Common sense had UFC 200 as the crown jewel of the 2016 fight calendar.
But a late-inning curveball, flung from the state of New York, looks to have common sense swing and miss. On March 22, the New York State Assembly, at long last, lifted the state's 19-year ban on mixed martial arts.
And with that, the UFC is poised to put on what will by all accounts be the grandest event in company history. UFC CEO Lorenzo Fertitta spoke on the significance of this moment, via media conference call, just after the vote went through.
He said, per Fox Sports:
I think it's going to be an epic moment for the sport and for our company. Obviously, right now all of our focus is on trying to put together the matches for UFC 200, but when we go to New York and we eventually debut at Madison Square Garden, me and Dana (White) and the rest of the team are going to be very focused on delivering for the fans. We're going to put together the best available matches that we can. You'd have the biggest names that we can possibly put on, the biggest names that are available at the time. Believe me, we want to knock it out of the park and we want to deliver to New York in a big way. It's going to be massive and when you do massive events it takes time, it takes runway, it's going to be a tremendous amount of promotion, a ton of marketing assets, we're going to have to book the fights that make sense for there, it's going to be big. I think the fourth quarter is a good target for us. A realistic target for us.
So, first things first. The UFC will fill out the fight card for UFC 200 before planning the first event for New York, which will take place in the legendary Madison Square Garden. Only two fights have been confirmed for the main card of UFC 200, with strong speculation that the main event will feature a rematch between Nate Diaz and Conor McGregor.
Earlier, we predicted what the pay-per-view portion of UFC 200 might look like. Take it with a grain of salt, as the UFC's matchmaking strategy is anything if not unpredictable. So, prognosticating the PPV portion of an event that doesn't even have a date yet, although Fertitta mentioned the UFC is targeting the fourth quarter, is like attempting to nail your Sweet 16 bracket picks.
As a result, we'll refrain from locking in 10 fighters for the five fights that make up a main card. Instead, we'll list the biggest fights the UFC could book if the stars align. Given that the event likely won't take place for at least six to eight months, just about every option is on the table, barring unforeseen injuries.
We should point out that not every fight on this list will end up on the card. It's just too much goodness to cram onto one card, even if it's the most historic event since UFC 1. That said, Fertitta, White and the rest of the company brass will be hugely motivated for this event to go down in the annals of sports history. So what they actually decide on is going to be a treat to see.
Conor McGregor vs. Frankie Edgar: Featherweight Title Fight
This may not be the biggest fight on the list, but we'll start with the man of the hour.
Currently, the talk of the town is that the UFC is close to booking a rematch between Diaz and McGregor for the aforementioned UFC 200. With UFC 200 taking place in July, and the first UFC event in New York taking place in October or November, that will give McGregor a three- to four-month turnaround whether he wins or loses to Diaz.
In practical terms, a win or a loss to Diaz doesn't affect McGregor as far as moving back down and defending his featherweight belt for the first time. But there would obviously be more interest from casual fans if he came into this fight having avenged his loss.
Edgar (5'6", 155 lbs), albeit a much smaller fighter physically, would be a difficult out.
His combination of speed and footwork, volume boxing and pressure wrestling would likely push McGregor into uncharted waters. We saw what Chad Mendes, a similar fighter in some ways to Edgar, was able to do versus the Irishman on just one week's notice. And in Mendes'next fight, Edgar went out and absolutely clocked him in the first round even though he was fully prepared this time.
It was Edgar's fifth straight win, since falling short versus then champ Jose Aldo back in 2013. Edgar and his team have been blasting McGregor every chance they get for what they perceive as the champ ducking him. Edgar's manager, Ali Abdelaziz, recently slammed him on Instagram.
From a traditional fight-booking standpoint, McGregor vs. Edgar makes all the sense in the world. But McGregor operates by his own rules, and he'll continue to book fights for himself that serve his agenda. Whether or not Edgar eventually factors into his plans remains to be seen.
Conor McGregor vs. TBD: A Fight in the "Moneyweight" Division
McGregor may decide that he's done with featherweight and is just holding onto the belt he took from Aldo until the UFC decides to strip him of it. Whether the company would do that is a whole separate story. For McGregor, holding onto the belt is both great window dressing and a great "Plan B" should things go south in the heavier weight classes.
After his win over Mendes at UFC 189, his own coach, John Kavanagh, said he didn't want his star pupil to make the drastic weight cut down to 145 pounds again. UFC President Dana White said so during an appearance on Fox Sports 1 (via MMA Junkie).
There have been a glut of side-by-side photos of McGregor on the Internet, comparing what he looks like following a weight cut to make 145 pounds to what he looked like in the lead-up to his fight with Nate Diaz, contested at 170 pounds, where he didn't have to cut a single pound.
Assuming that McGregor will actually go back and defend his featherweight belt any time soon (or at all for that matter) is foolish. Especially if he does rematch Diaz at 170 pounds again and his mind and body simply won't allow him to make such a drastic cut again.
If McGregor beats Diaz in a rematch, he would have a lot more options to work with.
He could bark for a welterweight title fight versus Robbie Lawler. He could easily call for a lightweight title fight versus Rafael Dos Anjos (Dos Anjos, not Diaz, was McGregor's original opponent at UFC 196, but Dos Anjos pulled out less than two weeks before the fight after suffering a foot injury.) He could pretty much ask for any fight under the sun and likely get it.
If McGregor loses for a second time to Diaz, then things would get more (or less) interesting.
Diaz is a good fighter but not an elite one. He's fought for the lightweight title twice in his career, coming up short on both occasions. He had a failed run in the UFC welterweight division earlier in his career. He's currently ranked as the No. 5 lightweight in the division.
There's no shame in McGregor losing to Diaz—it's just that he's losing to a non-champ. If McGregor lost and refused to go back and defend his featherweight belt, he'd then mostly likely become just another fighter in the lightweight division who's looking to establish himself.
Miesha Tate vs. Ronda Rousey 3: Woman's Bantamweight Title Fight
Rousey>Tate>Holly Holm>Rousey is the current iteration of the formula lines in the woman's 135-pound division.
Tate has already lost twice to Rousey, once back in Strikeforce and then again in the UFC in 2013. Holm came along and ran through Rousey like a matador. Tate waited and waited before finally grabbing a hold of Holm, dragging her down to the ground and choking her out with 90 seconds left in their title fight in March.
So, where does the formula go from here? Booking Rousey vs. Tate 3 is too golden of a ticket for the UFC to not cash in on. While not a guarantee by any stretch, Rousey has a better chance of reclaiming the title from Tate than Holm. And Rousey wearing gold is best for the UFC's bottom line.
If Rousey does beat Tate for a third time, then the UFC has a Rousey vs. Holm rematch back in its line of sight. Two back-to-back megafights in a row. And if Tate should foil that plan by thwarting Rousey, the UFC has a decent backup in Tate vs. Holm 2.
It just wouldn't be right if the biggest crossover star in the history of the sport wasn't competing in the biggest media market in the history of mankind. This feels like as close to a slam dunk as it gets for the UFC's debut show in New York City.
The Return of GSP
Some folks think former welterweight champ Georges St-Pierre might show up at UFC 200. In our UFC 200 predictions piece, we put that chance at 25 percent. We wish we were feeling more confident. GSP on UFC 200 makes all the sense in the world since he helped anchor UFC 100 alongside Brock Lesnar.
But if St-Pierre is seriously thinking about making a comeback, then being on the UFC's debut in New York City easily trumps UFC 200—he'd be a part of history.
There would be so shortage of potential options for GSP, should he decide to come back.
A superfight with former middleweight champ Anderson Silva, while years past its expiration date, would still be a huge happening. He could also make a run at getting his belt back by directly going after sitting champ Lawler.
Or he could target the winner of Diaz vs. McGregor. Perhaps that would be the most tantalizing option. GSP's head coach, Firas Zahabi, said on The MMA Hour (via MMA Mania) both McGregor and Diaz blew a huge opportunity by not calling out St-Pierre.
GSP has not stepped inside the Octagon since his November 2013 split-decision win over Johny Hendricks. After the fight, he decided to step away from the sport, and ever since, pundits and fans have speculated on if and when he'd return. GSP has a sense of history. If he were to ever come back, he's not going to get a better opportunity to make a grand re-entrance than at MSG.
Jon Jones vs. Anthony Johnson: Light Heavyweight Title Fight
Jon Jones is a native New Yorker. That alone would make him a good candidate to fight on the UFC's first event in the Empire State. And if he's able to recapture gold versus Daniel Cormier in their rematch at UFC 197 on April 23, adding Jones to the fight card seems like an obvious move.
In fact, even if Cormier ends up beating Jones in their second go-around, it would not be out of the question to book the trilogy for Madison Square Garden. While Rousey and McGregor may be more popular than Jones, he's the best fighter on the planet. Not having him on New York City's fight event would actually just be wrong.
Chris Weidman vs. Luke Rockhold 3 (Middleweight Title Fight) or vs. Michael Bisping
Like Jones, Chris Weidman hails from New York. He dropped his middleweight title to Californian Luke Rockhold in the fall of 2015. The two are set to rematch at UFC 199 in June. If Weidman should win and get his belt back, it would set up a trilogy bout for New York City.
If he loses, it would still make sense for Weidman to compete on New York City's first fight card.
That's where Michael Bisping would fill in nicely. The British-born fighter and Weidman have never fought, and Bisping would make a marketable foe for the crestfallen New Yorker. If for whatever reason Bisping isn't available, the UFC could tab someone such as Vitor Belfort or Lyoto Machida. (Either matchup would constitute a rematch.)
CM Punk vs. TBD
In our UFC 200 predictions, we put down CM Punk vs. Mickey Gall as being highly likely. Highly likely now stands at "10 percent," according to Punk himself. When talking with Ariel Helwani on Monday's MMA Hour, Punk went into great detail about his recent injury woes that's left him not knowing when he'll actually make his promotional debut.
He did, however, express his interest the MSG card stating, "In my mind, that card at [Madison Square] Garden [in November] would be a nice second fight, but I don't know how realistic that is, because again, I don't want to say things that people are going to be taking to heart."
A nice "second fight" at MSG? It looks like we'll have to wait and see when and where his first fight lands. But for now, it appears highly likely that it won't be taking place at UFC 200.
What are the chances that the UFC books the likes of McGregor, Rousey, St-Pierre and Jones all on one fight card? Next to impossible, right?
The UFC has only held three title fights on the same event once in company history (UFC 33). Most top-flight PPVs only boast two title fights. Even the record-breaking UFC 100 featured only two: Brock Lesnar vs. Frank Mir 2 and St-Pierre vs. Thiago Alves.
But if there were ever a time the UFC would go back to three, or an inconceivable four, title fights on the same card, its first event in New York City at MSG would be the one.