The next few months could well be amongst the most pivotal in the history of the UFC, with several of the biggest stars in the sport edging towards the fights that will define their legacy.
As expected, the predictions I made at the beginning of 2019 ranged from oddly close to reality to completely off the mark but now, with a number of absolutely massive events set to happen before the year is out, I felt compelled to have a second go at predicting how things will play out before 2020 is upon us.
We know the UFC will make their return to Madison Square Garden for an almighty blockbuster show before the year is out but as things stand, the main events on our radar should be UFC 241 and UFC 242.
UFC 243, though certainly a massive milestone for the sport’s growth in both the Australian and Asian markets, won’t likely have the same effect on the overall landscape of the sport outside of the massive clash between middleweight champ Robert Whittaker and interim-champ Israel Adesanya in the main-event.
2019 likely stands as the final year we will see heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier inside the UFC octagon, and while nothing is certain, everything will hinge on his showdown against Stipe Miocic at UFC 241.
If he loses, that will likely be it for him. Sure, a move down to 205lbs to challenge his fierce rival Jon Jones would still no doubt be available but with his advancing age and his rough history with that gruelling weight-cut, a term at heavyweight and the very real and probable chance of defeat against the champ may well see DC bow out rather than give it another shot.
I do believe he’ll beat Miocic again, though.
He’ll just have quite a bit more difficulty in doing so this time and if I had to guess, the fight will last the full five rounds.
With that win, Cormier will make one last challenge to his foe to fight him for the heavyweight title in an ‘all or nothing’ showdown that will stand as his final fight before hanging up his gloves and given the relatively low number of challengers to the 205lb crown at present, I’d bet on that gargantuan bout being both Jon’s next outing and the headliner for the next MSG card in November.
Call me crazy, but I think DC will spark Jones at heavyweight.
I think there has been a lot of misdirection from all three parties (the third being the UFC) on this front and I do think that the issue here is not one that surrounds the weight, but rather one revolving around the negotiations and the money on the table.
Everyone’s keeping their cards close to their chest while Cormier’s heavyweight title is still up for grabs, but expect this fight to gain some serious steam once all is said and done on August 17.
Trust me, it’ll be the most significant fight in the history of the sport – a winner takes all matchup that will leave the victor as the undisputed G.O.A.T.
The return of Nate Diaz to take on Anthony Pettis is also a fight that could well send significant tremors through both the lightweight and welterweight divisions.
If Pettis wins, do not be surprised if you see him leapfrog several contenders at 170lbs and find himself right in the title-mix – or potentially even a top-contender spot with a crack at Kamaru Usman.
As far as calling the outcome of the UFC 241 headliner is concerned, it’s very hard to know where Diaz is at.
I do think that if the Nate who fought Conor McGregor at UFC 202 as a welterweight took on Pettis, he’d overwhelm him on his way to a decisive decision victory over three-rounds.
As much as it appears as though his brother Nick has been enjoying his time away from the sport to the fullest, everything I’ve seen and heard from those close to Nate seems to suggest that he has been training his ass off and is simply frustrated with the bulls**t that comes with working with Dana White and co.
I look at the career of the former Ultimate Fighter in terms of his run prior to fighting Michael Johnson and the stretch of form he found after it.
The Nate who beat Michael Johnson and took on McGregor was a more refined version of the very beatable Diaz who meandered through the 155lb ranks before then.
I’m ready to wager that he has improved in his time away and barring a rather nasty bout of ring-rust, I think he’ll beat Pettis soundly to announce himself as an elite talent of the 170lb division.
The question of whether he will fight again this year, in my opinion, will be entirely decided by the next move of Nate’s adversary Conor McGregor.
The McGregor situation is a funny one. The fact that some people believe he is never coming back is laughable, proof that the Floyd Mayweather approach to retirement works just as well in 2019 as it did back in the famed boxer’s heyday.
Conor is angling towards a return and while he was delayed by an injury he sustained to his left-hand a few weeks back, every shred of evidence we have is pointing to a comeback.
Wishful thinking on the part of those who detest him has prevented them from seeing the obvious but as things stand, I believe there are three fights that he could take in 2019.
Personally, I’d argue that there’s a 50/50 chance he fights in 2019, with the other possibility being a return in early 2020.
Timeline-wise, it could be any one of Nate Diaz, Donald Cerrone, or Jorge Masvidal.
Of course, Jorge is a long-shot but you do never know how their blossoming dynamic will play out as the year goes on.
If I had to make a prediction, I believe the Diaz fight will happen in December once Nate defeats Pettis this month. The fight will be contested at lightweight – just like the original challenge was set, something that will give Conor the necessary advantage to score the knockout, closing off the trilogy and setting up a huge 2020 for the company.
Next year is going to be a massive one for the UFC no matter what happens next but I am certain that Dana and the UFC brass will be secretly praying that Khabib Nurmagomedov can absolutely run through Dustin Poirier in emphatic fashion to retain the belt.
Setting him up for a massive Abu Dhabi arena show was a move made with the intention of both testing his pulling power abroad as well as giving him the platform to grow his notoriety before he inevitably takes on Conor in another record-breaker.
Unfortunately, I see this working against Tony Ferguson, who will lose for the first time in years before 2020 arrives in a brutal knockout at the hands of Justin Gaethje.
The UFC were no doubt left gobsmacked when one fight in 2018 managed to reel in more PPV buys than the entire calendar year’s events combined and now, with them fully aware of the rematch’s potential, they will carefully move their pieces over the next few months to set it up.
Even if it means sending McGregor to his doom, trust me, a second matchup with Nurmagomedov is the fight that Dana dreams of when he goes to sleep at night.
So do I think he’ll beat Poirier at UFC 242?
People point to his UFC 229 destruction of McGregor as an embarrassing loss for the Irishman. And it was.
But I am backing The Eagle to put on an even greater masterclass when he takes on Dustin in Abu Dhabi – buoyed by a crowd who worship him as a superstar and backed up the presence of his long-time training partners scattered throughout the event’s lineup.
This will be the first test of Khabib as a genuine draw and I believe that we’re in for something special once the octagon doors close on September 7.
The UFC’s masterplan will come together as they hoped and before summer 2020 arrives, UFC 229’s status as the most lucrative event in the history of the sport will be challenged by another event of monstrous proportions.
As for my take on that fight if it happens, I suppose it’ll have to wait until the next batch of predictions in January.
Cillian Cunningham, Pundit Arena