MMA Bold Predictions for 2018: What's Next for Conor, Ronda, Brock & UFC on TV?
During normal years, trying to predict the future of mixed martial arts is a fool's errand.
After the white-knuckle thrill ride that was 2017? Forget about it.
If the last 12 months have proved anything, it's that the impossible can and will happen in combat sports. For evidence of this phenomenon, one must look no further than the boxing match between Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Conor McGregor on Aug. 26.
First considered just a pipe dream, it turned into one of the biggest pay-per-view events of all time.
Who could have predicted that? Probably no one.
Still, as 2018 begins, there is at least some use in reflecting on MMA's last 365 days and projecting where it might be headed during the next calendar year.
Sure, many predictions are going to go horribly wrong; some, however, may well end up coming true.
With that in mind, here are the Bleacher Report MMA team's best guesses about what to look for in 2018.
Prediction: UFC Re-Ups TV Deal with Fox and Leaves Us All in Misery.
It kills me to write this. It truly does.
The UFC's stint on Fox has alienated a substantial portion of the UFC's fanbase. Shows have become numerous to the point where single events can be comfortably ignored and the ones that do get watched are immediately forgotten as focus turns to next weekend.
Cards on cable television last far too long, with a UFC Fight Night show typically running for over six hours with under two hours of actual fighting.
All of this weakens the supposed-to-be-premium content, as intriguing fights are routinely siphoned away from pay-per-view. It's a terrible arrangement that has undermined consumer trust in the UFC and Fox Sports alike.
Theoretically, it should be ending soon. The UFC's broadcast deal with Fox ends in 2018 and the promotion is negotiating with new suitors in both traditional television and digital streaming services, per Ryan Harkness of MMA Mania.
With the UFC being burdened by the demands of Fox, and the broadcaster still struggling to attract eyeballs to Fox Sports 1 with the UFC as the channel's centerpiece, an amicable divorce should be the only logical next step, right?
Well, no. While fans may want it, and while the UFC would probably prefer to move on, expect the status quo to remain largely intact for the indefinite future.
The impending $52.4 billion deal between Fox and Disney will likely embolden Fox Sports 1, as it receives a bit of extra capital to throw around.
On the other hand, previous front-runner ESPN likely won't be in the running at all with Disney unlikely to throw around a few hundred million more dollars after cutting Fox an 11-figure check.
Meanwhile, as the UFC divests from its own streaming platform, UFC Fight Pass, it's easy to wonder if the promotion feels its product doesn't click well with cord-cutting demographics.
Ultimately, though, the UFC in 2019 will look quite similar to the UFC in 2017. The majority of events will take place on cable television, with bland production, unremarkable studio segments and 20-minute breaks between every fight. Like any given Fight Night event, the Fox deal just won't end.
Prediction: Brock Lesnar Returns to UFC, Loses Badly in Heavyweight Title Shot
Brock Lesnar is coming back to the UFC.
Not officially (yet), and maybe not imminently, but you better believe you're going to see him again in the Octagon this year.
After his win at UFC 200, he made it pretty clear he didn't see beating Mark Hunt as his swan song in unscripted fisticuffs, and though that win has since been smudged with the stain of banned substances, it remains a fact that Lesnar is a draw and a capable heavyweight.
For those reasons, UFC ownership will want him back in the fold as soon as possible. That means returning in 2018, and that return will be for a shot at the UFC heavyweight title.
Look for Francis Ngannou to knock off Stipe Miocic at UFC 220 on Jan. 20 to become champion, and look for Lesnar's phone to immediately start ringing with an eye to a summer title fight.
Ngannou has already said he wants the fight, and given he seems to be the next big thing at heavyweight there would be no better way for the UFC to get him over the hump than a fight with Lesnar.
In that fight, though? It will be all Ngannou.
Lesnar positively hates to get hit, and Ngannou hits harder than anyone in history. He’s also big enough and strong enough to fend off takedowns, and with another six months to train takedown defense he'll be more technically able as well.
Fights starts, Lesnar shoots a double, Ngannou stuffs it, Ngannou lands bombs until it's all over. The whole thing takes maybe 90 seconds.
It will be an ugly loss for Lesnar, but it will come in a title shot nonetheless.
Prediction: Conor McGregor Fights Again...but It's Boxing, Not the UFC
We’re doing the dance again.
You know the one: The one where Conor McGregor and his bosses/partners at the Ultimate Fighting Championship carry out subtle negotiations in the public eye.
Here's UFC President Dana White, telling the media McGregor may have enough money and may never want to fight again. Here's the part where a story leaks about the Irishman being in negotiations with Manny Pacquiao, which is, of course, news to White. And here's where Notorious tells TMZ he wants a "true fight" in MMA next, without mentioning the UFC once.
You can expect this dance to go on well into 2018. McGregor is in a true position of power and doesn't need to go back to the UFC. He doesn't need to box. But at some point, I believe he is going to fight in 2018. It just won't be in the Octagon.
Or any sort of cage, for that matter. It will be in a boxing ring.
It's not that difficult to figure out why McGregor would lace up a pair of boots instead of strapping on four ounce gloves. He isn't a fighter concerned with legacy. The history he leaves behind is a distant second priority to the most important thing in his life: making as much money as possible, as quickly as possible, and retiring from combat sport with a healthy and vibrant brain.
Combat sports are and always have been a launching pad for McGregor. It's a stop along the way to bigger things. Being the richest fighter in the history of the sport is all well and good, but the Irishman has always planned for life after the lights go dim.
The biggest money fights available for McGregor? They're in boxing. With the way the UFC is set up, there's just no way to make as much in the Octagon as he can in a boxing ring.
And if there's one thing we know about Notorious, it's that every step he takes has to be a big one forward. There are no backward movements; it's always up, up and away for the Irishman.
In order for the UFC to placate McGregor, it would have to complete throw away the business model that has made it so effective at creating revenue. It would be setting a precedent for potential McGregors to follow in the future, and that's a dangerous thing for a company that stresses the corporate brand above all else.
The UFC needs McGregor, but he doesn't need them. And 2018 will be the year he unveils the next step in a masterplan he's been executing since the moment he first walked into the Octagon.
Prediction: UFC Introduces New President as Dana White Pursues Boxing Full-Time
While the McGregor-Mayweather circus heated up, the MMA world took notice of White's increasing interest in promoting boxing. He even wore a T-shirt sporting "Zuffa Boxing."
In November, White ramped up those talks by saying he was "going to start goofing around over there a little bit," at a media luncheon (h/t MMAJunkie.com's Steven Marrocco and John Morgan).
The "goofing around" will soon turn into a full-time gig. White's true passion has always been boxing. Now he's getting an opportunity to delve into the promoting world of the sport as Endeavor continues to operate the UFC operation.
White used to be at the forefront of each and every UFC event. Fans who watch the sport religiously will have taken note that the days of media scrums and bombastic post-fight press conferences are all but gone.
He did well in the UFC sale to Endeavor, and now he can relight the passion for this new venture known as Zuffa Boxing.
It will start slow enough, but eventually, he will step aside in mid-to-late 2018 as UFC president.
Endeavor will seek a new figurehead for the promotion as White moves to his new post full-time. We are already living in the post-Zuffa era, be ready to live in the post-Dana White era now.
Prediction: Ronda Rousey Appears at Royal Rumble—Then Recedes into Shadows
With apologies to Cris Cyborg and Joanna Jedrzejczyk, Ronda Rousey is still the biggest name in women's MMA history. As fans know, she has shown nary a glimmer of desire to return to the sport since Amanda Nunes smeared her across the cage at UFC 207.
The former champ has a monstrous competitive fire. She has also shown a monstrously fragile ego. It seems she'd rather win the small prize than go for the big one and lose.
Sure, her accomplishments in the UFC are amazing and unprecedented. Once the opposition deciphered her game, though, she chose to pack it in rather than put in the work to evolve and risk failure on a more level playing field.
Enter the WWE.
Fresh off her handiwork on Battle of the Network Stars, there are strong rumors she'll participate in WWE's Royal Rumble on January 28. Imagine that. She'll clear the ring and get a massive pop, all without risking embarrassment; you know, because it's scripted.
It may be a springboard into pro wrestling for Rousey. But it doesn't signal a return to the UFC.
Much to the chagrin of the UFC's fame-hungry power lords, Rousey has refused to retire or commit to a return. She's not coming back, though. UFC fighters have already passed her by and are doing so with even more alacrity than before.
Old foe Miesha Tate got out in late 2016. Valentina Shevchenko and Julianna Pena (not to mention Nunes, the reigning champ) would eat her lunch. And don't even talk to her about Cyborg Justino. Even in the best of times, Rousey was frightened of the Brazilian—with good reason.
Props to Rousey for her accomplishments and now for cashing in on the name she built. Just don't expect a return to real sports.
Prediction: Demetrious Johnson Closes 2018 as Greatest Champ in UFC History
Demetrious Johnson is one of the greatest fighters in UFC history. Don't believe me? Well, the numbers speak for themselves.
In the five years since his draw with Ian McCall in 2012, Johnson has won 13 consecutive fights. Eleven of them were title defenses—and he finished seven of those top contenders inside the five-round time limit.
Johnson's dominance is part of his problem, at least when it comes to capturing fans' attention in a crowded combat sports space. He's on a different level than anyone else in the game, and the resultant big-brothering of his foes has left him without the kind of memorable back-and-forth bouts fighters build their legacies upon.
Worse, despite the one-sided nature of his wins, his opponents have all been world class, the kind of men who have built up winning streaks and reputations of their own just to get into the title picture. Too good, in other words, for Johnson to create the kind of memorable moments other fighters use to go from mortals to gods.
In 2017, though, Johnson took a big leap toward legend with his "Submission of the Year" win over Ray Borg. The mastery on display was too much for even skeptical MMA fans to deny. It was the signature moment he'd been lacking.
Next year he'll add the signature win.
T.J. Dillashaw, the bantamweight champion, has long had DJ in his sights. I believe they will finally share the cage in 2018—and that Johnson's tactical and technical edge will earn him the biggest victory of his career.
With a superfight added to his already impressive resume, it will be hard to deny the truth anymore. In 2018, Demetrious Johnson will become the greatest fighter in UFC history.
Prediction: Endeavor Quietly Starts to Look for Potential Buyers for the UFC
So, to recap: In 2018, the B/R MMA team predicts the UFC signs another painful TV deal with Fox (for far less than it hoped to get), McGregor and Rousey both stay gone and White ultimately leaves the company to pursue boxing full-time.
With all that in mind, call this final prediction the sum of everything that came before: By the end of next year, new owners at Endeavor will quietly begin putting out feelers to see if anyone will take the UFC off their hands.
Because, frankly, this hasn't gone the way anybody hoped it might.
When the $4.2 billion sale of the UFC to WME-IMG (later rebranded as Endeavor) was announced in July 2016, it was met with curious stares—and dumbfounded head shakes—from longtime observers of the MMA industry. Nobody was quite sure how the Hollywood mega-talent agency hoped to recoup that investment.
Fast-forward a year and a half and it's starting to feel like maybe Endeavor doesn't know, either.
If one word can describe the WME-IMG/Endeavor Era in the UFC so far, it might as well be: listless. Though they came in with high expectations and promises from White to take the company to the next level, it doesn't feel like there is a plan in place to actually make that happen.
Unlike previous UFC owners Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta, Endeavor chief executives Ari Emanuel and Patrick Whitesell have kept low profiles. The subtle message is, they've got a lot of other stuff on their plates.
And that's sort of the problem.
At least we knew the Fertittas owned the UFC because they loved it. They were in it for the long haul—or at least until they could inflate the asking price up over $4 billion on a property they bought in 2001 for $2 million.
With Endeavor, we have no such assurances.
If the bulk of B/R’s 2018 predictions come true, at some point will Emanuel and Whitesell start to wonder exactly what they bought here?
Will they start to think maybe it's not worth shepherding the UFC through this awkward down period?
Will they realize that $4.2 billion isn't coming back?
And if so, might they try to sell?
Stranger things have happened.