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Looking back at UFC's 2017 and our big question for 2018

Francis Ngannou

Image: Josh Hedges

I asked our two intrepid MMA writers -- Paul Fontaine and Ryan Frederick -- to jot down some thoughts on 2017 while looking ahead to 2018. With the MMA year kicking off this weekend with UFC in St. Louis, MO, let's take a gander back at the year that was.

When you think about 2017 in MMA, what comes to mind?

Paul:

I think of ‘What could have been?’ UFC lightweight champion Conor McGregor didn’t fight in the Octagon. Jon Jones did what Jon Jones does and blew a potential mega-fight with Brock Lesnar. Ronda Rousey proved she still had drawing power at the end of 2016 with a million plus buy PPV and then proceeded to not fight in 2017. The only currently somewhat active person in UFC who is a big draw is Georges St Pierre and he will be out with an injury for the foreseeable future.

Ryan:

I see this as a year of missed opportunities, both when it comes to the UFC and the fighters. The UFC missed out on Conor McGregor, Ronda Rousey, Nate Diaz, and Brock Lesnar fighting. In the case of Conor, they made the business decision to let him box Floyd Mayweather which made them big money. You can’t fault them for that, but that meant UFC fans missed out on enjoying him in the Octagon.

With the case of Rousey, she appears gone for good. With Diaz, it was simply a matter of money as they tried and failed to get him to fight. With Lesnar, the drug test failure still looms. When it comes to the fighters, weight issues with Khabib Nurmagomedov plagued a fight between him and Tony Ferguson, which had the potential to be great. Demetrious Johnson turned down his biggest payday and the biggest fight of his career with TJ Dillashaw, opting to fight Ray Borg. The middleweight championship was in flux all year, with a lot of good potential title fights being stalled. There were opportunities to have a more action-packed year, but things just couldn’t come to fruition.

Josh:

One word comes to mind: dull. After a completely awesome 2016, the first few months of the year sputtered and every time we thought we were ready to turn a corner, we got more misfires. I think of the bad UFC PPV in Brooklyn where Germaine de Randamie edged out Holly Holm to win a title no one asked for, only to later drop it because she didn’t want to fight Cyborg. I think of a lot of injured champions and good fights that fell through. I think of the word ‘interim’. There were some great moments, but it was a 12 months where more of the fringe fans got shaved off due to boredom.

What was your favorite fight?

Ryan:

I have to go with the non-stop brawl that was Justin Gaethje against Michael Johnson at The Ultimate Fighter Finale in July. Both men landed big punches that likely would have knocked any other opponent out, and yet, they kept coming at each other. Gaethje showed why he was one of the most exciting UFC signings in a long time and one of the most exciting fighters at 155 pounds. Violence was expected, and violence was brought.

Paul:

It wasn’t necessarily the best fight, but my favorite was the Jose Aldo-Max Holloway rematch at December’s UFC 218. Holloway has always been one of my favorite fighters and on that night, he proved that he was the top featherweight in the sport and maybe one of the best of all time with a dismantling of the former dominant champion. Aldo still has it in him to beat just about anyone in the division, as evidenced by his one sided win over Frankie Edgar, but Holloway looked like he was in another league in Detroit.

Josh:

This one is easy: Tyron Woodley vs. Stephen Thompson II! Just kidding, everyone. I’m going to go with one that probably isn’t popular due to what happened afterward, but I still loved Jon Jones vs. Daniel Cormier II. It was the biggest fight of the summer and we got a lot of questions temporarily answered about Jones in his decimation of Cormier. Between the build, the result, and the post fight interviews, Jones appeared to have arrived back on the main attraction stage and we were dreaming about Jones-Gustafsson II and even a Brock Lesnar fight in 2018. Then, USADA checked in and everything went to hell.

What was your favorite event?

Paul:

UFC 217 that featured the return of GSP as he beat Michael Bisping and won the middleweight title. It also featured two other title fights, both with upset title changes, including what may have been the upset of the year with Rose Namajunas stopping Joanna Jedrzejczyk. You can’t ask for much more from a big show.

Ryan:

Honestly, it’s UFC 217, but I wanted to shine a light on the pay-per-view offering that followed it: UFC 218. You had two of the best fights of the year in Yancy Medeiros against Alex Oliveira, and the violence between Eddie Alvarez and Justin Gaethje. You had Max Holloway systematically tearing Jose Aldo apart to declare himself the true king at 145 pounds. Last, but certainly not least, you had the most vicious (and one of the greatest) knockouts of all time when Francis Ngannou earned his shot at championship gold when he took out Alistair Overeem. There were a lot of memorable moments all around.

Josh:

I’m going to stick with UFC 214, headlined by Jones vs. Cormier II. Other than the Woodley-Maia co-main event which wasn’t the most thrilling, this show featured Cyborg Justino winning the women’s featherweight title over Tonya Evinger, the much-anticipated Robbie Lawler-Donald Cerrone fight, and another Volkan Oezdemir first round KO to open the PPV. The prelims were good with some interesting names picking up wins (Brian Ortega, Ricardo Lamas, Aljamain Sterling). There were a few standout candidates (UFC 217, UFC 218, but this was it for me.

Who was your Fighter of the Year?

Josh:

I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I’m going with flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson and perhaps not for a reason that you might think. Yes, he picked up wins over Wilson Reis and Ray Borg, but the way in which he beat Borg was my finish of the year. A German suplex into an armbar for the finish at the end of a fight? Get outta here.

But the big reason was what he did in June by publicly airing his grievances against Dana White and his attempts to make a fight with TJ Dillashaw that he didn’t want. He discussed how White threatened to eliminate the whole division and was open about his contract and other issues. It was refreshing to hear someone clearly bothered by the head of the UFC finally come out and discuss it. He really turned the corner for me after that, helping round out the character for the most dominant champion in the sport right now.

Paul:

I’m going with Francis Ngannou. With two first round KOs over two bonafide MMA legends, he went from obscure prelim fighter to the top heavyweight title contender in just over a year. I give honorable mentions to welterweight champion Tyron Woodley and strawweight champ Rose Namajunas.

Ryan:

It is a tough field as Robert Whittaker, Rose Namajunas, and Tyron Woodley could all earn the nod, but I’m going with Demetrious Johnson for this one. I was cageside for both of his fights this year, and as great as he comes off when viewing on television, he is just another level live. He is the best fighter in the sport, and the way he just outworked both Wilson Reis and Ray Borg on his way to submitting both was world class. Not to mention, he had the most incredible submission of all-time, throwing Borg in the air and locking in an armbar in mid-air. Myself, along with many other media members, lost our minds and were astonished by this cageside. It’s a moment I won’t soon forget.

What was the most disappointing (fighter, trend, event, news story) that happened in 2017?

Paul:

This has to be Jon Jones. He returns from a one year drug failure suspension and beats Daniel Cormier for the title he never lost, promptly fails another PED test, and is now facing a possible four year suspension. Not only did he single handedly destroy the credibility of the light heavyweight title, once the marquee belt in the UFC, he also messed up a potential record-breaking fight in terms of buys with WWE Universal champion Brock Lesnar.

Ryan:

Without question, it is the Jon Jones situation. When he was involved at the press conference for all of the summer fights in May, I was amongst those he talked to backstage. I truly gave him the benefit of the doubt that he was coming back for redemption. He defeated Daniel Cormier, reclaimed gold, and had it all taken away just weeks later in the same situation he has found himself in for the last several years. He could have gone down as the greatest of all-time, but the drug test failures, if they already hadn’t tarnished his legacy, they certainly have now.

Josh:

I’m going a little higher level and say the UFC in general was my most disappointing thing of 2017. We still don’t know what Endeavor (the former WME-IMG) is all about and what they hope to do with the sport. We got two new titles introduced to little to no fanfare. Interim title fights were abound. Head-scratching main events were made. Cards were thin while events were plentiful. Conor McGregor was allowed to box in a strictly financial move. For a group that is supposed to be the stewards of the sport, UFC leadership was often derelict in that duty last year.

What’s your biggest question(s) for the MMA year ahead?

Ryan:

I think, maybe not the biggest question, but one of the most important ones is how the new television deal is going to impact the future. They will announce a new deal this year, but how much they get and for what amount of content, is a big question mark. It is certainly going to have an effect on their business model, whether it’s positive or negative, and it may change how things are run, and how often we get fight cards, and what types of fights are booked. It is an interesting situation that needs to be followed.

Paul:

Can anyone break away from the pack of really good fighters to become a bigger than life star that people will flock to in droves to see fight on PPV? UFC has always had 2-3 such fighters since their business exploded in popularity in 2005. The biggest possibility would seem to be Francis NGannou should he beat Stipe Miocic for the heavyweight title. Other contenders would be Rose Namajunas or Sage Northcutt if the latter could string a series of wins together.

Josh:

I really wonder where the sport will be at a year from now. It feels like 2016 was an anomaly and 2017 was the norm with what Endeavor’s vision is: a few loaded PPVs a year, some PPVs reliant on one or two fights, a lot of thin cards on free TV and Fight Pass, and “we gotta fill out a show” booking. I hope we are in a better place a year from now, but we’re going to need a few lucky breaks and some real forward thinking (less events in the new TV deal) in order to get there.