If there was one fight from 2019 that stood out because of the electricity of the crowd, it was the Nov. 2 “BMF” battle in Madison Square Garden, where President Trump, The Rock and a packed house watched Jorge Masvidal bloody and stop Nate Diaz after three rounds.
The UFC is negotiating the rematch, and there’s a good chance that it will be held in a closed arena, possibly the promotion’s Apex facility in Las Vegas. Of all the events that have been held in empty arenas because of the coronavirus pandemic, will this one suffer the most from a lack of energy from an audience?
What a coincidence that Jon Jones announced his move to heavyweight just weeks before news broke of Brock Lesnar‘s WWE contract expiring, making the former UFC heavyweight champ a free agent. Lesnar’s friend and fellow WWE legend, Kurt Angle, told ESPN ‘s Ariel Helwani last year of Lesnar’s interest in fighting Jones.
Does that open the door for Lesnar’s UFC return? As far as Jones is concerned, bring it on.
Speaking of potential blockbusters, speculation about Khabib Nurmagomedov closing out his career by facing Georges St-Pierre won’t go away, despite GSP’s saying he doesn’t think the UFC would be interested. UFC president Dana White already said he’s open to it, and if the promotion believes it would be Nurmagomedov’s last fight, would it pass on such a lucrative bout?
White also confirmed that Kamaru Usman‘s welterweight defense against Gilbert Burns is close for UFC 256 on Dec. 12. Burns received ESPN’s midyear award for fighter of the year after two wins. Will he be the one to give Usman his first UFC loss and clinch the award for top fighter of 2020?
ESPN’s MMA experts — Ariel Helwani, Brett Okamoto, Marc Raimondi and Jeff Wagenheim — sort through the speculation to offer insight on what’s real and what’s not.
Real or not: From MSG to the Apex, the BMF rematch would be one of the fights that suffers the most from not having a crowd.
Okamoto: Well, hold up. Are we sure this fight will take place at the UFC’s Apex? To take it one step further, are we sure there won’t be fans? Of course we’re not sure. We’re not sure of anything in 2020. The UFC is booking fights like crazy, but it is not announcing venues well in advance because of the uncertainty of the world. Maybe by late 2020 or early 2021, the UFC will pursue a way to bring fans back into the venue. Or maybe the entire sport will be bunkered down at Fight Island. Who knows.
What I will say is that if the fight happens with no fans, I think it’s definitely a bummer — but not necessarily more so than for some others. I’m sure the UFC thinks it’s a bummer. The company would love to sell tickets to this fight. But as far as the rest of us? I wouldn’t mind watching a fight between Masvidal and Diaz in which I can hear absolutely everything going on. These are two guys we tend to think of as fighters who would square up in a parking lot if need be. These two don’t need the bright lights and house music to fight. They’re the epitome of fighters. It’d be nice to have a packed house, but it’ll be good either way.
Real or not: Brock Lesnar will fight again in the UFC.
Helwani: Never say never with Lesnar, and nothing will surprise me when it comes to him, but I don’t think so. This is classic Brock Lesnar. He lets his contract with WWE expire, the word gets out that he is a free agent, he flirts with the UFC, everyone loses their minds … and then he re-signs with WWE after creating some leverage. He has done this at least three times in the past decade, if not more. He’s the best when it comes to this game. But this time around, he’s 43 and hasn’t fought for the UFC in more than four years. I don’t think he wants to get punched anymore. I don’t think he wants to do training camps and all that jazz. I think he likes the WWE life in which he gets to work limited dates, is treated like the star that he is and gets paid very well. What’s better than that at his age? But even though there are some fun matchups out there for him (see: Jones, Jon and Emelianenko, Fedor), I just don’t see it happening right now. The game has passed him by. But, hey, who thought he’d return at UFC 200?
Real or not: Gilbert Burns will beat Kamaru Usman and become the 2020 fighter of the year.
Wagenheim: The odds are stacked against Burns in the first part of that, and the second part is out of his control.
Burns was a sizable underdog for the original July booking with Usman, and considering what the welterweight champ did to Masvidal since then — a July 11 unanimous decision — there’s no reason to believe that the betting line will be any tighter come December. Does that mean Burns can’t dethrone Usman? Of course not. Some underdogs are said to have a puncher’s chance, but in the case of Burns, the chance of an upset is doubled. Even if he doesn’t land a game-changing strike, he could put his multiple-time world championship jiu-jitsu to work and get the job done on the canvas. Burns is way dangerous, and Usman knows it, having trained with the Brazilian. I expect the champ to prevail, but a Burns victory would not be a shocker.
Even if Burns becomes 170-pound king with his third win of 2020, though, the race for fighter of the year might be over by then. If Justin Gaethje defeats Khabib Nurmagomedov on Oct. 24, the polls are closed. I don’t care if Gaethje ekes out a split decision while Burns puts on a virtuoso performance capped by a spectacular finish. Gaethje’s two 2020 victories — ending Tony Ferguson’s 12-fight winning streak by TKO in May and handing Nurmagomedov his first career defeat — would trump whatever Burns or anyone else could turn in. Now, if Nurmagomedov wins, Burns would be back in play. Either way, and even if he doesn’t beat Usman, what a year for Gilbert Burns.
UFC president Dana White says he’d be open to Khabib Nurmagomedov’s final fight being against Georges St-Pierre.
Real or not: There’s more than a slight chance that Khabib Nurmagomedov will get his fight with Georges St-Pierre.
Okamoto: There’s definitely more than a slight chance. It’s what Nurmagomedov wants more than anything, and that alone makes it a real possibility. It’s also maybe the only fight St-Pierre would come out of retirement for. Now, is it the fight the UFC wants? No. The UFC wants Nurmagomedov to fight well into the future — more than the two fights he and others have teased he has left. The UFC wants him to fight for championships, not catchweight “legacy” fights.
The UFC views Nurmagomedov, correctly, as the best lightweight in the world and wants him to book the kind of fights that come with that. But the reality is that if, in fact, Nurmagomedov has only two fights left, and he makes that abundantly clear to the UFC, I believe the promotion will switch its stance on how to book his last fight. If he does want to leave the sport by finally facing St-Pierre, then why not have him vacate the title, book whatever lightweight title fight you want in his absence and sell Nurmagomedov vs. St-Pierre as a catchweight fight (that will also be Nurmagomedov’s retirement)? I’m not saying that’s going to happen, but I’m saying it’s possible. It has better than a slight chance, in my opinion.
Real or not: Anthony Smith would be a contender at 185 pounds.
Helwani: No. I don’t think moving back down to 185 is the answer for Smith. I think he needs some time off. Some of those recent battles, especially the Glover Teixeira and Jon Jones fights, plus the 59 pro fights (that we know of) on his résumé are going to take a toll. That is the bigger issue here. I thought he came back too soon after the Teixeira fight. The injuries he sustained in that fight would sideline most fighters for six or so months. Smith came back after three and a half months. I think he needs to take around eight or so months off and come back fresh. He can still be a player at 205, in my opinion, but his mind and body need to rest.