With the new year now upon us, let’s put 2017 in the rear-view and focus on the possibilities that lie ahead for MMA in 2018. There are a multitude of intriguing fights that could be made and resurrect a sport that many thought had a down year. What matchups could do this? What fights could create that next star?
We asked our panel — ESPN MMA reporter Brett Okamoto, ESPN MMA editor Greg Rosenstein, SportsCenter hosts Max Bretos and Phil Murphy, and digital contributor Eric Tamiso — for their takes.
Okamoto: Demetrious Johnson vs. TJ Dillashaw
Johnson is the best fighter in the world. Dillashaw sees an opportunity to beat him at his own weight, which makes it even more interesting. I’ve seen some question Dillashaw for moving down in weight, when we’re used to seeing champions move up — but Johnson isn’t a big flyweight. Dillashaw wants to say he beat him at his most comfortable weight, and Johnson is perfectly tuned at 125 pounds.
UFC could market this as a fight for “No. 1 pound-for-pound ranking” and I wouldn’t disagree. Hopefully it happens by summer at the latest, and hopefully it’s a big payday for both.
Rosenstein: Conor McGregor vs. Nate Diaz III
In my opinion, there are only a few opponents Conor would consider returning to the Octagon for: Nate Diaz, Georges St-Pierre and Khabib Nurmagomedov. Tony Ferguson is the rightful challenger, but it’s not what will create the most buzz or money for the Irishman. Ferguson vs. Nurmagomedov is the fight that should be made next. Both fighters want it and die-hard MMA fans need it. The winner should face Conor later in the year.
Right now I want to see McGregor vs. Diaz III. The first two fights were epic slugfests, and we must see who comes out in the deciding bout. This could break PPV records based on who these guys are and the trash talk that will ensue. Diaz doesn’t deserve to jump straight to the top, but this is the rare case where I don’t care about that. After what many consider a down year for the UFC — don’t say that to Dana White — the organization must bounce back with something major. This is it.
Honorable mention: McGregor vs. Nurmagomedov, TJ Dillashaw vs. Demetrious Johnson, Cris Cyborg vs. Amanda Nunes.
Murphy: Conor McGregor vs. Khabib Nurmagomedov
Conor has to fight in 2018, right? Inactive in the UFC since claiming the lightweight title in November 2016, “The Notorious” one is the promotion’s biggest draw by a mile. While other opponents would have bigger box-office appeal (Georges St-Pierre or Nate Diaz trilogy) or more deserving adversaries (featherweight champ Max Holloway or interim champ Tony Ferguson), Nurmagomedov presents the greatest challenge to the UFC’s greatest star. The Dagestani’s chin, wrestling ability and willingness to grind present a tactical puzzle unforeseen by McGregor, whose mental game has reduced former champions to rubble. Honorable mention: Jon Jones vs. Brock Lesnar. The 2018 parameter is what kept me from picking this one. I don’t think either enter the Octagon this year, thanks to expected suspension and WWE obligations, respectively.
Tamiso: Conor McGregor vs Khabib Nurmagomedov
The one fight I’d love to see more than any other in 2018 is Conor McGregor vs. Khabib Nurmagomedov. Everything involved with this fight intrigues me, starting with whatever Twitter shenanigans the two cook up regarding bearsand Diddy bread.
McGregor’s star has risen by not just doing what people thought was improbable, but by blowing expectations out of the park. He knocked out Jose Aldo in 13 seconds, who dominated the featherweight division for years. Then he moved up to lightweight and puts on a striking clinic against Eddie Alvarez. The biggest challenge McGregor hasn’t faced inside the Octagon is a legit wrestler, so why not take on the best of the bunch? McGregor is the irresistible force of the UFC and would challenge the undefeated, untested immovable object that is Nurmagomedov.
Other fights I’d love to see are Cain Velasquez against the winner of Stipe Miocic-Francis Ngannou (just when you thought you were the heavyweight king, fight this guy), Michael Bisping vs. Yoel Romero (so much bad blood between these two), Robbie Lawler vs. Nick Diaz II (14 years later, still want to see these two go at it again) and Justin Gaethje vs. Edson Barboza (they could only use leg kicks and it would be amazing).
Bretos: Demetrious Johnson vs. TJ Dillashaw
Since we are talking about realistic fights for 2018, that will exclude Conor McGregor. As long as he living the good life, asking Khabib Nurmagomedov to beg for a fight and sending Instagram posts with him kicking a superimposed Floyd Mayweather, I will stick to the meat and potatoes.
Demetrious Johnson and TJ Dillashaw will happen, and because of the historical significance of that fight, it is a must-watch. Dillashaw’s explosive win over Cody Garbrandt tells you this will not be your average lighter-weight fight. The chance for a knockout, submission or violent finish is very real.
The Stipe Miocic vs. Francis Ngannou fight at UFC 220 is something I feel will deliver, creating an anticipated sequel at the back end of the year.
Speaking of rematches, a second go of Robert Whittaker and Yoel Romero, both at good health, for the undisputed middleweight title makes the list.