Conor McGregor will likely fight again in the sport of mixed martial arts but it has become clear that the UFC is moving into a new era entirely.
There was almost an anxiety to be felt within the actions of Dana and co. as they found themselves bending to the demands of a star, in Conor McGregor, who well and truly had them by the unmentionables between the years 2015 and 2018.
For most of that time, he was their one major PPV draw and that was it.
The futures of both Georges St-Pierre and Jon Jones’ were up in the air, Ronda Rousey’s decline was already in motion, and Brock Lesnar wasn’t even in the conversation.
It was an electric time to be a fan of the sport but the promotion was in many ways still trying to figure out how to control a star that immeasurably huge.
There was, and still is, a power struggle happening between both sides but in my view, the biggest difference between then and now is that the UFC have finally accepted the fact that Conor McGregor will not be around forever. In doing so, they have started to put in place structures that will allow them to eventually move on from the athlete who changed the face of the game.
That’s not to say that McGregor won’t return.
And believe me, he will… soon.
But the UFC has gained a new lease of life this year, with everything from the ESPN deal to the noticeable increase in fresh contenders helping to slowly dispel memories of the declining PPV scores and divisional log-jams of last year.
Say what you want about the current state of the sport, as fans of mixed martial arts, we have to accept the natural flow of things in this growing game, interim belts and all.
I’d argue, however, that this transitional period of sorts is giving way to what could be seen as the next golden era of the UFC.
A quick glance at each division will tell you that nearly every one has had a fresh injection of talent in the last 18 months – the type of talent that can be booked to fight for the belt next month if needed or be nurtured towards an eventual crack at gold.
Simply put, there’s an influx of newcomers in the UFC and they are breathing much-needed life into each weight-class.
On top of that, the UFC are setting up to ensure that they don’t get strong-armed by an independent contractor again – all while boosting their reputation and earning potential.
The timing is coincidental, of course, but things, as we know them, will likely be unrecognizable by the end of 2019.
Divisions do rise and fall dramatically in terms of their strength of depth and right now, it does appear as though two-weight champion Amanda Nunes and Valentina Shevchenko are set to rule their respective homes for a long, long time.
However, at strawweight, arguably the most stacked of the women’s divisions, things are very different.
Jessica Andrade, Tatiana Suarez, Joanna Jedrzejczyk, Nina Ansaroff, Weili Zhang, Michelle Waterson and Claudia Gadelha are all elite, championship-tier fighters who could easily find themselves opposite Rose Namajunas this year if all goes well.
When you think back to the dominant run of Jedrzejczyk prior to November 2017, there was almost a stale feeling to the 115lb class.
Jump forward a year-and-a-half and it is nothing less than a sea of sharks.
Flyweight’s future in the UFC may well be unclear at this point but in rising stars Alexandre Pantoja, Deiveson Figueredo, Magomed Bibulatov, Kai Kara France, Jordan Espinosa and the divisional staples Joseph Benavidez and Jussier Formiga, it’s clear that there are more than enough fun matchups to keep the flyweights afloat.
Like Jedrzejczyk at strawweight, Aldo at featherweight, and even Woodley at welterweight to a certain extent, sometimes a dominant champion can make the rhythm of a division stagnant and with Demetrious Johnson now competing overseas in ONE Championship, the post-Mighty Mouse era promises to be a much more fluid time for 125lbs.
Even if the champ Henry Cejudo leaves upon defeating Marlon Moraes, the vultures that have been circling will no doubt be invigorated with fresh incentive to take flight – especially the perennial contenders like Benavidez and Formiga.
Moraes’ introduction to bantamweight has been a lot of fun to watch so far and despite the exit of the former champ TJ Dillashaw, he, alongside Aljamain Sterling, Pedro Muhnoz, Petr Yan, Ricky Simon and even the returning Dominick Cruz (hopefully) and Cody Garbrandt will be well within reach of that strap next year.
The trio of divisions that are considered to be the strongest in depth, 145, 155, 170, don’t need to be given too much time here.
There was never any fear that the weight-classes ruled by Max Holloway, Khabib Nurmagomedov, and Kamaru Usman were wilting in any sense of the word.
In many ways, they’re becoming more interesting by the month.
One look at each of their rankings will show you that legendary veterans, former champions, and incredible prospects with genuine P4P potential are littered throughout.
The quality that has been consistently on offer in these three divisions has produced some of the biggest and most prestigious fights of the last few years and there shouldn’t be any fear of that changing.
Middleweight is an interesting one – and one that proves how quickly a narrative can grow to gargantuan levels.
There was something of a fear this time last year that the ageing stalwarts of the 185lb ranks were too far ahead of those attempting to break through to allow the division to breathe.
It was a similar situation to what we’ve seen – and continue to see at 205lbs and 265lbs. Chris Weidman, Luke Rockhold, Ronaldo Souza, Yoel Romero, and the champion at the time, Michael Bisping, were the undisputed top-5 and each had proven themselves to be more-than-capable of maintaining that structure.
Robert Whittaker‘s destructive rise through the ranks saw him pave the way for the next crop – the guys who will eventually supplant the more experienced warriors from the upper echelons.
Israel Adesanya, Kelvin Gastelum, Paulo Costa, and even outside shouts like Jack Hermansson, Antonio Carlos Junior, and Ian Heinisch will make up this new batch. Give it a year or two.
But even now, the UFC have a title-fight for the ages on their hands as Whittaker and Adesanya get ready to clash in a matchup that UFC president Dana White assures us will be in an Australian stadium.
It’s a New Zealander against a New Zealand-born champion who also calls Australia his home.
Do not underestimate how huge this fight will be.
Chael Sonnen sensationally called Israel ‘the biggest draw in the sport’ after predicting that the contest will break every live-gate record in the book.
He might have embellished his point in true Sonnen fashion but this fight will be a landmark event for mixed martial arts on that side of the world – one that will inspire the generation that follows it.
The two most historically significant divisions in the UFC, light-heavyweight and heavyweight, do finally appear to be showing signs of health after a long and drawn-out barren period.
They’re certainly not bursting with talent like some of the lighter weights but for varying reasons, we’re seeing some drastic improvement.
205lb contenders like Thiago Santos, Johnny Walker, and Dominick Reyes and prospects like Aleksander Rakic, Khalil Rountree, Jimmy Crute, and Magomed Ankalaev are at least allowing the general public to get excited about some of the challengers to Jon Jones‘ throne.
Nothing lasts forever and we have every reason to believe that someone will beat the seemingly unbeatable champ before long.
Especially if he moves up to heavyweight.
Against all odds, considering how bereft of excitement the division has been in recent years, heavyweight is where the most significant fight of the year will take place if all goes to plan.
Daniel Cormier has taken his game to another level since forgoing the cut down to 205lbs. If Jones makes that jump before he inevitably hangs up his gloves – the resulting clash will be the biggest fight in the history of the sport.
The champions of the two most important weight-classes in MMA and a pair of rivals entangled in the most heated rivalry of all-time.
And the stakes? The undisputed status of G.O.A.T.
DC has lost twice before to Jon but now, considering his three-fight streak of finishes and his capture of the heavyweight strap, he has undoubtedly done enough to run it back.
Stipe Miocic, Francis Ngannou, Curtis Blaydes, Alexander Volkov, Tai Tuivasa. These guys continue to represent the new-school, the ones who are in the process of moving the Overeem’s, the Velasquez’s and the Werdum’s to one side.
But before this division has its chance to fully reinvent itself, it will play host to the fight to end all others, the fight that will truly usher in the next era.
No matter which way it goes, it will stand as the ending and the beginning all at once.
It doesn’t seem like that long ago since we saw frequent activity from the likes of Cain Velasquez, the Diaz brothers, and Georges St. Pierre – but while they may fight again, this year, by the time it’s through will have placed a very noticeable wedge between then and now.
It cannot be understated exactly how much Conor McGregor has changed this sport.
He took a look at the game and the way it was and moulded it to his needs, dominated it through his rise and ended up redefining it completely in the process.
This current crop of talent is nothing more than a well-timed natural wave that will make the ongoing change easier but I believe that the McGregor-era was a short but hugely impactful transitional phase for mixed martial arts – one that can be felt, not only in the UFC, but across all promotions.
An entire generation of aspiring athletes have been rewired as the sport was single-handedly dragged into the mainstream, something that has seen values warped and logic rewritten.
But 2019 has come, the strength of talent within the world’s premier organisation is peaking, and through the ESPN deal (and potentially whatever Dana is talking about here) the foundation has been set for mixed martial arts to establish itself amongst the big dogs of the sporting world.
Conor McGregor will certainly fight again and I would not be surprised in the slightest if he competes and has great success.
But make no mistake, the dawn of the post-McGregor era of the UFC is upon us.
Cillian Cunningham, Pundit Arena