Year in Preview: Three MMA stories to keep an eye on in 2016

Sterling remains one of the brightest prospects both in the UFC and around the MMA world.

It is year-end, and you’ll find plenty of MMA sites reviewing the goings-on of 2015. We here at MMA Sucka’s Chicago Desk are more forward-thinking. We know you know what happened in 2015…but what’s going to happen in 2016? What are the big stories to keep an eye on? We’ve got you covered.

CAN THE UFC SUSTAIN ITS PPV SUCCESS?

Reports have UFC 193 pulling in between 1 and 1.1M PPVs, and UFC 194 could wind up as the second or third best-selling UFC PPV of all time. Regardless, those estimates make 2015 the promotion’s best year on PPV, which is even more impressive considering 2014’s disaster. Some might look at the UFC’s position heading into 2016 – a full year of Conor McGregor headlining PPVs, Ronda Rousey’s “comeback” fight, Jon Jones’ return to the sport, and the spectre of UFC 200 – and conclude that the company is primed to outdo their record-setting 2015.

Regression to the mean is a bitch, however. Last year was unlikely to be as bad as 2014, a year defined by injuries and an expanding promotion trying to find itself. Though Jon Jones missed the majority of 2015, UFC 182 still went down at the top of the year, and his regular fight pace means the UFC only missed one additional Jones-headlined bout. We already know Rousey is likely out until July, and she may be done with the sport with another loss to Holm. We’re also unsure if Holm will absorb some of Rousey’s draw, though there are positive indicators thus far. The UFC can hold out hope of getting three McGregor PPVs next year, though 1) he just fought in December and 2) he’s gonna have two win two in a row, which is a tall task for anybody at 145 or 155 pounds.

The UFC has taken steps in 2015 that should help insure they don’t see another 2014. They reduced their total events from 46 in 2014 to 41 in 2015. That allowed them to both better stack PPVs and insulate themselves from main-card injuries. They’ve also better differentiated their products (i.e., PPVs vs. Fox vs. FS1/Fight Pass), which has made PPVs feel more like “events,” though their scheduling of Anderson Silva vs. Michael Bisping as a Fight Pass main event in 2016 may portend an evolving strategy.

THE YEAR OF MCGREGOR

If 2015 was the Year of Rousey, 2016 is shaping up to be the Year of McGregor. Fresh off a 13-second knockout of long-time featherweight king Jose Aldo, McGregor seems to have the mixed martial arts world in the palm of his hand.

What makes McGregor so interesting from a newsmaking perspective is how aware he is of and how willing to act on the leverage he possesses as arguably the UFC’s hottest star. We’ve seen reports that he refused to wear the standard Reebok Fight Kit because he’s not like anyone else. He wore special green trunks at UFC 194, suggesting again that what Conor wants Conor gets. He’s insinuated co-promoting with the UFC. McGregor’s aspirations may wind up too lofty to reach – and it’s all predicated on him continuing to win – but his rhetoric is refreshing when compared to Ronda Rousey stating her content with her fight income.

On the sporting side, McGregor could wind up the first dual champion in UFC history, though he’ll have to combat the promotion on vacating the featherweight title should he move up to challenge at lightweight. The Irishman’s done everything he’s claimed he would do, and capturing a second UFC belt would only add to his growing legend.

FIGHTERS TESTING FREE AGENCY

Scott Coker took over Bellator in the summer of 2014, but 2015 was our first chance to see his vision of the promotion. It was largely a successful year driven by its four tentpole events and some questionably cynical matchmaking.

The reemergence of Coker running a number-two promotion gave fighters an enticing option outside the UFC. Both Phil Davis and Josh Thomson ended the year under the Bellator banner after starting it with the UFC, though the latter all but instigated the moves.

However, 2015 ends with three UFC fighters entering free agency: Benson Henderson, Alistair Overeem, and Aljamain Sterling. Henderson is a former champ, who has fought at the highest level exclusively for Zuffa and, at 32, is still at the tail-end of his prime. Overeem has oft been considered a bust, but he enters 2016 on a three-fight winning streak and serious potential to fight the winner of Werdum-Velasquez. Sterling may be the most interesting case: a 26-year-old blue chip prospect already ranked in the top five who has been outspoken about sponsorship and a lack of fights. Signing any of the three would be a minor coup for Bellator.

It’s likely, however, that all three end up back in the UFC as the promotion should value them more than its competitors and can offer better money and opportunities to the fighters. But the competition should drive up their price similarly to the deal Gilbert Melendez signed in 2014.  And Bellator making a serious play and signing one or more of the three would send a message to the UFC and its fighters that it’s open for business.

 

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