Which UFC fighters need high-profile fights as soon as possible?
Simple answer: No one. Please stay at home and stay healthy.
As I write this, UFC president Dana White is pressing forward with plans to stage UFC 249 at a private island on April 18, even though no reputable commission will sanction the event during a worldwide pandemic. Two weeks out, we’re still Location TBA but the UFC seems not to have plans to cancel or postpone.
You can admire White’s determination… I guess. UFC 249 headliners Tony Ferguson and Khabib Nurmagomedov have had four (!) previous scheduled meetings canceled, and White wanted this one to happen while the UFC has a monopoly on live sports. Even with Nurmagomedov's travel restrictions cutting him out of the fight, Justin Gaethje has been installed as the replacement. White's motivation? He says the UFC business must continue so the organization won’t have to lay off employees.
Cool, but every reputable scientist and doctor on the planet is telling people to stay home. Fighters and TV production staff are people. If we all want to TKO COVID-19, those folks need to be allowed to do their part to stop the virus from spreading.
So if we’re talking fights and fighters right now, we’re talking pure hypotheticals, because nobody at TSFJ is advocating re-starting the combat sports industry at the peak of a global pandemic. And if we’re going to do this, let’s make some assumptions about the fight industry roaring back to life.
- That we can return to normal-ish life in the nearish future -- like the next few months instead of the next few years.
- That the degenerate gamblers need their fix, and sites like Cafe Casino Review are offering MMA bets as soon as White figures out how to turn the fighting machine back on.
- That all the fighters we’re discussing emerge from the pandemic healthy and free.
Why free? Because fighter number one is...
Jon Jones, Light Heavyweight Champion
The UFC’s light-heavyweight champ was arrested on yet another DWI last week and will avoid jail time only by complying with a long list of conditions laid out in his plea agreement. This arrest is the latest in a long line of self-inflicted setbacks for the fighter who was supposed to lead the UFC into the future. Jones has failed multiple drug tests and faced multiple court cases -- none of these missteps grave enough to end his career but all of them serious enough to sideline him.
And each outside-the-Octagon headline Jones generates pushes fans to forget that he’s still the UFC’s top-ranked pound-for-pound fighter, and still, when motivated, has the talent to break records and win fights in ways that belong on highlight reels. If he stays in training and in the Octagon, the hope is he’ll stay out of trouble. The only loss on his record -- a 2009 disqualification -- helps tell the story. Jon Jones’ toughest opponent is Jon Jones.
Amanda Nunes, Bantamweight and Featherweight Champion
We’re going to make a couple more assumptions. First, we’ll assume a pent-up demand for live sports will create a giant audience for this hypothetical card. Second, that the viewership will include a lot of casual fans, parachuting in because their preferred sports aren’t running at full speed yet. If it unfolds that way, why not showcase Nunes, the top women’s pound-for-pound fighter in the promotion.
If you’re expecting a female UFC fighter to headline pay-per-view cards that put up Conor McGregor numbers, forget it. Ronda Rousey’s Not Walking Through That Door. But Nunes never left, and she also has a 48-second pummelling of Rousey you can splice into a sizzle reel and sell to mainstream fans who recognize the star on the receiving end of all those punches. Who would Nunes fight? It doesn’t matter. If you’re trying to win over new fans, you sell the A-side fighter. Right now, that’s Nunes.
Jorge Masvidal, BMF Champion and No. 3 Welterweight
He’s not the best fighter in the 170-pound neighborhood. That’s welterweight champ Kamaru Usman. And he’s not the most popular. That would be McGregor, last seen competing in the welterweight division. But if the UFC stages a post-pandemic blockbuster, they’ll need one fighter who’ll make viewers feel their pay-per-view dollars were spent well, regardless of whether the rest of the card flops.
That’s Masvidal, the Miami-based veteran who is so committed to action fights that the UFC created a championship just for him -- the BMF belt, which Masvidal won in a showdown with Nate Diaz last November. His flying-knee stoppage win over Ben Askren is a Hall-of-Fame knockout, and part of a resume that earns Masvidal his first crack at a handsome payday when fighting resumes for real.
Israel Adesanya, Middleweight Champion
Why do fans need to see the Stylebender back in action so soon after his snooze-inducing win over Yoel Romero at UFC 248? Mainly so that the Stylebender can make us all forget about that dull win, and remind us that, like Anderson Silva and Jon Jones, he has a skill set that can take the whole sport to new places.
Adesanya gained fame for his heavily choreographed ring entrances, which feature costumes and gymnastics, and hint that he could perform with the Jabbawockeez if he weren’t a fighter. Sometimes he brings that excitement into the Octagon, witness his two-round destruction of Robert Whitaker last October. Other times, like his victories over Silva and Romero, he fights to win, and not to entertain. But with the right style matchup, Adesanya the entertainer could make us all glad we tuned in…. after this pandemic ends.
Morgan Campbell is a Toronto based sports reporter and culture critic, while also being the second-fastest person in his family.