It’s the question troubling mixed martial arts fans as the year, one full of highs and lows, comes to a close: just who will headline the UFC’s final card of the year, UFC 219, on December 30 in Las Vegas?
Typically a showstopper of an event, one awash with blockbuster fights, this year’s offering appears strangely unsure of itself. There are some tremendous fights already confirmed – that’s not the issue. The issue, six-and-a-half weeks out, is the lack of headline fight; that one fight to dominate the event poster; that one fight to seduce and excite us and leave us giddy with anticipation heading into 2018.
In terms of an announced fight card, here’s what we have so far: Jimmy Rivera against someone (it was supposed to be Dominick Cruz, in what would have been a fascinating fight, but Cruz pulled out injured); Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Edson Barboza; Kamaru Usman vs. Emil Meek; Cynthia Carvallo vs. Carla Esparza; Carlos Condit vs. Neil Magny; Gökhan Saki vs. Khalil Rountree.
Not bad. Not bad at all.
With or without a headliner, UFC 219 comprises enough interesting, competitive matchups to be deemed a watchable and enjoyable fight card; what it lacks in big names it more than makes up for in quality fighters and quality, hard-to-call fights. But, as per tradition, it being the year-end show and all, UFC 219 could really do with a star-studded main event, a fight on which the rest of the card can hang.
They’ve been trying to find one. Boy, have they been trying. First, a women’s featherweight title fight between Cris ‘Cyborg’ Justino and Holly Holm was mooted, only to eventually fall by the wayside amid a dispute concerning drug testing, and then a verbal agreement was in place for women’s bantamweight champion Amanda Nunes to defend her belt against Raquel Pennington, only for Pennington to break her leg in a vehicle accident. There were even rumours, albeit entirely farfetched, that Conor McGregor, the jewel in the UFC’s crown, would be making his return to MMA following a financially rewarding but ultimately fruitless mess-about in the boxing ring. There was talk of a third fight with Nate Diaz. Talk of Tony Ferguson. But, realistically, the likelihood of McGregor embarking on a training camp and following through with a fight before the end of the year, after everything that has come before it, was hopeful at best, deluded at worst.
So what we’re left with now, a little over six weeks from fight night, is the possibility of UFC welterweight champion Tyron Woodley fighting Nate Diaz, a man who is 1-1 with McGregor and right now the mixed martial artist against whom the Irishman stands to make the most money.
Certainly, of all the current UFC champions, Woodley seems the only one likely to appear that night. Stipe Miocic, the heavyweight champ, won’t be fighting anytime soon, nor will Daniel Cormier, who is still coming to terms with the fact it is he and not Jon Jones in possession of UFC gold at light-heavyweight. Georges St-Pierre has just beaten Michael Bisping to become the number one at middleweight, so he’s out, and lightweight titleholder McGregor is still counting his money. Featherweight champion Max Holloway has a rematch with Jose Aldo lined up for December 3, TJ Dillashaw only recently won his bantamweight belt back, and flyweight king Demetrious Johnson is putting his feet up following a record-breaking year. Women’s strawweight queen Rose Namajunas, meanwhile, will rightly dine out on that incredible upset win over Joanna Jędrzejczyk for a little while yet.
That gives us Woodley, the welterweight champion, and Diaz, one of the biggest names in the sport. Makes sense, right? Well, it’s making the best out of a bad situation, there’s no doubt about that. But it’s still far from ideal. Woodley, for one, is considered more strategist than thrill-seeker these days, so won’t have fight fans rushing to snap up the pay-per-view, and Diaz, the one bringing the heat and the unpredictability, will likely discover he’s undersized and outgunned on fight night. Not only that, from a business point of view, the idea of giving Diaz a tough fight on December 30 runs the risk of him losing, on a high-profile event no less, and thus chucking a spanner in the works of a potential rubber match with Conor McGregor somewhere down the line. A defeat for Diaz wouldn’t remove that possibility completely – it’s all about the money, after all – but it would undoubtedly reduce his bargaining power, something he holds dear, and do away with the theory that he holds McGregor’s kryptonite. (The longer Diaz remains inactive, the more his mystique grows, the more his third fight with McGregor builds.)
Ultimately, it’s probably not the fight the UFC brass wanted to make at this juncture, but, with few alternative options, Woodley vs. Diaz is something pulled from an empty bag. It will also be a fight of great interest to Conor McGregor – which is kind of what it’s all about these days, isn’t it?