What a year 2016 has been eh? We’ve had records broken, belts swapped and enough drama and memorable moments to fill up three whole years. Even though we still have one major event left to go in UFC 207, it’s hard not to look ahead to next year and wonder at whether it can live up to what has been a truly amazing 365-day period for the sport.
Of course, there have been very few fight announcements for the coming year so far, save for a few early fight cards due to take place throughout January and February, but still, from what little we have that is set in stone, here are eight confirmed fights that are in prime position to kick the year of 2017 off with a bang!
Alistair Overeem vs Mark Hunt – UFC 209: March 4th
There’s not much that needs to be said on this one. Mark Hunt is the very definition of a one-punch knockout artist and now, after seemingly clearing up his post-Brock Lesnar fight feud with the UFC, is now in the position to extend his recent run and get himself back into the 265lb title picture.
Overeem, on the other hand, is quite possibly the heavyweight division’s most decorated striker, with him possessing some of the most clinical pure kickboxing on the entire roster. Both are coming off a loss (though Hunt’s has been overturned) and both will see this bout as a chance to put the rest of the division on notice by taking home a convincing win.
This matchup just screams ‘knockout of the night’. Whether it be from the sharp overhand right of Hunt or the brutal kicks of Overeem, you can be damn sure this is a bout that has all the potential in the world to end in a very sudden and decisive fashion.
Dustin Poirier vs Jim Miller – UFC 208: February 11th
Lightweight is fast becoming one of the UFC’s most talked about divisions these days and in Dustin Poirier and Jim Miller, we have two fighters who are guaranteed to bring the fight when they lock horns, with each of them having a big point to prove as we kick off the new year.
Jim Miller has been on something of a tear recently, winning his last three bouts which included a 1st round KO of the legend Takanori Gomi, a unanimous decision catchweight win over former 170lb-er Thiago Alves and finally a worthy sequel to his first thrilling contest with fellow brawler Joe Lauzon, one which earned each man ‘fight of the night’ honours.
Dustin Poirier’s rise into the top-10 of the lightweight division saw him go on a four fight win streak, finishing three of those opponents before being knocked out in the first round in shocking fashion to the quick-handed Michael Johnson. A win over Miller here could remind the world why he’s still a top prospect at 155lbs and given both fighters’ love for a good ol’ fashioned brawl, expect a great fight.
Donald Cerrone vs Jorge Masvidal – UFC on FOX 23: January 28th
If there’s one thing we all learned in 2016 it was not to ever doubt Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone when the odds are stacked against him. He’s gone 4-0 in his run in the welterweight division and managed to get a finish in every fight, which is no mean feat for a man whose natural home is supposedly found 15lbs below at lightweight.
In Jorge Masvidal, we have a 42-fight veteran who at the relatively young age of 32, is looking better and better which each passing fight. He has competed in the UFC, Bellator and Strikeforce throughout his career, facing a wide collection of some of the best light and welterweights on the planet and in a recent interview, claimed Donald Cerrone’s susceptibility to body shots is something he is looking to take full advantage of going into this bout.
Will Cowboy extend his run at 170lbs to 5-0? Or will it be Jorge Masvidal who makes his long-waited push at title contention with a win over a top-5 opponent?
Holly Holm vs Germaine de Randamie – UFC 208: February 11th
It’s the inaugural women’s featherweight division title on the line folks! Need I say anymore?
This history-making bout will feature two high-level kickboxers fighting over five rounds in what is surely their more natural weight class! What’s not to love?
Holly Holm is a fighter who is in desperate need of a win. Ever since her shocking victory over Ronda Rousey last year, she has dropped losses to both Miesha Tate and Valentina Shevchenko and though she has been given a title-nod for the organisation’s newest division, a loss here could be very damaging to her career.
In contrast, Germaine de Randamie has looked great since losing to the current 135lb champion Amanda Nunes in 2013. Her two fights since then, with Larrisa Pacheco and Anna Elmose have ended by way of knockout and in Holm, she has an opponent who matches up with her quite well stylistically.
Though the winner here will inevitably have to face the lethal Cris Cyborg at some point, the chance to become the first champion at 145lb in the UFC will be a feat that will no doubt spur both of these women on to hopefully do great things on the night.
Andrei Arlovski vs Francis Ngannou – UFC on FOX 23: January 28th
In another contest that will more than likely end in a knockout we have the veteran and former-champion Andrei Arlovski facing the guy who is perhaps the ‘young’ prospect the heavyweight division has been screaming out for, Francis Ngannou.
Arlovski, who will turn 38 just after this fight, must have an eye on the clock at this stage. His last three fights have seen him go 0-3 and though he still occupies a place in the 265lb top-10, will know that a loss here could spell trouble for his future within the UFC.
In the Frenchman, Francis Ngannou, we have one of the rapidly ageing heavyweight division’s most talked about (if still unproven) prospects. His four UFC fights so far have all ended with a finish and though he faces a step-up in competition with this matchup, at 30 he has all the time in the world to hone his craft around his undeniable knockout power.
With all due respect to his opponents so far he hasn’t really faced a test of this calibre in his MMA career and only time will tell if he is ready to make the step-up and take on the highly experienced and still-very-dangerous Andrei Arlovski.
Vitor Belfort vs Kelvin Gastelum – UFC Fight Night 107: March 11th
Not many backed Kelvin Gastelum to defeat Tim Kennedy in his UFC 206 return to the middleweight division, but he did, and as a result of this will take on ‘the Phenom’ Vitor Belfort in what should be a good test of his potential in his new home at 185lbs.
Kelvin’s time at welterweight saw him go 6-2, only dropping losses to Neil Magny and Tyron Woodley and defeating the likes of Johny Hendricks and Jake Ellenberger, but after several weight-cutting issues was forced by the UFC-brass to make the move back up to the division in which he won his season of the Ultimate Fighter. At 25, he’s one of the UFC’s brightest prospects and though he stands to be a pretty small middleweight, a win over Belfort would put him in a strong position going into the rest of the year.
Belfort, a legend of the sport, has been somewhat lacking in form in recent times. Indeed he made his UFC debut 19 years ago and has pretty much done it all in the sport, but after his two recent losses by finish to Jacare Souza and Gegard Mousasi, seems set now to be more of a ‘gatekeeper’ to the top-10 rather than a viable title contender. Still though, we all know what he is capable inside the octagon and in Gastelum, he has a chance to perhaps use his size and weight to give himself the upper hand against the former-welterweight contender.
Dennis Bermudez vs Chan Sung Jung – UFC Fight Night 104: February 4th
I cannot wait for this one! Not only do we get to see one of the most under-rated featherweights in Dennis Bermudez engage in a five-round main event contest but we also get to see him do it as a part of the long-awaited return of the Korean Zombie, Chan Sung Jung.
Bermudez, like I said before, tends to fly under the radar somewhat but with wins over the likes of Max Holloway and Clay Guida under his belt and a strong Division I wrestling pedigree to boot, this guy has all the makings of a future contender. He had a good showing during his time in the Ultimate Fighter, losing to Diego Brandao in the final, but for me, he has improved in leaps and bounds since his time on the show, surpassing the fiery Brandao and establishing himself as a legitimate future threat to the 145lb title.
Chan Sung Jung earned his nickname ‘the Korean Zombie’ the hard way. The two-time ‘fight of the year’ winner always comes to fight, pushes forward relentlessly and in his time in the UFC, has lost just one in four, a title-bout with Jose Aldo in which the champ capitalised on Jung’s clearly-dislocated shoulder in the fourth round to get the finish. He has some crazy, lengthy striking and has some absolutely fantastic submission skills on the deck, with him famously pulling off the legendary twister sub on Leonard Garcia in his UFC debut.
This bout will be a thrill wherever it goes.
Valentina Shevchenko vs Julianna Pena – UFC on FOX 23: January 28th
If this bout doesn’t have title implications for the winner, the world has gone crazy (and Julianna Pena may well leave the company). Shevchenko/Pena represents a contest between two of the division’s top prospects with them occupying the second and third spots in the women’s bantamweight rankings respectively.
Valentina Shevchenko is fresh off of the biggest win of her career against Holly Holm, and though her record shows a loss to the current champion Amanda Nunes, she showed massive improvement in her last aforementioned bout with Holm and would be a handful for whoever holds the title after UFC 207.
Julianna Pena is unbeaten in the UFC, picking up four wins and defeating top-level opposition in Jessica Eye and most recently, Cat Zingano. For many, she has a bright future in the organisation and showed a lot of character in her UFC 200 win over Zingano. At five rounds this bout has the potential to go either way in my view, and with a new champ set to be crowned in the coming days, look to this bout to distinguish one, concrete title contender.
Cillian Cunningham, Pundit Arena