Years from now, when fans are looking back on the history of the UFC and the pivotal years that helped shape the organization, 2016 will stand out as one of the most important 12-month stretches in the company’s history.
Before we close the book on the current campaign and wrap up this incredible year, there are five events and a slew of compelling, pivotal bouts on tap to enjoy.
Here’s a look at the best of the bunch.
This is The 10.
The Ultimate Fighter Finale (Saturday, December 3 – Las Vegas, Nevada)
After coaching opposite one another during the season, Benavidez and Cejudo now get to do what they do best: compete inside the Octagon.
Benavidez enters on a five-fight winning streak and is standing as the clear silver medalist in the flyweight division, with his only losses since the 125-pound ranks were introduced coming against reigning champ Demetrious Johnson. For Cejudo, it’s his first appearance since losing to “Mighty Mouse” at UFC 197 in April – the first loss of his MMA career – and an opportunity to get right back into the mix by upending an entrenched contender.
It will be interesting to see where this one goes stylistically, as both men are capable of having success in space, in the clinch and on the ground, with Cejudo boasting the superior wrestling credentials (obviously) and Benavidez having a significant edge in terms of experience and the depth of his arsenal inside the cage.
Demetrious Johnson vs. Tim Elliott
Can Elliott play the role of Matt Serra and turn his ‘Tournament of Champions’ win into a UFC world title? That’s the question heading into this weekend’s main event, and while most are sure to be dismissing his chances, that’s how everyone felt about Serra heading into his matchup with Georges St-Pierre too.
Whether he wins or not, Elliott has earned his place opposite Johnson, having survived the competition this season to get back to Octagon. The former Titan FC champ had a tough road in his first tour with the UFC, going 2-4, but those losses came against the cream of the flyweight crop, and he’s since proven for a second time that he belongs at this level.
Now he faces one of the best pound-for-pound fighters in the world – a dominant champion who is closing in on Anderson Silva’s record for the most consecutive successful title defenses and who quickly dispatched Cejudo from the ranks of the unbeaten last time out. Despite all he’s accomplished, Johnson continues to get better with each subsequent appearance, making this weekend’s championship fight a must-see fight, whether you’re hoping for a major upset or simply wanting to see one of the best in the world do his thing.
UFC Fight Night: Lewis vs. Abdurakhimov (Friday, December 9 – Albany, New York)
Of all the bouts on this list, this is the one that really seems to be flying under the radar in terms of both likely entertainment value and the legitimate impact it could have on the division heading into 2017. The heavyweight ranks are in a state of flux beyond the Top 5 and the winner of this one has a chance set himself up for something bigger and better early next year with an impressive performance in Albany.
Lewis enters on a four-fight winning streak, brandishing big power and an improving skill set that doesn’t get talked about enough. Last time out, the Houston native outworked veteran Roy Nelson to earn the biggest victory of his career and reach the Top 10. As for Abdurakhimov, he’s rebounded from a loss in his debut with consecutive decision wins over Anthony Hamilton and Walt Harris, putting himself in a position to quickly propel himself into contention if he’s able to halt Lewis’ roll here.
These big boys should be throwing smoke from the outset, meaning there is a high probability that someone is getting knocked out.
UFC 206: Holloway vs. Pettis (Saturday, December 10 – Toronto, Ontario)
Ask and you shall receive.
Choi lobbied for this opportunity following his win over Thiago Tavares in July and after Swanson dispatched Tatsuya Kawajiri a month later, the bout was put together and added to this event in Toronto.
Riding a 13-fight winning streak that includes three straight first-round stoppage wins since arriving in the UFC, this is easily Choi’s toughest test to date and a chance for “The Korean Superboy” to establish himself as a legitimate threat in the featherweight division. Carrying serious power and great timing, Choi has impressed thus far, capitalizing on opportunities to finish Juan Puig, Sam Sicilia and Tavares with relative ease.
If he can do the same against Swanson, he’ll go from prospect to contender, but that is easier said than done.
“Killer Cub” has picked up back-to-back victories after a year off, collecting quality wins over Hacran Dias and Japanese veteran Kawajiri to reestablish himself as one of the top dogs in the featherweight division. Well-rounded with an indomitable spirit, the 33-year-old from Palm Springs will be looking to set himself up for a marquee matchup while halting Choi’s rapid ascent in this one.
Elevated to main event status with the interim title added into the mix in the wake of Daniel Cormier’s injury, this is a tremendous pairing that should produce all kinds of fireworks.
Pettis showed flashes of the skills that made him one of the most dangerous fighters in the game just a couple years ago in his divisional debut back in August, catching Charles Oliveira with a guillotine choke in the third to get a victory in his first fight at featherweight. With that initial weight cut under his belt and plenty of time to prep for Holloway, we should see an even better version of “Showtime” on the second Saturday of December.
Meanwhile, all Holloway has done is rattle off nine straight victories dating back to the start of 2014, including a quartet of Top 10 wins capped by his “Let’s Scrap” finish against Ricardo Lamas at UFC 199 back in June. “Blessed” has blossomed from an intriguing prospect to a legit contender inside the Octagon, combining technical skill and a high work-rate with toughness and heart.
As great as this fight was originally, it deserved to be a five-round affair all along and now these two get the chance to go 25 minutes – if needed – with the winner closing out the year by putting a championship belt on their mantle.
UFC on FOX: VanZant vs. Waterson (Saturday, December 17 – Sacramento, California)
Coming off a second-round, flying head kick finish of Bec Rawlings in Vancouver, VanZant gets a hometown main event assignment on FOX against the returning Waterson in a bout that carries a great deal of weight in the 115-pound division.
It’s been a challenging first 20 months as a member of the UFC roster for Waterson, who debuted with a win over Angela Magana, but has spent the last year and change on the sidelines recovering from various injuries. Healthy and ready to compete, the former Invicta FC champ gets a chance to close out 2015 with a headlining opportunity on network television, where a victory would catapult her into the championship mix in the wide open strawweight division.
VanZant flashed some new weaponry when she connected with her fight-ending kick against Rawlings in August, getting back into the win column in spectacular fashion. Now with five UFC appearances under her belt and having bounced back from her loss to Rose Namajunas last year, this is a chance for the 22-year-old Team Alpha Male product to pick up the biggest win of her career and potentially position herself for some serious opportunities in 2017.
This should be a fast-paced fight that offers a little bit of everything to close out another year of UFC action on the FOX network.
UFC 207: Nunes vs. Rousey (Friday, December 30 – Las Vegas, Nevada)
Dillashaw was hoping to close out 2016 the same way he started it – with a championship fight against Dominick Cruz – but instead, he’ll have to settle for the next best thing: a title eliminator tilt with Lineker on the same card as the bantamweight title fight.
After dropping the title to Cruz in a Fight of the Year caliber scrap in January, Dillashaw rebounded by avenging his prior loss to Raphael Assuncao at UFC 200 in July. If the former champion can dispatch Lineker, he should put himself in a position to challenge the winner of this show’s co-main event next year.
But beating Lineker is easier said than done, as the Brazilian powerhouse had collected four straight wins since moving to the bantamweight division and he carried the one-punch power that made him a threat at flyweight with him to his new home. Currently riding a six-fight winning streak – and a 10-2 overall slate in the UFC – a victory over Dillashaw will put “Hands of Stone” at the top of the list of contenders heading into 2017.
Originally scheduled to be a championship rematch back in February of this year, Werdum and Velasquez instead meet here in what could be a bout to determine the next title challenger in the heavyweight division.
Werdum rebounded from his title loss in May with a unanimous decision victory over Travis Browne at UFC 203 after “Hapa” stepped in for Ben Rothwell on short notice. Just a couple months earlier, Velasquez also rebounded from a championship setback by defeating Browne, running through the Hawaiian heavyweight in dominant fashion at UFC 200.
Now these two rivals meet for a second time, with both entering off solid recent outings and a potential chance to reclaim the title each has previously held hanging in the balance.
Dominick Cruz vs. Cody Garbrandt – for the UFC bantamweight title
These two have been on a collision course all year and when Garbrandt clocked Takeya Mizugaki as Cruz watched from the broadcast booth at UFC 202, you knew this championship bout was inevitable.
“No Love” has notched a trio of first-round stoppage wins in 2016 to push his record to 10-0 and carry him into this title fight. Sporting switch hands with serious power, the Team Alpha Male standout is out to halt Cruz’ reign and exorcise some of the demons of previous meetings between “The Dominator” and the Sacramento-based fight team.
If there were a Comeback Fighter of the Year award in MMA, it would belong to Cruz, who reclaimed the title he never lost in competition in a tremendous bout with Dillashaw at the start of the year before pitching a shutout against his long-time rival Urijah Faber in June at UFC 199. Now he’s looking to maintain his position atop the bantamweight ranks and silence his vocal challenger to put a bow on a wildly successful year in the Octagon.
No belt has changed hands more frequently in the last 13 months than the women’s bantamweight title and after a turbulent stretch, the first of four women to hold the belt has a chance to close out 2016 as the champion once again.
Nunes claimed the title with a blistering performance against Miesha Tate at UFC 200, showcasing her fight-altering power right out of the gate before submitting Tate three minutes and change into the first round. Riding a four-fight winning streak and in the best form of her career, Nunes can position herself for a big 2017 by becoming the first woman to successfully defend the women’s bantamweight title this year.
While you know what to expect from the champion, the challenger enters surrounded by question marks and that’s what makes this fight so intriguing. This is Rousey’s first appearance since losing the title and more than a year spent largely out of the spotlight, leaving everyone to wonder what to expect from the former champion when she returns to action.
Will Nunes begin a lengthy reign by dispatching the returning challenger or will Rousey reclaim the position she held for a number of years?