Every year in MMA brings us incredible highlights, exciting matchups, and fantastic fights. Last year had its fair share; but based on the first quarter slate for the UFC in 2019, we have plenty more to look forward to in the near future.

With several cards and a couple of pay-per-views beginning to fill-out, the UFC’s first few months of the new year are taking shape. There’s plenty on the way, and we’re already looking ahead to some of the more fun matchups on the docket.

The promotion’s new deal with ESPN should take some credit for that. Dana White and Co. have made it very clear that they value their partnership with the network a bit more than their soon-to-be expired deal with Fox. Whether or not that relationship continues to grow remains to be seen, but it’s a promising start.

The promotion has also already canceled the first PPV of the new year, due to a lack of main event options. But, it looks as though some of UFC 233’s losses will be UFC 235’s gains. So while we may have to wait a bit longer for a few fights we are looking forward to, the wait shouldn’t be too long. Especially for fans who’ve followed the sport long enough to know the importance of patience (and not getting your hopes up).

Unfortunately, we aren’t quick learners. We’re excited for several major UFC matchups that will be here in no time. Just don’t tell those ruthless MMA Gods.

1TJ Dillashaw (c) vs. Henry Cejudo (c) – Jan. 19

As maligned as superfights can be, everyone should be excited for bantamweight champion TJ Dillashaw and 125-pound title-holder Henry Cejduo’s fight later this month.

Yeah, the bantamweight division is loaded. But it’s lacking a true top contender. That’ll be taken care of when Marlon Moraes and Raphael Assuncao fight for the second time in less than two years in early February. Until then, Dillashaw needs something to do. Considering the cloudy future of the flyweight division, a potential two-division champ would seem to make sense for the promotion.

Whether or not a Dillashaw victory would mean the end of the flyweight division remains to be seen. But it’s not like there’s a certain top contender there, either. Cejudo has a loss to third-ranked Joesph Benavidez a few years back in a close split-decision. He also has a win over second-ranked Jussier Formiga a year earlier than that.

As deserving as they may be, neither Benavidez or Formiga are the draw that Dillashaw is. If he’s free, willing, and able to make 125-pounds, giving him a shot at the belt makes more sense than not for everyone involved, sans Benavidez and Formiga. The promotion can figure out what to do with the flyweight division afterward, while debuting their ESPN deal with two titles in their main event. We’re in.

2Aldo vs. Moicano, Silva vs. Adesanya, Stephens vs. Zabit

Credit: Jason Burgos/Sherdog.com

There are so many fun fights throughout the coming months that we had to include a few in one section. We grouped these together because they all fit the tried-and-true combat sports scheduling trope of “up-and-comer” versus “established veteran”. Whether a new name earns a marquee victory, or a fan-favorite shows he still has something left in the tank, these kinds of matchups are entrenched in the DNA of MMA.

Two of the UFC’s brightest featherweights in fourth-ranked Renato Moicano and 14th-ranked Zabit Magomedsharipov get the toughest matchups of their careers to-date to begin 2019. Moicano has been in the Octagon with a few of the toughest guys in the promotion (Jeremy Stephens, Cub Swanson, Brian Ortega). But he’ll face a guy on another level when he fights Jose Aldo in early-February.

The same goes for Magomedsharipov. The 27-year-old is 4-0 since joining the UFC, but has yet to fight a ranked opponent during his time with the promotion. That’ll change when he gets a crack at Jeremy Stephens at UFC 235.

At UFC 234, we’ll see another hot commodity in Israel Adesanya return to action. Considered one of the breakout fighters of 2018, “The Last Stylebender” went 4-0 in his first year in the promotion. How is he going to top that? By taking on the legendary (and title contender?) Anderson Silva in Australia, not a far trip from his hometown of Auckland, New Zealand.

Each of these bouts offers something for fight fans, both old and new. Combat sports are ruthless and watching our favorites fade is an unfortunate part of the game. But watching rising stars climb the ranks is some of the most fun a fight fan can have. It looks like we could get a bit of both early in 2019.

3Marlon Moraes vs. Raphael Assuncao 2 – Feb. 2

This fight will headline UFC Fortaleza in early February and should decide who gets the next shot at Dillashaw and the 135-pound belt. The top-tier of the bantamweight division was a little messy. But now, with Dillashaw tied up, Dominick Cruz injured, and Cody Garbrandt coming off of back-to-back title fights, whoever comes out on top will have an undeniable claim to being the top contender.

On top of the stakes, the fight should be entertaining as well. The duo fought to a close split decision that went Assuncao’s way in June of 2017. That bout was Moraes’ UFC debut at UFC 212 in Rio de Janeiro. Moraes hasn’t lost since then, going 3-0 and continuing to impress with some highlight KOs.

Assuncao has kept his winning ways as well. In fact, Assuncao is 11-1 in his last 12 UFC fights dating back to August of 2011. That one loss? The current champ TJ Dillashaw. Oh yeah, one of those 11 wins is over Dillashaw as well. Now, he’s one win away from getting the trilogy fight with the bantamweight champ that he feels he’s deserved for a while.

4Cain Velasquez vs. Francis Ngannou – Feb. 17

(AP Photo/Jose Juarez)

 

The promotion is going big for its main card debut on “big” ESPN. Bringing back former heavyweight champ and fan-favorite Cain Velasquez is a huge deal. It’s been discussed and rumored for years, with starts and stops along the way. Now, he’s back. And he’s fighting Francis Ngannou.

 

Yeah, we’re excited too. Nobody knows what to expect from the 36-year-old Velasquez, but we’ll be happy to see him making his way back to the Octagon. That is, unless Ngannou does to the veteran what he does to pez dispensers and Alistair Overeem. Then, we’ll all be stuck wondering whether or not it was worth it (hopefully), if we’re bad people (absolutely yes), and when the rematch will be (because, heavyweight).

Regardless, we’re stoked for the return of Cain, especially in a matchup with a top-ranked contender near the title picture. Even if we end up really sad about it later.

5Robbie Lawler vs. Ben Askren – March 2

We’ll learn a lot about hot prospects, returning veterans, and title-contenders in the UFC in early-2019. But one of the most interesting parts of the promotion’s first quarter schedule of the new year is former Bellator MMA and ONE Championship welterweight champion Ben Askren making his UFC debut.

Originally slated for UFC 233, Askren’s debut against former 170-pound champ Robbie Lawler has been moved to UFC 235. Even before his surprising move, in which he was “traded” from ONE Championship to the UFC for Demetrious Johnson, Askren was calling-out any and every welterweight he could think of. Now that he’s actually in the promotion, the world class wrestler will have to back up his tough talk.

He’s been utterly dominant for the majority of his undefeated 19-fight career, but will be fighting undeniably tougher competition. Questions will be answered, hype will either be built upon or destroyed, and hours of talk and “MMA Math” will be thrown out the window in place of video evidence. Where Askren’s UFC career goes from here is anyone’s guess. The fact that it even exists has us ready for the ride in 2019.

There are plenty of fights for fans to enjoy headed our way this year. These five-plus are great, and there are more high quality matchups coming. Let us know which fights you’re most excited for that are on the docket for the first quarter of next year! Comment below, on Facebook, or reply on Twitter!

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