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Fightweets: Pondering MMA’s promotional landscape in 2019

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Sold out Manchester Arena for UFC 204
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

We’re finally at fight day, one with two fantastic title fights in Max Holloway vs. Brian Ortega and Valentina Shevchenko vs. Joanna Jedrzejczyk. But before we get to UFC 231, a philosophical question to kick off this week’s edition of Fightweets ...

Promotional landscape in 2019

@MichaelFiedel: Will all the recent moves by relevant players, how do you think the order of prominence for MMA promotions shakes out? Bellator, ONE, RIZIN, KSW, ACB, etc. all making strong cases. How would you rank them, 1-5? (Assumes UFC is first).

This is an interesting question, and I’m going to tell you right off the bat that I’m going to sidestep the part where you ask me to rank the promotions. That’s in large part because I think it’s obvious changes are a-comin’ in the MMA business in 2019, and it’s too soon to say how exactly things are going to shake out.

As I went into in depth last weekend, the UFC clearly no longer has the goal of cornering the market on the best MMA talent from top to bottom. That’s been made clear by the fact that everyone from Gegard Mousasi to Rory MacDonald to Eddie Alvarez to Sage Northcutt and a whole host of others have become employed elsewhere since WME/Endeavor took over the reigns.

That’s not enough to tilt the balance away from the UFC being the biggest mixed martial arts promotion in the world. It’s the biggest by a wide margin and will remain that way.

But there’s now enough talent scattered among the various companies to make the sport more interesting on a worldwide basis than it’s been in quite some time.

Bellator’s coming up on an interesting year in 2019. While there’s still room for nostalgia-act fighters like Quinton Jackson and Wanderlei Silva, the company noticeably pivoted away from using them as main events on major shows in the second half of 2018. There’s nothing wrong with having legends fights as part of the overall package, but building the show around Hall of Famers ran its course. Next year will be transitional for Bellator and if nothing else, the action in the cage should be exciting. The welterweight grand prix all but assures that a handful of major events will feature competitors in their prime as headliners. Ilima-Lei Macfarlane seems well on her way to becoming a breakthrough star. Aaron Pico very well might turn into a once-in-a-generation talent. I could go on and on here, but the point is, Bellator has been steadily weaning themselves off relying on past-their-prime talent; have an interesting mix on their roster; and their investment in prospects is starting to pay off.

ONE Championship is an interesting case. They’ve managed to secure an enormous amount of investment money. And they haven’t been afraid to spend it, as they’ve shown with their signings of the likes of Alvarez and Northcutt. Likewise, the deal with the UFC to acquire Demetrious Johnson’s services was shrewd, as there is an emphasis on smaller fighters in ONE’s neck of the woods, and DJ is the best of all-time in his weight class. Now, if you’ve been around this game long enough, you’ve seen many promotions throw good money into bad moves and make big, bold claims and then find themselves out of business faster than you can say “Affliction,” so you’ll have to excuse us for maintaining a healthy pessimism about how this will all end up. But hey, Affliction’s cards were memorable before they blew through all their dough; and we’ll see if ONE has a smarter long-term vision than big-money promotions of the past.

Then there are the rest. RIZIN conned some rubes into thinking Floyd Mayweather was going to have a real fight, a successful publicity stunt before announcing an “exhibition” on New Year’s Eve that’s about as real as Mayweather wrestling the Big Show. But the card top to bottom is as close to the spirit of the old PRIDE New Year’s Eve cards as they’ve put on in quite some time, and the bout between Bellator bantamweight champion Darrion Caldwell and RIZIN counterpart Kyoji Horiguchi on it own is worth staying up late to watch.

Professional Fighters League, as a product, turned out to be a fun, interesting new wrinkle on the sport of MMA. The first season finishes on New Year’s Eve. Whether the financing holds up long enough to let this work longterm remains to be seen, but one can pretty safely assume season two should make for interesting action, as well.

KSW, I’ll admit, I’ve been late to the game on this one. But I watched last weekend’s KSW 46. The presentation of their product is world class, the action itself is solid, and the promotion’s enduring success is proof you don’t have to follow the UFC’s model in order to put on a first-rate show.

That’s just scratching the surface of a topic that could be turned into a multi-part series all on its own. But you don’t have to dig too deep to realize that in 2019, you’re going to have more interesting fights under more promotional banners since ... well, since the UFC bought up the last batch of promotional banners.

The Greg Hardy thing

@Woolman7242: How long before Greg Hardy gets pulled from his scheduled debut?

I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for that one. The new-era UFC doesn’t like to admit mistakes and will double down on them rather than admit the obvious and move on. As a former NFL All-Pro who was essentially drummed out of the league in part due to a history with domestic violence, Greg Hardy’s presence in the UFC was going to be problematic from day one.

The company had eased him into things by putting him on Contender Series twice, and, right or wrong, that approach seemed to be slowly blunting the shock value of his presence in the sport.

Hardy was going to make his debut on the big roster eventually, and there was going to be some brushback. But then they went and made the move that ensured the worst possible publicity: They put him on the Jan. 19 ESPN+ debut card, a card which also features Rachael Ostovich, who recently was in the news as a victim of a brutal alleged domestic violence incident.

The January 19 ESPN debut marks the first of 11 straight Saturday-night cards. They could have put him on any of those. Instead, they went ahead and put Hardy on the same show as Ostovich, and the blowback has been exactly what you’d expect.

Greg Hardy
How could the UFC not have seen that putting Greg Hardy on the same card as Rachel Ostovich was going to lead to significant bad publicity?
DWTNCS LLC via Getty Images

I’m not the first to note this, but this either shows that one hand didn’t know what the other was doing in the company, in which case they’re coming off as disorganized as best; or that they deliberately made this choice, which is too vile to contemplate.

The UFC deserves credit for their role in the explosion of women’s sports in this decade. Once they got into the WMMA game, they ran with it. Then they go do something like this Hardy episode. Then they’ll sit back and wonder why they haven’t reached their goal of becoming fully mainstream.

What if Joanna loses?

@DustinJgreer87: if Joanna loses to Shevchenko for the fourth time, where do u see Joanna after this? this would be her third straight loss

Well, Joanna did beat Tecia Torres over the summer, but you’d be correct in saying that a loss to Valentina Shevchenko in the flyweight title fight at UFC 231 would be her third in a row in championship bouts. I don’t like playing the “what if fighter X loses Saturday night” thing in Fightweets, mostly because it rarely pans out, but hey ... this question is a reminder that after an especially bullshitty week even by MMA standards, we’ve got ourselves a hell of a double bill tomorrow night. We’re finally getting Max Holloway vs. Brian Ortega, one of the best fights you can possibly ask for at any weight class, and we’ve got Valentina vs. Joanna. Let’s try to enjoy the fights tonight and ponder what it means for the losers later, yeah?

Where you at, Cain?

@jaysebro: If Cain Velasquez returns to MMA is he instantly back fighting top 5 guys?

Ya know, in recent months, I’ve started to get “When is Cain returning?” questions at a volume surpassed only by “when is Nick/Nate Diaz coming back?” I haven’t answered them because, to be quite honest, I’ve asked around and gotten radio silence. He hasn’t fought since UFC 200. He’s only tweeted a half-dozen times since Labor Day. He was seen training at the WWE Performance Center over the summer. So who knows? Maybe his injuries are such that he’s never coming back. Maybe he’s deliberately staying on the sidelines until Cormier retires, then is going to make his return. Maybe he’ll go to WWE. Until he says something, we may as well put Cain’s picture on a milk carton.

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