From Conor’s return to Cyborg’s debut, MMA bouts to watch early in 2020


The new year gets right down to big business with next week’s return of Conor McGregor. And that’s just the start for the UFC, which has four championship bouts already booked for the first quarter of 2020.

There likely will be another, as Israel Adesanya told ESPN on Monday that he’s close to finalizing his first middleweight title defense for early March against Yoel Romero.

April will bring the most highly anticipated championship fight on the UFC schedule, Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Tony Ferguson for the lightweight belt. But we’ll keep our focus here on just the year’s first three months.

Bellator joins the fun at the end of this month with the biggest women’s fight in its history, in which Cris Cyborg goes for the featherweight championship in her promotional debut. And there are big things brewing among the featherweight men as well, with another grand prix underway.

Over in Asia, the greatest flyweight of all time, Demetrious Johnson, is set to finally take his shot at the One Championship title.

Welcome to the kickoff of a new decade of big fights. Here are 10 to watch in the first three months of the year, starting with next week’s attention-grabber.

1. Conor McGregor vs. Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone

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Former two-division UFC champion Georges St-Pierre breaks down his outlook for the main event of UFC 246 between Conor McGregor and Donald Cerrone.

When and where: Jan. 18 in the main event of UFC 246 at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas.

Why it matters: Why? Because the future of Western civilization depends upon the long-awaited resumption of McGregor’s hibernating career, that’s why. Maybe that’s a slight exaggeration, but the Irishman’s first appearance inside the Octagon since Oct. 6, 2018 — and only his second since 2016 — does mean a ton (of cash) for the UFC. As for its appeal for fans, whether you’re a Conor lover or Conor hater, you’ve got to acknowledge that MMA is a whole lot more interesting when McGregor’s fast fists and faster mouth are actively engaged, preferably at the same time.

What questions will be answered: Has inactivity dulled the sharpness of McGregor (21-4), whose most recent victory came during the Obama presidency? How much of the impassioned Conor fan base will remain supportive of a nouveau-riche celebrity whose recent troubles range from stomping on a fan’s cellphone outside a Miami Beach nightclub and sucker-punching a Dublin pub patron to a pair of reported sexual assault investigations? And then there is the existential question dogging this night’s chosen opponent, “Cowboy,” a guy whom floundering fighters didn’t used to choose when looking for a winnable fight. Does Cerrone (36-13, 1 NC) still have what it takes to show the UFC he’s no Conor steppingstone?

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UFC women’s flyweight Maycee Barber sets multiple goals in her MMA career, with one being to top Jon Jones as the youngest champion ever.

When and where: Jan. 18 on the UFC 246 undercard.

Why it matters: There are several appealing bouts on the McGregor comeback main card, notably two involving former UFC champions: Holly Holm vs. Raquel Pennington and Anthony Pettis vs. Diego Ferreira. But this prelim feels even more special, because it could be a coming-out party for a 21-year-old with designs on making history. Barber (8-0) has stated that her goal is to be the youngest ever to win a UFC championship, a distinction now owned by Jon Jones. “Bones” won his belt at the age of 23 years, 8 months and 1 day. That gives Barber, who turns 22 in May, a full 24 months to fulfill her ambition.

What questions will be answered: Modafferi (23-16) has competed for but failed to claim championships in the UFC, Invicta and Strikeforce. She is No. 10 in the ESPN women’s flyweight rankings. But at age 37, is she still a viable title contender? Win or lose, Modafferi has shown she has the veteran chops to prevent an opponent from looking like a world-beater. So, flipping that around to a more future-focused question: Can Barber take a big step forward — toward her go-for-the-gold goal and also in the eyes of the MMA fan base — by making “The Happy Warrior” not so happy to be stuck inside a cage with her?

Julia Budd has been fighting on the smaller stage of Bellator, but she has a chance to make a big splash against Cris Cyborg. Dave Mandel/USA TODAY Sports

When and where: Jan. 25 in the main event of Bellator 238 at The Forum in Inglewood, California.

Why it matters: Budd is the Bellator women’s featherweight champion. She is 13-2 and has not lost a fight since 2011 — and her only defeats were to Amanda Nunes and Ronda Rousey. But the champ is going to step into the cage as an underdog, because she’s facing one of the all-time greats. Cyborg (21-2, 1 NC) will be making her Bellator debut a little over a year after Nunes dethroned her as UFC champion. It would not be unreasonable to expect that she’ll now take over as the queen of Bellator, but Budd will have something to say about that.

What questions will be answered: How impressive will Cyborg have to look in her post-UFC career in order to reclaim her place in the conversation about who’s the greatest female fighter in the world? Has Budd maybe been the real thing all along, but invisible right before our eyes because she fights in a weight class with little competition and does so on the smaller stage of Bellator?

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Adam Borics knocks out Aaron Pico with a flying knee in the second round of the Bellator 222 prelims.

When and where: Jan. 25 on the undercard of Bellator 238.

Why it matters: It’s very possible you’d never heard of Borics until he was 13-0. That was his record after he smashed hot prospect Aaron Pico back in June, on a night when Borics entered the cage as just an opponent and exited it as an object of intrigue. Since then, Boric has defeated two-time former Bellator 145-pound champion Pat Curran. And now comes another ex-champ, this one of more recent vintage, in a quarterfinal of the promotion’s Featherweight Grand Prix.

What questions will be answered: Did Caldwell (14-3) right his ship with a September victory after he had dropped two straight and his belt? As the competition gets stiffer for Borics, where is the ceiling for the Hungarian 26-year-old?

Will Dominick Reyes, right, bring out the best of Jon Jones, or will the champ struggle to find motivation? Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC

When and where: Feb. 8 in the main event of UFC 247 at the Toyota Center in Houston.

Why it matters: When Jones does his prefight cartwheel upon entering the Octagon, the whole MMA world gets a little giddy and lightheaded in anticipation of something dazzling. But lately “Bones” has not lived up to the glimmering expectations. He has continued to win, but his performances have been more buttoned down. Jones (25-1, 1 NC) now emanates the pragmatism of a man content to be good at his job, where there used to be the flair of a master artist reveling in untethered expression. Facing the unbeaten Reyes (12-0), who is his physical match and has confidently stirred things up in their verbal sparring, Jones might very well be motivated to give us a glimpse of his old breathtaking self.

What questions will be answered: Does that electrifying old Jones even exist anymore, or have his years of hard living short-circuited much of his voltage? Will Reyes be the latest high-hopes challenger to shrink in the moment of coming face to face with Jones? Is there a challenge for Jones at 205 pounds, or is it time for him to step up and face the big boys at heavyweight?

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Jennifer Maia and Katlyn Chookagian trade punches at the end of Round 1 in their early prelim bout at UFC 244. For more UFC, sign up here for ESPN+ http://plus.espn.com/ufc.

When and where: Feb. 8 in the co-main event of UFC 247.

Why it matters: Shevchenko is emerging as the most dominant woman in the UFC this side of Amanda Nunes, who has handed her her only two losses in a decade. Shevchenko (18-3) is unbeaten at flyweight, where she reigns with an iron fist and lethal kicks to match. From her flashy fighting style to her fight-week dance moves, this 31-year-old Kyrgyzstan native has “star” written all over her. This will be Shevchenko’s third defense of the 125-pound crown, and Chookagian (13-2) has the skills and will — and physique — to make it an engaging fight to watch.

What questions will be answered: Will Chookagian’s physical advantages — 5-foot-9, 68-inch reach compared to the 5-5 Shevchenko and her 66.5-inch reach — pose problems, or is this simply too steep of a step up in competition for her? Can anyone at 125 pounds hang with Shevchenko, or is her inevitable next step a third crack at Nunes, with the added appeal of the trilogy bout being a champ-vs.-champ superfight?

When and where: Feb. 15 in the main event of UFC Fight Night at the Santa Ana Star Center in Rio Rancho, New Mexico.

Why it matters: This one is a clash of forgotten men. OK, that’s not exactly selling it as a fight that matters, so let’s go with this: Here’s a clash of men who’ve been unjustifiably forgotten. Anderson (13-4) has won four fights in a row. Blachowicz (25-8) has won five of his past six. Yet neither has got even a whiff at a light heavyweight title shot. The survivor here could finally grab the attention of Jon Jones. Or, if “Bones” moves up to heavyweight, maybe this fight’s winner will help fill the void at the top of the 205-pound division.

What questions will be answered: Let’s keep it simple, with one question applying to both guys: Will someone, anyone put on a performance so eye-opening that it doesn’t simply warrant a title shot, it demands one?

When and where: Feb. 29 in the main event of UFC Fight Night at Chartway Arena in Norfolk, Virginia.

Why it matters: The UFC’s flyweight division was created for Benavidez, who back in 2012 was competing against bigger men at bantamweight and was beating all of them — except champion Dominick Cruz. But after he lost a split decision to Demetrious Johnson in the first 125-pound title bout, then lost a 2013 rematch by first-round knockout, Benavidez was exiled to no man’s land. That changed once Henry Cejudo captured the belt in 2018, because Benavidez (28-5) owned a win over Cejudo and was again a logical title challenger. It got complicated after Cejudo added a second belt, but now that “The Messenger” has decided to focus on 135 pounds and vacate at 125, it is Benavidez’s time to shine. He’ll have to shine particularly brightly, though, to get past Figueiredo, who at 17-1 could be the next big thing in the division.

What questions will be answered: Is Benavidez still the best male flyweight not nicknamed “Mighty Mouse?” Or is it Figueiredo’s time? Then again, with the 32-year-old Brazilian never having faced Benavidez, Johnson or Cejudo, is his 17-1 record a mirage?

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Ariel Helwani is excited for Zhang Weili’s first title defense against Joanna Jedrzejczyk in March.

When and where: March 7 in the co-main event of UFC 248 at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas.

Why it matters: There has been no headline bout officially announced, although Israel Adesanya says this is the event where he’ll be defending his 185-pound belt against Yoel Romero. It would take a big fight like that to merit top billing above this gem of a co-main. Zhang (20-1) will be making her first defense of the strawweight title she won with a 42-second TKO of Jessica Andrade back in August in her native China. Jedrzejczyk (16-3) is in some eyes still the face of the 115-pound division, a former champion with a fan-friendly, aggressive stand-up style and swagger to match. This tussle could steal the show.

What questions will be answered: Has this been Jedrzejczyk’s weight class all along, with Rose Namajunas simply having her number? Was the title-winning Zhang KO a sign of things to come, or did she just pull off the performance of her life in her big homeland moment?

When and where: Date and venue are yet to be announced, but One Championships chairman and CEO Chatri Sityodtong has confirmed that this title fight is next for Johnson and it will take place early in 2020.

Why it matters: Moraes (18-3) is the One Championship flyweight belt holder, but even he knows who the 125-pound boss is. It’s “Mighty Mouse,” who reigned as UFC champion for six years and made more title defenses (11) than anyone in that promotion’s vaunted history, and is now fighting across the Pacific. Or, in this case, maybe not? One Championship opened offices in New York and Los Angeles last year, and the Singapore-based company has expressed an intention to hold its first U.S. event early this year, possibly at Madison Square Garden. For its debut on this side of the pond, One couldn’t find a better headliner than the flyweight GOAT.

What questions will be answered: Is Johnson (30-3-1) still the king of the 125-pounders, or after 34 pro fights has the 33-year-old slowed down (to normal speed from his usual fast-forward)? Who is this Moraes guy, and can he make a name for himself among American fans in the same way Timofey Nastyukhin did (to an extent) with his upset knockout of Eddie Alvarez on the night last March when “The Underground King” and “Mighty Mouse” made their One debuts? If this bout does end up in the U.S., can One Championship carve out a place for itself in the North American MMA landscape?


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