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Click Debate: What are the biggest questions facing MMA in 2018?


MMA was red hot in 2016. Conor McGregor fought three times; Ronda Rousey fought once. The UFC scored more viewers on pay-per-view than ever before.

Last year was not nearly as successful and, from a business perspective, there are many questions heading into 2018.

And what about Bellator and the rest of the MMA world? Who will the UFC sign with after its broadcast deal with Fox expires? Will weight cutting be addressed further?

These coming 12 months will be pivotal in the history of the sport. Let’s look at the 10 most important questions facing mixed martial arts in 2018.

Will Conor McGregor return to the UFC? If so, when and against whom?

McGregor has said he wants to fight. Obviously, the UFC would love nothing more than to have him back in the fold. Promotion president Dana White said recently that he’s looking toward a summer return for the wildly popular Irishman, who is the sport’s all-time biggest financial draw.

The big question is, what will it take to get McGregor back in the Octagon? The answer is more money than any fighter has ever earned by fighting in the UFC. There’s no doubt about that. McGregor, the UFC lightweight champion, just made $100 million in a boxing match against Floyd Mayweather back in August. He won’t make that much in his UFC return, but the promotion is going to be have to be creative to lure him. Perhaps McGregor’s past interest in gaining an equity share in the company will be put on the table.

Then there’s the enigma of who he will go against. It should be either Tony Ferguson, the interim lightweight champion, or Khabib Nurmagomedov. From a merit and sport point of view, those two are the only ones who would make sense. But from a business point of view, Georges St-Pierre or Nate Diaz could be bigger fights. There’s a chance Ferguson and Nurmagomedov will fight before McGregor comes back and the winner would put himself in the best possible standing to get that “red-panty night,” as “The Notorious” has dubbed it.

Regardless of what happens, McGregor’s return — and potential comeback fight — is likely to be the biggest story throughout the year for the sport. If he decides to pursue a rematch with Mayweather or another boxing bout, that would draw international headlines, but it would almost certainly draw the ire of MMA fans.

Will another major UFC pay-per-view draw emerge from the pack?

Let’s say McGregor doesn’t come back. Who fills his alligator-skin shoes? Identifying and building stars is one of the toughest things in combat sports. The UFC positioned four fighters — Cody Garbrandt, Cynthia Calvillo, Francis Ngannou and Michelle Waterson — as their endorsement team for the BodyArmor sports drink in November. Since then, all but Ngannou has lost. That’s not to say that the other three don’t still have bright futures — they do — but mixed martial arts has a level of unpredictability that makes it very difficult to pinpoint future draws.

Ngannou could be that person. It all hinges upon his title challenge against Stipe Miocic at UFC 220 on Jan. 20 in Boston. If Ngannou, the chiseled, 6-foot-5, power-punching phenom, wins, he’ll be the most compelling heavyweight champion with the most star potential in years. Speaking of titleholders, 2018 could be a massive year for new women’s strawweight champion Rose Namajunas, who has all the boxes checked when it comes to marketability. If she and Cris Cyborg are both promoted correctly, it could lead to another monster period for women’s MMA.

Other potential fighters for breakout years are Max Holloway, Khabib Nurmagomedov and Tony Ferguson. Will any of them become full-fledged draws? We’ll have to wait to find out.

Will Jon Jones and/or Georges St-Pierre make any impact at all?

Jones and St-Pierre were the respective A-sides on the biggest UFC pay-per-view events of 2017. But with this year beginning, neither of them are holding title belts and their futures are very much unknown, for different and distinct reasons.

Jones is facing a lengthy suspension from USADA and the California State Athletic Commission (CSAC) after testing positive for a steroid in relation to his UFC 214 bout with Daniel Cormier. He could end up missing all of 2018. GSP is dealing with ulcerative colitis and vacated the middleweight belt he won from Michael Bisping at UFC 217. Whether or not the all-time great fights this year — or ever again — will be a big story moving forward.

How will the UFC’s broadcast contract negotiations shake out?

The UFC’s U.S. broadcast deal with Fox Sports is up in late 2018. By the second quarter of the year, we should be getting an indication as to which network or networks — or even streaming service — that the UFC will be on moving forward, if not Fox and its shoulder channels.

Where the UFC will air in the states will be a major part of how the sport progresses, or does not, in the future. There has been speculation that recent moving and shaking by media conglomerates like Fox, Disney, AT&T and Time Warner have hurt the UFC’s money-making potential in the market, but who knows? Digital streaming services are hot right now and the UFC has a ton of live sports content to offer.

When the UFC sold to WME-IMG for $4 billion, it was written that the promotion expected to get $400 million per year from a broadcast partner on the upcoming deal. Fox has reportedly offered the UFC about half that, so far. It’s impossible to predict how it will all shake out, though.

While most fans don’t necessarily care about the odds and ends of this kind of business deal, there could be major effects coming that will be noticeable, like what fights will be where, the future of UFC Fight Pass and how the promotion approaches its pay-per-view product. A lot will be figured out in 2018 with respect to these significant factors.

Is 2018 the year Bellator closes the distance further on the UFC?

For the second straight year, Bellator will be getting off on the right foot. Douglas Lima defends his welterweight title against Rory MacDonald at Bellator 192, which also features the opener of the Bellator Heavyweight Grand Prix between Chael Sonnen and Quinton Jackson. That card will have the appeal of two of the best 170-pounders in the world and the name value of Sonnen and “Rampage.”

The rest of that heavyweight tournament, which features Fedor Emelianenko, Frank Mir, Roy Nelson, Matt Mitrione, Muhammed Lawal and Ryan Bader, has the potential to garner some casual interest and has the novelty factor that tourneys always bring. The eight-man contest for the heavyweight title will be a common thread to follow throughout the year and should be a boon to Bellator.

The question is, how much will it help the promotion gain ground on the UFC? That’s hard to say. Bellator will need to chip away some more by adding important free agents like it has in each of the last three years. It’ll also have to see the maturation of some of its prospects, like A.J. McKee, Aaron Pico and James Gallagher, into fighters people want to tune into see.

How much will Spike bring re-branded as The Paramount Network help or hurt Bellator? That’s another storyline to watch as the year progresses.

What will the UFC do with Cris Cyborg?

It seemed like Cyborg would come into 2018 with some major good will. She beat Holly Holm in a terrific performance at UFC 219 on Dec. 30 to retain her UFC women’s featherweight title and then was the victim of some disgusting and inappropriate social media comments by the photographer for Holm’s gym, JacksonWink MMA. The UFC pulled the photographer’s credentials last week.

However, toward the end of the week, Cyborg was once again drawing the ire of fans after writing a post on her website saying she did not want to fight UFC women’s bantamweight champion Amanda Nunes next in a superfight. Nunes wants the fight, the UFC wants it (per White) and it’s sincerely the best fight available right now for both with no clear-cut contenders available in either division. But Cyborg wrote she’d rather fight a top contender in her own division, like Pam Sorenson, an Invicta fighter who has never fought in the UFC and no one has really ever heard of.

Part of the issue is that the UFC has shown no real motivation to build Cyborg’s 145-pound division, so there are no real legitimate challengers, especially if Megan Anderson is still dealing with personal issues. But shutting down one of the best women’s fights in history against Nunes is unlikely to put Cyborg in the good graces of the fans, once again.

Will Dana White become more hands off with the UFC as he ventures into boxing?

Will there truly be a Zuffa Boxing in 2018? Many MMA fans won’t care either way. But White has steered the UFC ship since 2001 and if he’s off promoting boxing, will that effect the way the MMA side of the business is run? Will White not be as much of a central figure in the UFC? That remains to be seen.

White said he’s having a meeting with almost every bigwig in boxing this month. Maybe Mayweather will even be there. Seeing how all that shakes out — and where White’s interests lie moving forward — will at least be a curiosity.

Will the Ali Act or a potential fighters union come into play at all?

In 2016, a potential fighters union or association was a hot topic. The Professional Fighters League and the MMA Athletes Association both announced their presences as potential organizing bodies for fighters. Last year, though, both groups seemed to fizzle out. Little has been heard from either one of them in months. The only group still making an impact is the MMA Fighters Association, which currently has an ongoing antitrust lawsuit against the UFC and is working to get boxing’s Ali Act extended to MMA in Congress.

There was an Ali Act hearing before a House of Representatives subcommittee in November, but it remains unclear when the bill will be voted on. If it gets passed in the House, it would then go to the Senate. If the Senate approves it, it would come to the desk of President Donald Trump, who would have to sign it into law. Though the bill has bipartisan support, Trump and White are close friends and White even spoke for Trump at the Republican National Convention in 2016. Would Trump sign into law legislation that could hurt White? Maybe we’ll find out this year.

Will more actions be taken to combat dangerous weight cutting?

Last year, the California State Athletic Commission (CSAC) passed a 10-point plan to combat extreme weight cutting and severe dehydration. It was the first modern set of rules approved by a commission to taper the practice in MMA. The plan recommends fighters move up to a new division if they gain more than a certain percentage of their body weight back between the weigh-ins and the fight, among other things. It lacks teeth, however, if other commissions don’t approve it.

It’ll be interesting to see if more commissions adopt some (or all) of the 10-point plan or if the UFC and Bellator will fully embrace it. So far, as we move into 2018, that has not happened.

Will Nick or Nate Diaz fight in 2018?

Nate Diaz recently asked fighters to ask nicely if they want to challenge him should he return. Nick Diaz is, per UFC exec Jeff Novitzky, close to getting his whereabouts issues with USADA cleared up. Both Diaz brother should be eligible to fight in 2018. But will they? Only if they want to and the money is right, it seems. Nate has not been in there since losing to McGregor in 2016 and Nick hasn’t fought since 2015.

If there is a good time for them to return, it would be now. With McGregor’s future unclear and Jones and GSP seemingly out of action for a good amount of time, the UFC needs the Brothers Diaz more than ever.

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