By Isaac Feldman
2018 was another great year for mixed martial arts. The sport gained even more worldwide attention with great performances inside the cage and some spectacular mishaps outside of it. Here's a look back at the most noteworthy moments of the year:
The clear biggest moment in MMA in 2018 was the Conor McGregor-Khabib Nurmagomedov main event at UFC 229. The Oct. 6 fight generated 2.4 million pay-per-view buys off of McGregor’s crossover stardom (especially following his 2017 boxing match against Floyd Mayweather Jr.) and the bitter rivalry the two fighters portrayed in the buildup. Before Nurmagomedov won the lightweight championship at UFC 223 in Brooklyn in April, McGregor was caught on camera throwing a hand truck through the window of a bus on which Nurmagomedov was as passenger. The incident led to McGregor’s arrest by NYPD and was the perfect promotional tool to build the biggest fight in MMA history.
The actual fight — Nurmagomedov won in the fourth round via submission — was eclipsed when Nurmagomedov jumped the cage following the bout and attacked McGregor’s teammate in the crowd. The melee created shock waves around the world. Almost three months later, the Nevada State Athletic Commission still is withholding Nurmagomedov’s $2 million fight purse and sorting out penalties for his (and McGregor’s) post-fight actions. The rematch may not be immediate, but if McGregor gets another win in the meantime, a potential sequel in late 2019 or early 2020 could be even bigger.
Hands down, this was Daniel Cormier becoming the second two-division champion in UFC history (McGregor was the first) by knocking out Stipe Miocic in the first round at UFC 226 in July. Cormier, an Olympic medalist in wrestling who has been on the wrong side of the entire Jon Jones saga, electrified the combat sports world when he moved up from light heavyweight and dismantled one of the greatest heavyweights of all time. It was Cormier stepping out of Jones’ shadow in the eyes of many MMA fans and pundits and receiving his proper due. It’s hard to think of a better champion: Cormier not only performs on fight night in the cage, he’s also a wizard as an MMA analyst. Cormier has become a star on the “UFC on FOX” desk and a strong co-commentator alongside Joe Rogan on UFC pay-per-view events.
What’s next for Cormier? Cormier has stated he won’t fight past 40 (his birthday is in March 2019) and wants one last fight against the polarizing Brock Lesnar (at UFC 235 on March 2?). No matter how the Olympian and two-division UFC champ decides to wrap up his career, he earned a ton of respect in 2018 for his accomplishments inside the cage and outside of it.
Not a moment as much as a trend: UFC brass and the Diaz brothers — whose lack of care for the “system” and insubordination with UFC has made them MMA cult heroes — can’t come to terms on a fight contract. In 2018, contracts for both Nick and Nate Diaz were announced publicly then fell apart. Nate was supposed to return at UFC 230 in November after a two-plus-year layoff (he was last seen losing a rematch to McGregor in August 2016), but the potential main event fight at Madison Square Garden fell through for undisclosed reasons. It was announced Nate’s older brother Nick would be returning after a four-plus-year layoff at UFC 235 in March 2019, but again the deal fell through. Most of the speculation centers on the Diaz brothers’ contract demands. UFC president Dana White has said he has tried more than “50 times” to get the Diaz brothers back in the cage. Meanwhile, at a time when UFC is trying to manufacture stars, they’re wasting prime fighting years for the pay-per-view-proven Diaz brothers, who have consistently drawn for UFC over their combined 37 fights in the Octagon.
Remember UFC 196, when Nate Diaz took a fight against McGregor on 11 days’ notice and finished the UFC’s darling inside of two rounds, emerging from his older brother’s shadow? Nate Diaz and McGregor did a combined three million pay-per-view buys in two fights. Following his loss to McGregor at UFC 202, Diaz vowed not to return until he got his rubber match. He has kept his word, which is honorable, but has cost his fans and UFC in the end. In the year of the first “trade” of fighters between MMA promotions (UFC and One Championship), it would be a win to get the Diaz brothers over to another promotion that would pay them properly and have UFC get a big-named fighter in return.
Moments to look for in 2019
January 2019 marks a new era for MMA as UFC ends a seven-year television deal with FOX and starts a five-year, $1.5 billion deal with ESPN. On the surface it may seem like just another TV deal. But it likely will prove to be the best platform for promoting all UFC fighters. Great performances will make it onto “SportsCenter,” and the humble, less talkative fighters will be able to market themselves widely without having to throw chairs or beverages around a press conference a la McGregor. The only fighters that most casual MMA fans can name off the top of their heads are the trash talkers and performance-enhancing drug users. There’s a huge audience that would tune in for a champion who prefers to make his or her statements in the cage or an unknown fighter who has triumphed over adversity. The ESPN deal may mean there are new and better messages about MMA being broadcasted to the masses in 2019 to balance out the enabled chaos we saw in 2018.
Follow Isaac Feldman, Pete Hoffman, and Outside the Cage on Twitter for all your MMA and UFC coverage. Listen to their "Outside The Cage" podcast. The next live post-fight show is Dec. 30 after UFC 232 from midnight-2 a.m. ET on CBS Sports Radio.