UFC Bold Predictions for 2016: What Fates Await Rousey, McGregor, Jones & More?
2015 was unpredictable.
So many unexpected things happened this year in the UFC, there was simply no way to predict it all—though, in fairness, we came pretty close. With a bevy of new champions and new gala events on the horizon, 2016 is shaping up as a pretty wild one, too.
Will Ronda Rousey return? Will Jon Jones reclaim his light heavyweight title? Will Bellator MMA land big-time free agents like Benson Henderson and Alistair Overeem? Can Conor McGregor come anywhere close to repeating (or exceeding) his landmark 2015?
Only two ways to find out.
Either stick around the MMA world for one more year or read on in this article, as Bleacher Report's staff of combat sports writers pitch in to make their own bold predictions for the New Year.
Prediction: Conor McGregor Wins a Second World Title
Conor McGregor's featherweight title win over Jose Aldo surprised many longtime MMA journalists and fans. It may not, technically, have been much of an upset. Sportsbooks, after all, pegged it as a relatively even contest. But for experts who had spent almost a decade watching Aldo run roughshod over the division's best, it still felt like quite a shock.
At this point, shock should be tossed out the window with the baby, the bathwater and the excuses. Conor McGregor, like him or not, is here to stay.
That's not a particularly easy sentiment for many to swallow. The most polarizing fighter this side of Ronda Rousey, there are many loath to give McGregor his due. That's nothing new. Since his emergence as a fan and promotional favorite, it has been easy to find reasons to doubt the garrulous Irishman.
Just wait until he fights someone in the top 10, they said.
Just wait until he fights a wrestler, they said.
Just wait until he fights Aldo, they said.
Each question has been met with the same calm, clear answer—McGregor's left hand, perhaps the most ridiculously comically potent weapon in all of MMA history. The toughest men in the sport haven't found an answer for it. None of them, frankly, have even come close. And you know what? Neither will Rafael dos Anjos.
The same doubters who have dropped to their knees in prayer to see McGregor "exposed" in each of his high-profile fights are back at it again. This time the unconquerable mountain is the lightweight division. Dos Anjos, they say, will be too strong, too aggressive, too mean for the leaner McGregor. He'll push him into the fence, they say, bully him, finally close his big mouth.
These critics can dismiss McGregor, yet again, but they do so at their own peril. Me? I've learned from experience. And I'm never doubting Conor McGregor again.
Prediction: Testing Free Agency Becomes More Common in 2016
The recent free agency of Benson Henderson, Aljamain Sterling and Alistair Overeem has garnered some headlines, and do not expect these three gentlemen to be the last. 2016 should mark a shift where many fighters will fight out their contracts and test the market.
This is not to suggest they will leave the UFC. After all, the leader in mixed martial arts has matching rights. Still, do not be surprised if a couple of fighters are offered big money to shuffle away from the UFC in the coming 12 months.
The trend of free agency will better put the market in plain view. The worth of fighters, per their market values, will come to light when other organizations offer them contracts to try to lure them away from Zuffa. Gilbert Melendez got to see what his stock was worth in 2014, but few followed his footsteps. That changes in 2016.
Ultimately, this is good for the fighters of the sport. After a tumultuous 2015, regarding a loss of sponsorship money and various other salary concerns, 2016 will begin to see several of the fighters' bankrolls improve through free agency. The only big question is: Will another promotion pony up the big bucks to where the UFC refuses to match the offer?
Don't be too surprised if a couple of fighters ink strong deals to end their UFC careers. The fighters of MMA will finally start to treat MMA like the business it truly is in the coming year.
Prediction: Ronda Rousey Returns, Loses to Holly Holm Again, Retires
In and of itself, the above prediction may not be all that bold.
Rousey already provided us the heady headline: She wants the rematch, and if she loses, she'd retire. Her exact words: "I guess it's all going to be determined by what happens in the rematch. Either I'll win and keep going or I won't and I'll be done with everything."
Of course she may have still been licking her wounds when she gave her own bold declaration. Fighters (men and woman alike) by their nature are emotional creatures. Rousey it would seem fully embodies the "Go Big or Go Home" mindset. Will she actually exit stage left if she loses for a second time to Holm? Only she knows for sure. Another one-sided beatdown at the hands of Holm might make her decision a relatively easy one.
In order for the retirement part of the prognostication to come to fruition, though, Rousey does have to lose again. And that's far from a foregone conclusion.
As bad as Rousey looked, she did have Holm right where she wanted her at times—both against the cage and on the ground, positioned for a fight-ending armbar. It was one of the rare occasions where Rousey wasn't able to take advantage of an opening to end the fight. Perhaps Rousey can make the necessary adjustments in a do-over: Cut off the cage instead of chasing Holm like a dog chasing after a car. Not going for broke on the armbar attempt, opting to take Holm's back if that sets up a more favorable position for a later finish.
Rousey can beat Holm in the rematch—she's got just enough tools...and maybe just enough moxie left in the tank. But alas, she won't.
Rousey fights best with helium inside of her. And Holm already burst too much of the balloon. Rousey is oil, and Holm, the denser of the two, is water. Holm is a veteran fighter with high fight I.Q.; she's athletic with arms and legs for days just waiting to punch and kick the bull's-eye that is Rousey. Holm's coaches, the incomparable Mike Winkeljohn and Greg Jackson, formulate game plans using calculus and geometry; Rousey's coach often seems like he's adding one and one together and somehow getting less than two.
What's so bold about this prediction is not that Rousey will lose and then retire. It's the idea of such a tour de force suddenly being out of our lives as fast as she rocketed her way to the top. In the dystopian world that is the high-level MMA, 2013-15 will be forever timestamped as the Ronda Rousey era. Hopefully Hollywood provides her with a longer embrace.
Prediction: More Than Half of Current UFC Champions Lose Their Titles
There are 10 divisions in the UFC. Between January 1 and December 31, 2015, seven titles changed hands. That is a ton of turnover.
Don’t expect things to settle down much in 2016. Parity will continue to define most of the organization’s weight classes.
Take a look at each division, its champion and the challenges lurking on the horizon.
Strawweight: Joanna Jedrzejczyk is a rising star, but the 115-pound division just keeps on adding talent. Her biggest test will be a rematch against Claudia Gadelha, who previously fought Jedrzejczyk to a split decision.
Flyweight: Champion Demetrious Johnson is as dominant as they come. If anyone is guaranteed to survive 2016 (no one is), it’s him.
Bantamweight (men): T.J. Dillashaw has established himself as an elite fighter, but if Dominick Cruz returns from injury at the same level he left, we may have a new old champion.
Bantamweight (women): Newly crowned Holly Holm may seem invincible after dethroning Ronda Rousey, but she is far from invulnerable. Miesha Tate poses a threat, as does the possible return of a refocused Rousey.
Featherweight: Conor McGregor just came into the undisputed championship, but questions about a move to lightweight and a potential matchup with Frankie Edgar at 145 mean the throne could be either usurped or abdicated.
Lightweight: The possible arrival of Conor McGregor and the potential return of Khabib Nurmagomedov are two big question marks facing Rafael dos Anjos. Tony Ferguson also looked terrifying in 2015.
Welterweight: Robbie Lawler faces a huge challenge in the form of Carlos Condit. Passing that test only gets him to January 3.
Middleweight: It just feels like Luke Rockhold and Chris Weidman are destined for a trilogy, and a rematch could come as early as 2016. Not to mention Yoel Romero.
Light Heavyweight: Jon Jones, who was stripped of his title in 2015, will return to action in 2016. He’s already beat Daniel Cormier. He just might do it again.
Heavyweight: Fabricio Werdum has been outstanding of late, but a rematch with Cain Velasquez, followed by impending showdowns with some of Alistair Overeem, Stipe Miocic and Andrei Arlovski, make his position look untenable.
Some of these divisions will begin and end 2016 with the same champion, but nearly all of those champions will need to defeat one or more opponents that pose considerable danger to them. Many face more than one. And many will fail to overcome that challenge.
Get used to hearing Bruce Buffer belt out, “And new!” because you’re going to hear a lot more of it in 2016.
Prediction: Jon Jones Holds the UFC Heavyweight Title by the End of 2016
The "former" light heavyweight champion is either the greatest fighter of all time or close to it, and anybody who tells you otherwise generally has an axe to grind or clicks to bait. Look at his resume and make a strong argument to the contrary; you can't, at least not with a straight face and a clean conscience.
Assuming Jones reclaims his belt from Daniel Cormier, which seems like something close to a foregone conclusion, there won't be much left for him at 205 pounds. He has beaten six of the UFC's current Top 10 at light heavyweight and its current champion, Cormier.
Of the exceptions—Anthony Johnson, Ovince Saint Preux and Jimi Manuwa—only Rumble offers the prospect of an interesting fight, and he has to get past Ryan Bader next month to qualify. Even if Johnson wins, which is far from guaranteed, that matchup isn't exactly going to generate much in the way of additional interest.
Why not go up to heavyweight instead of sticking around at 205 pounds to beat the same faces he easily dominated the first time around?
Everything hinges on a win over Cormier. Oddsmakers have installed Jones as a hefty minus-350 favorite in the rematch, which makes sense given the thorough nature of the thrashing he delivered in their first meeting and the fact that he seems to have refocused himself in the aftermath of his, ahem, legal issues.
At heavyweight, there's a whole new set of fresh and marketable matchups. A fight with Cain Velasquez or Fabricio Werdum would do gangbusters; moreover, Jones would add new life to a division that hasn't seen much new blood in what feels like forever.
There is little question that Jones would come into a fight with either Velasquez or Werdum as the favorite, and rightfully so. Having seen him in person, he's easily big enough to compete in the division; he looked bigger than Andrei Arlovski, and he still has room to pack more size onto his frame. His skills everywhere are off the charts, and he's still improving markedly from fight to fight.
The prospect of a 240-pound Jones wreaking havoc on the heavyweight division has been on the minds of fans and analysts almost since he first won the light heavyweight belt. 2016 is the right time for the dominant champion to move into the next stage of his extraordinary career.
Beat Cormier in April, maybe at Madison Square Garden, and new vistas of lucrative violence open up for the longtime light heavyweight champion. Book it: Jones will hold the heavyweight belt by this time next year.
Prediction: Georges St-Pierre Returns, Defeats Anderson Silva at UFC 200
Georges St-Pierre—the MMA fighter, not the occasional bit-part Hollywood actor—continued to be an entirely mythical creature during 2015, but at least he was one of MMA's most-talked-about magical beasts.
Periodically we'd get secondhand reports that St-Pierre was training again at his home Tristar Gym in Montreal. We'd hear accounts of him rolling with young guns like Sage Northcutt. But then UFC President Dana White would come out and dash our hopes (or allay our fears?) with more pessimism about GSP's possible return.
The last word we got during 2015, however, seemed to be pointing toward a St-Pierre comeback. In November, the LA Times' Lance Pugmire reported that GSP would attempt a trial training camp with legendary boxing coach Freddie Roach and then make a decision about whether he'll ever return to the cage.
Spoiler alert: The GSP comeback is going to happen and it's going to happen next year.
St-Pierre's trial camp will go well enough that he agrees to give this whole UFC thing a second go, provided fight-company executives can find him a fight big enough to be worth his while—which they do when they offer him that long-awaited superfight with former middleweight kingpin Anderson Silva at UFC 200.
Silva will squeak by Michael Bisping via unanimous decision following a closer than expected bout at Fight Night 83 in February. It won't be great, but it'll be good enough to set up a meeting with St-Pierre in July, at the biggest UFC event in history.
With Silva flagging and St-Pierre returning from a long hiatus, the bout actually makes more sense now than ever before. It'll play second-fiddle at UFC 200 to Holly Holm's rematch with Ronda Rousey and Conor McGregor's lightweight title fight against (insert name of whoever has that belt at the time), and as mid-card attractions go, you could do a lot worse.
To top it off, St-Pierre returns looking every bit as good as when he was terrorizing the 170-pound division from roughly 2006-13. Unfortunately for Silva, the same can not be said for the former GOAT, who will be three months removed from turning 41. St-Pierre wrestles him down en route to a lopsided three-round unanimous decision.
Silva retires in the cage, and we segue seamlessly into talking about GSP as a real title threat again.