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The Great Divide: Which three current UFC champions have the toughest road ahead in 2019?

Esther Lin and Jose Youngs, MMA Fighting

The Great Divide is a reoccurring feature here at MMA Fighting in which our own Shaun Al-Shatti and Chuck Mindenhall debate a topic in the world of MMA — whether it’s news, a fight, a crazy thing somebody did, a crazy thing somebody didn’t do, or some moral dilemma threatening the very foundation of the sport — and try to figure out a resolution. We’d love for you to join in the discussion in the comments below.

Part one of The Great Divide’s 2019 preview series, in which our heroes held an impromptu fantasy draft for the future champions of 2019, can be read here. This week, the two continue their three-part preview series by wondering: Which three current UFC champions have the roughest road ahead in the new year?


Welcome back, Mr. Mindenhall. I’m glad to see you’re still here — I feared you may bail on me after that whooping I put on you last time.

So last week we took a stab at predicting three fighters who we each believe will claim UFC gold by the end of the year. This time around, for part two of our three-part 2019 preview series, let’s flip things on their head and call our shots for the UFC champions who we feel have the toughest slog ahead of them in 2019. And before we start, let’s preface this by noting that this list isn’t about titleholders who we believe are the weakest or most vulnerable. It’s simply about those who we feel have the hardest strength of schedule in terms of obvious title challengers lined up in the new year.

Also, since we’re doing this, we may as well rank our picks from three to one, with one being the most difficult strength of schedule...because hey, ranking things is fun!

With that, let us begin. And although I hate to do this, my friend in the hat, I feel as though I must kick off my list at No. 3 with a man who we will be talking about very, very soon...

3) T.J. Dillashaw

I won’t lie, Chuck. I’m scared for next week. I’m scared for what T.J. Dillashaw is attempting. I’m scared for what the headlines in Brooklyn will bring. The more I see of it, the more everything about this move to flyweight scares the hell out of me.

When Dillashaw vs. Cejudo was first announced for 125 pounds, it was a bit surprising, sure, but I think we all understood what T.J. was trying to do. Rising into the rarefied air of a double champ is all the rage these days, and there is obviously no double-champ opportunity for Dillashaw if Henry Cejudo is the one moving up in weight. Dillashaw has long teased that a move to flyweight would be a breeze for him, and I’ll admit I believed him, even if he was basically 150 pounds on fight night against Cody Garbrandt at UFC 227.

But for real, have you taken a peek at the guy’s social media lately? Let’s just say that Dillashaw does not look like he’s…enjoying…the cut to flyweight.

I don’t want to project too much, so let’s just leave it at that.

Ten pounds is a lot of weight when you already have so little body fat to drop, and even if Dillashaw makes the cut successfully, consider for a second the slate of opposition he’s already eyeing for 2019: 1) First fighting a blue-chip athlete in Henry Cejudo in a potentially diminished state; 2) then ballooning back up to 135 pounds for either Marlon Moraes or Raphael Assuncao (the former of whom may be the only fighter in the division more explosive than Dillashaw, the latter of whom already owns a win over the bantamweight champ); 3) then potentially ending the year with a showdown against a returning Dominick Cruz (another old rival who owns a win over Dillashaw).

Good lord. A schedule like that is already daunting enough for T.J. without also throwing in the variable of the weight! Remember when Anthony Pettis said he blew up to 205 pounds after his disastrous cut to featherweight? These things have ramifications, man. Sometimes long-lasting ramifications. I’m a little concerned, Chuck. That’s all I’m saying.

2) Robert Whittaker

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Look, Robert Whittaker is only eight fights into his middleweight career and he already may be one of the most talented 185-pound fighters I’ve ever seen. Let’s establish that point upfront. He’s also one of the most overlooked and underrated fighters in the entire sport, if not the single most overlooked and underrated. So this pick speaks more to the burgeoning depth of young talent bubbling to the surface at middleweight than anything else.

Because it’s entirely possible — and likely probable — that Bobby Knuckles is staring down the barrel of a year where he could face these three men in succession: 1) Kelvin Gastelum, 2) Israel Adesanya, then 3) Paulo Costa. Yikes.

The Gastelum fight is already on the books for UFC 234, and despite his status as a perennial underdog, “KG” has looked like a man possessed at 185 pounds.

It’s obvious that Adesanya is being positioned as the next man up. Only a 43-year-old Anderson Silva stands in his way, and Izzy demolished the field in MMA Fighting’s 2018 Breakthrough Fighter of the Year voting for a very damn good reason.

Then, quietly lurking in the background, is the undefeated Costa — a man who in his UFC run has done nothing but showcase his monstrous potential (four knockouts in four UFC outings, all varying degrees of brutal) and his supernaturally large huevos (the man called out Yoel F*cking Romero, for God’s sake — repeatedly).

Talk about a tough slate for poor Robert Whittaker. Survive back-to-back wars against Romero and this is the thanks you get? Yeesh. If ol’ Bobby Nux can get through 2019 alive with his belt intact, it’ll be one of the more impressive feats I’ve seen in quite some time.

1) Rose Namajunas

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

I know, I know. Keep your hat on, Chuck, I already know what you’re about to say. This pick isn’t coming as much of a surprise after I used my first-round draft pick to select Tatiana Suarez in last week’s Contender Draft. And hey, that’s fair. I won’t lie to you, Suarez lingering in the shadows like some demonic strawweight specter certainly plays into this selection. I believe the grappling arsenal she carries at 115 pounds is unparalleled, Nurmagomedov-esque even, and by now it’s obvious that I think her destiny is to capture gold in 2019.

But Suarez is only one factor in this equation.

The other?

Don’t tell me y’all have forgotten about Jessica Andrade.

The female Wanderlei Silva has looked like a terrifying force since her 2017 loss to Joanna Jedrzejczyk. Slapping together 10-8s on Claudia Gadelha and Tecia Torres is one thing. But what Andrade did to Karolina Kowalkiewicz at UFC 228? That’s another thing entirely. The way she deaded Kowalkiewicz…the power and ferocity with which she did it…I genuinely don’t know if I’ve ever seen a more surreal one-punch women’s knockout.

To add to that, Andrade is somehow getting the champion to travel to herUFC 237 is in discussions to be held in a massive 45,000-seat soccer stadium in Curitiba, Brazil. Add in the fact that Namajunas is coming off a fairly significant neck injury, and wow…what else can you say? In both 2017 and 2018, Rose Namajunas proved her place among the best in the world at 115 pounds. In 2019, she’ll have to prove her hold on No. 1 is absolutely unassailable — and do so against two of the most formidable challengers any division currently has.

Good luck, Thug Rose. You have your work cut out for you.


3) Tyron Woodley

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

For reasons that can never be fully explained, it’s fashionable to sleep on Woodley. Each time he gets in the Octagon there’s a popular sentiment that he’s about to come crashing back to earth. Maybe it’s more a deep-rooted desire to see him go…or maybe it’s because Dana White is always sort of subtweeting that he’s dodgy when it comes right down to the brass tacks of matchmaking.


And at any rate, here I am doing the same damn thing.

Realistically, the reason I’m including him on this dubious list is because welterweights — especially those nearest Woodley in the standings — are merciless, deadly, vengeful souls. We know that Woodley is already booked for a title defense against the undefeated Kamaru Usman at UFC 235, and that is no picnic. The end of the Woodley era could come as soon as March. I’ve already talked about Usman being a Frightful Proposition in our last Great Debate. But even if he solves Usman, there’s still the likes of the shtickmonger Colby Covington, who is peeved after the interim shell game that the UFC played with him, and people like Ben Askren floating around.

He will never fight Ben Askren you say? They are old flimflams from way back? Ain’t happening? Probably right. But presume Askren beats Robbie Lawler in March. And presume that Woodley clears Usman, yet is in no hurry to jump back in the Octagon afterwards. We’ve seen how quickly Dana White gets pissed off at Woodley for taking time off, regardless if he’s injured or is just looking for some leisure. How long will the UFC wait for him? How quickly will it look to make an interim title fight between Covington and Askren, if those two combustible pieces find themselves willing and ready to go?

Of all my choices, I like this pick the least. I think Woodley is vastly underrated and I swore I’d never sleep on him again after watching what he did to Darren Till out in Dallas. But we’re talking rough roads. And Woodley’s roads are never anything other than rough.

2) Jon Jones

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

At this point the healthiest way for an MMA fan to approach the ongoing, nearly inaccessible saga of Jon Jones is to just start over. Just look at him as a beleaguered great without going into the details. For the rest of us, he’s the human equivalent of a hazmat spill. We don’t go near him without tongs. And that’s why he forever finds himself with a tough road ahead. We never know how Jon Jones is going to spend a random Tuesday night. He’s just as likely to be training his ass off as he is snorting up the sidewalks of Albuquerque or doing beer bongs until dawn.

Especially when he gets a fresh ego-boost after a triumph.

We saw Jones show up and beat Alexander Gustafsson with the greatest of ease a couple of weeks back. He celebrated by going to Santa Monica, the yuppiest place on earth. This is a promising sign. Jones and his family rather than Jones and his jones. Maybe he really has turned things around. Maybe he’s really going to buckle down and (re)establish himself as the GOAT in MMA. Maybe all those things that have happened have really been part of God’s plan, and he is now 12 inches taller than the rest of us from having learned some lessons.

But until he shows a sustained ability to do so, the path does seem daunting for him. He has his next fight lined up against Anthony Smith, and I love that bit of matchmaking — it’s a new challenger for Jones, a guy who reminds him of his gravity and his bullseye, a guy who can take it all away at the first sign of complacency. Realistically, it’s a guy Jones should beat. Which is okay, too. Part of Jones’ appeal is that he is supposed to crush whatever delusional fool the UFC dredges up. It would be the same if he were fighting Luke Rockhold. Or Jan Blachowicz or Corey Anderson.

Or even Daniel Cormier.

We all know it’s not the opponent that threatens Jones at this point. It’s USADA, and the NAC, and party favors, and fast cars, and all the spoils of being a rich man on top of the world. It’s enablers and handlers, the yes people, the ones who know well his weakness for a throwaway night of fun. Jones admits he still drinks. He says he puffs a bit of the Michoacán, too, Shaun, which is all fine and good. Plenty of fighters do. Writers too. But Jones has a trunk where he keeps his sins, and it’s always shaking the floorboards, calling for him to open it.

I am rooting for Jones, but given everything that’s happened, it’ll be a rough road until it isn’t. If another man doesn’t beat Jones, there’s always the possibility that he’ll beat himself. He has work to do. Hopefully in the year 2020, all this will be hindsight.

1) Daniel Cormier

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

I know what you’re thinking, Shaun — Daniel Cormier, the Fighter of the Year in 2018? America’s deadliest dad? The guy who pulls up his sweatpants up to his nipples and then dominates everybody (not named Jon Jones) with relative aplomb? That Daniel Cormier is going to struggle in 2019? And I am here to tell you, yes, heavy seas lie ahead for our former dual champion who now holds the heavyweight crown.

Here’s why: The man in parenthesis above.

I just don’t believe that Cormier is going to skip off into retirement with the Jones’ rivalry left undone. That would be like a tidy person with OCD leaving home with his bed unmade. As a competitor, it would drive him crazy to see Jones running around with the light heavyweight title — and eventually even the heavyweight title — without ever having given that man a trouncing. I know Cormier says he doesn’t need Jon Jones. But look close…it’s in that smile of his. He’s lying. He hates Jones. More than that, he hates that he hasn’t beaten Jones. His greatness is largely intact, except for that one minor detail.

When he sees Jones, Cormier can’t help but see a shortcoming.

So he will try again, either at light heavyweight or heavyweight. My guess is it happens at heavyweight, because at 251 pounds, Cormier probably doesn’t want to start another salad regimen. It will be Jones coming up and chasing Cormier for the heavyweight title, and the rare chance to expose a long thriving falsehood. Namely, that despite there being a big money trilogy and all that bad blood, there is no rivalry. That he, Jon Jones, was never tested by Cormier. Never. That he was always a league apart from the second greatest that ever was in that particular weight vicinity. In other words, to shrug off Cormier completely and forever.

I realize that Cormier has maintained that he’s going to retire when he turns 40, which occurs on March 20. But that, too, is a little fib. With no Brock Lesnar materializing on the immediate horizon, and Jones now slated to defend the light heavyweight crown at UFC 235 in March, there will be a date around International Fight Week in July just screaming for that trilogy. If they do fight a third time, it has the makings of a sad end.

Plus, here’s the other thing: If Cormier ends up defending against Stipe Miocic, that’s a whole separate minefield. Miocic is hell-bent on that rematch. In either case, it’s a tough road ahead for DC.


Which UFC champion has the toughest road in 2019?

This poll is closed

  • 27%
    Rose Namajunas
    (915 votes)
  • 13%
    Daniel Cormier
    (444 votes)
  • 35%
    Robert Whittaker
    (1165 votes)
  • 3%
    Jon Jones
    (109 votes)
  • 10%
    T.J. Dillashaw
    (335 votes)
  • 9%
    Tyron Woodley
    (317 votes)
3285 votes total Vote Now

In past editions of The Great Divide, Shaun Al-Shatti and Chuck Mindenhall debated UFC 230’s main event, Tyron Woodley’s UFC 228 dilemma, Daniel Cormier’s potential retirement fight, the winner of the DJ-for-Askren trade, the ill-fated Bellator 214 vs. UFC 233 duel, and the chances for a major UFC 232 upset. Join into the debate in the comments below!

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