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Five MMA Predictions for 2018 – Conor McGregor’s Return, More

January 8, 2018 | Posted by Dan Plunkett
Conor McGregor Conor McGregor's

We are less than a week away from the first major event of the year, so before the MMA year gets underway, I thought I’d throw some predictions out there.

As always, I reserve the right to be embarrassingly wrong.

UFC will re-sign with Fox.
This is the final year of UFC’s seven-year television rights contract with Fox, which means it’s a critical year that will shape the future of the company. The idea that UFC was in for a significant increase in United States television rights fees beginning in 2019 was a key factor in the $4 billion price tag WME-IMG (now Endeavor) paid for the company in 2016. The promotion is set to take in $168 million from Fox this year in rights fees.

Sports Business Journal’s John Ourand reported in November that Fox had offered UFC about $200 million per year to continue their relationship, while UFC was looking for a deal worth $450 million annually. The promotion didn’t move on the offer, instead waiting out the end of their exclusive negotiating term with Fox, which ended in October, to play the field.

Beyond the financial aspect, these negotiations could change the look of the UFC going forward. The UFC could be looking to secure deals with multiple networks, like other major sports leagues. A few outlets have reported that they are not against relinquishing control of their production, whereas in the past, controlling production of their television product had been a major factor for the UFC. They may also offer up their over-the-top subscription service UFC Fight Pass as part of the deal.

A presentation given to potential buyers in 2016 indicated interest from multiple suitors. In addition to Fox, the UFC anticipated NBC, ESPN, and Turner Sports would throw their hat in the chase. Ourand also reported the UFC had met with CBS, as well as over-the-top services Amazon and Oath (Yahoo’s parent company).

To me, the three main suitors appear to be Fox, NBC, and Turner Sports. Although Fox reportedly made an offer much lower than UFC would like to take, the promotion makes up a significant percentage of Fox Sports 1 programming, and they would like to keep the property. It’s believed that NBC was close to a deal with UFC in 2011 before Fox stepped in. Ourand’s report mentioned that of the companies UFC met with, Turner Sports showed the most interest.

Due to the Justice Department filing suit to stop the AT&T-Time Warner merger, Turner Sports (a subsidiary of Time Warner) may be out of the running until those issues are resolved. When it comes down to Fox and NBC, my gut feeling is Fox won’t want such a major portion of its programming to go elsewhere.

While Fox may not be willing to pay the $450 million the UFC has targeted in presentations, The Wrestling Observer Newsletter reports that internally, Endeavor expects the TV deal to average $250 million annually, which is a more reasonable price. If Fox loses UFC, it will deal a significant blow to Fox Sports 1, and unless Fox signs a deal with WWE (whose TV rights deal with NBCUniversal expires in September 2019), there won’t be a nearby replacement.

Conor McGregor returns, fights Khabib Nurmagomedov, and loses.
It’s almost a guarantee that Conor McGregor will fight again in some sport at some point. He is not someone that won the lottery and became a recluse. Since the night he made as much as $100 million to fight Floyd Mayweather in August, McGregor has talked about fighting, taunted potential opponents, stated which sport he’d fight in next, and returned to the gym. Those are all signs of a fighter that wants to fight. The only thing between McGregor and the cage is a financial offer he feels is deserving of the star he’s become.

At some point, that offer will come. The UFC likes making big fights. They won’t overpay for fighters, but they will make strong offers or meet demands when they need to make a big fight.

Apart from a clash with Georges St-Pierre, the biggest fight for McGregor is Nate Diaz. However, Diaz has sat out since his second fight with McGregor in August 2016. He’s waiting for a third fight and the big payday that would come with it. In the meantime, active fighters have jostled to position themselves for a fight with McGregor, which may have pushed Diaz out of the immediate running.

Next to St-Pierre and Diaz, the biggest fight for McGregor is Khabib Nurmagomedov, the 25-0 lightweight that many think is the best fighter in the division. Nurmagomedov he poses a significant threat to McGregor that is easily identifiable—if he takes McGregor down, he will batter him. On the microphone, Nurmagomedov is both willing to engage and effective. These traits make Nurmagomedov one of the easiest opponents to sell for McGregor, not to mention that he is a tremendous challenge for a champion that typically tackles great challenges with enthusiasm and confidence.

The next fight for Nurmagomedov is likely Tony Ferguson, the current interim lightweight champion and by no means an opponent Nurmagomedov can overlook. Nurmagomedov vs. Ferguson, which UFC has tried to make multiple times in the past, is one of the best lightweight bouts in MMA history. I favor Nurmagomedov in the fight.

When McGregor returns to defend his lightweight title for the first time, he’ll fight an interim champion that promises to draw interest and that could be the most impressive victim on his record.

McGregor poses a major challenge for Nurmagomedov standing. Nurmagomedov doesn’t move his head well and can be open to counters. However, when he grabs an opponent, it changes the fight. Nurmagomedov’s top game is fearsome, and although McGregor has shown competence on the ground, he hasn’t shown the type of prowess needed to get someone of Nurmagomedov’s caliber off him. I believe Nurmagomedov beats McGregor, and that it happens this year.

T.J. Dillashaw beats Demetrious Johnson; UFC folds flyweight division.

By every indication, UFC bantamweight champion T.J. Dillashaw is going to fight flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson sometime in the first half of the year.

This is interesting not only because it’s a champion vs. champion bout featuring one of the most dominant champions in MMA history, but also because one champion is coming down in weight to meet the other. There have been multiple champion vs. champion bouts in major MMA history, but those all featured a champion coming up in weight.

In this case, Dillashaw is coming down to meet Johnson, which promises interesting ramifications for the flyweight division if Dillashaw wins.

The UFC has sparingly few stars at flyweight, Johnson chief among them, but none can be considered real attractions, to the point that Johnson’s pay-per-view bouts are among the worst-drawing in the company.

Last June, Johnson relayed a story from the last time UFC tried to have him fight Dillashaw. He stated that the UFC told him if he didn’t accept the fight with Dillashaw, they would close the flyweight division. Johnson, a gangster, stated he replied, “close the mother fucking division then!”

Johnson didn’t accept the fight with Dillashaw and UFC didn’t close the division, but when he does fight Dillashaw this year, what happens if Dillashaw wins?

Dillashaw has to follow a strict diet to make the division’s 125-pound limit, and his true home is bantamweight, where he won’t want to give up his title. If he beats Johnson, I find it unlikely Dillashaw will defend both titles, and I don’t think he’ll want to fight at flyweight, where there are fewer challenges than bantamweight.

That leaves flyweight without a champion and without any major attractions. That’s not a good place to be. While the UFC can’t fold the division while Demetrious Johnson lords over it due to the likelihood of fan backlash, they could begin to do away with it as soon as Johnson loses the title. They may keep doing flyweight bouts until contractual obligations are fulfilled, while moving the flyweight stars up to bantamweight.

It’s possible that the UFC’s next television contract could benefit the flyweight division. If the promotion agrees to produce more content for their TV partner(s) as part of the deal, they may need the flyweight division to fulfil that content.

In any case, a Dillashaw win is not best for the division, and could conceivably spell its end.

We won’t see the finals of the Bellator heavyweight tournament in 2018.

Bellator’s heavyweight tournament kicks off on January 20, and already the schedule is a bit odd.

Quinton Jackson faces Chael Sonnen on January 20. The winner will meet the victor of Fedor Emelianenko vs. Frank Mir, which is scheduled for April. That means either Jackson or Sonnen will have to wait a few months to see who they will fight next, and then wait another few months (at best) to fight them.

On the other side of the bracket, Matt Mitrione fights Roy Nelson in February, and Ryan Bader fights Mo Lawal in May. It’s sensible for Bellator to spread out the quarterfinal matches across multiple shows to draw strong numbers for four shows rather than one or two. However, the fights are spread so far apart that the tournament lacks cohesion—what kind of tournament begins in January of one year and ends sometime in the following year?

That is what we’re facing with the Bellator heavyweight tournament, which will be very fortunate to conclude before the calendar year, and even more fortunate to finish without the need for alternates.

Since 2007, Fedor Emelianenko has typically fought every six months or so. The notable exception would be 2011, when he fought four times, including twice in about a month’s span. Quinton Jackson has not fought three times in a calendar year since 2007. The other participants have been more active (outside of suspensions), but it’s a lot to hope the four winners are able to turn around and fight by September, and then for the two that emerge to fight by December.

Bellator won’t venture back to pay-per-view in 2018.
Bellator’s June experiment with pay-per-view didn’t do so well—only 95,000 buys according to The Wrestling Observer’s estimate. For a low-cost show, that might not be a bad number, but they stacked the deck with stars, rented an expensive arena, and attempted to do the biggest show they possibly could.

One pay-per-view disappointment doesn’t mean Bellator should stay away from the medium forever. When they have the right fight, it makes all the sense in the world to take it to pay-per-view and maximize its potential.

However, I don’t forecast Bellator having that right fight come along this year.

Bellator’s biggest stars are Chael Sonnen, Quinton Jackson, and Fedor Emelianenko. Sonnen and Emelianenko headlined the June show last year, with Sonnen battling his most heated rival, Wanderlei Silva. That fight was Bellator’s best shot at drawing on pay-per-view and the formula that produced the fight had been a winning one on television. Bellator’s best TV ratings have been drawn by big stars of the past fighting, but judging by the reported pay-per-view number, the same concept failed them on pay-per-view.

Depending on the results of the first round of the heavyweight tournament, Bellator may have the inclination to do the semi-finals on pay-per-view. Sonnen vs. Emelianenko or Jackson vs. Emelianenko are strong fights for television, but my feeling is they wouldn’t beat last year’s pay-per-view.

Perhaps one fighter will build such momentum in the first two fights of the tournament that pay-per-view makes sense for the finals. But the looking at the field of the tournament tells me that these are all established stars that have already seen their best days as attractions.

In the early 2000s, the UFC’s first pay-per-view success came when an exciting new star battled one of the biggest stars of the past. My feeling is that Bellator’s next successful pay-per-view will be built on the same concept. The only issue is that at heavyweight and light heavyweight, they have plenty of big stars from the past, but no exciting new stars. In the lower weight divisions, they have many rising young stars, but no major draws from the past.

In one or two years, they may be able to develop the next star at heavyweight or light heavyweight, or sign a big draw from the past in a lower division. Until then, pay-per-view probably won’t make sense for Bellator.

Dan Plunkett has covered MMA for 411Mania since 2008. You can reach him by email at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @Dan_Plunkett.