For most Vegas benders, there is a hangover period that is assumed. It is just another sunken cost of the trip, like gambling losses and sore feet and regret. Sometimes, the hangover is literal, because, Vegas. And sometimes it’s figurative, a natural comedown after leaving the bright lights and artificial buzz for the routine—and sometimes boredom—of everyday life.
On Saturday, one week after The Money Fight, the UFC quietly slid into its own hangover period with a UFC Fight Pass card from Rotterdam, Netherlands.
As a standalone show, it was good enough. There were entertaining fights and impressive stoppages, and even if the whole card featured only two ranked fighters, it seemed a perfectly reasonable way to break us back into the UFC schedule after nearly a monthlong hiatus.
Yet, now what?
After weeks of looking forward to Conor McGregor’s audacious boxing pursuit, the future UFC schedule is not exactly a barren wasteland, but neither is it anything that captures the imagination.
From now until the end of the year, the promotion has 15 events in 17 weeks, a healthy finishing kick to 2017 in terms of quantity. Yet if you’re looking for a few high-powered, blockbuster matchups to mark in ink on your calendar, you may be left wanting. Right now, the UFC’s return to Madison Square Garden in November is where it’s at. On that card, Georges St-Pierre returns, aiming to become a two-division champion by defeating Michael Bisping. In the co-main event, Cody Garbrandt faces friend-turned-rival T.J. Dillashaw. Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson vs. Jorge Masvidal is also slotted into the card, while rising star Paulo Borrachinha fights Johny Hendricks. That’s an excellent card.
It’s also one of the few ones to point to with both a big time headlining bout and depth beneath it, a circumstance shaped by a seemingly abnormal number of names currently riding the bench. Heavyweight champion Stipe Miocic isn’t interested in returning until his contract is renegotiated; featherweight champ Max Holloway is also more interested in a raise than a fight booking; light heavyweight champion Jon Jones and his asterisk are currently facing a suspension; welterweight champ Tyron Woodley is rehabbing a shoulder injury, and recently indicated he’s more interested in moving up to middleweight to face the GSP-Bisping winner than defending his belt; and women’s featherweight champ Cris Cyborg has no natural opponent due to an almost nonexistent division around her. On top of that, there’s no guarantee McGregor will return to the UFC in 2017, although he’s voiced an interest in the possibility. That’s a lot of question marks.
Due to his wild popularity and the UFC’s headliner shortage, McGregor’s status will be a hot item of speculation for the foreseeable future. While the UFC lightweight champ and his management seem to be on great terms with the promotion in the afterglow of their massive score, there are meaningful negotiations straight ahead that will understandably redefine the relationship in the near future. After collecting a payday that is estimated between $75 million-$100 million for his bout with Floyd Mayweather, and increasing his global star power in the process, McGregor will be looking for a massive raise, maybe even a slice of UFC ownership. To the UFC’s credit, they haven’t dismissed the idea out of hand. Still, it’s not going to be an easy ride from here to there, and to get McGregor on the year-end card, they’d probably have to have a deal locked up by early November, which leaves them about two months. That’s not impossible, but it’s also no sure thing.
When McGregor is around—like Ronda Rousey and Brock Lesnar before him—everything else seems to fall into place. A rising tide lifts all boats, as the saying goes. But when he’s gone—or at least when he’s an extreme question mark—any shortcomings become magnified.
And right now, there are many holes for the UFC to plug in the form of the demanding schedule ahead.
The top of the card is what draws eyeballs, and of the UFC’s 10 established divisions, only two of them (men’s bantamweight and women’s bantamweight) have both of the top two ranked fighters (champion and top contender) currently scheduled. By contrast, neither the heavyweight, light-heavyweight nor featherweight division have either the champ or top contender scheduled.
It’s not all terrible, of course. This weekend brings the return of Demetrious Johnson, October’s Tony Ferguson vs. Kevin Lee match looks like some serious fun, and at some point before the year goes out, Justin Gaethje and Eddie Alvarez will cause us to temporarily lose our minds.
To be sure, along the way, some of the aforementioned questions will be answered, and a few surprises will spring up. Hopefully, they’ll be positive ones. Hopefully, some youngster will seize the spotlight in a meaningful way, in both actions and words. If McGregor has taught us anything, it’s that the limelight is always there for the taking. If the Money Fight has taught us anything, it’s that we prefer our limelight with a side of surrealism.
All that is to say, the last four months of the year are going to be a challenge, both for the UFC and its fans. A week ago, our heads were spinning, but we’re on the way back to normal, even if we don’t necessarily want to go back just yet. That’s the thing about those Vegas benders. When the buzz starts wearing off, normal doesn’t look so good.