MMA's Best Upcoming Fights in 2018
They say 2018 is shaping up as a down year in MMA. Maybe the so-called experts haven't seen this calendar of fights.
Sure, the crowded upcoming schedule contains a lot of forgettable action. For the discerning fight fan, though, there is also a lot of can't-miss stuff on the horizon.
That includes upcoming UFC events as well as Bellator shows and the Rizin Fight Federation bantamweight grand prix. Fire up your streaming services and program your DVRs, things are about to get wild.
Here, Bleacher Report MMA writers make their picks for the best fights on the worldwide docket.
Tony Ferguson vs. Khabib Nurmagomedov at UFC 223
I shouldn't even be writing about this.
Writing about this leads to people talking about it, and we know how it goes from there. Someone gets a bum leg, someone gets a back injury. The ailment doesn't matter; the thing is we tempted fate. And fate said "Nuh-uh, I'll show you who's boss."
I really shouldn't be writing about this.
Tony Ferguson vs. Khabib Nurmagomedov has been booked approximately 47 times over the past couple of years. And approximately 47 times, it's fallen through due to one dumb reason or another. We just can't have nice things.
I don't want to alarm you, but it looks like this thing is going to happen. Finally. At UFC 223 on April 7 in New York City.
Don't run out and blab about it to your friends, of course. Let's just keep it to yourselves.
This fight is between the two best active lightweights on the planet. It's a crazy-cool stylistic matchup, with Nurmagomedov's relentless pressure and T-Ferg's knack for trying weird stuff out in the Octagon, even if the weird stuff doesn't do much.
Nurmagomedov possesses a solid trash-talking game, might have wrestled bears when he was younger, might have the best cardio in mixed martial arts and once broke opponent Michael Johnson by telling him it was time to give up because he knew the Russian deserved a title fight.
Nurmagomedov casually said this—during an actual fight.
And then there's Ferguson, a guy who came through The Ultimate Fighter system.
If anyone tells you they saw him reaching this kind of height when he first entered the UFC, tell them to shut up, because they are lying to you.
Somewhere along the way, Ferguson went from being just another fighter to a creative, talented championship-level dude. He also learned a few promotional tactics from his time as part of Team Lesnar in Minnesota; he is a very good (if sometimes cheesy) self-promoter, even if his gimmick of Capitalizing Every Word In His Tweets is the Absolute Worst.
There are approximately four million fights on the UFC calendar over the coming months. Ferguson vs. Nurmagomedov is the best of them. It's not even debatable.
Now, shhhh. Toss that pinch of salt over your shoulder, avoid that ladder on your way out and forget we spoke of this. It's for the best.
This message will self-destruct in five seconds.
Rose Namajunas vs. Joanna Jedrzejczyk II at UFC 223
Remember when rematches actually meant something? When a fight was so close the only thing that made sense was a rematch, because the better fighter was not identified the first time? Or when an egregious judge's scorecard or an atrocious refereeing decision robbed both the losing fighter and the rest of us watching at home?
Somewhere along the way, rematches started becoming the norm whenever a long-reigning champion finally lost their title. These days, the ability to defend a championship multiple times also means you get a second chance when you lose.
Which is how we find ourselves here, with a rematch between Rose Namajunas and Joanna Jedrzejczyk at UFC 223 on April 7 in New York City.
And I couldn't be happier.
No, Jedrzejczyk does not deserve this rematch. She had a dominant title reign and established herself as one of the more thrilling UFC fighters to watch.
However, she got her ass indisputably kicked by the American during their first fight at UFC 217 in November. The fight wasn't remotely close; Namajunas dominated the Pole and then finished her. That's not how you set up a rematch.
However, I'm thrilled there is a rematch. These are the best two strawweights on the planet, and it's a safe distance between the two of them and the next possible contender. The fight will almost certainly be a good one, featuring high-level mixed martial arts and more than a heaping of savagery.
So, bring it on. Rematches are dumb in general, but we'll make an exception for this one.
Justin Gaethje vs. Dustin Poirier at UFC on Fox 29
He might be coming off a loss to Eddie Alvarez, and it might have cost him the informal gimmick of the "UFC's Most Violent Man," but it would be a hell of a thing if you weren't looking forward to a Justin Gaethje fight.
Blessed with the ability to create mayhem in ways nobody else in the sport can, Gaethje (pictured) bouts teeter on peril for as long as they last. It's the intersection of the best and worst parts of MMA, this tightrope of life and death he walks every time out.
Kill or be killed feels more literal than cliche when the cage door shuts behind him and the churning in your guts that you'll feel when it does is entirely real and unavoidable.
In Dustin Poirier, he will find a willing participant when the two square off at UFC on Fox 29 on April 14 in Glendale, Arizona.
The Louisiana native looked exceptional against their common opponent, Alvarez, and he has looked exceptional generally since making the jump to 155 pounds.
If Poirier can beat Gaethje, he might be a fight away from a title shot, so he will be motivated to do some harm of his own.
This one is as can't-miss as you can find in the UFC these days.
Carlos Condit vs. Matt Brown at UFC on Fox 29
The biggest question heading into this welterweight showdown at UFC on Fox 29 on April 14 is: How did we have to wait this long for it to happen?
Both Carlos Condit and Matt Brown have been vicious stalwarts at 170 pounds for a decade now, and they approach the fight game with a ruthlessness of intention that even the most elite purveyors of violence are lacking.
Each man knows only to come forward in a fight, whirling dervishes of elbows and knees aiming to cut an opponent in half upon contact.
Condit (pictured) took some time off after a 2017 loss to Demian Maia and looked rusty in his return against Neil Magny. He's a deceptive 3-6 in his last nine bouts, but nearly every one of them has come against elite competition. Of his 30 wins in MMA, only two have gone to a decision.
After an 8-1 streak spanning three years, Brown has slipped to losing five of seven. His last outing was more promising though, one where he stopped Diego Sanchez with an elbow strike that will one day be a legitimate Knockout of the Century contender. In his 21 MMA wins, he has only needed the judges on two occasions.
Someone get Daniel Day Lewis on the phone, because there will be blood in this one.
Edson Barboza vs. Kevin Lee at UFC Fight Night 128
Kevin Lee and Edson Barboza roll into Atlantic City on April 21 for Fight Night 128 fresh off losses to the men in UFC 223’s lightweight title fight.
Lee had his six-fight win streak snapped when he got triangle choked by Tony Ferguson in an interim 155-pound title bout at UFC 216 in October. Barboza, meanwhile, got worn around the Octagon like a papakha by Khabib Nurmagomedov at the same event, en route to a painful unanimous-decision defeat.
End result? Fight Night 128's main event will feature two likable, exciting fighters, each of whom desperately needs to get a win to preserve his status as a top lightweight contender. That's an easy recipe for success if you happen to be a fight fan.
Lee (pictured) is the 25-year-old young gun who has sprinted to a 9-3 promotional record since making his debut in 2014.
He began as a promising amateur wrestler who left Grand Valley State early to focus on an MMA career, in which he has found tremendous success both in the cage and as a guy who might have the look of a potential future star.
Barboza, 32, has been slugging it out as an Octagon mainstay since 2010 and has earned a reputation as a scintillating knockout artist with a repertoire of spinning attacks and—unfortunately—a penchant for losing the big ones.
He is 13-5 in the UFC with defeats to Nurmagomedov, Ferguson, Michael Johnson, Donald Cerrone and former WEC champ Jamie Varner.
So, how does Lee reinvigorate the hype around him as one to watch at 155 pounds? Easy. Beat a talented, longstanding measuring stick such as Barboza.
And how does Barboza flush his reputation as a fellow with all the tools who lets down in big spots? Simple. Defeat the flashy, up-and-coming Lee in this main event fight.
The rest of us can't lose either way.
Ian McCall vs. Kyoji Horiguchi at Rizin FF 10
There have been many frustrating parts of the UFC's WME-IMG era. The most infuriating by far, however, is how comfortable the promotion's new ownership has been with allowing elite-level talent to walk away to other promotions.
The biggest loss of the bunch may have been Kyoji Horiguchi. Firmly entrenched as a top-five fighter, more than deserving of a second crack at Demetrious Johnson's flyweight title and still with plenty of room to grow, he packed his bags and headed to Rizin Fight Federation as one of the most intriguing members of the UFC's lighter weight classes.
Five wins in 2017 (four via stoppage) didn't change that, and while competitors on the international scene can often find their momentum stunted by weak opposition, Horiguchi is actually moving in the opposite direction as he faces a serious challenge in Ian McCall at Rizin FF 10 on May 6 at Marine Messe Fukuoka in Fukuoka, Japan.
While McCall's time in the UFC was mired by non-stop misfortune, he remained a prized commodity throughout courtesy of his strong pre-Octagon resume and rivalry with Johnson.
His career got a hard reboot in October when he was released from the UFC following an almost two-year layoff.
He was scooped up by Rizin not long after and slotted into the promotion's bantamweight grand prix tournament, where he seemed poised to face Horiguchi in the premiere bout of the year-end festivities. That contest was scrapped when McCall wound up taking a dubious TKO loss to Manel Kape but thankfully, while it didn't end up being Rizin's finale to 2017, it will instead kick off the promotion's 2018.
Purely from a sporting perspective, this is an incredibly compelling contest as the ever-improving Horiguchi faces his stiffest test outside the UFC, while McCall (pictured) has the chance to make up for lost time opposite a bona fide elite-level opponent.
Add to that Rizin's signature theatrics, though, and you have the recipe for one of 2018's most intriguing fights.
Fedor Emelianenko vs. Frank Mir at Bellator 198
When Fedor Emelianenko was in his heyday, I would not have been into this fight. Not because it wouldn't have been a clash of two champions and heavyweight elites—it would have—but because the Ukraine-born Russian (above) would have routed Mir with relative ease.
Thanks to Father Time, it will be a much more compelling bout in 2018 when it goes down at Bellator 198 on April 28 at Allstate Arena in Rosemont, Illinois.
The fight could be an all-out war or a case of who lands first. Neither fighter has much of a chin to speak of these days, which makes the contest all the more exciting.
When the idea of a "senior circuit" is posited, this is the kind of bout that springs to mind. No one really wants to see either man against the young heavyweights of today, but everyone still wants to see them fight.
The stylistic matchup is intriguing and complex, and the legends are marketable and entertaining. That is why there is excitement about this matchup in Bellator's Heavyweight Grand Prix.
We don't know what will happen when we get to see this fight after all these years. It's a fan's dream.
Micahael Page vs. David Rickels at Bellator 200
The Michael "Venom" Page show is part pro wrestling, part Michael Jackson and part Jackie Chan. He's a former kickboxing champion with a dynamic fighting style that borders on the absurd.
Page (pictured), a man so impossibly cool he has a second nickname (MVP), does things that seem impossible on a routine basis. Whether it's an in-cage audition for the next Matrix film or a flying knee that literally crushed an opponent's head, his fights typically don't lack for excitement.
But is it because he's just that good or because his opposition has been just that mediocre?
At Bellator 200 on May 25 in London, it looks like we may finally find out.
Though a natural lightweight, Dave Rickels is a real fighter. They call him "The Caveman" and it's not just because of his extruding brow line. He's the promotion's version of Diego Sanchez or Joe Lauzon, a serious competitor just below the championship level, a man willing to take a blow to give one.
On paper, it will be the toughest challenge of Page's career. And it's about time.
Now 30 years old, the "prospect" label is starting to peel off the packaging. If Page is a championship-level fighter, this is the time to prove it.
And if he's not? Then The Caveman will happily conk him on the head and roast him on a spit.
Either way, this is a bout no one calling themselves a fight fan should dare miss.
Rafael Carvalho vs. Gegard Mousasi at Bellator 200
When it came to making his departure from the UFC in mid-2017, longtime middleweight contender Gegard Mousasi bucked nearly every trend by leaving on the heels of a five-fight win streak.
That momentum (not to mention a top-shelf reputation earned during a high-profile, 50-fight MMA career since 2003) made Mousasi one of the splashier free-agent acquisitions when he signed with Bellator last July.
His promotional debut, a unanimous-decision win over Alexander Shlemenko at Bellator 185, was underwhelming. It was, however, just good enough to hook Mousasi (pictured) up with this middleweight title shot against Rafael Carvalho at Bellator 200 on May 25 in London.
Despite going unbeaten since 2011 and amassing a promotional record of 6-0, the 31-year-old Carvalho hasn't gotten the media love of talented previous Bellator champs such as Eddie Alvarez or Michael Chandler. Nonetheless, he is just as dangerous. Dig that 80 percent finishing rate over 15 career wins if you want proof.
What Bellator will have in its main event at the SSE Arena in Wembley, England, will be two dangerous, well-rounded dudes each looking to cash in on near-unlimited potential and justify their positions in the company moving forward.
For Mousasi, it's a chance to win a major American title for the first time since capturing the Strikeforce light-heavyweight belt in 2009. It would also pretty much sew up the superfight he's been eyeing against newly crowned welterweight champ (and fellow UFC crossover) Rory MacDonald.
For Carvalho, a victory over a globe-trotting, elite fighter such as Mousasi would prove he's one of the best in the world at 185 pounds, regardless of which organization he calls home.
Expect fireworks, gentle reader.
Robert Whittaker vs. Yoel Romero II at UFC 225
Yoel Romero might be the scariest human being to step inside the Octagon. "Soldier of God" looks as though he was created in a lab; he's an absolute physical specimen.
Then there is his disarming personality—you never quite know what he's going to say or do. Such as when he kissed Luke Rockhold after beating him senseless with a barrage of punches.
He's an absolute predator inside the cage, having compiled a 9-1 UFC record with many coming by way of stoppage from a highlight-reel flying knee or a bone-crushing elbow.
The lone loss on his UFC record? Current middleweight champion Robert Whittaker.
In their first fight, at UFC 213, Whittaker fell behind two rounds to zero (worth nothing he sustained a leg injury in the opening minutes). But "The Reaper" turned it on in rounds 3-5 as Yomero struggled to match his blistering pace and volume striking.
By the end of the battle, Whittaker was lighting Romero up with his punches.
The bout at UFC 225 on June 9 in Chicago is low-key, but it could be one of the best UFC rematches of all time.
Now aged 40, Romero looks as godlike as ever after his vicious win over Rockhold. Whittaker, the much younger (27) and more complete fighter, has not fought since the first meeting with Romero due to injury and illness.
Under normal circumstances, it would be easy to take Whittaker in the rematch, but how will he respond to being out of action for nearly a year?
Beyond getting to brandish UFC gold, the winner can lay claim to being the best middleweight in UFC history behind the great but tainted Anderson Silva.
Stipe Miocic vs. Daniel Cormier at UFC 226
There's a lot of cognitive dissonance in this matchup. That's one part of what makes this perhaps the most riveting bout on the UFC landscape.
When heavyweight champ Stipe Miocic (18-2) and light heavyweight champ Daniel Cormier (20-1-1) square off July 7 for Miocic's belt at UFC 226, the challenger will surrender five inches of height and 7.5 inches of reach. Both men are well-rounded enough so that this doesn't fall neatly into the "striker vs. grappler" construct, though.
Still, the fact remains Cormier is a bowling ball of a wrestler who relies on things such as riding time and wrist control, while Miocic is a rangy boxer who shoots fast combinations through opposing defenses and works for takedowns and ground strikes.
In both cases, the games are deceptive. Neither is visually astonishing but that makes them more dangerous. You almost don't realize the damage is happening until their hand is raised.
Their physical talents and the foundation of their respective approaches are as different as they can be. Add in the fact these two are friends away from the cage, and this becomes a fascinating bout.
This isn't the first time two pals have been pitted against each other, but their openness about that friendship (and the fact they compared notes on contractual terms before signing) offers an extra layer of intrigue.
And now they're coaching opposite each other on The Ultimate Fighter. What else do you need? Dissonance or no, on July 7, two champions with a combined win percentage of 95 are going to fight for the right to be the baddest man on the planet. This is unequivocally appointment viewing.