders for champion Stipe Miocic. There are really only two fighters at the top of the division that Miocic hasn't beaten, Cain Velasquez and Francis Ngannou. Ngannou is tied up with Junior Dos Santos. Velasquez has spent much of his career winning fights with opponents and losing fights with his own body and continual injuries.
Overeem could be a contender with his win over Werdum, except it wasn't impressive, and a recent win over Mark Hunt, which was impressive, except that Miocic already finished Overeem in the first round on Sept. 10, 2016. So he's hard to book next. You could rematch him with Werdum based on the idea that points added up to the wrong winner at UFC 213, but the fight wasn't exciting. He could face Ngannou, if Ngannou beats dos Santos on Sept. 9 in Edmonton, or he could face the winner of the Sept. 2 fight with Stefan Struve (28-8) vs. Alexander Volkov (28-6). If Overeem wants to fight sooner, the only opponent that would be ready looks to be Aleksei Oleinik (52-10-1), who is coming off a win on Saturday over Travis Browne.
ANTHONY PETTIS — Pettis was thought to be the long-term star of the lightweight division just two-and-a-half years ago. Since then, he's gone 2-4 including an unsuccessful attempt to challenge for the featherweight title.
A good next fight to make would be with Kevin Lee (16-2). Lee looked good enough in his win over Michael Chiesa that both Pettis and Lee would benefit significantly from a win in such a fight.
JUSTIN GAETHJE — Unlike with Pettis, whose record in the last two years is spotty and who has fought many of the top stars in the current division, Gaethje has an endless list of potential opponents depending on a number of outside factors. Names like Ferguson, Khabib Nurmagomedov, Pettis, Eddie Alvarez, Edson Barboza, Lee, Dustin Poirier and even Al Iaquinta could all be possible opponents.
A lot depends on a number of moving parts. If McGregor faces Nurmagomedov, then Ferguson vs. Gaethje makes sense. The winner would solidify themselves for a title sot. If Nurmagomedov and Ferguson ends up actually happening, then Alvarez (28-5) or Barboza (19-4) make the most sense.