UFC: Five Major Matchups (Hopefully) Headed Our Way in 2017

Conor McGregor UFC
Credit: Dave Mandel/Sherdog.com

Although the year may not have begun the way we (or the UFC) wanted, the second half of 2017 is picking up in a hurry. Thanks to the potential return of several major draws, we have plenty to look forward to following the slow start to the year in MMA.

For a variety of reasons, the UFC struggled to fill the main event slots of their pay-per-view events throughout the opening months of 2017 with the types of matchups fans are accustomed to. The result was a run of lackluster events, leaving fans wondering when things would finally turn around. Wonder no longer; July has arrived.

From the finale of The Ultimate Fighter: Redemption to UFC 213 and 214, July is loaded. The crazy part? The highlight comes after International Fight Week. After postponing their Anaheim PPV in January, the UFC is making it up to the fans in Southern California with a card featuring three title fights. Even if UFC 214 doesn’t live up to the ever-growing expectations, there’s no way every event in July fails to deliver.

The rest of the year kind of feels that way, too. After July, we get to turn our attention to the spectacle that is Mayweather-McGregor. However it goes, it will be entertaining. Plus, it signals the potential return of McGregor to the Octagon, something every MMA fan can get behind.

The Irishman will hopefully be joined by a slew of major draws who look set to return to the sport’s premier promotion this year. Late is better than never, and we’re sure the UFC feels the same way. There are currently five pay-per-view events scheduled for the final four months of 2017, and those cards need title fights in their main events if past PPVs are any indicator.

Predicting matchups and getting our hopes up for potential bouts, while utilizing both the fighter’s and the promotion’s publicly stated timelines, is a fool’s task. So, we figured we’d try our hand. Between Jon Jones, Georges St. Pierre, and even maybe Conor McGregor, we have a lot to look forward to in the Octagon later this year.

5. Cody Garbrandt (c) vs. TJ Dillashaw – Bantamweight

We had it, and the MMA gods took it from us. Now, Dana White is trying to take it from us too. But this is the fight we want. Undoubtedly the two best 135-pound fighters in the UFC, with a rivalry worth creating a season of The Ultimate Fighter over, Cody Garbrandt and TJ Dillashaw’s battle for the bantamweight belt is one of the best matchups available in MMA today.

Yeah, having it at UFC 213 would’ve been awesome, and fighter injuries leading into major bouts is never a good thing. But this bout is worth waiting for, even if Dillashaw and the UFC have other plans. While a fight for the flyweight title featuring Dillashaw is interesting, it’s not interesting enough to delay, or further risk, the potential we have with Garbrandt-Dillashaw.

The news that scathingly sarcastic UFC President Dana White admitted defeat over the issue, and announced that Demetrious Johnson would instead be defending the 125-pound title against Ray Borg this year, is great. A fighter wins a small battle against the boss, one of the best matchups of the year is still on-track for 2017, and all we’re losing (for now) is a flyweight title fight between Mighty Mouse and Dillashaw. Here’s hoping Garbrandt recovers quickly and the UFC’s decision to find Dillashaw another matchup isn’t a sign that the bantamweight champion could be out for longer than initially expected.

4. Max Holloway (c) vs. Frankie Edgar – Featherweight

Now that all of the interim titles are taken care of, and the dust from “Storm McGregor” has settled, the featherweight division is once again full of fantastic matchups. A new champion in Max Holloway helps, and in his first title defense, there’s one bout in particular that everybody wants.

Throughout his career, Frankie Edgar has lost professional MMA bouts to three men, including twice to former UFC featherweight champion Jose Aldo. With Aldo dethroned at the hands of Holloway, Edgar has a fresh path to becoming a two-division champion. Apart from the two title-fights with Aldo, Edgar is 7-0 at 145-pounds and the undeniable number-one contender.

Holloway’s route to the top of the division is similarly impressive, with the Hawaiian recording 11 consecutive victories. Dispatching the likes of Aldo, Anthony Pettis, Ricardo Lamas, Cub Swanson, and more along the way, Holloway’s credentials aren’t in doubt. Which makes Edgar the perfect test in his first defense.

There’ll be a lot on the line for both parties, and it’s hard to imagine a title bout between Holloway and Edgar failing to be anything but amazing. A win for Holloway would likely get the attention of a certain Irishman, while Edgar’s featherweight journey will finally be vindicated. Either way, this fight needs to happen, and probably will by the end of 2017.

3. Georges St. Pierre vs. Tyron Woodley/Demian Maia/Michael Bisping

It may not be straightforward, and the buzz may have died down, but Georges St. Pierre’s return is something every MMA fan is ready for. The UFC was pushing for July, while GSP was planning on the fall. Now, it’s looking more like winter, and neither party knows who he’ll fight. But, he will fight.

The UFC, after publicly announcing and endorsing his shot at the middleweight title against Michael Bisping, has shifted stances (surprise!). Instead, Dana and co. would rather St. Pierre battle the winner of the welterweight title bout at UFC 214 between current champion Tyron Woodley and contender Demian Maia. It would make sense, as GSP retired as the champion of the 170-pound division in 2013 on a 12-fight win streak.

But GSP still has his sights set on that middleweight title. Immediately refuting White’s public statements about St. Pierre’s future, GSP once again showed a gulf between what the promotion is saying and what the fighter wants. It’ll get figured out, eventually, and we’ll see St. Pierre in the Octagon in 2017. At this point, we care less about who it’s against, and more about it finally happening.

2. Jon Jones vs. Alexander Gustafsson 2 – Light Heavyweight

Whether Jon Jones defeats current UFC light heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier for a second time at UFC 214 or not, this rematch should be the next bout for both men. The first was a classic, and the duo has already been taking to social media to reignite the rivalry from 2013.

Gustafsson looked fantastic in his most recent bout, a five-round dismantling of Glover Teixeira that ended with a knockout in Sweden in May. It was his second straight win and showed significant improvement from his return to action last September against Jan Blachowicz. While what we have in Jones may be less certain, given he’s fought once in the last two-and-a-half years, we will have an idea soon enough. It’s hard to imagine a way in which Jones looks bad enough to turn fight fans off of this rematch.

With Gustafsson and Jones both healthy, available, and performing, we need to cash in this rematch as soon as possible. We’ve already checked off Cormier-Rumble 2, and we’ll hopefully do the same with Cormier-Jones 2 in July. Let’s keep the tour going, and revisit one of the greatest fights in UFC history. It’s an easy sell, whether or not it’s for the light heavyweight title, and could main event any of the promotion’s PPVs closing out 2017.

1. Conor McGregor (c) vs. Anybody at all – Lightweight

Even when he’s preparing for a professional boxing bout against Floyd Mayweather, there’s talk about when Conor McGregor will step into the Octagon next. McGregor’s career trajectory is incredible, and figuring out his future is something only Mystic Mac can do. If that’s the case, then it sounds like we may get treated to the Irishman’s return sooner than expected.

Following the announcement of Mayweather-McGregor, there was a lot of talk regarding McGregor’s potential retirement from MMA, bringing into question his motivation post-boxing. According to UFC President Dana White, McGregor’s as motivated as ever, and would like to fight 155ish-pound contender Khabib Nurmagomedov in Russia after his bout with Mayweather. McGregor’s coach John Kavanagh also wrote that the “tentative plan” is for the lightweight champion to fight for the UFC in December.

That would be awesome. Unlikely, and just the hearsay of a promoter who constantly lies to the public? Yeah. But still, it would be awesome.

Even if that doesn’t happen, the fact that McGregor’s return has gone from “never happening” to “later this year” is good news for MMA fans. Whether you love or hate McGregor, you care, and that’s what matters. The UFC is a better place with The Notorious one involved, and even if his return comes in early-2018 rather than late-2017, we’ll take it.

As for opponents, Nurmagomedov makes a lot of sense, both in the landscape of the division and in marketability. There are some troubles that have followed The Eagle throughout his career, and should those send McGregor and the UFC in another direction, they have plenty of options.

Tony Ferguson would be game, and if the money’s right, the trilogy bout with Nate Diaz is always an option. Who’s hot in the UFC could change by then as well, and grabbing McGregor’s attention is the best way to get a fight. He could even decide to go for a third belt, and it’d be fun to watch the promotion try and stop him, if they even wanted to. No matter what McGreogr’s return to the Octagon is a big deal, and if we get it in 2017, we’ll consider ourselves lucky.

The beginning of the year might’ve been a little rough, thanks to the major matchups delivered at UFC 208 and beyond. But things are picking up this summer, and there’s no indication that the fun is slowing down anytime soon. The UFC is getting several of their top-tier draws back in the fold, and if used properly, could lead to some incredible matchups throughout the final months of 2017.