The Biggest Questions Facing the UFC Right Now
Much is uncertain as the UFC's rocky 2017 lurches toward the finish line.
This year will likely go down as a strange chapter in the fight company's history, evidenced by the fact the UFC's top-earning event may have been a boxing match it had almost nothing to do with. That once-in-a-lifetime windfall aside, things trundled along at a steady but unremarkable pace for the world's largest MMA promoter during the last calendar turn.
With top stars Conor McGregor and Ronda Rousey MIA from the Octagon and Jon Jones dipping his toe in just long enough to get it caught in another mousetrap, the overall impression was one of instability.
The UFC's exclusive television deal with Fox is set to expire in 2018, so this seems like an inopportune time for the organization to lose its momentum.
New owners at WME-IMG haven't helped any, either. After recently rebranding as Endeavor, the entertainment giant is more of a mystery than ever to most fight fans. We still don't know what the group's vision for the future of the UFC is, or if it even has one.
Naturally, people have questions. Here, the Bleacher Report MMA staff breaks down the biggest queries facing the UFC at this seemingly crucial moment.
Who Will Conor McGregor Face in His Return to the Octagon?
Demetrious Johnson, arguably the most accomplished fighter to ever step into the UFC Octagon, jerked the curtain at UFC 216 for Tony Ferguson and Kevin Lee. On the surface, it was a nonsensical decision. Johnson was solidifying his place in history—the two lightweights just looking to make their first marks.
Stepping back, however, it all became clear. Johnson wasn't playing second fiddle to the two guys fighting for one of the UFC's pretend interim championships. Instead, he was a role player at an event that starred the mere idea of Conor McGregor.
McGregor wasn't fighting at UFC 216 on Oct. 7. He wasn't even in the building. But Lee and Ferguson were competing for the richest prize in combat sports—a chance to meet McGregor in a life-changing bout. That alone was enough to vault them into the main event that Ferguson won in impressive fashion.
This is a star unlike any the UFC has ever known.
By any reasonable standard, Ferguson deserves the next title shot at lightweight. He's won 10 fights in a row and is a crackerjack fighter with a spastic, unorthodox unpredictability, the kind of man who can wear sunglasses indoors and make it look entirely unpretentious. He's a delight.
But being ready for a shot at the UFC title isn't the same as being ready for a fight with McGregor, a much bigger reward. An anthropomorphic faux mink coat with leopard print fringe, McGregor isn't just a showstopper—at this point, he's the whole darn show for a UFC desperate to create revenue and stars.
A fight with McGregor isn't just a fight. It's an event, a worldwide extravaganza under the brightest of lights. Men have broken from the pressure, McGregor's lethal left hand a relief after months of endless scrutiny.
Nate Diaz has survived that gauntlet. Twice. Better than that, he's proved he can handle everything McGregor dishes out, both in and out of the cage. The two have split a pair of bouts. It's time to settle the score once and for all.
When the Diaz trilogy is over, Ferguson will still be there, perhaps with the promotional seasoning required to be a proper foil for McGregor. Excellence knows no temporal limitation. But the time for McGregor-Diaz III is now. A Diaz loss, always a possibility, would hurt their third bout. So would watching McGregor fall to another fighter.
Not only is it one of the most exciting bouts the sport can possibly provide, it answers the only question that truly matters in this barbarous business—how much money can be made in just 25 minutes?
The iron is already hot. It's been hot. It's time to strike before it inevitably cools to room temperature, becoming just another fun fight. This bout is money, just sitting there waiting to find a home in someone's pocket. It's time for UFC to bend over and pick it up.
Is Dana White Still an Asset to the Company?
Back in the old days, when the UFC was still trying to dig in a foothold, Dana White was the man.
He was, by intention, the biggest star in the company. The UFC brass figured that fighters come and go, but White? White would be around forever. If he was the thing most associated with the brand, then the brand would be the most important thing.
And it worked, to an alarming degree. White was unpolished, brash and downright offensive. It made him so different from other major sports' heads. He told you what he thought, and he didn't care if you liked it or if it offended your senses.
He was a crucial part of the UFC operation. In fact, there's almost no chance they'd ever have attained the heights they did without him. And forget about Endeavor buying the promotion for $4 billion dollars. No, that wouldn't have happened—couldn't have happened—without Dana White.
But now that it has, White is a hindrance. Not only that, he's also ineffective in his new carnival-barker-with-no-real-power role. He still goes out and makes promises about his product, except now his truthiness rating with the public has swooped so low that a joke has formed among fans: "Well, Dana said it's not true. Which means it must be true."
The sad thing: They're usually right.
And then there are the moments when White tries to re-enter the shell of his former self, when he calls up TMZ and, say, trashes Jason Aldean for going on Saturday Night Live the week after the horrific shooting in Las Vegas instead of accepting White's invite to attend a UFC show.
These are the things White used to excel at. He was the big bully protecting his baby against the outside world. MMA fans loved him for it. Except now, when White tells the man who was on stage when nearly 60 people were murdered by a gunman shooting them from afar to "stay out of Vegas," it comes off as cringeworthy, and also as if White is the world's most heartless jerk.
The time has long passed for White to move on to newer pastures. The Fertittas, his old partners in crime, saw the perfect moment to depart the sport and took it.
White missed the signs along the road.
What Will Become of Jon Jones?
Keeping it real for a minute: Who the heck knows?
Jon Jones is clearly his own worst enemy but also seems to have nine lives.
The first time Jones failed a test for steroids, he and his team were able to convince USADA it occurred due to a tainted supplement, but the organization still suspended him for one year, saying he should've done more due diligence on the erectile dysfunction pills he took.
He made the most of his return following that suspension by wrecking Daniel Cormier in their rematch at UFC 214. Order seemingly restored, Bones was once again back where he belonged—kingpin of the UFC's light heavyweight division. Having just turned 30, he was poised to have a possibly epic second half to his career.
Then, as if on cue, he failed another one, this time for the steroid turinabol.
It's too soon to know for sure how long of a suspension he'll get this time. We don't know exactly how the steroid got into his system. His team will likely have to go with another tainted supplement defense. It's strange that he passed all of his drug tests leading up to the event and then failed a regularly scheduled one after the weigh-in. Who knows what all that means.
The best-case scenario for Jones would be that he escapes with no suspension. The worst-case scenario is a four-year ban, which his coach, Mike Winkeljohn, has already said might well end Jones' career. Perhaps the most likely outcome is that Jones fetches a suspension somewhere in the middle.
No matter what official punishment is handed down, we have no idea how this latest scandal might affect Jones' state of mind.
Knowing a bit about Jones the person having followed his career for over eight years, and having lived in the same city as him (Albuquerque, New Mexico) for over five years, I can say with confidence that a big part of his identity is tied to being the baddest man on the planet.
That said, family means way more to him that many may realize. The idea of him being completely content with being a family man is not as crazy as it may sound. There's a sliver of me that could see him just walking away for good. In talking with folks around Jones, he's saved a good percentage of his money and isn't a Conor McGregor-style spender. He'd no doubt find other things to do if he quits fighting. Perhaps he'd even be more at peace as a human being, removing cage-fighting from the equation.
All of that said, I'd put the chances of Jones fighting again at 75/25 if it's a two-year suspension and 50/50 if it's a four-year suspension. I don't think he'll want to leave his career on this latest sour note, if he can help it.
How Will the UFC's New TV Deal Impact the Product?
The before and after of the UFC's TV deal with Fox is astounding when one thinks back to the UFC in 2010. The agreement, which tasked the UFC with putting on dozens of shows each year across multiple Fox networks, transformed the entire company and how it operated. The frequency of events, the role of pay-per-view, the size of the roster, the number of divisions, the company's approach to building talent, everything. There wasn't a single aspect of the UFC that went untouched by its primary broadcast partner.
So naturally, one of the biggest questions facing the UFC right now is what comes after that deal expires in 2018. The potential ramifications are far-reaching.
If the UFC dials back on the number of shows it puts on, does that mean a major roster purge is coming? Will that smaller stable result in the UFC taking a more hands-on approach to fighters, similar to what they've been doing with Sage Northcutt and Paige VanZant? Will that continue to force out international elites like Rory MacDonald, Kyoji Horiguchi and Gegard Mousasi?
What about pay-per-views? The WWE has almost completely left the format behind. Is the UFC making moves to do the same? If so, what kind of impact will this have on fighter pay, which is still tied to the format? Will this in turn lead to an expanded role for UFC Fight Pass? Or will the best content still be reserved exclusively for television?
And of course, where will the UFC end up? Fox has been the UFC's exclusive broadcast partner in the United States, but before that, the UFC ran shows on Spike with occasional forays onto Versus (now NBCSN). Is the UFC looking to find a one-stop destination? Or will it take a more NFL-style approach, offering up specific time slots to multiple networks? Could the UFC wind up on premium channels like Showtime and HBO? Or is it looking to stick with a terrestrial television partner?
The possibilities are endless and there isn't a single stakeholder that won't be affected by this, from fighters to promotional brass to fans. This is a critical time for the entire sport of MMA, so while this may not be the sexiest question for the UFC, it's probably the most important.
Is Ronda Rousey Ever Coming Back?
The original ruler of women’s MMA is working on her second extended hiatus from the sport in the wake of a first-round knockout loss to Amandas Nunes at UFC 207. Now on the verge of turning 31 years old and teasing a possible jump to WWE, Rousey might be gone for good.
Without her, the UFC’s four women’s divisions (including the new flyweight class) have scuffled right along with many of the men’s weight classes. Despite the fact Rousey’s mortal weaknesses were put on display in back-to-back defeats to Nunes and Holly Holm, the time she spent as 135-pound champion feels even more special in hindsight.
The longer Rousey spends away, the less likely it seems she’ll ever return to the Octagon. At this point, coming back to a full-time schedule feels out of the question. Even stranger is that despite those two losses on her record, Rousey could probably still beat a lot of the women’s bantamweights on the UFC’s roster.
With Rousey’s unique skill set and competitive drive, it’s possible she could continue to make sporadic appearances in the Octagon. She might show up once a year for a featured fight against a special opponent or a fighter who doesn’t pose the same kinds of risks as strikers like Nunes and Holm.
But as for Rousey being a force of nature inside the Octagon, most of us believe that ship has already sailed.
Will Anything Make Demetrious Johnson and the Flyweight Division Marketable?
Demetrious Johnson used UFC 216 to hybrid-German-suplex-armbar a guy and secure a record-setting 11th UFC title defense. It was one of the best submissions in history when one considers stakes, context and just how hard it is to execute something so crazy at the highest level of the game.
But a whole heap of people watching didn’t care and don’t care about Johnson or his division. If that didn’t do it, it’s hard to imagine what will.
Johnson has ruled flyweight since its inception, and he has done so with an iron fist. He is technically immaculate, doing everything perfectly with results to prove it. He has been promoted by the UFC—he’s their pound-for-pound king, has gotten pay-per-view headlining chances and network TV time, and he was even labeled the “best ever” throughout the 216 broadcast—but people just don’t care.
The most passionate views on him come from the media, which largely revere him, and the haters, who’ll never give him his due.
Guess which group buys pay-per-views, Fight Pass subscriptions and merchandise?
Those folks have a bigger say than anyone, and the numbers surrounding Johnson and flyweight indicate exactly what they’re saying.
You don’t have to like it, but if relevance hasn’t happened yet, it’s hard to imagine what’s going to make it happen. Barring something extreme, Johnson and his division are afterthoughts for the foreseeable future.
Can the UFC and Athletic Commissions Fix Weight Cutting?
It's an image that's all too common these days. MMA has some of the greatest, toughest athletes in the world, so it's jarring to watch them lurch up to the scale with bones protruding from their skin. These emaciated figures appear to be more distressed in that moment than at any point during a fight.
It is causing more problems than it used to. For evidence, look no further than Ray Borg's last-minute illness—almost certainly related to his weight cut, which weakens the immune system—that scuttled his UFC 215 main event with Demetrious Johnson.
Over the years, weight-cutting has become a science. Fighters lose 15, 20, 30 pounds or even more during the span of about a week, wringing every drop of water from themselves to make the weight limit, then rehydrating for a maximum size advantage over their opponent. Although modern exercise and nutrition knowledge can make the process safer, there really is no such thing as safe when you're forcibly dehydrating yourself. It can wreak havoc on your kidneys and heart and make you more susceptible to brain injuries in the cage.
Progress is coming slowly. Led by groups like the California State Athletic Commission, incremental changes are starting to take hold. Earlier weigh-ins allow more time for rehydration. Hydration levels are tested. Fighters who are known to have big weight cuts are monitored more closely. New weight classes help limit the severity of a cut.
There are other ideas, too. But to date, most athletic commissions and big promotions like the UFC have failed to get on board. There's a don't-ask-don't-tell sort of policy in place. It makes you wonder what it will take to get serious action across the board. An excess of lost revenue from canceled fights? A fighter death? Here's hoping extreme measures aren't needed to spur reform. With drug testing now tougher than it's ever been, weight-cutting is the newest big danger in MMA. To date, most stakeholders seem content to let the danger hide in plain sight.
Can Stipe Miocic Bring Stability to the UFC Heavyweight Division?
The affable Stipe Miocic has been UFC heavyweight champion for nearly 18 uneventful months since knocking out Fabricio Werdum in May 2016.
And in the problematic 265-pound class, uneventful is good.
The heavyweight division has been the UFC’s unruly child since its inception. To date, no champion has been able to bring it under his sway for long and the list of men who’ve failed at the task includes all-time greats like Mark Coleman, Bas Rutten, Frank Mir, Randy Couture and Brock Lesnar.
Wouldn’t it be something if Miocic turned out to be the cowboy who finally threw a lariat around this bucking bronco and rode it into the pasture?
So far so good for the Cleveland, Ohio native. Miocic has already tied the divisional record for consecutive title defenses, at two. His mix of athleticism, speed and power have been good enough to keep him on top—and he’s reliably provided the particular cocktail of spectacular brawls and technical acumen that fans look for in the wild world of heavyweight MMA action.
The trouble so far has been that the 265-pound division continues to be a train wreck all around him.
As of this writing, Cain Velasquez is still too injured to fight, Mark Hunt in embroiled in a legal battle (not to mention a bitter war of words) with the UFC and Werdum seems to stick his foot in his mouth every time he opens it.
Even highly-touted up-and-comers like Derrick Lewis sometimes suddenly announce their retirements, pull out of bouts at the last minute or both.
Perhaps the best hope for an interesting and marketable next title defense is Francis Ngannou. The 31-year-old native of Cameroon has breezed through five fights in the Octagon with terrifying ease. He’s currently booked to take on Alistair Overeem at UFC 218 on Dec. 2.
If Ngannou can win that, he’s a shoo-in for No. 1 contender status.
The real questions are: Can he stay healthy? Can the UFC build him into a personality fans want to see? And can the division keep from descending into chaos long enough for Miocic to get a piece of him?
What's Next for Middleweight Division After GSP vs. Bisping at UFC 217?
The 185-pound class has been held in suspended animation for more than a year as middleweight champ Michael Bisping and returning former welterweight titlist Georges St-Pierre readied for their superfight.
Finally, after a couple of false starts, some uninspired trash talk and a handful of awkward faceoffs, Bisping and St-Pierre are scheduled to do the damn thing at UFC 217 on Nov. 4. Assuming it goes off as scheduled, the question on everyone’s mind is: Then what?
The middleweight division certainly has no shortage of compelling contenders.
While Bisping and GSP were off playing footsie, the UFC awarded Robert Whitaker an interim title and fans welcomed the successful return of former champ Luke Rockhold. Either would make a good next fight for the UFC 217 winner.
Unfortunately, the way forward isn’t exactly clear.
Bisping and GSP have both hinted at retirement. And even if they don’t hang up the gloves, there’s no telling how either guy would approach a next move as champion.
St-Pierre has said if he’s able to defeat Bisping, it’s stipulated in his contract that he defend the 185-pound title. Still, it’s difficult to imagine the diminutive French Canadian going out there to fight somebody like Whittaker or Rockhold. At least if St-Pierre wants to keep his senses intact.
GSP would be better off trying to take on a top welterweight like champ Tyron Woodley, trying to set up another big-money superfight with Conor McGregor or chasing a rematch with Nick Diaz.
Bisping, too, has yet to face a top contender as champion. Since winning the belt with an upset knockout of Rockhold in June 2016, he’s fought just once, and that was against 46-year-old Dan Henderson in Hendo’s retirement fight.
The hope is that once Bisping vs. St-Pierre is out of the way, the 185-pound class can get back to regular business. We just have no idea what that might look like.
Will the Re-Named Endeavor Company Succeed in Cultivating New Stars?
Right off the top, it is important to state that no one can create stars. This is why the use of the word "cultivate" is vital in this question. Endeavor, formerly WME-IMG, cannot manufacture stars any more than Vince McMahon and the WWE can. But what it can do is utilize its vast resources to give promising fighters and personalities the stage to maximize their power.
Endeavor is a vast organization with all the tools to give UFC fighters a platform to promote their fights, but it hasn't truly doubled down on making this happen just yet. Occasionally, we'll see a fighter go on with Conan O'Brien, who is one of the celebrity minority owners of the UFC, to promote a fight. But we don't see a full-scale media campaign for these events. And it shows in the buyrates for UFC 215 and 216, per Dave Meltzer (h/t BloodyElbow.com's Mookie Alexander).
Where are the well-designed social media campaigns? Where are the innovative YouTube and UFC Fight Pass shows to display fighters' personalities? Where is the investment in elevating the stature of champions not named Conor McGregor?
Dana White has a history of running down fighters. Amanda Nunes is one of the most recent examples. That's why it wasn't a surprise when the UFC 215 PPV, when she was atop the bill, underperformed with audiences. White is a promoter who failed to promote a dominant champion with a compelling story. Endeavor must start with righting those wrongs before it can succeed in building a roster of fighters the public can buy into on a routine basis.
Can Endeavor help cultivate a new wave of stars? Absolutely. Every resource is at its fingertips. The real question is: Will it happen?