The Biggest Fights to Look Forward to in 2019

Nathan McCarter@McCarterNFeatured ColumnistNovember 29, 2018

The Biggest Fights to Look Forward to in 2019

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    2018 has given fans some incredible fights and insane moments, and with the calendar speeding toward the end, it is now time to look toward 2019.

    Khabib Nurmagomedov dominated Conor McGregor when they met at the biggest event in UFC history. What's next for the champion? Daniel Cormier became a two-division champion by upsetting Stipe Miocic, and gave himself a retirement date. Who closes out Cormier's hall of fame career?

    The answers to those questions provide us with two of the biggest fights awaiting us in 2019. But what else is on the table?

    MMA's biggest stars, oldest names and newest faces are all set to make their mark when the calendar rolls over. Steven Rondina and Nathan McCarter are here to give you a sneak peek into what big skirmishes are ready to take place when the cage door closes. Wait no longer.

    Here are the biggest fights to look forward to in the new year.

Anderson Silva vs. Israel Adesanya

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    Torch-passing moments have become something of a rarity in MMA. Aging legends are circling the wagons these days, looking to save face and preserve their bargaining power by blocking out and denying younger stars the opportunity to use their names as bullet points on a resume.

    It's a deft business move, sure, but it stinks for both the fans and the talent who get left out in the cold.

    Anderson Silva, though, isn't that kind of guy. Right or wrong, the Spider seems to feel that his tools are as sharp as they were in his heyday, and while he could easily demand fights with other old favorites, he is instead looking to re-establish himself as an elite the old-fashioned way: by beating other elites like Israel Adesanya. 

    At this time, Adesanya is looking to establish himself as 2018's answer to Silva. A swaggering, eccentric knockout artist, the New Zealander has captured fans' imaginations with his creative offense, rapidly evolving skills and excellent mic work. He is already pegged by UFC brass and MMA pundits as one of the next top stars in the sport, and a high-profile fight opposite one of the most enduring stars in the sport will help him realize that potential.

    Many were initially negative about the announcement of this fight, as it is being viewed as a human sacrifice to ensure a rich pay-per-view harvest in the future for Adesanya. In reality, this fight is a testament to Silva's toughness and confidence.

    Adesanya will enter as a massive favorite, and rightly so. Still, it's hard not to look back on Silva's prime and wonder if he might be able to recapture that magic one more time.

    —Steven Rondina

Daniel Cormier vs. Jon Jones

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    This entry could have been Daniel Cormier vs. Brock Lesnar. In fact, that is the fight most fight fans want. However, per MMAFighting.com's Dave Meltzer, Lesnar will be tied up in the WWE through at least WrestleMania in early April.

    Why is that significant? Cormier's self-imposed retirement (h/t MMAFighting.com's Shaun Al-Shatti) will take place at the end of March.

    With that timeframe, it makes only one fight left for Cormier and without Lesnar there is only one man for that role—Jon Jones.

    Yes, we have seen this fight twice before. That may cool some fans on a third fight with Jones having been dominant in each of the previous two, but at heavyweight there is added intrigue. Cormier is at his best at heavyweight. Can he get his career-defining win over Jones? Will Jones assume the heavyweight throne and set-up his own megafight with Lesnar?

    There are so many ifs remaining for these two that it is difficult not to want a third fight. The rivalry is real, and we only have one more chance to see it.

    —Nathan McCarter

Fedor Emelianenko vs. Ryan Bader

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    MMA fans were bummed out last weekend.

    Chuck Liddell vs. Tito Ortiz 3 was about as bad as anyone could have imagined. The Iceman looked every day of his 48 years of age, struggling to throw punches and showing the porcelain chin that forced him into retirement eight years ago. It was one of those displays that gives one a new perspective on cagefighting, and the kind of fight that makes other fighters look good by comparison.

    One of the biggest beneficiaries of that debacle is Fedor Emelianenko. Like Liddell, the Last Emperor is a favorite among longtime fans. Unlike Liddell, he remains entertaining and dangerous despite being long past his prime.

    This has been on full display in the Bellator Heavyweight Grand Prix. Despite entering the circular cage with a disappointing knockout loss opposite Matt Mitrione, Emelianenko returned in April with a wild win over former UFC champion Frank Mir. It was an invigorating performance on its own, but when he followed that up with an exciting TKO win over Chael Sonnen in October he kicked off what has become a legitimate resurgance inside the cage.

    Now in the finals of the Grand Prix, he has the chance to cap this Cinderella story by winning the Bellator heavyweight title. That's easier said than done, however, as he faces off with Ryan Bader.

    Bader, a longtime light heavyweight contender in the UFC, has become one of Bellator's top talents, smashing his way to the 205-pound title and positioning himself to become the promotion's first-ever double-champion. He has shown that his size and strength translate to the heavyweight division well, and has taken solid wins over "King" Mo Lawal and Mitrione to advance to this spot.

    He's a tall order for any fighter, and that's the case for Fedor. This should be a competitive fight, though, and if Emelianenko manages to capture his first belt in almost a decade? Well, that would be a moment for the ages.

    —Steven Rondina

Tyron Woodley vs. Colby Covington

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    Tyron Woodley and Colby Covington have wrestling-based fighting styles, but they could not be more different inside or out of the Octagon.

    The former teammates should meet in early 2019, but no official bout agreement has been made.

    Covington captured an unnecessary interim title at UFC 225 in Chicago, but he hasn't been back in the cage since. Woodley defended the undisputed crown in a dominant performance over Darren Till. Woodley is the champion no matter what piece of scrap metal Covington brings with him to the cage. But is he the best welterweight? That is what is on the line.

    Covington's loud mouth has gotten him plenty of attention, and a trip to the White House. He has largely backed up what he has said. He'll need to do it one more time.

    There is a lot of underlying tension between these two, and while their styles could produce a lackluster affair, everything else would be dynamite. And Woodley's one-shot power lends the fight the added oomph it needs to be promoted. This is a big fight.

    —Nathan McCarter

Aaron Pico vs. Henry Corrales

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    Despite being just 18 months and five fights deep into his career, Aaron Pico already looks like a contender. Since rebounding from his devastating debut loss, the former wrestler has smashed everyone in front of him and demonstrated technical skills well beyond where he should be.

    Though he faced somewhat soft competition in his first few fights, the training wheels came off in September when he fought former title contender Leandro Higo. While many were expecting the Brazilian to be a legitimate challenge, Pico bested him inside one round and provoked questions about how far he is capable of going.

    Answers will come at Bellator 214 when he faces Henry Corrales.

    Though Corrales isn't a household name, the MMA Lab project has established himself as one of the best fighters in Bellator's featherweight division, amassing a four-fight winning streak at the expense of names like Noad Lahat and Georgi Karakhanyan. He's a legitimate talent  and will provide a great test for Pico.

    If the 4-1 fighter runs through Corrales the way he has through everyone else, he officially graduates from being a primo prospect to straight-up being one of the best in his division.

    —Steven Rondina

Rose Namajunas vs. Tatiana Suarez

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    The women's side of the UFC has not garnered much attention since the departure of Ronda Rousey. Bantamweight champion Amanda Nunes, and the UFC, squandered much of their promotional window to capitalize on her first-round knockout.

    But Rose Namajunas appeared on the scene as a breath of fresh air. A non-trash talking, positive, talented young fighter who connects on a different level than most of the UFC's brash athletes. She isn't lacking challengers, but one stands out.

    Tatiana Suarez feels like something different. She hasn't attained the level of grappling dominance of Khabib Nurmagomedov, but she isn't far off in her division. She ragdolls and brutalizes her opponents. She has not been tested, and Namajunas has all the right skills to give her problems.

    These are the fights we get up for.

    A champion meeting her ultimate test, and a rising challenger needing to be pushed.

    Jessica Andrade may be the top challenger, but the fight we want to see—and the biggest in the division—is Namajunas vs. Suarez.

    —Nathan McCarter

Robbie Lawler vs. Ben Askren

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    For years now, one of the most hotly debated topics among hardcore MMA fans has been Ben Askren's prospects in the UFC.

    The former Bellator and One champion has divided fans down the middle. To some, he is a dated throwback incapable of competing with modern elites. To others, his almost peerless wrestling credentials put him on a different level than the Jon Fitch- and Yushin Okami-type fighters of the past.

    For years, it seemed like the debate would never be settled. Askren’s previous outspokenness on drug-testing coupled with Dana White’s incredible sensitivity seemingly doomed the Olympian to a lifetime of being "the best fighter outside the UFC."

    Then "the trade" happened.

    The UFC, finally dropping the act of being a legitimate sports organization, sent top pound-for-pound fighter Demetrious Johnson to One in exchange for Askren. It was a deal that rocked the entire MMA world and one that, at long last, afforded fans the opportunity to get some answers.

    Though it took some time for details to emerge, Askren was eventually tapped to face Robbie Lawler. The former welterweight champ, who is aging yet still dangerous, is an excellent first test for Askren and has the striking to slice up the newcomer but the veteran savvy to keep him honest in the grappling department.

    If Askren wins, it’s the start of a potentially amazing run for the Funky wrestler. If he loses? There will be a lot of "I told you so" tweets popping up the following Sunday.

    —Steven Rondina

Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Conor McGregor II

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    I offer my apologies to Tony Ferguson and any fan who wants the UFC to be purely sporting-based. Forget finding a fight that will move the needle. This fight will break the needle clean off. A rematch between Khabib Nurmagomedov and Conor McGregor is the biggest fight to look forward to in 2019.

    Did Nurmagomedov dominate the fight? He sure did. Did McGregor do anything threatening? No, not really. So, why the rematch?

    Because the hatred between the two camps lives on and we eat it up. Collectively, we as fans do. Deny it all you want, but not so deep down you know this is what you want to see in this sport. The brawl after their first meeting only increased the anticipation for a rematch.

    We have seen McGregor return from a loss before. He makes good adjustments and comes back stronger. Now that he's been in the cage with a mauling animal like Nurmagomedov, what will he change? It's a question that deserves an answer.

    It's rare than an uncompetitive fight makes everyone clamor for more, but here we are.

    Khabib vs. Conor II should happen in 2019. Maybe they each have to take a fight against someone else first, or maybe not. They determine the when, where and how. The UFC is just waiting for the go ahead. And so is the bank.

    —Nathan McCarter