In a sport where there are so many ways to win, where championship belts can be held hostage if you make enough money and where interim titles are currently handed out like lollipops, attempting to predict the UFC’s title picture this time next year is a fool’s errand.
So, welcome everyone, I’ll be your resident fool for the day.
The UFC may have had a down year financially in 2017 – no matter what Dana White says – but the action inside the cage remained at its unpredictable best. There were breakout stars (Volkan Oezdemir), history-making comebacks (George St-Pierre) and a full fourteen months and counting away from the sport for the UFC’s biggest star (Conor McGregor).
Champions often come in surprising packages, such as the peace-loving Rose Namajunas and the mild-mannered Aussie arse-kicker Robert Whittaker, so it’s no slam dunk to say that a fighter as fearsome as heavyweight Francis Ngannou will be wearing the gold by the end of 2018. MMA is the most unpredictable sport in the world, my friends.
With all that said, let’s go ahead and take a look at who this writer believes will be top of the pile by the time 2019 rolls around.
Flyweight: Demetrious Johnson
The longest-reigning UFC champion of all time has said that he wants to fight twice this year, and they may very well be two fights that secure his legacy once and for all.
First, bantamweight titleholder TJ Dillashaw is in talks to shed 10 lbs. for the chance to hand Demetrious Johnson his first defeat in seven years. This would be a true superfight regardless of which division it happens in, pitting two of the best pound-for-pound fighters in the world against one another in a transcendent spectacle of skill and intelligence. Dillashaw is one of the most technical fighters in the sport, and a win over him could finally put Johnson over in reluctant fans’ eyes.
Dillashaw will be the toughest test of Johnson’s career, but there’s a reason Joe Rogan calls ‘Mighty Mouse’ the greatest of all time. Johnson will find a way to get it done against Dillashaw, outpointing the bantamweight champ for title defense No. 12.
From there, Johnson has a couple of options for his next contest, namely Joseph Benavidez and Henry Cejudo. Johnson has already beaten the two men a combined three times, but the waters are shallow at flyweight and both fighters have done enough to stay afloat. A trilogy bout with Benavidez is intriguing, but Cejudo’s recent activity will get him the nod for DJ’s lucky No. 13.
Cejudo will certainly put up a better fight than he did at UFC 197 in April 2016, but the Olympic gold medallist will find himself on the wrong end of history once again. Johnson claims a clear decision victory and continues to write his legacy.
Bantamweight: Cody Garbrandt
Obviously, the bantamweight division will be in limbo for a time while Dillashaw goes hunting at 125 lbs. That’s par for the course in the UFC these days. The champion will return to make a title defense in the autumn, and it just so happens it’ll be the man he took the title from waiting for him.
Bantamweight is an absolute shark tank, chock-a-block with elite fighters. However, Cody Garbrandt’s marketability – not to mention the closeness of his fight with Dillashaw this past November – means that he’ll only need one win to get another crack at the title. He’ll get that victory in early summertime. Jimmie Rivera and Raphael Assuncao are candidates. Then he’ll be welcoming Dillashaw back a few months later.
Garbrandt lost fair and square against Dillashaw at Madison Square Garden, but he was mere seconds away from victory at the end of the first round. He knocked Dillashaw down, and had him on wobbly legs as the opening stanza ended. All credit to Dillashaw, however, as he roared back in the second to hand Garbrandt his first career loss.
Cody will have learned a lot from that fight, and it’ll do him no harm to have to go through a top contender to earn the rematch. He’ll be a better fighter by the time he and Dillashaw square off again, and on that occasion, he’ll finish the job and become a two-time bantamweight champion.
Featherweight: Max Holloway
For many observers, Max Holloway was the 2017 fighter of the year, and no wonder. ‘Blessed’ fought twice last year, and both against the same man. But it was the manner of those victories and the strength of his competition that really impressed. No matter what Conor McGregor may say, Jose Aldo is the greatest featherweight of all time. Holloway systematically took Aldo apart TWICE.
Those two contests were mere months apart, but Holloway seemed to have improved immensely in the time between them. Although both fights ended in similar fashion – Holloway pounding Aldo into oblivion – the second iteration saw the Hawaiian come even more prepared for a better Jose Aldo.
Holloway is a breath of fresh air, a throwback fighter whose only question is “who’s next?” Holloway didn’t pick and choose a replacement when Frankie Edgar was injured before their scheduled contest in Detroit last month. He simply told his management to call back once someone had signed the contract. Aldo came in and Aldo was knocked down. Onto the next one.
As it turns out the next one is the original one. The UFC will undergo take two on Holloway vs. Edgar, with the pair set to face off at UFC 222 in March. The former UFC lightweight champion will provide a much different test to Holloway than Aldo, with the threat of the takedown more severe and the expected volume of strikes surely higher. Edgar is scrappy, full of heart and damn near impossible to finish. In fact, no one has been able to finish him yet.
Holloway will take a decision, then, in a competitive but clear victory. He’ll be back in the summer, hopefully at the long-awaited UFC Hawaii, where he’ll face Brian Ortega. ‘T-City’ is one of the new breed at featherweight, who announced himself with a tremendous submission of Cub Swanson recently. Ortega’s great, but he’s not on Holloway’s level. Max finishes him in the third round.
Holloway might even be able to fit a third title defence in this year too. Josh Emmett, Yair Rodriguez, “The Korean Zombie” Chan Sung Jung; it doesn’t matter, the result will remain the same. All hail King Max.
Lightweight: Tony Ferguson
The lightweight title picture was a mess in 2017. Conor McGregor was away making his millions against Floyd Mayweather, while the much-anticipated Tony Ferguson vs. Khabib Nurmagomedov fight fell through at the last minute at UFC 209. Ferguson would go on to face upstart Kevin Lee for the interim title in October. “El Cucuy” won via submission in the third round.
Nurmagomedov, on the other hand, returned from more than a year off against Edson Barboza last month, producing one of the most dominant performances in lightweight history. He absolutely mauled Barboza, reducing one of the UFC’s finest strikers to a crash dummy. If McGregor returns it’s likely he won’t want none of this.
I’m not sure the Irishman will be back in the Octagon in 2018, and apparently neither is the UFC. Dana White and co. booked Ferguson and Nurmagomedov for a lightweight title tilt in the main event of UFC 223. Assuming both men actually make it to the Octagon, fans will be in for one of the greatest fights in lightweight history.
Now, this may be a controversial opinion, but my proverbial money is on ‘El Cucuy’ in that contest. Ferguson’s gas tank is unparalleled, we saw that against Rafael dos Anjos in Mexico City, and dare I say it: he’s more well-rounded than Nurmagomedov. He has more ways to win and he’ll outlast the Dagestani before putting him away via strikes in the championship rounds.
Ferguson will then likely make another title defence in the back end of 2018 against an Eddie Alvarez or a Dustin Poirier, but if Khabib can’t beat him then I doubt any lightweight can.
Welterweight: Tyron Woodley
Popular, he is not. But it’s hard to see anyone beating Tyron Woodley in 2018. The welterweight champ is scheduled to undergo shoulder surgery and will resultantly only make one title defense this year. While that’s not ideal for any titleholder, Woodley’s recent activity has earned him a break. He fought four title fights in a year between July 2016 and July 2017. In that span, he beat the best the weltwerweight division had to offer.
The welterweight division is currently one of the hottest in the sport. There’s a whole host of intriguing up-and-comers who’ll be in title contention very soon. For now though, former lightweight champion Rafael dos Anjos has earned himself a shot at Woodley’s belt this year. RDA’s tremendous victory over Robbie Lawler recently stretched his welterweight record to 3-0. That has all but guaranteed him the next shot at ‘T-Wood’.
While dos Anjos is as fearsome a pressure fighter as they come, I’m betting all that forward pressure will end with him flat on his back wondering where Woodley’s power punch came from. It’s Woodley’s one punch knockout power and underrated fight IQ that makes him such a difficult puzzle to solve. The match-ups the UFC have been tossing him lately (Demian Maia, Stephen Thompson) have made it hard for him to look good, but the way he neutralized those two specialists was extremely impressive.
Look for Woodley to knock out RDA in the autumn before signing on for a stint on The Ultimate Fighter opposite motor-mouth Colby Covington, with the two facing off for the strap in the spring of 2019.
Middleweight: Luke Rockhold
Considering what middleweight champion Robert Whittaker accomplished in 2017 it’s incredibly hard not to pencil him in as the titleholder at the end of 2018. ‘Bobby Knuckles’ came from nowhere to stun Ronaldo ‘Jacare’ Souza in April. Then he endured injury to outpoint Yoel Romero for the interim title in July.
While Whittaker was out beating the best fighters in the division, Michael Bisping was busy being on the wrong end of Georges St-Pierre’s comeback story. GSP would go on to vacate the title due to his colitis diagnosis. Whittaker was subsequently promoted to undisputed middleweight champion.
Whittaker’s ill-timed injury, forcing him out of the main event of UFC 221 in Perth opposite Luke Rockhold, makes it hard to predict the future of the division, however. Rockhold will now face Romero for the interim strap, with the winner likely to unify against Whittaker later in the year.
It’s too bad for Whittaker, really, that his return from injury will be against possibly the best 185 lber on the planet. That’s right, Luke Rockhold is the full package, ladies and gentlemen. The Californian is a giant middleweight boasting efficient striking and underrated submission skills. The former champ will prove to be too much for the fearsome Cuban when the pair face off in February.
The expected title unification should come later in the year. Rockhold will be victorious once again. He simply has too many ways to win. I see him taking Whittaker’s back and forcing the tap in the third round. MMA’s resident pretty boy will end the year as the model middleweight champion.
Light Heavyweight: Alexander Gustafsson
Daniel Cormier showed the skills, heart and determination that make him one of the greatest fighters ever to step foot in the Octagon when he dismantled Volkan Oezdemir at UFC 222 last weekend. The former Olympian showed no ill effects from his knockout loss to Jon Jones last time out. He demonstrated the phenomenal wrestling and suffocating ground and pound that have become his calling card.
So, DC is the man at light heavyweight once again. With Jon Jones’s future up in the air, as ever, Cormier has put pen to paper on a heavyweight title fight with Stipe Miocic at UFC 226. As will be outlined below, this writer feels Cormier will be unsuccessful in his attempt to become a dual-weight UFC champion, which will leave him to return to 205 lbs. in the winter for a title defense against Alexander Gustafsson.
Cormier has credited Gustafsson as being one of the toughest tests of his career. The Swede coming out on the wrong end of a split decision in 2015. He also came the closest any man ever has to beating Jones, when he suffered a decision defeat to the light heavyweight great in 2013. While his activity level has left something to be desired in recent years, his vicious knockout of Glover Teixeira in May was a career best performance from ‘The Mauler.’ It signaled that he was ready to be back in championship contention.
Gustafsson will get another shot against Cormier, and he will right the wrongs of their first contest. He’ll use his superior footwork and underrated wrestling to keep the fight standing, and will do enough over 25 minutes to become only the third man to ever defeat DC.
Heavyweight: Stipe Miocic
So Stipe Miocic is the greatest heavyweight in UFC history – that’s a fact. The Ohio native has put together an unparalleled résumé in the sport’s glamour weight class. He added to it in scintillating fashion when he dominated the most dangerous heavyweight title challenger in UFC history in Francis Ngannou.
Not many people were picking the champion going into that contest in Boston. However, just look at Miocic’s last four fights prior to the Ngannou affair. Andrei Arlovski, Fabricio Werdum, Alistair Overeem and Junior dos Santos, all wiped out in the first round by Stipe’s fists of fury. Miocic is officially the greatest heavyweight of all time, with his win over Ngannou setting a UFC record for heavyweight title defences with three.
He had to be extremely careful early, of course. But Miocic showed just how smart a fighter he is by nullifying the strengths that had carried the Cameroonian to title contention in double-quick fashion. Miocic showed he can knock your block off or he can sap the life out of you: it’s your choice. Either way though, it’ll be the Croatian-American having his hand raised.
Miocic committed himself to that most sought-after event in today’s UFC: a champion vs. champion super fight. ‘The Baddest Man on the Planet’ will lace up his gloves against light heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier in the main event of UFC 226 in July. The two belt-holders coaching a season of The Ultimate Fighter will ultimately square off.
Cormier, of course, has a real chance to become a two-weight world champion. However, I believe Miocic has the wrestling to keep the fight standing for as long as he needs to frustrate and eventually TKO ‘DC’. There may or may not be time for Stipe to defend the belt again this year. If so it will likely be against an overly-cautious Werdum. Miocic will decision him to maintain his title run into 2019.
Featured Image credit: