In the most normal of years, predicting what’s going to happen in the world of MMA is a fool’s errand. By March of this year, it was obvious that even the broadest prognostications were out the window as the entire world was forced to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic.
With that said, let’s look ahead to 2021 not with assumptions, but with questions that could give us some idea of what to expect in the next 12 months.
Here are five of the biggest questions in the MMA world to keep an eye on.
Will Khabib Nurmagomedov come back?
The status of the greatest lightweight ever leads our pressing questions not just because of its magnitude, but because it sounds like we’ll get an answer sooner rather than later.
UFC President Dana White plans to meet with Khabib Nurmagomedov when the promotion opens its 2021 campaign on Fight Island and though “The Eagle” has publicly been adamant about his plans to honor his mother’s wishes and stay in the eyrie, the fact that UFC gold still technically resides around his waist has kept eyebrows raised.
Nurmagomedov already said that he expects the winner of the UFC 257 main event between Dustin Poirier and Conor McGregor to determine who will eventually become the next champion. Whether he plans to be part of that equation is another matter entirely. White is understandably hot to book Nurmagomedov and McGregor one more time after their UFC 229 clash produced massive box office numbers and an aftermath that made a rematch seem inevitable.
The problem is that Nurmagomedov and his team have said repeatedly they have no interest in fighting McGregor again and that if he were to go for 30-0, it would have to be for a “special” challenge. Outside of a bout with fellow GOAT front-runner Georges St-Pierre (who’s recent announcement tease ended up being a deal with Budweiser) it’s difficult to picture what the challenge is that Nurmagomedov seeks.
I do think Nurmagomedov, who turns 33 next year, fights again someday. He could take a break from competition (similar to the hiatus GSP took from 2013-2017) to rejuvenate his mind and body and be motivated to return if a fighter is able to make a name for themselves and go on a dominant run at 155 pounds that draws comparisons Nurmagomedov’s legendary unbeaten streak. That’s a lot to ask though and definitely not something I see happening this year.
What is up with Jon Jones’ heavyweight move?
He’s talked about it forever and taken his sweet time, but at last it looks like Jon Jones will make the walk to the octagon as a heavyweight.
Anyone following Jones on social media can see that he’s serious about changing his body and bulking up, which means we shouldn’t expect him to take a booking at 205 pounds anytime soon. He recently said as much, declaring that he has “no intentions of ever going back to light heavyweight.” Even though Jones has an attitude that could be considered mercurial (much of his social media activity last year was also dedicated to a rudderless feud with UFC middleweight champion Israel Adesanya), for now it’s safe to believe that he’s actually changing divisions this time.
Will it be current UFC heavyweight champion Stipe Miocic or No. 1 contender Francis Ngannou that Jones fights first? The latest reports have Miocic and Ngannou facing off sometime in the first quarter of 2021 with Jones getting the winner this summer, but everything is still up in the air with nothing officially booked.
If Miocic, 38, is considering retirement, he’s likely to want to get the Jones fight—and potentially a bigger payday—now rather than have to beat Ngannou again to earn it. If Miocic holds out, the UFC could just book a fight between Jones and Ngannou instead. And who says no if a wild Brock Lesnar appears and throws his name into the mix? That’s a matchup that would generate more casual interest than any other possible heavyweight pairing.
However you slice it, it still feels like Jones’ heavyweight debut is a classic case of so close, yet so far away.
How much of an impact will Bellator and the PFL’s new additions make?
The UFC’s loss could be Bellator and the PFL’s gain.
Even those used to scoffing at any non-UFC related news had to scrunch up their face like James Franco when they saw that names like Anthony Johnson and Yoel Romero had signed with Bellator, and former that UFC champions Fabricio Werdum and Anthony Pettis would be competing in the 2021 PFL season. Both promotions have added veteran talent that enhance their brand by virtue of their star power and also potentially the reputations of their homegrown talent with the right booking.
Let’s talk Bellator first. Rumble and Romero don’t just bring solid resumes to the promotion, they bring a high level of excitement to their fights, win or lose. Ever since Johnson retired in 2017 fans have expected him to someday return to competition, while Romero was in a UFC main event as recently as March. Even past their prime, they stand to be instant contenders at 205 pounds.
Let’s not forget Corey Anderson just made a successful debut a couple of months ago and that PFL and M-1 Global standout Viktor Nemkov is expected to join his brother Vadim Nemkov, the current Bellator light heavyweight champion, on the roster this year. There’s a reason that Scott Coker is touting his light heavyweights as being the best in the business.
Cat Zingano and Vanessa Porto are probably only one or two fights away from title fights in their respective divisions, and don’t sleep on the additions of Rustam Khabilov and Brett Johns who will make their Bellator debuts coming off of UFC victories. At the very least, Bellator appears to have a fresh batch of potential headliners for what will hopefully be a busier 2021.
As for the PFL, their regular season and playoff tournament format is perfectly suited for creating stars, but it certainly won’t hurt to have a few recognizable properties in the mix. Fabricio Werdum could bring much-needed credibility to the league should he emerge as the champ of this upcoming heavyweight season (with respect to previous winners Philipe Lins and Ali Isayev).
The same could be said of former UFC lightweight champion Anthony Pettis and former Bellator welterweight champion Rory MacDonald, both of whom will be favorites to win their respective divisions. Should they falter, the PFL can still make the most of their investment by pushing whoever knocks them out of the playoffs to the moon.
Other veterans to keep an eye on are Justin Willis, Tom Lawlor, Cezar Ferreira, Chris Camozzi, Marcin Held, Clay Collard, Olivier Aubin-Mercier, Tyler Diamond, Bubba Jenkins, and Cindy Dandois, all of whom bring valuable experience and name recognition to the league. Perhaps most intriguing for the PFL is the addition of No. 1 pound-for-pound women’s boxing star Claressa Shields, who is expected to take one or two showcase bouts this year to dip her toes into MMA before possibly competing in a PFL regular season in 2022.
Regardless of whether you feel inclined to compare Bellator and the PFL’s talent to the UFC’s, there’s no question that they’ve made legitimate impact signings.
Will a prominent MMA fighter accept a challenge from the Paul brothers?
Let’s talk about this. We have to.
Scoff and skip down to the next question if you must (I won’t blame you), but when YouTube stars and habitual line-steppers Logan and Jake Paul are catching the attention of combat sports stars from Floyd Mayweather Jr. to Nate Diaz to Chris Weidman to Dillon Danis to Vitor Belfort to Ben Askren to… it’s a long list, is what I’m saying and that’s why we’re here.
Jake Paul was arguably the biggest winner of November’s Tyson-Jones Jr. event as his emphatic KO of former NBA dunk contest champion went viral and he immediately called out Conor McGregor afterwards, a go-to move of many actual UFC fighters in the past few years. As preposterous as it sounded, the Paul brothers have made a name for themselves as provocateurs and—love it or hate it—there’s always room for more of those in the fight game.
At the moment, it sounds like they’re at least smart enough to be sticking to boxing to accommodate their limitations as opposed to making MMA overtures, which would require a wider range of skills, but I’m on record as saying that I think it’s only a matter of time that we see a Paul step into the octagon, and I’m not talking Felder.
Scott Coker has said that Bellator has already spoken to the Paul brothers about potentially doing business and even Dana White has had to address the manufactured kerfuffle, if only to shoot down the notion that Jake Paul would stand a chance against two-division UFC champion Amanda Nunes. This is where we’re at, people!
Paul bro vs. MMA pro. It’s going to happen. The only questions are when, where, and how much money is everyone going to make?
Will the UFC hit the road with the pandemic still looming?
As much as we’ve all grown fond of Fight Island and the UFC Apex, there are undoubtedly fans across North America waiting for the octagon to land in their territory once again. Whether it’s major cities like Los Angeles, Brooklyn, or Chicago, or more humble towns like Norfolk, Greensville, and Moncton, a huge part of the UFC’s appeal has always been its willingness to travel to almost any location where there’s even a hint of an MMA following.
Now that White has overcome the vile machinations of the media, he can focus on weighing the risk of heading to venues beyond the familiar confines of Las Vegas with a COVID-19 vaccine in the earliest stages of a rollout. White has said on more than one occasion that he isn’t interested in heading to actual arenas without being able to sell them out, but some NFL and NBA teams are already allowing limited attendance, so White could be tempted to follow suit if only to prove that he can do it bigger and better.
It’s also possible that the UFC considers heading to New Zealand, a country that is widely viewed as the gold standard when it comes to COVID-19 protocol. This past October, a rugby union match in Auckland hosted over 46,000 fans, and one has to imagine White would love to go there if a rematch between Israel Adesanya and Robert Whittaker somehow materializes. At the moment, New Zealand isn’t allowing non-residents or non-citizens to enter, but should that change the UFC could be one of the first to attempt to do business there especially if the matchmakers simplified matters by putting together a card composed entirely of fighters from the Oceanic region.
It’s a long shot, but for the first time since early March, we can at least begin to hope that fans will be able to safely attend fights live again, even if doesn’t happen until closer to the end of the year.