GSP. Free Agency. Mayweather-McGregor. The downward spiral of Jon Jones. These stories defined MMA in 2017.
Looking back over the past twelve months in the MMA world, one thing stands out: the biggest story of the year wasn’t about MMA. It was about boxing. Floyd Mayweather vs. Conor McGregor (MayMac, if you prefer) overshadowed the entire sport. It dwarfed the promotion that produced one of its stars, and held up an entire division. Yet though it was far and away the story of the year, mixed martial arts as a whole had plenty of compelling narratives.
Going back to the first half of 2017, one of the biggest storylines was once again free agency. After a stale period following the acquisition of Strikeforce by Zuffa/UFC, the free agent market heated up this past year. The why of this rather interesting development has a lot to do with the rise of viable destinations for fighters outside North America, combined with a post-sale UFC tightening its purse strings in the wake of the promotion’s purchase by WME-IMG (now Endeavor). The $4.2 billion U.S. price tag meant that cuts were coming, and that included a reluctance to pay mid-tier fighters what they could make elsewhere on the open market. The UFC, in essence, is gambling that the promotion makes the fighter, and that the fighter doesn’t make the promotion.
In other words, UFC fighters are great simply because they fight in the UFC. It’s a dubious argument, of course. And it allowed Bellator MMA, the UFC’s biggest rival in the current market, to sign names like Ryan Bader, Lorenz Larkin, Gegard Mousasi, Michael McDonald, Roy Nelson, and Valerie Letourneau — all in the first six months or so of 2017. Adding to a roster that included Phil Davis and Rory MacDonald, also scooped out from under the UFC’s nose, and you start seeing an interesting trend: athletes who are perennially in the top ten of their division, but lost in the shuffle of the UFC, can go to Bellator and put themselves in a better position. With Bellator shoring its roster up with some older UFC names — proven draws like Chael Sonnen, Wanderlei Silva, Rampage Jackson, and Frank Mir — suddenly, there’s a viable option to Dana White’s P.T. Barnum act.
The free agent frenzy didn’t stop with Bellator, however. RIZIN proved it was a player with its bantamweight grand prix in 2017. With Kyoji Horiguchi and Ian McCall on board, two former top names with the UFC, suddenly, Japan is in the spotlight again. Coincidentally, RIZIN’s year-end show was arguably more entertaining as a whole than UFC 219.
ONE Championship is a potential destination as well, though it hasn’t made the splash that Bellator and RIZIN have. Yet when even KSW, FNG, and ACB are in on the act, you know change is in the air. Fight Nights Global managed to scoop up top UFC talents in Nikita Krylov and Ali Bagautinov, and have bolstered their ranks with names like Tyson Nam, Mike Hill, Rousimar Phalares, Diego Brandao, Bigfoot Silva, ex-Bellator champ Emanuel Newton and others. With the paychecks on par with what the UFC is offering, fighters are being lured away with the potential of being a bigger fish in a smaller pond.
If free agency was the biggest story of 2017 in the MMA world, however, we’d all be in a better place. Competition is, frankly, a good thing. That the ‘Pride is dead, dummy’ era is coming to a close should be celebrated, even if it means having to change channels every now and then. Or streaming services.
Alas, there was more than just a rosier free agent market to contend with this past year. The downfall of Jon Jones, possibly one of the greatest tailspins in professional sports history, continued. It would be easy enough to recap what got us to this point: the plethora of driving infractions that makes you wonder how Jones ever got a license in the first place. The repeated faux pas on social media. The recreational drug use. The hubris of the man.
Yet every time you thought Jon Jones could slip no further down the spiral, he did just that. He capped it off in spectacular fashion in 2017, winning his big comeback fight at UFC 214 against Daniel Cormier, then failing a USADA drug test for steroid Turinabol. It was the second failed drug test for performance enhancing drugs for Jones (not to mention his notorious cocaine failure). It led to the light heavyweight “great” (quotations now, sadly, necessary) being stripped of a UFC title for the third time.
And now Jones sits in limbo, awaiting his fate from USADA, which could involve a suspension of up to four years. A lifetime, in MMA terms. A potentially career ending span.
The only bright spot about the Jones test failure was that the spectacle of MayMac, going down in August, took some of the spotlight away from that dark chasm of MMA misery. Of course, MayMac turned out to be the circus we all thought it would be, though the fight itself was entertaining — if barely.
On the positive side of things, Francis Ngannou, Robert Whittaker, and Max Holloway ascended through the ranks in 2017, pumping fresh blood into a company desperately in need of new stars. The women’s side of the sport continued to rise, with the addition of a flyweight division to both the UFC and Bellator. Rose Namajunas shocked the world by stopping the unstoppable Jonna Jedrzejczyk. And Georges St. Pierre did what GSP does best: win, the middleweight title no less. Even after four years away from the sport.
If we’re to take anything away from 2017, it’s that the past few months served as a transition year. We had our first full year of WME ownership for the UFC. The biggest years yet for RIZIN, Bellator, KSW, and ONE Championship. MMA globally is on the rise, but at the top, things are in flux.
Will they settle down in 2018? Will that be a bounce back year for the sport, after it saw boxing sneak back into the picture as a rival in the combat sports landscape?