The Biggest MMA Winners and Losers from the First Half of 2019

Nathan McCarter@McCarterNFeatured ColumnistJune 13, 2019

The Biggest MMA Winners and Losers from the First Half of 2019

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    We're halfway through 2019, and the MMA world has given us a lot to talk about.

    New faces and old. Thrilling fights. Jaw-dropping finishes. We've got a little taste of it all.

    The UFC alone has crowned six new champions this year. Bellator, ONE Championship and others have chimed in with more titles and fresh faces making noise. Are those new champions the biggest winners? Perhaps, but what about the losers?

    MMA has also given us moments that make us recoil or force us to roll our eyes so hard we have to schedule an optometrist appointment.

    The wild world of fisticuffs is a fun ride with many ups and downs. Halfway through the year is a great time to reflect on what has transpired and make a call on who the real winners and losers are from 2019.

    Let's take the wayback machine and look at those who stood out for good and bad over the first six months of the year.

Loser: T.J. Dillashaw

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    No one had a worse start to 2019 than T.J. Dillashaw.

    He entered the year as the bantamweight champion and had an early January date against Henry Cejudo for the flyweight title. He could have killed the flyweight division, became a two-weight world champion and kicked-off the ESPN era in a big way. Instead, he got obliterated in under a minute.

    And that wasn't even the worst of it.

    Shortly after the event, Dillashaw vacated the title and was suspended for two years by USADA for testing positive for EPO.

    Even with the loss to Cejudo, there was a case to be made that Dillashaw was the best bantamweight in MMA history. He had a quality resume, but now everything he has accomplished in the sport will be called into question.

    This was the heart of Dillashaw's fighting prime. He was peaking. When he returns, in 2021, he'll be 35-years-old. He may still have some gas in the tank, but his window to regain his status in the division will be short.

    While all of this is his doing for doping, Dillashaw is perhaps the single biggest loser of 2019.

Winner: Tatiana Suarez

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    Is she the next blockbusting draw after Ronda Rousey? No, but Tatiana Suarez has still made waves.

    Suarez defeated Nina Ansaroff at UFC 238. The win likely made her the top-ranked contender in the division, and many see her as the next champion regardless of who she may face for UFC gold. Her talent is undeniable. But she, and the division in general, needed a shot in the arm from a business standpoint.

    Fans seem to be buying in.

    The UFC 238 prelims netted ESPN their highest UFC ratings in months, and it peaked with Suarez's featured prelim bout. Per's Dave Meltzer, 1.2 million tuned in to see Suarez pick up her victory. That's nothing to sneeze at.

    There is still plenty of room for improvement, but the strawweight division needed this kind of platform to shine. Suarez garnered some attention and will look to keep that going when she eventually challenges for the championship.

Loser: Greg Hardy

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    Greg Hardy was convicted of domestic violence before having the charges dismissed on appeal when his girlfriend could not be located to testify. When he entered MMA, and subsequently the UFC, there was a slim chance he would be able to rehabilitate his image at all.

    After his first two UFC bouts, his performance and attitude have both left much to be desired.

    His UFC debut? A disqualification.

    After his second UFC fight, his first victory, came a statement that he would become MMA's Michael Jordan, per's John Morgan and Matt Erickson. What?

    Hubris at its peak. Hardy could have simply remained quiet and humble. There would have been a chance to slowly gain some fans who would be willing to forgive past behavior in favor of personal growth. There are no signs of that happening. He seems intent on being arrogant and unapologetic.

    This signing seemed like a trainwreck from the outset, and Hardy is doing nothing to disprove that belief.

Winner: ESPN

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    Fans that live in rural areas without strong internet access may end up being losers, but ESPN is ultimately a winner for grabbing exclusive rights to UFC pay-per-views.

    You won't find big fights on DirecTV, Dish Network or your local cable providers anymore. ESPN+, the ESPN streaming service, is the only place to catch a UFC PPV.

    It's a big get for the platform. ESPN+ got off to a strong start with UFC Fight Night events, but adding in PPV to the exclusivity of the app will only strengthen its place in the market among fans. The real benefit for ESPN and its app will come when a superstar emerges or, in the case of Conor McGregor, returns.

    ESPN is also getting strong preliminary cards for their flagship station.

    The UFC gets to collect checks without much worry under this new partnership, but ESPN is the real winner of the deal with its new exclusive rights to PPVs.

Losers: Fighters Creating Personas

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    Is McGregor to blame for all of this? After the success of the brash Irishman, fighters are now developing characters and attempting to grab some attention.

    "Attempting" is the key word there because they are failing.

    The two biggest examples of this phenomenon are Henry Cejudo and Colby Covington. Both men have not just become outspoken, but they are also leaning into created personas to drum up interest in their fights.

    It is understandable to try to take the lead from McGregor, but you have to have the charisma and "It Factor" that he does. They don't.

    The proof lies with the box office.

    Per, UFC 225, where Covington was part of the co-main event, only got 250,000 buys. Hardly the mark of a star. He did get a trip to the White House, but has any of that translated to tangible business? No.

    Cejudo has been cringe-worthy with his persona, including showing up to the UFC 238 press conference in a $4 plastic crown and doing hackneyed magic tricks. Again, are big numbers coming in? No.

    Cejudo's case is more disappointing because he is a likable guy with a great backstory. He could generate interest just off of that alone, but he has chosen to play a character instead.

    Fighters need to realize you cannot replicate what McGregor does. Fans aren't interested or fooled by drummed-up characters.

Winner: ONE Championship

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    ONE Championship has been around for a few years and has gotten a share of the MMA pie. However, most fans were not completely aware of the organization or its quality.

    That changed in early 2019 as it made a big push with its "A New Era" event.

    After getting Demetrious Johnson via a trade with the UFC and signing Eddie Alvarez, ONE Championship put most of its eggs into the March 31 basket. Four title fights and both debuts of the former UFC champions were on the bill.

    The event was a success.

    Fans were able to stream it live on the B/R Live app for free. A replay was shown on TNT. Both were huge for ONE Championship to create new fans in the United States. Its name finally broke through stateside, and the results showed it is a fantastic promotion.

    It still has a long way to go to compete with the UFC, but it has arrived on the international scene. ONE Championship is a strong force waiting to become one of the major players.

Losers: Former Highly Touted Prospects

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    Remember when the UFC was all-in on Sage Northcutt and Mickey Gall? Those were the days.

    The UFC promoted Sage Northcutt as the next evolution in MMA. It didn't work out. After an up-and-down UFC career, he was let go. He then signed with ONE Championship, who did him no favors by matching him up against Cosmo Alexandre in his promotional debut.

    He lost by quick knockout.

    Gall was hyped as one of Dana White's finds through his show Lookin' for a Fight. He annihilated CM Punk before advancing to true UFC competition. And that didn't go well. Most recently, Gall was dusted by an aging Diego Sanchez.

    What about elsewhere? Bellator's Aaron Pico was seen as a can't-miss hit. He suffered an early KO but rebounded. Earlier in 2019, he got knocked out clean once again.

    There is still time for these youngsters to regroup and make a run, but it highlights just how hard this sport is. 

    Meanwhile, prospects that are allowed space and time to grow, such as Tatiana Suarez, are blossoming. Perhaps organizations can look at what actually works instead of putting the weight of the world on the next wave of talent.

Winner: Patricio Freire

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    The Bellator featherweight champion, Patricio "Pitbull" Freire, finally got the fight he wanted and took full advantage of the opportunity.

    Michael Chandler had previously defeated Patricky Freire, the older brother of Patricio. The Freires and Chandler were not exactly friends after that. As Patricio rose through Bellator and grabbed the featherweight title, he was always eyeing Chandler.

    In 61 seconds, Pitbull defeated Chandler and avenged his brother.

    It was a satisfying win for Pitbull, who a month later was still talking about it on his Instagram.

    Outside of the grudge, the win validated his position among the elite of the sport. There could even be a case to be made that he is the best featherweight in the world rather than UFC's Max Holloway.

    Pitbull's KO win certainly made him one of the sport's best pound-for-pound and most underappreciated fighters.

    MMA fans will be lining up to see his next title defense, no matter which weight class he is competing in.

Loser: Flourishing Divisions

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    The UFC has 12 divisions in total. Nearly half of them are barren.

    We all celebrate the depth of lightweight and welterweight. We marvel at how the heavyweight division has gotten deeper. But what about the other divisions that are simply not up to par?

    Both flyweight divisions are putrid at this stage. The women almost get a pass. It's a new division for the UFC and they are developing talent within its ranks. Still, champion Valentina Shevchenko has no equal. She iced former world No. 1 Jessica Eye in devastating fashion.

    The men's flyweight division doesn't even have enough members to fill out the official UFC rankings.

    Light heavyweight is improving little by little, but it's still a wasteland. The last two title challengers have been ex-middleweights. The women's featherweight division was made just for Cris Cyborg, and Amanda Nunes blew through her. Megan Anderson was seen as a potential prospect for 145, but she has been a disappointment.

    Speaking of Nunes, she returns to bantamweight, but it isn't much better than featherweight at this point.

    The UFC has some great divisions and some great fighters in the barren ones, too. But it simply isn't doing a good enough job to populate those divisions and foster new talent.

    Men's flyweight is the best example of that as it has let many fighters go, and now it cannot fill out a top 15 because it doesn't even have 15 fighters in it.

    We can celebrate a lot within the UFC, but we also need to recognize that nearly of its divisions are not in great shape.

Winner: Israel Adesanya

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    One of the greatest joys of this sport is getting to watch a superstar being born. In 2018, we saw the introduction and rise of Israel Adesanya. In 2019, we have seen him take that even further to become the next star of the sport.

    Adesanya, unlike others creating their own persona, has a natural charisma that is engaging. He talks, people listen. More importantly, he backs up what he says.

    In his first few UFC bouts, he shined with his mesmerizing striking. In his last bout, for the interim UFC middleweight title, he was involved in a Fight of the Year contender. That kind of excitement compounds with his personality to create something special.

    Fans want to see him, whether at a press conference or in the cage.

    The best thing about Adesanya's rise is that it's just the beginning. We have a lot more time with him. Can he take hold of the division and compete for Anderson Silva's records? What challenges will he take on as he keeps getting better? Who will be his main rival?

    All of those questions still hang overhead. But they are good questions because it's all of us looking forward to what he will do next. We're buying in to "The Last Stylebender." 

    Adesanya is the next UFC star, and his international appeal should make for incredible sights on the world stage.