From the moment his return at UFC 229 last Saturday following a 23-month layoff was announced, it was hard to shake the feeling that former two-division champion Conor McGregor’s presence alone might trigger a chain reaction of surging pay-per-view buys.
The fact that McGregor went on to lose his comeback so thoroughly in adidn’t necessarily kill the narrative, even if it was overshadowed by the negativity surrounding a post-fight brawl triggered by Nurmagomedov.
But it’s clear that UFC had never been the same following McGregor’s exit in 2016, which capped off a record-breaking year for UFC PPV sales as his departure coincided with the absences of other stars like Ronda Rousey and Jon Jones to create a star void. The subsequent hangover saw huge fights few and far between with many of the ones that were scheduled hampered by injuries and missed weight.
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McGregor’s return not only brought excitement, the way in which his grudge match against Nurmagomedov was promoted created the expectation of a new PPV buy record. Now, the expectations for big fights has suddenly become contagious as a string of recent announcements have UFC poised for a huge final two months of 2018, including nothing short of five must-see title bouts.
Between UFC 230 on Nov. 3 and UFC 232 on Dec. 29, UFC has eight fight cards scheduled and three loaded PPVs. Pinpointing the exact reason for the impending gluttony isn’t all that easy.
Did McGregor’s return spark a rising tide of all ships? How much did the brash Irish star’s absence over the past two years allow the next generation of potential stars time to mature for their chance at the spotlight? Or was it simply a case of dumb luck that cancellations and postponements worked in orchestra to create an abundance of live bodies for the three biggest cards to end the year?
Either way, UFC is loaded entering the winter in a way that doesn’t appear to end with the turn of the new year as both a Robert Whittaker-Kelvin Gastelum middleweight title bout and a Daniel Cormier-Brock Lesnar heavyweight championship fight are expected to follow the recent announcements to open 2019.
Let’s take a closer look at the biggest fights over the final two months of the year:
UFC 230 (Nov. 3 in New York): The promotion’s third straight trip to Madison Square Garden features a tasty, last-minute offering of Daniel Cormier vs. Derrick Lewis for the UFC heavyweight championship and a strong undercard featuring middleweight bouts Luke Rockhold-Chris Weidman II, Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza-David Branch and Derek Brunson-Israel Adesanya. (Dustin Poirier pulled out of his lightweight bout against Nate Diaz this week due to injury.)
UFC Fight Night (Nov. 10 in Denver): The UFC’s 25th anniversary card has an all-action pairing of featherweight main eventers in Frankie Edgar and “The Korean Zombie” Chan Sung Jung while Donald Cerrone-Mike Perry clash in a welterweight duel. Flyweight contenders Joseph Benavidez and Ray Borg join women’s bantamweights Raquel Pennington and Germaine de Ranadamie in a strong undercard.
UFC Fight Night (Nov. 24 in Beijing): This rather thin offering from China is headlined by an important heavyweight bout as red-hot Curtis Blaydes faces former title challenger Francis Ngannou in a rematch.
The Ultimate Fighter Finale (Nov. 30 in Las Vegas): There’s nothing not to like about former lightweight champion Rafael dos Anjos and top welterweight contender Kamaru Usman in key 170-pound main event.
UFC Fight Night (Dec. 1 in Adelaide, Australia): The UFC’s next journey down under pits former heavyweight champion Junior dos Santos against unbeaten prospect and hometown favorite Tai Tuivasa.
UFC 231 (Dec. 8 in Toronto): A pair of can’t-miss title bouts top the marquee as Max Holloway defends his featherweight championship against unbeaten Brian Ortega, and former kickboxing rivals Valentina Shevchenko and Joanna Jedrzejczyk meet for the vacant women’s flyweight title.
UFC Fight Night (Dec. 15 in Milwaukee): The recently added main event of former lightweight title challengers Kevin Lee and Al Iaquinta should produce fireworks in the final main card to air on FS1 that completes a television deal that began in 2011.
UFC 232 (Dec. 29 in Las Vegas): What a way to close out the calendar year. Reports continue to swirl that Jon Jones and Alexander Gustafsson will meet in a rematch of their 2013 brawl for the vacant light heavyweight title. The co-main event, meanwhile, is nothing short of a women’s super fight as bantamweight champion Amanda Nunes moves up to 145 pounds to challenge featherweight champion and pound-for-pound best Cris “Cyborg” Justino.
While the Nurmagomedov-McGregor post-fight brawl was certainly a major black eye to the UFC’s mainstream image and dangerously to escalating into a disaster, the fact that no one was hurt should only help the sport financially as it builds toward a rematch once the disciplinary actions are sorted.
The next two months see the promotion incredibly healthy with the potential for even bigger fights to come, especially within a loaded 155-pound division. While many of the company’s recent decisions welcome scrutiny, fans aren’t expected to be lacking in terms of entertainment.
You can credit the sudden renaissance to the return of the sport’s ultimate cash cow in McGregor or simply call it a string of good luck but business is picking up for UFC as momentum continues to grow.