Already some days into the 11th month of 2016, the calendar year — just as it always seems to do — is already coming to a close. Cliche as it may be, it really does feel like just yesterday that we were waiting for Conor McGregor to take on Nate Diaz for the first time in March, for Jon Jones to make his return to the Octagon in April or Brock Lesnar to take hold of the MMA world in July.
Alas, here we are, a mere two months away from 2017 with little free time in between. The UFC schedule alone provides fight fans with 10 fight cards between Nov. 5 and Dec. 30, bringing the biggest superstars, matchups, title fights, title eliminators and events mixed martial arts enthusiasts could ask for.
Eight of the UFC’s 11 champions will take the cage between now and the new year; seven of those titles will be on the line. Here, we rank them based on our anticipations.
7. Demetrious Johnson vs. TBD
It doesn’t really matter who Demetrious Johnson fights at this point; so long as he chooses to remain a flyweight fighter in pursuit of Anderson Silva’s record for consecutive title defenses in the UFC, “Mighty Mouse” will wind up on the lower end of any similar list. That’s no slight at his abilities inside the cage — he’s truly the best pound-for-pound fighter on the planet present day; quite possibly the greatest pound-for-pound talent when all is said and done. What that is a slight against, however, is the sort of competition he’s bound to welcome on his road to history.
Johnson is expected to take on the winner of the 24th season of The Ultimate Fighter in December, welcoming the champion of another organization (sans Bellator, WSOF, ONE Championship or any other major promotion) into the Octagon for the first time. This is expected to be a man that would likely fall between No. 6-15 in the UFC’s current rankings, meaning Johnson’s next challenger will have nothing more than a puncher’s chance come fight night.
Really though, having seen Johnson dismantle the division’s No. 1, 2, 4, 5, 8 and 9 fighters over the past few years, there’s really nothing left for him to accomplish that he hasn’t already. He’s that much better than the rest of the division, and there’s not enough of that artistic flash “The Spider” brought into the cage to expect highlight-reel fireworks.
6. Daniel Cormier vs. Anthony Johnson
Troubling as it may be, the UFC’s light heavyweight division is in dire need of one Jon Jones. The former UFC light heavyweight champion is currently in the midst of negotiating a reduced suspension with the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency after he was flagged for PEDs back in July, putting a potential rematch with Daniel Cormier and a future money-making championship tilt opposite Anthony “Rumble” Johnson on the backburner.
Instead, the UFC opted to make the only matchup that makes any sort of sense for December 2016: Cormier vs. Johnson II at UFC 206. Headlining a lackluster card in Toronto this winter, Cormier and “Rumble” face off for the second time in as many years, less than 24 months from the night “DC” made the seemingly unstoppable and resurgent Johnson look human.
As it was at UFC 187, “Rumble” comes into this bout with nothing but a puncher’s chance. Only, Johnson sort of epitomizes the concept. Arguably the hardest puncher in all of mixed martial arts, Johnson is never more than one touch of the chin away from leaving his opponent in an unconscious heap of mass. That said, we’ve seen enough from Cormier to assume his gameplan will continue to work wonders.
5. Joanna Jedrzejczyk vs. Karolina Kowalkiewicz
One of few UFC champions that’s been able to keep a firm grip on her title over the past two years, Joann Jedrzejczyk stands tall as one of the sport’s most entertaining and dominant fighters. With a pair of victories over her biggest rival and threat, “Joanna Champion” likely makes the walk into the Octagon with as much confidence as she likes. Deservedly so.
The Polish striker has proven to be too much for many of her opponents. Too great of a striker for Carla Esparza. Too persistent for Jessica Penne. Too fast for Valerie Letourneau. Too conditioned for Claudia Gadelha. She’s as well-rounded and violent a fighter as they come, and rightfully takes a high slot among the UFC’s pound-for-pound list of fighters alongside Eddie Alvarez, Tyron Woodley and Jose Aldo.
You can’t help but get the sense, however, that Karolina Kowalkiewicz has the recipe to make this an interesting outing for Jedrzejczyk at UFC 205. A gritty fighter that lacks flash in all areas, but one that constantly moves forward and presents any one of her opponents — including a talented Rose Namajunas — with enough trouble to make it a rough night.
4. Dominick Cruz vs. Cody Garbrandt
Cody Garbrandt asked, and Dominick Cruz answered. Two of the division’s most popular fighters will now lock horns in the co-main slot of one of the biggest UFC pay-per-view events in an already-stellar 2016. It’s a fight Cruz, Garbrandt, the UFC and its fans wanted. Save for an upset T.J. Dillashaw, this is about as great of a winning situation for many of those involved.
Poised to be 11 months removed from his second official return to the Octagon at UFC Fight Night 81 in January, Cruz has gone from one narrow split decision against Dillashaw to an awfully one-sided match against longtime rival Urijah Faber. Cruz created a wide gap between himself and the rest of the division, and now takes on a young rising star in the making in Garbrandt.
Many, myself included, don’t give Garbrandt much of a chance here. He’s a strong power puncher with a high need to plant his feet. All this while taking on a fighter capable of staying on his bike and picking his shots like nobody else in the sport. Still, many of us will question whether or not “No Love” can clip the champion, and that’ll keep us enticed in the months that follow.
3. Tyron Woodley vs. Stephen Thompson
The MMA world was a little concerned there for a while. With how hellbent Tyron Woodley was at landing a money-fight against Georges St-Pierre or Nick Diaz, there was a good point in time that left us wondering what Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson would need to do to secure a title shot he was overwhelmingly deserving of. But as fate would have it, Woodley was placed in the co-main slot to a McGregor fight card, more than ensuring the pay-per-view buys he was looking to lock up in the first place.
Ironically enough, Woodley had to campaign for a title shot of his own too. With the likes of Carlos Condit and possibly McGregor skipping to the front of the line, “The Chosen One” was running out of patience to prove he was, in fact, the chosen one. But then came his time to shine, taking on Robbie Lawler for the 170-pound crown at UFC 201 in late August. One remarkable right hand was all that was needed; Woodley is now the world champ.
Thompson now gets his chance to prove he’s the best fighter at 170 pounds, hoping to continue his winning ways over the elite fighters in the class in New York City later this month. As talented a striker as the welterweight division has ever seen, we may be entering the era of “Wonderboy” come UFC 205.
2. Amanda Nunes vs. Ronda Rousey
The return of Ronda Rousey was bound to make it was close to the top of this list. If not for a particular Irishman and his pursuit for history, Amanda Nunes vs. Rousey likely would have topped our rankings with no fight to parallel.
Rousey hasn’t stepped foot inside the Octagon since November 2015, when she took on Holly Holm in front of a record-setting crowd in Melbourne, Australia. With the eyes of the world watching, she was peppered with jab after jab, a few straight lefts, a standing elbow and the headkick heard ’round the world. A dominant champion coming in, reduced to an exposed grappler with serious flaws in her stand-up going out. Rousey’s had a year to correct some of those mistakes, poised to show the world what she’s got as she takes on Nunes Dec. 30.
Nunes comes in as the woman who beat the woman who beat the woman who beat the woman. Now, she actually gets to face the woman. With the sort of striking that could haunt Rousey in the weeks leading up, Nunes has shown vulnerability in the past. She’s not the dynamo that Rousey was before her loss at UFC 194, or Holly Holm before her loss at UFC 196.
In what could be the last fight of Rousey’s career, win or lose, the world will be watching once more.
1. Eddie Alvarez vs. Conor McGregor
You didn’t really expect to see any other fight in this slot, did you? Not only does this contest feature the most popular fighter in the history of the sport, but it also features the first super-fight the sport has seen since B.J. Penn took his talents to take on Georges St-Pierre all those years ago. Beyond all of that, this is Conor McGregor’s chance to become a two-division champion in the UFC — the first man in the Octagon to do so, should he claim victory over Eddie Alvarez on the biggest card the sport has ever seen.
For the first time in nearly a year, McGregor finds himself in the midst of a contest that actually means something. Bouts opposite Nate Diaz were certainly fun and capable of bringing in the masses, but they didn’t bring the allure of “The Notorious'” journey to UFC 189 or UFC 194 in 2015. He finally gets his chance to become a dual-division titleholder, and it comes against a man fully capable of making McGregor regret leaving the featherweight division in the first place.
Alvarez is fresh off a first-round blistering of former lightweight champion Rafael dos Anjos, and now finds himself fighting the biggest cash cow MMA has ever seen. A fighter long recognized as “The Undergound King” of MMA’s lightweight division now finds himself meeting the sport’s biggest star on the biggest stage in UFC history.
This may very well be the night Alvarez arrived, or the night he became the second half of a two-part answer to a trivia question that reads “Who did Conor McGregor beat to become a two-division champion in the UFC?”