After a somewhat slow start to 2019, the mixed martial arts calendar is heating up — particularly for the sport’s leading promotion — entering a loaded UFC 239 card on July 6 in Las Vegas. So as we enter the halfway point of the year, it’s time to take a closer look at which questions MMA fans most need answering over the final six months.
1. Will the fifth time (finally) be the charm for Khabib Nurmagomedov-Tony Ferguson? While you may be able to concoct bigger fights commercially using the names of MMA’s biggest draws, one would be hard-pressed to pick a better fight critically that could be made than a lightweight title bout between these wildly divergent styles. Yes, UFC has tried to promote this bout an absurd four separate times only to see injury and misfortune pull the rug out at the last minute. Simultaneously, Nurmagomedov would need to get past red-hot interim champion Dustin Poirier in September or this is largely a moot point. But from the idea of violence, strategy and intensity, Nurmagomedov-Ferguson is a dream fight that has only become more compelling and attractive over time. Ferguson is more deserving of his first title shot than anyone else in the sport. Should UFC need a can’t-miss main event for its annual late December card, this is the best fight the promotion can make.
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2. Hey, remember that Conor McGregor guy? The only thing worse than waiting on the next move of the biggest star in combat sports has been the endless cycle of aimless conversation speculating when and where his return might take place. The truth is we are only a few months away from a full year since McGregor last fought when he tapped out to Nurmagomedov in the main event of a UFC 229 card that shattered pay-per-view records. Before that, McGregor had been idle for a full two years (save for a boxing one-off against Floyd Mayweather). It’s difficult to tell whether the Irish superstar has designs on ever truly competing within the title picture of the sport’s deepest and most dangerous division at 155 pounds or whether his future will be that of a “celebrity fighter” looking to make the biggest events for the most money. Either way, McGregor has proven to be the kind of rising tide that raises all ships across MMA, making his active presence a net positive for the sport as a whole. Just make a decision already.
3. Speaking of decisions … how about all those UFC divisions? We get it, UFC president Dana White has no interest whatsoever in creating a 165-pound division despite the many cries of blown-up lightweights and undersized welterweights alike. And that’s fine, by the way. But White has much more definitive decisions that need to be made about two other divisions that seem to — pardon the pun — no longer be carrying their own weight. White’s willingness to trade former champion Demetrious Johnson and release multiple other 125-pound fighters seems to suggest he no longer has interest in promoting a men’s flyweight division. Allowing champion Henry Cejudo to compete for (and win) the bantamweight title only seems to double down on the idea. Yet White continues to stammer and provide cryptic answers when prompted to define the division’s future in a manner that simply isn’t fair to fighters still competing at that weight. On the flip side, it may be time to end the women’s featherweight experiment altogether. A division seemingly created for pioneering star Cris “Cyborg” Justino has produced just two necessary and meaningful fights and both came against bantamweights (Amanda Nunes and Holly Holm). Now, Justino is belt-less and entering the final fight of her UFC deal with sights set on free agency. In the 28 months since the division’s inaugural title bout, UFC has still yet to post rankings on its website (despite doing the same for flyweight, which was created after). Cutting both divisions in question may prove to be a positive in the long run. Again, just make a decision already.
4. Why won’t Jon Jones fulfill his legacy at heavyweight? Among the four or five names in the conversation for MMA’s G.O.A.T., it wouldn’t be a stretch to say Jones, the reigning UFC light heavyweight champion who has yet to suffer a clean defeat, has the strongest case for the honor. Yet for some reason Jones continues to delay — if not outright resist — the one move that would remove any debate surrounding the topic. The idea of the 6-foot-4 Jones adding muscle and conquering the heavyweight division was one voiced for years by “Bones” himself as an almost inevitable development. Since his comeback from multiple drug suspensions, however, Jones no longer seems interested. Instead, he seems content picking off contenders in a suddenly thin division who don’t appear to be anywhere close to his level. But it’s the fact that Jones’ hated rival, Daniel Cormier, is the current champion at heavyweight that makes this scenario even more frustrating. To suggest that Jones shouldn’t need to face DC a third come considering he has already beaten him twice is an idea that’s heavily clouded by Jones’ drug testing history. Jones-Cormier is the best rivalry in the history of the sport and a trilogy bout for the promotion’s biggest prize seems like a no-brainer in every category from financial to the idea that both fighters’ legacies might be cemented with a victory.
5. Exactly how hungry is UFC to make Henry Cejudo the sport’s next crossover star? Opinions of his cringy shtick notwithstanding, Cejudo has made it hard to criticize his success after a three-fight stretch that saw him end Demetrious Johnson’s reign to capture the flyweight title, knock out then-bantamweight champion TJ Dillashaw in their 125-pound meeting and move up to stop the dangerous Marlon Moraes to win the vacant bantamweight title. The brash Olympic gold medalist represents the kind of future star UFC has forever had trouble producing on its own — a charismatic Mexican-American who can consistently attract the attention (and dollars) of the loyal Hispanic fanbase that has long been the backbone of boxing. How willing UFC is to help facilitate that attempt at mainstream stardom will be interesting considering Cejudo’s lofty goals. Let’s not forget, there were plenty of outspoken critics who felt Cejudo didn’t quite deserve a shot at jumping the crowded line within the bantamweight title picture to become just the fourth UFC fighter to hold two world titles simultaneously. Might UFC consider by year’s end letting Cejudo avoid the top 125-pound fighters once more in an ambitious attempt at claiming the featherweight title to become the promotion’s first three-division champion? It likely depends upon how quickly Cejudo can prove he’s an actual draw. If history is any indication, those who draw attention (i.e. Conor McGregor and Brock Lesnar) seem to be able to call their own shots. Cejudo still has a long way to go to get to that level.