Athletes are used to pressure. Whether that comes in the form of general publicity, the eyes that watch their every move or the expectation placed on their shoulders. Being an athlete is more than just training and practicing your craft.
In MMA, it is no different, and many fighters even place higher expectations on themselves with call outs, trash talk and predictions. It has become more and more common as the sport grows and grows.
Here’s a list of 10 MMA Fighters who have the most to prove in the second half of 2018.
10. Kevin Lee
It might seem odd that after an impressive finish of Edson Barboza that Lee has much to prove. He’s touted as one of the future centrepieces of the Lightweight division and will more than likely be back in title contention soon.
But Kevin Lee faces an uphill battle, simply due to the stack of contenders at the top of the 155 division. Names like Tony Ferguson, the winner of Poirier/Alvarez – even Conor McGregor and Nate Diaz to a lesser extent – all weigh over the 25 year olds prospects of getting to the title.
Many have forgot Lee was handed his first loss since 2015 at the hands of Tony Ferguson at UFC 216 last year. That’s a good thing. But when it comes to matchmaking, and the chances of becoming a real contender, Lee will have to string together another few wins to get his shot. And in a killers row of UFC Lightweights, that’s going to be a tough task.
9. Luke Rockhold
The direction of Luke Rockhold’s career has took a turn for the worst ever since Michael Bisping bagged an upset KO at UFC 199. Rockhold bounced back with an impressive second round submission of David Branch, only to be brought back to the loss column at the hands of Yoel Romero at UFC 221 earlier this year.
Rockhold has been knocked out in two of his last three fights, which may spell chin issues. Now at 33, he has averaged a fight a year since 2015. The middleweight division is far from stacked – once Whittaker and Romero settle the score the matchmakers will be looking to the likes of Rockhold, Jacare, Weidman and Gastelum to determine another contender.
But it may not be smooth sailing for Rockhold as he has hinted at moving up to 205 pounds, which in my opinion would be a smart move. The Light-Heavyweight division has been thinned out over the last few years and aside from Alexander Gustaffson, doesn’t boast any worth contenders to ‘DC’s’ throne. Maybe when Cormier retires, which would be after the Miocic fight next month, would Rockhold move up. We’ll see how it plays out.
8. Jose Aldo
It can be easy to see why former UFC Featherweight Champion Jose Aldo has a lot to prove. Back to back knockout losses to Max Holloway have brought his stock down to a a new low. Holloway is touted as a champion for years to come in the Featherweight division – leaving Aldo’s untouchable aura to slowly ware off.
Aldo has hinted before at moving up to 155, but staying at 145 might be the smartest option. A lot of eyes will be on his upcoming UFC on Fox bout with Jeremy Stephens. Stephens is going through a career revitalisation with two knockouts in his current 3 fight win streak. His heavy punching power will surely be a test for Aldo’s ability to take a punch.
It may seem like Jose Aldo’s best days are over – but with being a dominant champion comes the pressure of reliving former glory. Aldo will be hard fought to return to the fighter he once was, but he may still have a lot to give in MMA for years to come. Only time will tell.
7. Dominick Cruz
What is happening with Dominik Cruz? The most logical answer would be nursing his broken arm he suffered in the build up to UFC 219 last December. The alternative answer would be, who the hell knows?
A forefront of the UFC’s broadcasting and analysis team, Cruz has quickly developed in to one of the companies most valuable on-screen assets. We’ve seen fighters that can do both – Tyron Woodley, Daniel Cormier and Paul Felder for example. But sometimes with the reliance on punditry comes one foot out of the door.
It’s hard to tell in Cruz’ case – as he is 14-1 since 2008. A remarkable statistic. The lone loss coming to Cody Garbrandt to close off 2016 at UFC 207. Cruz didn’t look old or worn in that fight, Garbrandt was simply the better fighter and most effective on the night. There’s no doubt Cruz still has a lot left in the tank, and will down the line want revenge with Cody. But a lot of weight will be placed on his shoulders for the rest of 2018 to see if he takes a fight, or goes in to 2019 in the midst of a two year hiatus.
6. Tyron Woodley
Can Tyron Woodley catch a break? No. Arguably the UFC’s most under appreciated champion, there’s a method to Woodley’s madness at not being regarded in a higher stature.
Introducing the ‘Interim Welterweight Championship’ solidifed the stupidity of the UFC’s title picutre. Woodley last fought 11 months ago, earning a Unaninamous decision win over Demain Maia, in a fight were 57 punches were the fewest ever landed in a title fight in the Octagon. It’s no lie Dana White was not impressed by that performance, so in turn he ruled out a fight with a man who is not impressed by your performance, in GSP.
Woodley now faces an ever growing wealth of contenders. This weekend’s Rafael Dos Anjos vs. Colby Covington fight will determine who’s next, but the likes of Darren Till, Kamaru Usman and Georges St. Pierre will be breathing down his neck. The pressure always seems to be on Tyron Woodley. So his return will be no different.
5. Georges St. Pierre
Speaking of the Welterweight title picture, Georges St. Pierre may want to throw his name in the hat of possible contenders. But then again, he might wait a while. Appearing on the Joe Rogan Experience, GSP went in to detail about the tough bulk up to 185 and suffering from ulcerative colitis. In his words, he is close to full health, but close to full health doesn’t exactly scream fight ready.
It’ll be interesting to see what the next step is for Georges St. Pierre. His interview with Rogan shed a lot of light on his outlook and perspective for the rest of his fighting career. From the words he spoke, it appeared he is more interested in the funner, ‘money’ fights rather than title aspirations. However he did allude to a possible move to 155 and fighting someone that has dominated the division. One that many would write him off against.
The unsolvable puzzle that is GSP remains unsolvable. GSP will more than likely do what GSP wants. Whether that’s a crack at his old Welterweight strap, a super fight or a move to 155. Whenever his next fight happens, the pressure will be high, as any fight he takes from here on in possesses a huge risk to his legacy.
4. Germaine De Randamie
And now starts the trend with champions that never defend their belt.
Dutch UFC Featherweight/Bantamweight, de Randamie, had the world at her pearl as UFC Featherwieht Champion. A controversial decision win over Holly Holm placed her as the inaugural champion, but it wasn’t as smooth sailing as most might have hoped. Sighting her previous PED record, de Randamie refused to fight the worthy contender in Cris Cyborg. This ultimately led her to being stripped of the belt.
In the months after failing to defend her title, de Randamie opted go back down to Bantamweight were she would be matched up with Marion Reneau and Ketlen Viera. Both fights were cancelled as a result of a de Randamie injury.
Now, at 34, Germaine de Randamie is no spring chicken, but she needs to seize the opportunity ahead of her. The women’s bantamweight division has effectively been cleared out by Amanda Nunes. Aside from eventual challenger Ketlen Viera, Nunes will be forced up to Featherweight to fight Cris Cyborg. If de Randamie can get back in the Octagon, she can put herself in the pecking order fairly quickly. If she doesn’t, she’ll go down as possibly the worst UFC title holder of all-time.
3. Tony Ferguson
Some things in life are cursed – such as the number 13, walking under ladders and going out the same door you came in from. Along with these nightmare topics comes matching up Khabib Nurmagomedov and Tony Ferguson.
These two have been scheduled to fight four times but to no avail. It’s a shame in a way. However, the Russian has since moved onward and upward – claiming the UFC Lightweight strap at UFC 223 in a victory over Al Iaquinta. Tony Ferguson, however, is in limbo.
Ferguson was the interim title holder up until UFC 223 but somehow was stripped in favour of a unified belt. Still undefeated for quite a while at 155, Ferguson found himself to be the rightful air to a Conor McGregor money fight but now has fallen down the pecking order. And as long as Khabib Nurmagomedov is champion, the UFC will be reluctant to grant him a fifth opportunity.
A big win for Ferguson could change things for him drastically. With inactivity comes memory loss, and people can be quick to forget long win streaks in favour of absence. Who could it come against? If it’s not a shot at the belt/Khabib, the UFC could match Ferguson would the next best. The winner of Poirier/Alvarez would be the most logical move. If Ferguson wins that, there’s no doubting he deserves a shot at the title, regardless of who is champion.
2. Conor McGregor
It was inevitable for ‘The Notorious’ to appear on this list. After all, he is the UFC’s biggest star and draw at the moment. By a country mile. McGregor’s inactivity has led to his personal demise in ways – storming cages and pushing referees, incurring speeding tickets and throwing dollies through buses. But his return to the Octagon could be his most pressurised yet.
Following Mayweather vs. McGregor, more eyes are on the Irish man to perform. Not only do his fans want to see him do well, but lots of people don’t want to see him do well. That’s what comes with being a polarising character. UFC brass will also feel under pressure – as a quick knock out or submission in favour of a McGregor opponent could cost them big bucks and hurt his drawing power.
What’s happening with McGregor at the moment? His trial in New York, alongside teammate and partner in crime (literally) Cian Cowley is due this month. That will determine the level of punishment received for the incident during UFC 223 fight week. It will also determine a rough timetable for McGregor’s return to the Octagon.
The likely case is for McGregor to receive ‘intensive’ community service which may rule him out for the best part of this year. A return on the UFC’s end of year card would not be out of the question. But against who? McGregor was informally stripped of his lightweight strap due to inactivity, so the only fight that makes sense for his return is for the belt. The story sells itself. Star, returns after years off, to find redemption, after company took what was his. There you go. Dollar signs.
1. Nicco Montano
Often times you have champions who feel ‘undeserving’. These can be fighters who had luck on their side for flash knockouts, or maybe were groomed for title shots, given the right matchmaking. Sometimes the division ends up being so thin that no one else is worthy. In women’s flyweight, this latter statement is probably the most accurate.
Nicco Montano won the Ultimate Fighter to be crowned the inaugural 125 pound champion. Upon winning the show in December 2017, she has been a silent figure in a division that ultimately embodies confusion. The top 15 is a strung together list of some fighters that only fought once under the UFC banner. The #2 ranked fighter holds a 2-2 record.
Montano has taken aim at media mogul Ariel Helwani for reporting she had turned down a fight against eventual challenger Valentina Shevchenko. In fact, it’s Shevchenko that casts a dark cloud over the division at the moment. The majority of ranked 125ers are UFC newcomers bar a few bantamweights that have moved down for a fresh start.
Shevchenko is the cream of the crop when it comes to these bantamweights, having narrowly lost out to 135 champion Amanda Nunes on two occasions. Shevchenko is battle tested, and very talented, and many think that she’ll walk through Montano given the chance. So in ways, Montano might be under as much pressure as any, not only to prove the doubters wrong against Shevchenko – but to prove the UFC’s worth in establishing the 125 division in the first place.
Thanks for reading. I have some impending news for the past few weeks now, that I hope will come out by 2020. Watch this space.