By Adam Martin
I know I can't be the only person wondering this question right now: "What is the UFC doing?"
The direction of the UFC seems extremely unclear at the moment, and I can't help but think there's a direct connection to both the recent sale of the organization to WME-IMG and the departure of former matchmaker Joe Silva, the best matchmaker in MMA history.
For the last 20-plus years, the UFC has been the leader in MMA. The reason is that the UFC has always delivered the big fights the fans want to see. But so far the year 2017 in UFC Land is looking extremely disappointing. After closing out 2016 with mega-fights like Conor McGregor vs. Eddie Alvarez and Amanda Nunes vs. Ronda Rousey, and even the surprise hit of the UFC 206 card, the UFC's schedule of 2017 bouts is so far nothing but a total disappointment.
First, UFC 208 was cancelled. From what I've heard, the UFC wanted to book Michael Bisping vs. Yoel Romero for the UFC Middleweight Championship, but with Bisping dealing with eye and leg injuries, he couldn't defend his belt in front of fans in his adopted hometown of Los Angeles. So instead, the UFC canceled the Anaheim card and shifted UFC 208 to Brooklyn, NY in early February, which shifted UFC 209 to Las Vegas in March instead.
I personally do not want to see Penn fight again -- he is a legend and I respect the hell out of him, but after seeing what Frankie Edgar did to him two years ago at the TUF 19 Finale, I don't want to see him get hurt anymore. But if he was dead-set on it, the previous fights the UFC booked for him, against Dennis Siver and Cole Miller, before USADA suspensions and injuries canceled them, at least made sense. In those fights, Penn was fighting someone he would be competitive with. But this fight against Rodriguez -- who has gone 5-0 in the UFC since winning The Ultimate Fighter Latin America and who looks like a future featherweight champion -- is nothing but a squash match. Sure, you can say that Rodriguez will continue to build his resume, but what does beating Penn even mean at this stage? It means nothing, and instead of fighting an aged legend like Penn, the UFC could have booked Rodriguez against a top fighter like Ricardo Lamas and see just where he is in terms of the title picture. And they could have booked Penn in a winnable against a guy like Gray Maynard.
The rest of UFC Fight Night 103 does not seem too exciting, especially with the cancellation of Bryan Caraway vs. Jimmie Rivera, so overall it's a below-average card according to typical UFC standards, and that's not the right way to kick off the new year.
UFC on FOX 23, seems a bit stronger, but again lacks that big name. Fights like Valentina Shevchenko vs. Julianna Peña, Donald Cerrone vs. Jorge Masvidal, and Andrei Arlovski vs. Francis Ngannou are all fun, but none of these fights feature superstars. Also, the card only has 10 fights with just over two weeks to go, so it needs to add two short-notice bouts to complete it. Much of the same can be said about the next card, UFC Fight Night 104, which has a main event of Dennis Bermudez vs. Chan Sung Jung and a co-main event of Felice Herrig vs. Alexa Grasso. Two solid fights, but hardly the types of fights that should be headlining a UFC card on Super Bowl Weekend, the type of weekend that is remembered for infamous bouts like Anderson Silva vs. Vitor Belfort in the past. And like UFC on FOX 23, UFC Fight Night 104 is still missing fights.
That brings us to the next card, UFC 208. The first thing we have to point out is that Jose Aldo vs. Max Holloway was targeted for this event but couldn't happen after Holloway hurt his ankle against Anthony Pettis. But when you think about it, why was the UFC relying on a guy who literally just fought in Holloway to fight again in like six weeks against a living legend like Aldo? The UFC shouldn't have been counting on this fight to happen, and now the new main event between Holly Holm and Germaine De Randamie for the inaugural UFC women's featherweight title is the replacement. I actually think this is a really solid fight, but it's a fight that should be a women's bantamweight fight with no title on the line. The title is only on the line because the UFC believes title fights will sell more PPVs, but every educated fan knows it's sham of a title with Cristiane "Cyborg" Justino not involved, USADA violation or not. It's a fight the UFC put together for money, but it's a fight that devalues what the UFC women's featherweight title is, as the best female 145-pounder isn't competing in it.
There are some other fun fights on UFC 208, like Travis Browne vs. Derrick Lewis (I don't expect MMA fans to be rooting for Browne here), Glover Teixeira vs. Jared Cannonier (weird, but fun), and Dustin Poirier vs. Jim Miller (could be a fantastic grappling match), but again, these are fights that aren't big sellers -- more like fights for hardcore fans. But even hardcore fans are disappointed with this card because a fake title fight between Holm and GDR is the main event.
UFC Fight Night 105, which features a main event rematch between Junior dos Santos and Stefan Struve, and UFC Fight Night 107, which features Kelvin Gastelum vs. Vitor Belfort in the main event. The JDS-Struve rematch is pointless, though I do like the Gastelum-Belfort booking that could give Gastelum the big win over an aging legend that he needs to break into stardom. Those two cards take us out of February and into March as far as cards booked. You may notice I didn't mention UFC Fight Night 106 or UFC 209. That's because there's no main event currently set for either card. That's not a good thing.
One of the biggest things missing are title fights, and that's because the UFC has only one title fight currently scheduled, the women's featherweight "title fight" between Holm and GDR, and that hardly qualifies as a title. With Conor McGregor and his girlfriend expecting a child, Bisping injured, Daniel Cormier injured (as well as Jon Jones), Demetrious Johnson injured, Cody Garbrandt and Amanda Nunes having just fought, and with Tyron Woodley, Stipe Miocic, Joanna Jedrzejczyk, and Aldo waiting for opponents, there are no title fights on the horizon. And draws like Georges St-Pierre and the Diaz brothers also aren't anywhere close to fighting. Plus the UFC can't get the Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Tony Ferguson fight booked for some reason. So overall there isn't much to look forward to.
It's fair to say when you go from the two biggest superstars in the UFC, McGregor and Rousey, to a bunch of mid-range fighters headlining cards, of course there's going to be disappointment felt by fans. I think a lot of fans and media were expecting a slight drop-off. But the thing is, after holding a bunch of title fights at the end of 2016, the UFC had a lot of momentum heading into this year. So far, though, 2017 is looking like a total dud. There's still time for the UFC to patch things up, and considering the year just started, who knows what 2017 holds? But with nearly two months of cards fully booked and very few must-see matchups on the horizon, it's definitely fair to wonder about the direction of the organization going forward, especially with the change in ownership and matchmakers. The fans are hoping things pick up soon, because after an incredible 2016, 2017 has a long way to go to make them happy with the state of MMA.