Six bold MMA predictions for 2019

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UFC President Dana White, right, receives as lei from UFC featherweight champion Max Holloway at a press conference in Toronto. (Nathan Denette/CP)

The UFC was long on drama but short on titles changing hands in what turned out to be an exciting 2018 in the world of mixed martial arts.

There have been 38 UFC events in 2018 with one more to go that features the return of Jon Jones and the first legitimate women’s superfight in UFC history when Cris “Cyborg” Justino attempts to defend her 145-pound belt against 135-pound champ Amanda Nunes.

Only three undisputed champions lost their belts this past year and not a single champ defended their strap more than once – Cyborg can become the only one to do it twice if she beats Nunes on Saturday.

Daniel Cormier joined Conor McGregor as the only simultaneous two-weight champions in UFC history when he moved up from light-heavyweight and knocked out Stipe Miocic in July to become heavyweight kingpin.

Middleweight was rather dormant with Robert Whittaker and Kelvin Gastelum off filming The Ultimate Fighter, but while that was happening Israel Adesanya, Paulo Costa and Jared Cannonier all made huge leaps up the 185-pound rankings.

Tyron Woodley returned from shoulder surgery after more than a year out of action to completely dismantle Darren Till and remind everyone that he’s the most dominant welterweight since Georges St-Pierre.

At one point in 2018 three fighters were walking around with lightweight championship belts: McGregor, Tony Ferguson and Khabib Nurmagomedov. By the end of the year it was only Nurmagomedov with a claim to being the top 155-pounder in MMA. Ferguson’s interim belt was dissolved in April, and Nurmagomedov soundly defeated McGregor by submission at UFC 229 in October to be named undisputed champ.

The Nurmagomedov-McGregor grudge match headlined what ended up being the most-purchased pay-per-view event in MMA history. The post-fight fracas that ensued, however, overshadowed the result and the fallout will remain an ongoing storyline in 2019.

Max Holloway and T.J. Dillashaw remained atop the featherwight and bantamweight divisions, respectively, but there was a shift at flyweight for the first time ever. Henry Cejudo scored a split-decision victory over longtime 125-pound titleholder Demetrious Johnson.

No belts in the women’s divisions changed hands as the incumbent champs – “Cyborg,” Nunes and Rose Namajunas – each defended their respective straps once, however the flyweight division was rebooted with Valentina Shevchenko winning the vacant 125-pound title.

As always, there was plenty for fight fans to digest. With that in mind here are six predictions we think could come to fruition next year.

1. Askren will become a UFC superstar

In 2019 we’ll finally find out whether or not Ben Askren can do in the UFC what he’s done for years in Bellator and ONE – dominate and embarrass his competition.

It’s not hyperbole to say Askren’s grappling is right at the top of the food chain in MMA. Much like current lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov, as soon as Askren gets a hold of you you’re toast. He mostly just beat up tomato cans during his time as ONE champ – his most notable opponent there was an undersized Shinya Aoki – and his Bellator tenure was five and a half years ago at this point. His best wins in Bellator were over devastating strikers Andrey Koreshkov and Douglas Lima, both of whom went on to win titles after Askren left the promotion.

Askren’s in-cage abilities won’t be what makes the former freestyle wrestling world champion a top star in the UFC. That will happen because of his verbal takedowns. The 2008 U.S. Olympian has Chael Sonnen-like skills on the microphone accompanied by an unwavering confidence in his skill set — a skill set that hasn’t steered him wrong so far in his MMA career.

The undefeated fighter speaks matter-of-factly and has already called out half of the UFC roster before even setting foot in the Octagon. That’s why it was slightly surprising to learn his first UFC bout comes against former champ Robbie Lawler, one of the only welterweights Askren hasn’t chirped. This Askren-Lawler matchup, set for UFC 235 in March, made little sense from a marketing perspective since there’s no heat between them, but stylistically it’s the perfect first test for Askren.

All it’ll take is one punch from an established UFC knockout artist like Lawler to completely change the narrative on Askren’s career. If he’s not biting off more than he can chew, though, and we see Askren nullify Lawler with ease like he has all his other opponents, then he’s well on his way to being the UFC’s next big star.

UFC president Dana White has butted heads with Askren through the media over the years. Ironically, with Askren’s ability to sell a fight and his willingness to step into the cage against anyone with little notice required, it wouldn’t be all too surprising if Askren quickly became White’s favourite fighter to work with.

2. We’ll see more ‘trades’ between promotions

The most out-of-left-field and fun MMA news story in 2018 happened in October when the UFC and ONE Championship made a trade, so to speak. The UFC gave up Demetrious “Mighty Mouse” Johnson, their most decorated champion and perhaps the most technically skilled fighter in the sport’s history, in order to acquire Askren.

The consensus within the MMA community was that it was a win-win deal, too.

Johnson, maybe because he competes at 125 pounds, was never fully embraced by the masses and didn’t reach the level of stardom in the UFC that his talent warranted. Askren, on the other hand, with his affinity for trash talk is a better fit for a mainstream North American audience.

In the past, the UFC has shown a hesitancy to work with rival promotions in order to acquire world-class talent – the most famous example of this is the fact the UFC was never able to lure MMA legend Fedor Emelianenko to the Octagon – but the Askren-for-Johnson swap opened up a whole new world of possibilities.

In the wake of the move, Bellator president Scott Coker struck a deal with RIZIN and now MMA fans have a champion-vs.-champion matchup to look forward to on New Year’s Eve.

Here’s hoping the UFC and its competitors remain open for business in 2019. It benefits the fighters, fans and the sport as a whole.

3. Holloway’s Hawaiian homecoming will finally happen

Max Holloway was the Fighter of the Year in 2017, but health issues limited him to just one bout in 2018. That lone appearance? A revelation. A four-round clinic against Brian Ortega at UFC 231 that sets up what should be an interesting 2019 for the current featherweight champion.

Holloway has won 13 in a row dating back to 2013 and has firmly established himself as one of the top pound-for-pound fighters on the planet. The only potentially compelling title defence left for Holloway at 145 pounds would be against Frankie Edgar, but the future Hall of Famer was knocked out by Ortega in March and there aren’t too many fans calling for a Holloway-Edgar showdown. White wants to see Holloway move up to lightweight and compete in the 155-pound division.

“I think that the guy’s 27 going on 28 (next December), he’s in the prime of his life, never looked better, continues to improve with every single fight, and I think he’s done everything he can do at 145,” White told reporters following UFC 231. “Why keep cutting that weight? I think there’s some big things for him at 155.”

The UFC has never hosted an event in Hawaii but Holloway would be the perfect headliner. Born in Honolulu and raised in Waianae, Holloway has been pestering White to take the UFC to his home state for a few years now. Bellator held two events on back-to-back nights in the state’s capital city in December, but neither show generated the type of buzz that a UFC event would.

Holloway has previous losses to top-three-ranked lightweight contenders McGregor and Dustin Poirier that he’d like to avenge. There’s also talk that if he moves up in weight, bouts with Khabib Nurmagomedov, Tony Ferguson or Nate Diaz would be possible.

A memorable Holloway lightweight debut against a fellow star, or even one last featherweight title defence, would be the perfect way for the UFC to debut in Hawaii.

4. Both Diaz brothers will fight at least once in the UFC

This may be the boldest prediction of them all, as there’s never telling what Nick and Nate might do or say both inside and outside of the cage.

Nick, according to UFC president Dana White, is tentatively scheduled to meet Jorge Masvidal in March in what would be his first UFC appearance since his bout with Anderson Silva that took place nearly four full years ago. Who knows if it actually comes to fruition. If it does, it’ll be awesome.

Many of the in-cage qualities people seem to love about Holloway, specifically how he meticulously and overwhelmingly dissects opponents with sound boxing skills, are trademarks of Nick, who made his professional MMA debut as an 18-year-old in 2001.

Nick is among the most enigmatic and talented fighters in the sport’s history and the same can be said of his younger brother, Nate.

Last time we saw Nate in action was his majority decision loss to McGregor in their anticipated rematch, but that was in August of 2016. He was briefly set to return against Poirier at UFC 230 this past November, but it fell apart after Poirier withdrew due to injury.

Despite their inactivity, the brothers remain two of the most popular figures in MMA. Having them both back in 2019 would be a treat for fight fans and it finally seems it’s within the realm of possibility.

5. More stars go to ONE Championship and Bellator

As mentioned above, ONE added Mighty Mouse this year. They also signed former UFC and Bellator lightweight champion Eddie Alvarez, plus human action figure Sage Northcutt to expand their star power.

It’s not going to stop there.

The Singapore-based organization secured an additional $166 million in financing in October and some of that money will be used to acquire talent.

There’s never a shortage of disgruntled fighters on the UFC roster, unhappy with their pay and more, so if ONE is willing to dole out the dollars adding some well-known talent shouldn’t be too difficult – at least in the short term.

Bellator has financial backing from Viacom and they’re not afraid of shelling out the dough, either. We’ve seen them snipe some elite talent from the UFC in recent years and they’ll continue to do so as Scott Coker has an excellent reputation among fighters.

The UFC will remain king and it’ll be fascinating to see how the ESPN deal that begins in January alters the ever-changing MMA landscape, but the sport is always in a better place when the fighters have options.

6. UFC champions by the end of 2019 will be…

Strawweight: Jessica Andrade
Men’s flyweight: N/A (UFC pulls plug on the division)
Women’s flyweight: Valentina Shevchenko
Men’s bantamweight: Henry Cejudo
Women’s bantamweight: Amanda Nunes
Men’s featherweight: Vacant
Women’s featherweight: Cris “Cyborg” Justino
Lightweight: Khabib Nurmagomedov
Welterweight: Ben Askren
Middleweight: Tyron Woodley
Light-heavyweight: Jon Jones
Heavyweight: Cain Velasquez

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