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Fightweets: How many major events can the UFC put together in 2019?

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

It’s a holiday miracle: A weekend off from the fight game. So enjoy whichever holidays you celebrate over the next couple weeks and get ready for the next onslaught of one fight card after another, because the early schedule for next year is pretty busy. Speaking of 2019 ...

Big year coming in 2019?

@XarXarSupreme: 2019 seems like a big year ahead for @ufc. Khabib/Tony, Conor/anyone, Jones back, DC twilight, possible Brock back, Diaz Bros. What are you most looking forward to?

When you put it that way, if things fall into place, yes, the UFC has the potential for several really big fights to fall into their lap next year.

This isn’t a small deal: WME/Endeavor’s model for success with the UFC is clearly built around making a giant score off a few bigger-than-life events per year. When that happens, all the rest — the cancellations and fights shifting from card to card and USADA suspension and so on — is just manageable background noise, no matter how maddening it might be for fans.

WME types bought the company when it was coming off a period in which Ronda Rousey and Conor McGregor were busy fighters. Then Rousey retired, and McGregor slowed his output as the dollars rolled in.

So the only giant events they’ve been a part of over the past two years was McGregor vs. Floyd Mayweather in a boxing match and McGregor vs. Khabib Nurmagomedov at UFC 229.

Next year, though? You’re right, the potential is there for something big.

McGregor’s next fight obviously is going to be a pivotal bout in his career. McGregor’s drawing power has been bulletproof despite the fact he has lost three out of his past five combat sports contests. But at some point, if you want to continue to draw the casuals who make the difference between a giant fight and a merely big one, you have to win.

So maybe you have McGregor fight a bout which plays to his styles, like an Al Iaquinta or a Dustin Poirier rematch. Or maybe you go to the trilogy fight with Nate Diaz, which isn’t by any means a gimme of a fight, but will be the biggest draw of all his realistic potential opponents. Or, sure, maybe you give Anderson Silva his wish, and make that fight for the name value, assuming Silva doesn’t get demolished by Israel Adesanya. There are plenty of ways you can go with this one.

Then there’s heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier. Is Brock Lesnar really coming back? If so, then it’s pretty obvious that there are two money fights left for Cormier before he rides off to the sunset, regardless his self-stated goal of retiring by his 40th birthday in March: a heavyweight title defense against Lesnar and a final fight with Jones (I want to see that one at heavyweight, too, no matter how much everyone else says light heavyweight). An aging and inactive Lesnar is going to make about the easiest payday of Cormier’s career, but DC, who knows how to hype, will lure people into believe Lesnar actually has a chance. After that? I mean, Jones hasn’t even fought Alexander Gustafsson yet and already the heat is back on Jones’ feud with DC. A trilogy fight in Cormier’s final fight, coming off a win over Lesnar? Yeah, that’s a license to print money.

Then we get to Nurmagomedov. I remain convinced Khabib got the star rub out of his victory over McGregor at UFC 229, and that his subsequent actions helped his aura, not hurt it. While it will be a while before both McGregor and Nurmagomedov have their Nevada Athletic Commission issues sorted out, it’s highly unlikely Nevada is going to suspend them long enough to kill their golden geese.

So if things fall into place, we could have, legitimately, 4-5 giant events next year: McGregor’s return fight; Nurmagomedov vs. Tony Ferguson; McGregor against the winner of the latter; and DC against Lesnar and Jones. Of course, they could also go wrong, and the UFC could go back into panic mode and rush to Khabib-Conor 2 for a money grab in the absence of anything else. But there’s the possibility of lots of big fights, and that’s more than there’s been in a few years, and that’s a cause for optimism.

High stakes for Gus

@EFC1878JM: What’s next for Gus if he loses? Stick around and wait for Jones to lose/vacate the belt, move up, Bellator/One, or retire?

You know, I try to stay away from “what happens to Fighter X if he loses his next fight”-type talk around these parts, because it can at times be a pointless exercise. But in this case, I think not enough is being made of the stakes for Gustafsson in the buildup to his UFC 232 rematch with Jon Jones.

Jones, being both the bigger name and a natural lightning rod for criticism, has understandably gotten the lion’s share of the attention in the buildup to next weekend’s bout. And a big chunk of that attention, incidentally, has gone toward his never-ending feud with Cormier.

But if Jones was to lose their main event matchup for the UFC light heavyweight title at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, while it certainly be newsworthy, it wouldn’t be a career-ender. It would likely lead to a trilogy fight with Gustafsson, or they could just go to the Cormier fight anyway.

(See what happened there? In a question about Gustafsson I still managed to make it about Jones without even trying. But I digress).

Jon Jones retained his title with a win over Alexander Gustafsson in the UFC 165 main event.
It’s hard to overstate the ramifications of the UFC 232 main event on Alexander Gustafsson’s career.
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

So here’s the thing with Gusty. He’s one hell of a fighter. He has some great wins. His two most memorable fights where his five-round title fights with Jones and Cormier. They were two of the all-time great fights in the history of the sport. He lost them both on narrow decisions.

If he loses again? That would put him on a very short list of fighters who have gotten three shots at UFC championships and lost them all. And they’d all be at the same weight class. And he’s too big to go to middleweight and not really big enough to compete with larger heavyweights.

Now, a reminder that this is Jones that he’s fighting, and the Gusty has actually been out of action longer than Jones.

A win erases all the negatives. A loss puts Gustafsson in as tough a career spot as we’ve ever seen from an elite fighter who is still in his prime. I’m not directly answering your question because there is no clear answer, and that only underscores the stakes for the guy who isn’t getting nearly as much attention as his foe.

Will ESPN push the UFC?

@hellochrisrusso: MMA fans are high on the UFC/ESPN deal. Compared to Fox, is it a step up, step down, or lateral in terms of elevating the sport? Are UFC fans too excited to be associated with ESPN? How likely is it that UFC programming will receive 2nd or 3rd tier coverage?

@hellochrisrusso: I can see UFC programming on ESPN sandwiched between late night dirt car racing and motorcross. At least on Fox they had the big UFC on Fox shows and eyeballs. Can ESPN really offer a better platform?

That’s one way to look at it. There’s part of me that does worry about the long-term effect of both MMA losing network television (English-language, at least; Combate Americas is on Telemundo) and also the trend toward streaming services. For example, Bellator had an all-time classic night last weekend with Ilima-Lei Macfarlane’s thrilling homecoming victory over Valerie Letourneau in Honolulu, but how many people on DAZN saw it as opposed to the audience which would have seen it on Paramount? Did the show help further build ILM’s undeniable “it” factor? I’m not sure it did.

But then there’s this: When ESPN puts its muscle behind something, it sticks, even if ESPN doesn’t quite dictate the agenda in the sports world the way it did a generation ago. ESPN has a cache FS 1 simply doesn’t. When the UFC is featured on SportsCenter; when it’s a frequent presence on the ticker; when their fights are hyped on higher profile ESPN properties such as the NBA, NFL, and MLB, those are signals that tell mainstream audiences that mixed martial arts matters.

Or, another way to look at this is, ESPN has made a real investment in boxing, and takes that product seriously, and it produces numbers. Why wouldn’t they do the same for the UFC?

Keep an eye on how hard ESPN pushes both the ESPN+ debut and the first card on the big network. That should offer a clue as to how big a priority it considers its new product.

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