THIS year was undoubtedly the most testing period the UFC has endured for a long, long time. But the ongoing coronavirus pandemic didn’t stop mixed martial arts’ premier promotion from delivering some unforgettable fights.
The MMA leader spoiled us with several bouts that will be talked about for years to come.
Justin Gaethje and Tony Ferguson put on one of the fights of the year at UFC 249Credit: Getty
Joanna Jedrzejczyk and Weili Zhang went to war for five straight rounds at UFC 248Credit: GettY
Justin Gaethje and Tony Ferguson’s showdown at UFC 249 – the first pay-per-view card following the worldwide lockdown – is one of the contests that springs to mind when recapping the best fights of 2020.
Weili Zhang and Joanna Jedrzejczyk’s war in the co-main event of UFC 248 is another bout that’s still very much at the forefront of fans’ minds, as well as Dustin Poirier’s lightweight dust-up with Dan Hooker.
And who can forget about Deiveson Figueiredo and Brandon Moreno’s war for the flyweight title earlier this month?
With 2020 now firmly in the rearview mirror, SunSport thought it would only be right to break down seven fights that simply have to happen by the end of 2021.
Khabib Nurmagomedov vs Georges St-Pierre
This, for me, is the only fight that will lure the recently-retired Khabib Nurmagomedov out of retirement.
At this juncture of his life, the indomitable Nurmagomedov will only be tempted to return to the cage if he’s given the opportunity to further etch his name into the combat sports annals by beating the man many regard to be the MMA ‘GOAT’.
And given everything he’s done for the company over the last few years, he should be granted the opportunity to reach 30-0 in a legacy fight with the Hall-of-Famer.
Stylistically, Nurmagomedov vs St-Pierre is a fascinating match-up that throws up several questions. Will a near 40-year-old ‘GSP’ be able to defend the takedown?
And if so, will Nurmagomedov be able to hang with the former two-division champion on the feet? There’s only one way to find out, folks.
I, like many others, am hoping and praying UFC president Dana White can convince ‘The Eagle’ to fly one more time so we’re not left wondering what might’ve been.
Khabib Nurmagomedov retired from MMA after beating Justin Gaethje at UFC 254Credit: Getty
Conor McGregor vs Justin Gaethje
Barring a showdown between Nurmagomedov and St-Pierre, this is the tastiest match-up that can be made in the stacked lightweight division.
And one could argue it should’ve been made instead of Conor McGregor’s UFC 257 rematch with Dustin Poirier, although I will admit I am pumped for the second instalment of that rivalry.
McGregor vs Gaethje is a fight many, myself included, have pined for. Much of the intrigue surrounding the match-up initially stemmed from Gaethje’s kill-or-be-killed style, which he’s deviated from in the last two years.
The former interim lightweight champion is now a much more methodical and tactful fighter, although he’s still capable of drowning his opponents with relentless pressure.
Like him or loathe him, you have to admit McGregor is a master of space management, timing and counter-striking – tools that are a pressure-based fighter’s worst nightmare.
That alone makes a fight with Gaethje a must-see affair, as well as the very real animosity between the pair.
If McGregor gets through Poirier, Gaethje is the man he should fight in his second outing of 2021. No ifs, buts or maybes.
Conor McGregor is gearing up for his UFC 257 showdown with Dustin PoirierCredit: Instagram @thenotoriousmma
Jon Jones vs Israel Adesanya
Old head versus new kid on the block. Respective skill sets aside, that’s perhaps the best analogy for a super-fight between Jon Jones and Israel Adesanya.
One quick look at the pair’s back-and-forth on social media is all you need to discern that Jones is not a fan of the confident and abrasive Adesanya.
The fight itself, which the UFC are eager to book, is an interesting one as middleweight king Adesanya possesses a significant striking advantage than the once-flashy and dynamic Jones.
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UFC middleweight champion Israel Adesanya is on a collision course with Jon JonesCredit: Getty
Jones, however, has the advantage when it comes to the grappling, a facet of mixed martial arts former Glory standout Adesanya has yet to struggle with since his transition into the sport.
All that remains for the fight to come to fruition is for Adesanya to dispose of light-heavyweight champion Jan Blachowicz, which will be no easy feat.
But if he does and subsequently becomes a two-weight world champion, the UFC should do their utmost to book the grudge match, which one could argue is the biggest fight remaining for Jones.
Leon Edwards vs Kamaru Usman/Gilbert Burns
Let’s get something straight, people: Leon Edwards has already done more than enough to earn a title shot.
The man has won eight in a row and shut down a former world champion with ease in his last foray to the cage.
If meritocracy were still alive in the promotion, ‘Rocky’ would’ve earned a crack at the welterweight crown twice over.
Birmingham’s Leon Edwards is on an eight-fight win streakCredit: Getty
Alas, we’re now in an era where a fighter’s body of work is overlooked in favour of trash talking and social media engagement.
The UFC won’t, however, be able to overlook the pride of Birmingham should he get past the undefeated Khamzat Chimaev.
Should that happen, the promotion has to do right by the soft-spoken and respectful Edwards by giving him dibs on the winner of Kamaru Usman’s title defence against Gilbert Burns.
Leon Edwards will face Khamzat Chimaev on Fight IslandCredit: UFC
Weili Zhang vs Joanna Jedrzejczyk II
I know it was a while back and that we’re all guilty of falling victim to recency bias, but Weili Zhang and Joanna Jedrzejczyk’s clash at UFC 248 was 2020’s ‘Fight of the Year’. Anyone who thinks otherwise can feel free to debate me.
These ladies went to war for five straight rounds and put on what was arguably the greatest fight in the history of women’s MMA.
I’m truly baffled the UFC opted not to book this rematch for early 2021. But I’m even more bamboozled by the matchmakers’ decision to give Carla Esparza the next crack at the strawweight throne.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not in any way, shape or form saying former 115lb champ Esparza isn’t worthy of a title shot. She is.
I just firmly believe given the close nature of their first meeting, the technical whizzes should run it back. And I think the majority of MMA fans across the world will agree with me.
The UFC have to run back Weili Zhang vs Joanna JedrzejczykCredit: Getty
Jorge Masvidal vs Colby Covington
We all love it when former team-mates and training partners become enemies.
Chuck Lidell versus Tito Ortiz, Jon Jones versus Rashad Evans and Tj Dillashaw vs Cody Garbrandt are just three of the most memorable team-mate-turned-rival match-ups we’ve seen in the UFC.
But a grudge match between former American Top Team colleagues and roommates Jorge Masvidal and Colby Covington would trump (See what I did there?) the lot of them.
What was once a bromance has descended into a bitter feud that shows no sign of coming to an end.
That feud, which was contributing factor to Covington leaving ATT, is money in the bank for the UFC.
A bonafide star in Masvidal taking on a controversial and divisive figure in Covington is a home run of a pay-per-view headliner.
Despite the delay in booking the fight, the desire for the match-up hasn’t dissipated. The UFC know this and are likely keeping it in their back pocket until after Usman faces Burns.
Hopefully, they won’t leave it too long and will get pencilled in before International Fight Week in July.
TJ Dillashaw vs Jose Aldo
I must confess, this was a fight I hadn’t even thought of until Jose Aldo called for it following his win over Marlon Vera earlier this month.
And I can’t help but agree with Aldo’s assessment that it’s the perfect bout for the pair at this stage of their respective careers.
TJ Dillashaw needs an impressive win over a big-name opponent following his two-year suspension for intentionally using EPO.
Former men’s bantamweight champion TJ Dillashaw will be eligible to compete in JanuaryCredit: Getty
Jose Aldo showed he’s still one of the best in the world against Marlon VeraCredit: Getty
Likewise, Aldo, who continues to silence his doubters when they’re most vocal.
The matchmakers would be giving us manna from the gods by booking this fight, which, stylistically, is one of the most entertaining in the bantamweight division.
Let’s hope they give us a much-needed 2021 treat by booking this potential barnburner.
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