MMA Insiders: What’s ahead for Khabib-Ferguson, Edwards-Woodley and the rest of 2020


The UFC has officially hit pause. Dana White announced on Monday that the next three cards would be suspended because of the coronavirus outbreak with hopes of returning on April 18 for UFC 249, a pay-per-view headlined by Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Tony Ferguson.

It’s the fifth attempt for Nurmagomedov vs. Ferguson after the first four fell through for a variety of reasons. Could it fall through again? And if postponements extend through April 18, could White just scrap this altogether and book the lucrative rematch of Nurmagomedov vs. Conor McGregor? It’s the one fight White is most looking forward to. But White has said Nurmagomedov vs. Ferguson will happen, even if he has to take it to a different country.

As the world continues to respond to the pandemic, firm timing of the return of MMA is uncertain. As we head into the unexpected hiatus, Ariel Helwani, Brett Okamoto, Jeff Wagenheim and Marc Raimondi answer a few key questions about what’s in store when the UFC resumes operations later in 2020.

Would you like to see the UFC re-book Leon Edwards vs. Tyron Woodley, or do you prefer to see Colby Covington vs. Woodley next?

Helwani: I’d like to see them re-book Edwards vs. Woodley. As much as I’d love to see Covington and Woodley finally tangle — unless they give Edwards something bigger than a Woodley fight (title shot? Masvidal?) — he has earned the right to fight a former champion like Woodley on a big stage. It wouldn’t feel right to take that spot away from him.

Okamoto: So, there’s what’s fair … and there’s what I’d prefer. What’s fair is re-booking Edwards vs. Woodley. Edwards has won eight in a row. I know Woodley is a former champion, and he’s ranked higher than Edwards in the UFC rankings, but is anyone really going to argue that Woodley is so far ahead of Edwards he gets to call the shots? Of course not. Woodley has not won a fight in 18 months, and the last fight he was in, he lost every round.

One could easily make the argument Edwards should be ranked right next to him, or even ahead of him. Edwards deserves this fight with the former champ. But … Woodley vs. Covington is a much bigger fight, and if I’m being honest, it interests me more than Woodley vs. Edwards. The part of me that prefers justice and seeing what’s right would like to see the London main event get re-booked. The fan in me prefers the second option.

Raimondi: Woodley vs. Covington was always an intriguing fight. It should have happened while Woodley was the champion, but fell apart more than once. I still want to see that one, but how could you take the opportunity away from someone like Edwards, who, by the way, did the smart and right thing by not traveling to the United States this week for an event that didn’t end up happening.

A lot can happen during this UFC hiatus. Things might shake out differently when the fights start moving again. But Edwards is essentially the top contender at welterweight. He has won eight in a row and his only loss since 2014 came to the champion, Kamaru Usman, five years ago. “Rocky” is on an incredible run right now and any plans about big fights in the division moving forward should include him right at the top of the list.

Wagenheim: If the UFC wants to chase the clout and book Woodley vs. Covington, fine. They’re both top-five welterweights in the ESPN rankings, and they have been circling each other forever, snarling. But that fight, as fiery as it promises to be, should not happen at the expense of Edwards having his moment. I feel for all of the athletes who are losing paydays, because MMA is their livelihood and their passion. But I feel especially bad for Edwards, who is from Birmingham, England, just a couple of hours’ drive from O2 Arena. This weekend’s main event was to be his home game.

The UFC should rebook in London as soon as it’s safe to do so, and Edwards should headline that event in a meaningful fight. He has won eight in a row yet has been largely invisible in the title picture, remembered most for being the backstage recipient of “a three-piece and a soda” from Jorge Masvidal. Frankly, Edwards deserves Masvidal. Those two got physical, while Woodley-Covington is just a war of words. Yeah, Edwards vs. Masvidal would scuttle a possible title fight, but hey, Edwards has the better resume, so why was he passed by in the first place?

If April 18 doesn’t happen for Tony and Khabib, do you see the UFC moving on to a Conor-Khabib rematch?

Helwani: I sincerely hope not, but I am not ruling it out. We all know the UFC wants to rematch Nurmagomedov and McGregor more than anything. What if this work stoppage lasts months and they need the money? Will they be able to resist the urge of booking that rematch right away knowing the money it would generate? Again, I really want to see Nurmagomedov-Ferguson finally happen, but I’m not ruling out that it just might never happen after all.

Okamoto: I don’t, actually. I think the UFC is all-in on Nurmagomedov vs. Ferguson. White once famously said he would never try to make this fight again. Well, he did, and now this. It’s unbelievable, really, but I do lean towards this fight happening somewhere on April 18.

If the UFC doesn’t care about gate revenue, which it doesn’t at this point — because it’s planning on having this fight without a crowd, then it opens up a lot of options. You know how much it pains White to postpone the next three events. He is dead set on making this fight happen, as are the fighters. But if what’s going on in the world by then prevents it, I think they’d reschedule this one. It has to happen.

Raimondi: First, let me say that absolutely no one wants that fight between Nurmagomedov and Ferguson to be canceled, or even postponed. Ramadan begins April 23 and runs for a month. Nurmagomedov has made it clear that he won’t fight during Ramadan, or any time immediately after it. So if that fight doesn’t go down when it is scheduled, it’ll be months before it can be put back together.

No, I can’t imagine Nurmagomedov agreeing to fight McGregor rather than Ferguson if UFC 249 doesn’t happen as planned. Nurmagomedov has been very firm on his position when it comes to McGregor. It’s doubtful he goes back on that, even in the wake of a global crisis.

Wagenheim: McGregor is the Kevin Bacon of MMA. We’re always playing six degrees of separation between him and a title shot, with every twist in the road presenting another opportunity to get the Irish cash cow in with a champ. I know why the UFC does this; the stockholders like the dividend. But why should the rest of us fall in line, instead of making the reasonable request that Conor wins a fight against a lightweight contender before being granted chance at glory?

So, no, Ferguson should not relinquish his opportunity and step aside for the entitled one. “El Cucuy” earned his shot.

Whose momentum do you see most affected by the postponement?

Helwani: It’s hard to pick just one. Leon Edwards, Jairzinho Rozenstruik and Francis Ngannou come to mind right away because they were booked for big fights, but every fighter scheduled to compete is hurting because of this. Momentum, lost income, lost sponsors, lost exposure — it’s one, big unfortunate situation. My heart really goes out to these fighters because, unlike most pro athletes, they live fight purse to purse and can’t afford to not compete or teach at their local gym for an extended period of time.

Okamoto: Edwards. I said it earlier, Edwards really, really deserves a big fight. This was it. Fighting a former champion, in London? This was the one Edwards has been working towards. This man has been forced to take the long route to title contention, and he’s done it. He’s looked like a world champion in his last few outings. If someone were to make a case that Edwards is a future welterweight champion, I could not disagree at the moment. He’s been so good.

Now, best-case scenario, he loses the opportunity to have this main event on his home soil. Worst-case scenario, he loses his spot in the fight, too, if Woodley moves on to Covington — which, if I’m being honest, I think happens.

Raimondi: Rozenstruik. The Suriname native fought — and won — four times in 2019 after signing with the UFC and every single one of them came via KO/TKO. The heavyweight slugger is the very definition of red-hot. He was set to fight Ngannou in the March 28 main event and a win could have earned him a title shot.

Now? Who knows. Ngannou is considered to be the next in line after things get sorted between heavyweight champion Stipe Miocic and former champ Daniel Cormier. Depending on how long this hiatus lasts, maybe Cormier doesn’t want to wait any longer and retires. There are so many variables. Rozenstruik went from a chance to extend his UFC win streak to five and earn a title shot to an unknown position.

Wagenheim: The momentum lost is the UFC’s, frankly. All roads leading to Nurmagomedov vs. Ferguson have hit a detour, robbing the promotion of three little Fight Nights during which it could, during every break in the action, sell the big one coming up. Then again, that title fight will be humongous whenever it happens, whether on the current optimistic timetable or later in the year.

So I’m going to twist this around and look for a positive angle. To do that, I’ll single out the scariest man in the sport, Ngannou. He was slated to face Rozensteruik in the March 28 main event, and if he won, he’d be in line for a heavyweight title shot — but when? The UFC is determined to book Miocic vs. Cormier III before “DC” heads off to retirement, and that was going to mean more waiting for Ngannou, no matter how impressive his performance later this month. So now he can take time away to ride out this hiatus in safety, and when it’s safe for the UFC to return, he’ll get to fight and, if things go his way, have less time to wait for that elusive title shot.

What past fights would you suggest fans watch or re-watch over the next three weekends?

Helwani: Let’s start with these for now. Jon Jones vs. Alexander Gustafsson 1 (watch on ESPN+). You’re not an MMA fan if you’ve never seen that fight, which was just announced will be inducted into the Hall of Fame this summer. It’s my favorite fight of all time. Then, watch Dan Henderson vs. Shogun Rua, which gives Jones-Gustafsson 1 a run for its money in the greatest fight of all-time category. And then, watch Mark Hunt vs. Bigfoot Silva 1, because that slugfest was just pure bananas.

A few more great ones: Robbie Lawler vs. Rory MacDonald 2, Conor McGregor vs. Nathan Diaz 2, Lawler vs. Carlos Condit, Chael Sonnen vs. Anderson Silva, and, for history sake, Forrest Griffin vs. Stephan Bonnar, because without that one there’s a good chance this sport isn’t a thing anymore.

Okamoto: My favorite trilogy of all time: Frankie Edgar vs. Gray Maynard. I mean, we’ve got some time, right? We’re not in a rush. So, go back and watch it from the start. Watch a promo package or two about the rematch and the trilogy fight. Watch the UFC 125 news conference, where there’s confusion over whether or not they’ll run it back immediately after what happens in the second fight. Remember what it did to the WEC champion, Anthony Pettis, who was coming into the UFC at the time. Soak that whole storyline in. Also, watch Anderson Silva vs. Forrest Griffin at UFC 101, if you feel like watching a real-life movie scene.

Raimondi: There have been so many incredible fights just over the last few years. It really is a credit to the UFC and what it has done, keeping things churning and putting on great fights just about every single weekend.

During this off period, I know I’ll be re-watching that absolute banger between Zhang Weili and Joanna Jedrzejczyk from UFC 248 earlier this month again. That was phenomenal. You also can’t go wrong with Israel Adesanya vs. Kelvin Gastelum from UFC 236 last year. Both fights between McGregor and Diaz in 2016 were excellent. Lawler vs. Rory MacDonald from UFC 189 might be my all-time favorite fight.

This will also be a great time to go back into the archives and watch older fights from different eras and different promotions, especially Pride FC and WEC.

Wagenheim: People say I’m old, but I’m actually just old-school. So I’m going to suggest starting at the beginning. Royce Gracie made me interested in this sport because he defied all of my assumptions about combat sports. Watching this skinny little guy from Brazil make muscle-bound guys say uncle was mind-blowing, mostly because I had no idea what Brazilian jiu-jitsu was and thought I was watching a magic trick. I recommend watching UFC 1 in its entirety, or at least Gracie’s three fights on that 1993 night in Denver. I won’t play spoiler, but suffice to say you can watch all of Gracie in under five minutes.

Next, my all-time favorite fight: Edgar vs. Maynard III. A big part of this 2011 thriller’s appeal is that it came just nine months after the astounding Edgar-Maynard II. Impossibly, it lived up to that classic. These two fights built the legend of Edgar, undersized man with oversized heart. Watch both bouts and brace yourself for impact.

Lastly, I’ll offer up a triple feature of the impossible: Chris Weidman shockingly making Silva pay for his clowning in 2013; McGregor putting a stop to the Jose Aldo era in 2015 before it could settle in that these two finally were in the cage together; and Holly Holm head-kicking Ronda Rousey into oblivion, also in 2015. (And while you’re at it, go into the Strikeforce archive and find Fabricio Werdum‘s stunner over Fedor Emelianenko.)

One bold prediction for the remainder of 2020

Helwani: We will see fights again. That’s all I got right now. I don’t know if this is actually true or not, but it’s my hope. You gotta believe.

Okamoto: Israel Adesanya and Jon Jones agree to fight in 2021. We won’t see it in 2020, but we’ll see the framework of an actual event come together. Right now, they’ve chirped at each other through social media and interviews, but come late 2020, this matchup will start to look more like a reality and less like a Twitter beef.

Raimondi: Maybe this isn’t a prediction so much as a hope, but how cool would it be if the UFC returned with three mega cards on International Fight Week in July? Three straight nights with three stacked cards in Las Vegas. McGregor vs. Justin Gaethje. Kamaru Usman vs. Jorge Masvidal for the welterweight title. Maybe Adesanya vs. Paulo Costa for the middleweight title. Or Jon Jones vs. Dominick Reyes 2 for the light heavyweight title.

Just load it all up. Make the week the biggest in the history of the sport. Las Vegas will need a financial boost after most of the Strip casinos had to close over the weekend. The MMA community will need a boost. So will the UFC and all the fighters. The International Fight Week to end all International Fight Weeks. Hopefully something like that can be done — something we can all look forward to.

Wagenheim: I don’t think it’s terribly bold to predict that Nurmagomedov vs. Ferguson won’t happen until the fall. And related to that, I’ll predict that McGregor, seeing his Dagestani nemesis re-booked for Ferguson, will schedule a fight of his own posthaste, signing on the dotted line even before the UFC is back in action. McGregor recognizes that idle time is his enemy.

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