2016 was a truly amazing year in the UFC, but now, with 2017 finally upon us, Cillian Cunningham looks at 8 match-ups that could make this year just as exciting as the last.
Cody Garbrandt vs TJ Dillashaw
This is a fight that just ticks all of the boxes.
In Cody Garbrandt you have a young, hotheaded new champion who just recently, with his win over the former-champ Dominick Cruz, established himself as a true force to be reckoned with in the lighter weight-classes. His performance last weekend showed not only a tremendous level of skill, but it showed him to possess all of the charisma and electricity needed to become the 135lb division’s brightest new star.
TJ Dillashaw’s year was one of two halves. His first bout for 2016 was a razor-thin decision loss to Dominick Cruz, but unlike so many fallen champions before him, he was not granted an immediate rematch and was forced to take on a pair of top bantamweights in Raphael Assuncao and John Lineker in order to re-establish himself as the division’s #1.
The history between these two Team Alpha Male products and the drama surrounding TJ’s exit from that camp would perhaps make it a more appealing proposition to the UFC brass than a Cody/Cruz rematch and with these two guys in the kind of form that they are right now, do not be surprised to see this one become a reality in the very near future.
Robbie Lawler vs Nick Diaz II
If just one of these 8 fights is destined to become a reality, oh please just let this be it. Not only would this serve as a fitting comeback fight for two of the UFC roster’s most entertaining fighters, it would serve as a sequel to one of my own personal favourite fights of all time. Lawler/Diaz 2 would pretty much be a guaranteed barnburner.
On one hand, you have the recently-dethroned Robbie Lawler, a man who we all know possesses that fiery, innate hunger to win – a hunger that may propel him towards one final title-run before he calls time on his truly exemplary career. And then on the other, you have Nick Diaz, a veteran of the game’s top level for some time now, one who despite dropping consecutive decision losses to Anderson Silva, Georges St-Pierre and Carlos Condit, is still among the very best at 170lbs in the world right now. Should he choose to compete in the weight-class that is.
Lawler’s knockout power and gas-tank made him the most feared welterweight on the planet for several years but in Diaz, you have a 3rd degree BJJ black belt with some high-level boxing who is the type of fighter that would continue pressing forward inside the octagon even if you ran him over with a truck.
Before Lawler’s recent loss to Tyron Woodley, Nick Diaz was the only man to have ever knocked Robbie out, a fact you can be sure he would bring up during the build-up. It would be Lawler’s ferocity, and animalistic fury versus Nick’s pace, endurance and incredible chin.
Who wouldn’t want to see that again?
Khabib Nurmagomedov vs Tony Ferguson
The lightweight division really needs an undisputed #1 contender and in Ferguson and Nurmagomedov, you have the two front-runners in the promotion’s most-talked about division right now.
Ferguson’s win-streak – after his recent win over Rafael dos Anjos – now totals 9 and with 5 performance bonuses in his last 5 fights, many would point to him as the top-dog if it weren’t for the absolute monster whose claim at being the best at 155lbs is just as strong.
Khabib’s 24-0 record is a consequence of his truly masterful grappling, making him one of the scariest individuals – not only at lightweight – but in MMA as a whole. In Tony, he would have an opponent who could perhaps challenge him in every area, but if the Russian’s history is anything to go by, do not be surprised to see him rise up to the challenge in emphatic fashion.
With the champion Conor McGregor away indefinitely on a self-imposed hiatus, why not pay Tony Ferguson what he thinks he is worth and make this fight happen. There is absolutely no need for a fake interim belt. The fans deserve to be given more credit than that. This would be an exciting match-up, belt or no belt and anyone who has any interest in MMA to any degree would surely tune in to see this incredibly interesting stylistic encounter.
Conor McGregor vs Khabib Nurmagomedov/Tony Ferguson
If we do indeed see Khabib/Ferguson early in 2017, do not be surprised to see the winner pegged for a massive showdown with the ‘Notorious’ Conor McGregor when the Irishman decides to make his return to the lightweight division.
A lot has been made of the lightweight champion’s lax attitude towards defending belts but if he were to engage the winner of this title-eliminator, it would do wonders to strengthen the validity of his reign. After defeating Eddie Alvarez in a virtually flawless performance at UFC 205, the idea of Conor making another trip up to 170lbs has whetted the appetites of his fans but really, he would be wise to defend his lightweight strap first.
A match-up with either of these guys would be a treat and though each man poses very different threats to the SBG fighter, McGregor relishes a challenge and has most certainly made his career on the back of proving doubters wrong.
Michael Bisping vs Yoel Romero
I know that there’s been talk of a crazy 180-pound catchweight match-up between the middleweight champion Michael Bisping and Tyron Woodley, the welterweight kingpin, but to be honest, I’d like to see both of these guys defend their belt on at least one more occasion before they nab themselves this ‘big-money-fight’.
Bisping had the greatest year of his professional career last year and after avenging his prior loss to the legend Dan Henderson, he would do well to refocus his attention on the 185lb division’s top contenders.
The one man he really should take on is the freakishly athletic Soldier of God, Yoel Romero, who after brutally KO’ing Chris Weidman at UFC 205, is next in line for a shot at the belt. His style in the stand-up department is one so unpredictable that it alone would make him a handful for anyone but when you couple it with his Olympic-level wrestling, it makes him an absolute nightmare.
If Bisping could snatch a win over Yoel, he would immediately silence those who have dismissed his reign as champ as nothing more than a well-timed, stroke of luck.
Stipe Miocic vs Cain Velasquez
This is the heavyweight fight to make. With respect to Stipe and Fabricio Werdum, Cain – in my eyes – is still the most lethal 265-pounder on the planet and despite his problems with injuries, poses the single greatest threat to Stipe Miocic’s crown right now.
Miocic defended his belt successfully in a hometown KO win over the legendary Alistair Overeem and has since decided to take some time away from the sport, but when he does return to contention, a fight with Cain is the one to make. Velasquez stormed through Travis Browne in his last fight at UFC 200 and looked every bit as sharp as we’ve ever seen him. Werdum couldn’t grab the finish against ‘Hapa’ in what was a pretty tepid encounter and as a result – despite his prior win over Cain – should be 2nd in line for the next shot at gold.
Perhaps it will be Werdum who gets the nod. Or we may even see Cain and Fabricio throw down once more but regardless, 2017 is going to be a very interesting year for the heavyweight division.
Jose Aldo vs Max Holloway
It’s crazy how one man can cause so much turmoil across two divisions. But, alas, McGregor has now moved on from the 145-pound weight-class, according to the UFC rankings at least. In his wake, he has left a highly competitive group of fighters to battle amongst themselves for the featherweight crown. Aldo & Holloway are currently sitting at the top of the mountain and with two belts between them, this is the fight to make right now.
Aldo’s stock has fallen somewhat in recent times but his skill and resumé are simply undeniable. For many, he is still the greatest featherweight to ever don the gloves but now, he faces a truly unique talent in Max Holloway, whose creativity and unpredictability make him one of the roster’s most exciting fighters.
Although Jose has spoken on his desire to chase Conor McGregor up to lightweight, a win over Holloway in a title-fight would do wonders for Aldo’s stock, reminding people why exactly he is one of the sport’s most revered champions. For Max, taking out a legend of Jose’s stature would set his already promising career down an even more exciting path.
Tyron Woodley vs Stephen Thompson II
What a show these guys put on the first time around. Tyron Woodley and Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson all but stole the night at New York City’s first MMA ever event late last year and because the bout was scored as a majority draw, the UFC brass simply must ignore Tyron Woodley’s ambitious talk of huge-name fights and book these guys for a sequel.
Woodley’s power and wrestling made for a great antidote to Thompson’s timing and speed on the night but the contest itself had all the momentum swings needed to justify its ‘future-classic’ label.
Tyron can call for the big fights all he wants but until he gives ‘Wonderboy’ the rematch he deserves, there will always be an asterisk over his title-reign, even if a good portion of the MMA community scored the bout in his favour. If he can overcome the challenge Thompson poses then, by all means, allow him to chase the middleweight title or greet the returning Nick Diaz or Georges St. Pierre upon their arrival (if that ever happens).
A sequel to the first fight could have fight-of-the-year potential and given that the right hand of Woodley and the kicks of Thompson are two of the most lethal weapons at 170lbs right now, it would be a crime not to set this fight up sooner rather than later.
Cillian Cunningham, Pundit Arena