Five Fights to be Thankful For in Early 2020

Jon Jones
Jon Jones Credit: Mike Sloan/

For those of you south of the border, it’s Thanksgiving, and somewhere, a turkey is being devoured and football (since there’s no MMA) is on the telly. Those of us in the Great White North celebrated our own Thanksgiving over a month ago, but the concept is the same: give thanks, but mostly, stuff your faces.

Thanksgiving dinner aside, there looks to be plenty to give thanks for heading into the new year. MMA in 2020 has some bangers lined up for the first few months of the new decade, including some big names getting back in the cage. We often take big fights for granted in MMA, impatiently awaiting marquee match-ups only to immediately ask what’s next. So let’s be thankful for some standout bouts yet to come, and hope they play out in the cage as good as they look on paper.

Conor McGregor vs. Cowboy Cerrone

Where: UFC 246 in Las Vegas
When: January 18, 2020

Why we should be thankful:

Look, say what you will about Conor McGregor, but the sport is infinitely more entertaining with him in it. McGregor’s rocky year outside the cage will hopefully give way to a more upbeat 2020, starting with his return fight against Donald Cerrone at UFC 246.

We’ve been waiting most of 2019 for this announcement, and the pairing with Cowboy isn’t exactly a surprise. But it’s the right fight to make, unfortunately for Justin Gaethje. Both men are coming off losses. Both are two of the biggest stars in the sport, and no amount of McGregor’s trash-talking is going to get under the skin of longtime veteran Cerrone.

More importantly, the two should be able to produce a classic. Cerrone, while he has plenty of ground skills, is likely to give Conor the stand-up fight he wants. And McGregor certainly isn’t going to play into Cowboy’s hands and try to take him down, as Mike Perry did.

Julia Budd vs. Cris Cyborg

Where: Bellator 238 in Los Angeles
When: January 25, 2020

Why we should be thankful:

Imagine, a promotion actively promoting a women’s featherweight division, having built up the weight class slowly and methodically. And putting two of the best 145lb’ers in the world in a main event nearly as soon as they possibly could.

A novel could be written on what the UFC did wrong with the women’s 145lb division. In a nutshell, however, it’s simple: if you build it, they will come. The UFC didn’t build it, instead attempting to cherry pick ready-made, marketable stars like Cris Cyborg and Megan Anderson, dropping them into a weight class that didn’t exist. Bellator did the opposite, signing up a lot of talent at 145lbs, and letting it develop.

End result, when Cris Cyborg’s UFC tenure came to its ugly, predictable end, the division was sitting there, waiting for her. As was an established champ in Julia Budd, who is the biggest threat to Cyborg outside Amanda Nunes.

An active 145lb division for females, including Cyborg, is certainly something to be thankful for.

Jon Jones vs. Dominick Reyes

Where: UFC 247 in Houston
When: February 8, 2020

Why we should be thankful:

Because Jon Jones made it through a full year without any many scandals? Picograms and strip club controversies aside, however, Jones’ return to the top of the 205lb weight class has worked out better than many anticipated. He’s been more active than ever, and seems legitimately interested in cleaning out what’s left of the light heavyweight division.

Of course, there’s an argument that Corey Anderson should have received the nod over Dominick Reyes, when it comes to this latest title fight. Anderson’s defeat of the surging Johnny Walker was certainly more deserving than Reyes taking out a past-his-prime Chris Weidman. Still, there are worse options, and Reyes is an undefeated, fresh face for Jones.

It will also be interesting to see how Jones bounces back after being pushed as hard as ever by a one-legged Thiago Santos in his last fight.

Frankie Edgar vs. Cory Sandhagen

Where: UFC Raleigh in Raleigh, North Carolina
When: January 25, 2020

Why we should be thankful:

Really, we’re just thankful we still get to see Frankie Edgar compete — and possibly work his way back to one last shot at a title. It presumably won’t take too long, with Edgar’s name value and bantamweight being wide open. Henry Cejudo should face someone else first, given Edgar’s coming off a loss at featherweight to Max Holloway, but a win or two should be all it takes to answer whether Edgar has enough left in the tank for one last title run.

And let’s not discount Cory Sandhagen. Sandhagen has been on an absolute tear since coming into the UFC from LFA. Sandhagen has won seven straight, but it’s his past two wins that really put him in the spotlight. Victories over John Lineker and Rafael Assuncao cemented Sandhagen as a true contender at 135lbs.

Sandhagen is a decade younger than Edgar, and represents the future. A win over Edgar will likely ensure that the future is now.

Paul Felder vs. Dan Hooker

Where: UFC Auckland in Auckland, New Zealand
When: February 22, 2020

Why we should be thankful:

You thought this was going to be Khabib vs. Tony, didn’t you? Didn’t you? Look, if that fight gets listed in an article like this one, it will almost certainly be cancelled. And the title here is “early 2020” so this feels a little more in line with that. We’ll worry about the umpteenth booking of Khabib Nurmagomedov and Tony Ferguson later. Instead, let’s marvel in the absolutely fun fight that should be Paul Felder vs. Dan Hooker.

Felder and Hooker are two fighters that personify grit. Look no further than the hellacious beating Hooker took against Edson Barboza, or the fact that Felder had no issues finishing a fight with a broken arm.

Hooker and Felder are both ranked, top ten lightweights who, in just about any other division, would likely been in title contention. In the deep, deep waters of 155lbs, however, they’re still a couple of wins away from sniffing at the belt — but that doesn’t mean this won’t be a fantastic fight. Plus, it’s Hooker’s star turn, his first time headlining a UFC card — something else to be thankful for.