The Biggest MMA Storylines to Follow in 2019

Scott Harris@ScottHarrisMMAMMA Lead WriterJanuary 8, 2019

The Biggest MMA Storylines to Follow in 2019

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    Conor McGregor
    Conor McGregorBrandon Magnus/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

    With fighter grudges, promotional bombast, PED drama and so on, MMA is never going to lack for storylines. Here are the biggest ones heading into 2019.

    Does Jon Jones top the list? Yes he does. When you're a walking drug-test abnormality who also happens to be the best fighter ever, that's not a big leap to take, especially not after his triumphant end-of-year return at UFC 232.

    But there are always more. A shiny new TV deal is about to jump off. Now more than ever, this sport has a lot of moving parts. Here are the parts to watch closely this year.

As the Jon Jones Turns

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    Kyusung Gong/Associated Press

    The potential challengers lined up quickly after Jones knocked out Gustafsson to capture the newly vacant light heavyweight crown.

    On Sunday, the news came that rising talent Anthony Smith will challenge Jones in March at UFC 235. The champ will surely be a massive betting favorite on that, but other matchups may seem more competitive on paper, at least to the extent possible given that he's the greatest MMA fighter of all time.

    Former middleweight champ Luke Rockhold has put his hat in the ring, and of course, Rockhold's close friend Daniel Cormier, who doubles as the closest thing Jones has ever had to a rival, is always a possibility. DC is the heavyweight champ and has been regularly talking retirement lately, but you figure there's always a way to get this one on the books.

    Lurking behind all of this is one Brock Lesnar, who has previously linked himself to both Jones and Cormier. Those could all be intriguing heavyweight bouts. Could Jones become the champ-champ?

    The sky's the limit in 2019—that is, if Jones can keep his nose clean. He was lucky that UFC officials were able and willing to relocate UFC 232 on the fly for him following his drug test "abnormality." It's probably not safe to assume they'll be able to do such things on the regular.

The Look and Feel of the ESPN Deal

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    Chris Weidman on an ESPN set before fighting Anderson Silva.
    Chris Weidman on an ESPN set before fighting Anderson Silva.Christopher Capozziello/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

    Things will change on Jan. 19 for the UFC and its fans.

    Goodbye, Fox Sports; hello, ESPN. The official ESPN report states the five-year deal is for $1.5 billion and makes the Worldwide Leader the exclusive home of all the UFC's non-pay-per-view cards.

    This includes ESPN+, which will carry 15 cards each year. It's a streaming service that UFC fans will have to pay for if they want to watch those cards.

    Of the 20 events announced for the first half of 2019, 11 are on ESPN+. 

    This also indicates that ESPN isn't planning to lower the number of annual events, which many observers believe dilutes the quality of the events. If fans believe that lower-level UFC cards are of relatively poor quality, their willingness to plunk down for yet another streaming service will be tested.

    On the flip side, ESPN has a pretty good track record of success. It's not without its own problems—which ESPN+ is largely designed to address—but the network could be a useful strategic counterweight to the UFC. Regardless, the UFC is clearly viewed as important content across ESPN, but it is a flagship bucket for ESPN+. There's a lot riding on this endeavor, and it will be fascinating to watch from all angles.

Conor McGregor: Back in the UFC or Back in the Field?

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    Brandon Magnus/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

    Nothing excites Conor McGregor more than money. Or, more specifically, easy money.

    Take, for example, Proper No. 12, the McGregor whiskey brand that is by all accounts awful but that no one can seem to keep on their shelves. 

    That spirit, pun perhaps intended, was alive and well in McGregor's newest callout: Japanese kickboxing sensation Tenshin Nasukawa.

    This is the same Nasukawa that Floyd Mayweather Jr., who you may remember fought and defeated McGregor in a boxing match, needed only two minutes to dismantle on New Year's Eve. That might have been the easiest $9 million Mayweather ever made.

    Now McGregor wants in, probably under special exhibition rules. While not the easiest for Nasukawa's ego, it might be another easy payday for a global star of combat sports. It would certainly be easier than a rematch with lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov, or Dustin Poirier, or Tony Ferguson, the three UFC matchups most commonly identified for the Irishman.

    His bout with Nurmagomedov may be particularly thorny, not only because he lost the first bout but also because both men still have unfinished business with the Nevada State Athletic Commission stemming from their October post-fight brawl.

    We'll see if McGregor stays in his UFC lane or if he embarks on another fishing expedition for cash. 

Will Top Fighters Continue to Leave UFC?

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    Demetrious Johnson
    Demetrious JohnsonJohn Locher/Associated Press

    The UFC is the biggest game in town. But it's not the only game.

    Fighters may increasingly be willing to change their promotional scenery. Flyweight kingpin Demetrious Johnson went to the Asia-based ONE Championship—leading to speculation that the UFC may be folding its 125-pound division altogether.

    In a "trade" scenario, ONE then sent welterweight great Ben Askren back to the UFC. Askren makes his UFC debut soon against Robbie Lawler.

    But there's more. Former lightweight champ Eddie Alvarez also went from UFC to ONE, and retired former women's bantamweight champ Miesha Tate joined ONE as an executive.

    And of course, you have "Super" Sage Northcutt, who also shipped off to ONE

    This is to say nothing of Bellator, which is always on the lookout for a deal. Former UFC light heavyweight champ Lyoto Machida, for example, made his Bellator debut last month.

    We also have the Professional Fighters League, the well-financed show that just finished its latest season. Six different fighters took home $1 million. It's only a matter of time before more fighters start to realize their chance at a seven-figure payday is higher outside the UFC.

    UFC pay will remain low as long as the fighters let them get away with it. Again, the UFC is obviously still the top dog in this sport, and there is no close second. But is this a sign that things are changing? We'll see this year if the grass keeps looking greener somewhere else for the sport's top athletes.