January's top MMA storylines: New year, new UFC era

Yahoo Sports
Henry Cejudo (L) vs. T.J. Dillashaw headlines the first UFC on ESPN+ card on Jan. 19. (Getty Images)
Henry Cejudo (L) vs. T.J. Dillashaw headlines the first UFC on ESPN+ card on Jan. 19. (Getty Images)

The start of a new year brings with it the dawn of a new era in UFC broadcasting.

The company ended its landmark, seven-year relationship with Fox last month, and is set to kick off its new deal with ESPN.

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The self-professed “Worldwide Leader in Sports” had long resisted mixed martial arts, as the Disney-owned network mostly stayed on the sidelines over the years while everyone from CBS to Fox to Showtime got into the action on some level or another. (Bellator, which is now owned by Viacom, did have a short run on the Spanish-language ESPN Deportes under a previous regime.)

But times change and so has the sports television landscape. MMA fans were early adopters of subscription streaming services; ESPN has ramped up its ESPN+ streaming service; and it already has found success in combat sports with its boxing offerings. In this environment, a UFC partnership with ESPN is a natural fit.

While there will be 10 events a year on traditional ESPN cable, starting with Cain Velasquez vs. Francis Ngannou on Feb. 17 in Phoenix, the bulk of the deal’s live programming will appear on ESPN+. The debut ESPN+ card on Jan. 19 at Barclays Center in New York will kick things off with a bang, as the card is headlined by bantamweight champion T.J. Dillashaw dropping down to flyweight to take on 125-pound titleholder Henry Cejudo.

Plenty remains to be seen about how big ESPN will push the UFC. Will it see increased coverage on the flagship “SportsCenter” show? Will ESPN’s UFC programming be plugged on high visibility events like “Monday Night Football” and “Sunday Night Baseball”? Will the shows look different than what we’ve gotten used to from UFC cards? Will any time be trimmed from what were often interminable Fox broadcasts, so that fans don’t have to invest more time than a baseball doubleheader if they want to keep up?

We’ll start to get our answers soon enough.

Men’s match of the month: T.J. Dillashaw vs. Henry Cejudo, UFC on ESPN+, New York, Jan. 19

The UFC’s men’s featherweight division is in an odd state. Cejudo defeated Demetrious Johnson via split decision at UFC 227 to end the latter’s longtime title reign in a bout widely regarded as the greatest 125-pound matchup in the sport’s history. And the UFC responded by … trading DJ’s contract to Asia’s ONE Championship in exchange for welterweight Ben Askren.

Then several flyweights were released from their contracts, and still others have since gone up to bantamweight.

Then the UFC went out and decided to make this champion vs. champion fight for Cejudo’s flyweight belt, rather than Dillashaw’s bantamweight title, in large part because Dilliashaw wanted the opportunity to become a double champion. Dillashaw has never gotten down to flyweight in his MMA career, but he was granted his wish.

So if this is going to be the final 125-pound men’s title fight — the UFC has dodged attempts to make a definitive statement one way or the other — at least there’s the opportunity for the division to go out on a high note. Dillashaw (16-3), the two-time bantamweight champ, has won four in a row and eight of nine, and is coming off back-to-back knockouts of Cody Garbrandt. Cejudo (13-2), the 2008 Olympic wrestling gold medalist, has won three in a row.

Women’s match of the month: Paige VanZant vs. Rachael Ostovich, UFC on ESPN+, New York, Jan. 19

Unfortunately, this fight made headlines for the wrong reasons. Ostovich, a native of Hawaii, was in the news late last year after suffering a broken orbital bone in an alleged domestic violence incident. A tone-deaf UFC went ahead and put this fight on the same card as the official UFC debut of Greg Hardy, whose NFL career ended after domestic violence issues. The move has been widely criticized, but the UFC hasn’t budged. If VanZant vs. Ostovich wasn’t on the same card as Hardy, it would be a well-anticipated fight all on its own merits, as both look to build momentum in the flyweight division. The popular VanZant (7-4) is looking to shake off a two-fight losing streak, while Ostovich (4-4) aims to improve to 2-1 in the UFC.

Keep an eye on: Bellator Heavyweight Grand Prix finals, Inglewood, California, Jan. 26

Bellator’s year-long quest to crown a new heavyweight champion will end with either a legend of the sport adding another chapter to his legacy or Bellator’s first-ever “champ champ.” Former longtime PRIDE champion Fedor Emelianenko will meet Bellator light heavyweight titleholder Ryan Bader in the finals of the eight-man tourney as the main event of this Bellator show at The Forum. Emelianenko scored an electrifying 48-second KO of Frank Mir in the quarterfinals, then finished Chael Sonnen in the opening round during their semifinal bout. Bader, for his part, has won six in a row and 11 of his past 12. That includes all four bouts since the Arizonan jumped from the UFC to Bellator. He finished Muhammad Lawal in the quarterfinals and decisioned Matt Mitrione in the finals.

Under the radar: A new year of MMA on AXS-TV

For all the talk about changes in MMA broadcasting, AXS-TV continues doing what it does and doing it well: Showcasing the brightest up-and-coming young talent who is looking to make the final leap to the big leagues. In 2019, AXS’ longstanding Friday night fight cards move to a new time slot of 10 p.m. ET/7 p.m. PT with Legacy Fighting Alliance 57 in Atlanta. The main event is a battle of featherweight prospects, featuring “The Moroccan Devil” Youssef Zalal (6-0) vs. Chicago’s Jose Mariscal (8-3). Zalal, a Colorado resident by way of Morocco, has finish victories in all six of his pro fights; while Mariscal has come into his own since he began training with Dillashaw at Elevation Fight Team.

This month in MMA history

Jan. 30, 2000: PRIDE Open Weight Grand Prix tournament opening round. PRIDE’s tournaments are some of the most fondly remembered events in MMA history, and this is where it all began. A crowd of 48,316 showed up at the Tokyo Dome, as legends like Royce Gracie, Kasuzhi Sakuraba, Mark Coleman and Mark Kerr were victorious in first-round matchups. A young up-and-comer named Wanderlei Silva won an alternates bout, as well. The tourney was ultimately won by UFC Hall of Famer Coleman, who won three fights in one night on May 1 to take the crown.

Jan. 31, 2009: Georges St-Pierre vs. B.J. Penn. These days, there are so many champ-champ fights the concept seems watered down. But when UFC welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre met lightweight titleholder B.J. Penn in the main event of UFC 94, such encounters were rare enough that this was a huge deal. This was a rematch of a highly controversial split decision win for GSP at UFC 58. But this time, there was no doubt, as St-Pierre bludgeoned Penn for four rounds before Penn’s corner waved off the bout before the fifth. A sellout crowd of 14,855 at the MGM Grand in Les Vegas paid a $4.3 million gate and 920,000 pay-per-view buys were recorded for the event.

Jan. 12, 2013: Strikeforce’s finale. The final card in the history of the Strikeforce promotion went down on this night in Oklahoma City. While the brand had been downplayed following its purchase by then-UFC owner Zuffa in 2011, it continued to push consequential names right up until the end, as Tim Kennedy, Daniel Cormier, Gegard Mousasi, Jacare Souza and Josh Barnett were all victorious on the evening. The main event and final bout in Strikeforce history saw Tarec Saffiedine upset Nate Marquardt to win the welterweight title via unanimous decision.

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