UFC president Dana White recently told anyone who would listen that the company is now worth $7 billion, in the wake of a massive $4.2 billion sale to WME-IMG and an shiny new television contract with ESPN. And yet, the company still struggles with over saturation and creating new PPV stars. Without a bankable name like Jon Jones, Brock Lesnar, or Conor McGregor on the marquee, the average UFC PPV only sells between 150,000 and 250,000 units.
Injuries, contract disputes, PED suspensions, and legal issues have all come together to derail main events over the last year or so. The UFC may be getting the short end of the stick when it comes to luck, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have a talented roster capable of putting on some very compelling fights. As we look ahead to the next 12-to-16 months, here are some of the biggest, most entertaining bouts that the UFC can (and should) book. And then promote the hell out of them!
Volkan Oezdemir vs. Alexander Gustafsson
Before losing to Daniel Cormier in January 2018 (something that most people tend to do), Volkan Oezdemir had a five-fight winning streak dating back to 2014. The powerful Swiss kickboxer has been impressive in his four UFC fights so far, including KO wins over Misha Cirkunov and Jimi Manuwa. He was actually supposed to fight Alexander Gustafsson at UFC 227, but that bout was cancelled when both fighters wound up injured (a broken nose for Oezdemir, and a hamstring strain for Gustafsson).
Gustafsson has fought for the Light Heavyweight championship twice, but ended up losing each time — once to Jon Jones and then again to Daniel Cormier, who are both in the conversation for greatest fighter ever. Since his last loss (in 2015), the lanky Swede has won two straight and worked his way back into the No. 1 contender spot. With Oezdemir currently in the No. 2 spot, and champion Daniel Cormier currently focusing on his Heavyweight title, these two need to cross paths as soon as possible. An interim title could even be on the line, depending on what Cormier does in the next few months.
T.J. Dillashaw vs. Henry Cejudo
Henry Cejudo is fresh off shocking the MMA universe by beating all-time GOAT Demetrious Johnson via decision for the UFC Flyweight championship at UFC 227. While a dominant champion like Johnson is totally worthy of an immediate rematch (especially considering how close the split-decision was), it’s possible that Cejudo has another big empty spot on his to-do list.
T.J. Dillashaw is the current (and two-time) Bantamweight champion, and has only lost once in the last four years. He’s fresh off a pair of stoppage victories over former teammate Cody Garbrandt, solidifying himself as arguably the best bantamweight fighter in UFC history and making a case that he belongs in the current best pound-for-pound conversation.
Cejudo hasn’t been shy about wanting to move up a weight class and fight Dillashaw — something that Johnson never seemed keen to do. Plus it’s currently en vogue for fighters to try and capture multiple division titles (see: Conor McGregor, Daniel Cormier, GSP). Mighty Mouse full deserves a rematch, no doubt, but a champion versus champion superfight between Cejudo and a Dillashaw might be even better.
Nick Diaz vs. Robbie Lawler
Nick Diaz is, for all intents and purposes, now retired. He hasn’t fought since losing to Anderson Silva in 2015, a result that was officially turned into a No Contest after both fighters failed drug tests — Silva for PEDs and Diaz for marijuana. After a lengthy series of legal battles with the Nevada State Athletic Comission over the duration of his suspension, Diaz is now free to fight again if he wants, although it seems he’s only interested in superfights against marquee opponents for unrealistic paydays.
Robbie Lawler may not be Anderson Silva or Georges St-Pierre, but he’s a former Welterweight champ and sure as hell knows how to throw down with the best of them. In a run of six fights from 2014 to 2016, he earned Fight of the Night honors four times and Fight of the Year once, for his bloody battle against Rory MacDonald at UFC 189.
Currently, Lawler is coming off an ACL injury. Both fighters are now at least 35-years-old, so it makes sense to pair them up for a big main event. Even without a title on the line, people would pay to see Diaz’s patented Compton slap-boxing against Lawler’s wild brawling.
Nate Diaz vs. Georges St-Pierre
Speaking of the Diaz brothers, we hope little brother Nate also gets back into the UFC octagon soon. He claims to be holding out for the big money trilogy fight against Conor McGregor, but we suspect pairing him against a PPV star like Georges St-Pierre would entice him out of hiding.
GSP recently returned from a four-year absence and remarkably won the Middleweight championship off Michael Bisping. However, health complications forced him to relinquish the title shortly afterwards, and his future remains unclear. He as been public about his desire to fight again, but at 37-years-old he is probably only interested in big money matchups, and not in climbing up the welterweight (or middleweight) rankings again.
If GSP can still make 170-pounds, then a bout against Nate could be a lot of fun. Plus it makes sense to book two well-known fighters against each other, especially if McGregor is busy with other opponents. St-Pierre already has a win over Nate’s older brother Nick from 2013, so he could attempt to make it a clean sweep of Diaz victories in a fight against Nate.
Amanda Nunes vs. Holly Holm
Both of these women have something in common — they absolutely smashed former UFC golden girl Ronda Rousey and helped send her packing to a career in movies and the WWE. They took different paths afterwards though, as Holm lost four of her next five fights, while Nunes — already the Bantamweight champion in her fight against Rousey — continues to wear the gold around her waist.
Nunes is about face her biggest test yet, as she plans to move up in weight to face Featherweight champion Cris “Cyborg” Justino in December 2018. Even if she loses that bout, a move back down to 135-pounds to defend the Bantamweight title will be in order soon. Conveniently, Holm is currently the No. 1 ranked contender in that division (although that’s debatable).
Holm, who was also a successful boxer and kickboxer prior to signing with the UFC, might not get too many more shots at UFC gold since she is already 36-years-old. Another shot at the title she used to own would be a great main event for the UFC, especially since Holm and Nunes are arguably the two most famous females on the roster.
Brock Lesnar vs. Francis Ngannou
Brock Lesnar made a surprise appearance at UFC 226 to face off against Daniel Cormier, who had just beaten Stipe Miocic to claim the Heavyweight title. Cormier, who isn’t shy about his fandom of professional wrestling, seemed downright giddy over the possibility of taking on Lesnar — a former UFC champ in his own right — in the octagon. Whether that fight happens or not, there’s another UFC heavyweight we think would be the perfect matchup for Lesnar.
Francis Ngannou, the 31-year-old Cameroonian monster, can match Lesnar is size, strength, and brute strength. There was so much hype behind him, especially after he uppercut the soul out of Alistair Overeem at UFC 218, that he was given a title shot against Stipe Miocic in early 2018. He lost a five round decision, pressing hard early but running out of gas. That’s why he’s the perfect opponent for a returning (maybe?) Lesnar.
Lesnar hits hard, tires quickly, and is typically great for short, explosive fights. Let’s be real here for a second — who doesn’t want to see Ngannou and Lesnar throw bombs for 90 seconds until someone goes to sleep?
Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Tony Ferguson
Dana White has proclaimed this fight as “cursed” after trying to book it on four different occasions only to see it fall apart due to one reason or another — freak injury, weight cutting issues, etc. When asked whether he would ever try to make it happen again, he replied “Hell no.” Nurmagomedov has since moved on to bigger things, capturing the “vacant” Lightweight title in a fight against Al Iaquinta. Why are we questioning the word “vacant?” Well, because Conor McGregor never lost that championship (although he hasn’t defended it either). Khabib and McGregor will fight at UFC 229, but after that Ferguson needs to be back in the picture.
Ferguson hasn’t fought in a year since choking out Kevin Lee at UFC 216. He’s also scheduled to be on the UFC 229 card, fighting former champ and No. 8 ranked Anthony Pettis. Assuming he wins that fight, we want him against the winner of Khabib vs. Conor. Even if McGregor wins back (retains?) the Lightweight belt, Ferguson and Nurmagomedov need to settle unfinished business at some point in 2019.
Henry Cejudo vs. Demetrious Johnson 2
We know we had Cejudo earmarked for another big fight earlier in this article, but whether he goes up in weight to take on Dillashaw or not (and we hope he does), he has a scary rematch waiting for him at 125-pounds. Demetrious Johnson was the most dominant champion in UFC history, and absolutely deserves an immediate rematch for the Flyweight championship. Hell, one of the judges actually had Mighty Mouse winning the Cejudo bout, which shows you just how close it really was.
We want to see if DJ will adapt his style, something he does better than anyone in MMA, to counter Cejudo’s wrestling-heavy tactics. In their first fight, Cejudo was able to drag Johnson to the mat on numerous occasions, but wasn’t successful in doing much offensively once he got there.With a little luck, this rematch will feature a definitive finish instead of a murky decision.
Rose Namajunas vs. Karolina Kowalkiewicz
Thug Rose did the unthinkable in beating Joanna Jedrzejczyk at UFC 217 — and then she did it again at UFC 223, firmly and violently taking over the women’s Strawweight division. She hasn’t fought since, recovering from an injury (and also is apparently still shaken up over being on the bus that Conor McGregor attacked in Brooklyn, but that’s another story altogether). Regardless, a champion must defend the title eventually, and we think Karolina Kowalkiewicz is the perfect opponent.
For starters, the 32-year-old Kowalkiewicz is the No. 4 ranked strawweight in the UFC right now, recently beating the likes Jodie Esquibel and Felice Herrig. Even if her win over Herrig wasn’t that impressive (a split-decision victory), here’s an important fact: she’s the last person to beat Rose Namajunas, a feat she accomplished back in 2016 at UFC 201. It would be a chance for Namajunas to avenge the loss, and also gives Kowalkiewicz a deserving second shot at the Strawweight title (she lost to then-champ Jedzrejczyk at UFC 205).
Assuming Kowalkiewicz beats Jessica Andrade at UFC 228, this is the fight to make. However, if Andrade wins that bout you can substitute her name in as the next fighter to get a crack at the gold.
Yoel Romero vs. Jimi Manuwa
It’s probably time to face the reality that Yoel Romero is not a middleweight. He’s missed weight in his last two fights, has lost to the current champion Robert Whittaker twice, and is now 41-years old. The weight cut isn’t going to get any easier for the former Olympic medalist. Despite his recent difficulties, Romero reportedly signed a new eight-fight contract with the UFC, so let’s pick him an entertaining opponent!
We’re moving Romero up to light heavyweight for this one (although we have no idea if he will entertain that switch in reality), and pairing him against Jimi Manuwa. The 38-year-old from the United Kingdom got into the MMA game a bit late, having his first professional fight when he was already 28. However, he rattled off 14 straight wins to start his career and earn himself a spot in the UFC light heavyweight rankings, where he currently sits fifth.
Manuwa is coming off two straight losses, but is set to fight Thiago Santos in September 2018. Romero is recovering from surgery to repair his orbital. Once those two things are taken care of, we think Romero vs. Manuawa would be a great way to welcome Romero to 205-pounds. Both fighters hit hard (Manuwa has 15 of his 17 wins via knockout, while Romero has 11 knockouts in 13 wins), plus Romero is a legitimate elite wrestler. Romero has already fought most to the top middleweights in the UFC, so it’s time for a new challenge. Manuwa is that challenge.
Conor McGregor vs. Nate Diaz 3
It simply has to be done. The first two fights between Conor McGregor and Nate Diaz were some of the most hyped and most watched in the history of the UFC, and with one win apiece, a rubber match is required. Not to mention they were exciting fights, with Diaz outboxing and then choking out McGregor in the first one, and the cocky Irishman winning a strong decision in the second.
Diaz hasn’t fought since, adamant that he is holding out for insane amounts of money. A trilogy fight with McGregor might just the big ticket he needs to get back in the gym. And if McGregor managed to find himself with the Lightweight championship around his waist in the near future, a McGregor-Diaz 3 fight could have the added shine of being a title fight at 155-pounds. Their last two fights were at 170, but Diaz spent much of his career at lightweight.
The trash talk alone for this blockbuster fight would be legendary. If the UFC likes money (and we know they do), this has to be on their radar.
Stipe Miocic vs. Daniel Cormier 2
This might as well be the same paragraph as the Henry Cejudo vs. Demetrious Johnson 2 one, because Stipe Miocic was the best heavyweight champ in UFC history, defending the belt a record three times before dropping it to Daniel Cormier in a champion vs. champion superfight in 2018. Before that, though, he walloped a bunch of scary, dangerous dudes — Mark Hunt, Andrei Arlovski, Fabricio Werbum, Alistair Overeem, and Francis NGannou — almost all by knockout or referee stoppage.
On the other side of the octagon is Daniel Cormier, now firmly inserted into the GOAT conversation when it comes to MMA. He’s won titles in two divisions, and has beat everyone he’s ever faced with the exception of Jon Jones — losses that are now softened by Jones’ multiple failed drug tests. Some fans are willing to discount those losses entirely, giving Cormier back a perfect 21-0 record. Regardless of how you see those two fights in retrospect, one thing is certain: Cormier is an elite fighter any weight. A former Olympic wrestler with surprise power in his hands, Cormier is busy courting a fight with Brock Lesnar or perhaps a Light Heavyweight title defense. But he’s also an honorable fighter, and likely realizes that Miocic has earned the right to a rematch.