2021 is upon us, and while 2020 was still somewhat successful, the UFC will be hoping for a better year this time around. Could 2021 be the biggest year in UFC history? UFC President Dana White hopes so.
While the UFC dealt with the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic reasonably well, there were still serious issues that meant that not everything could go to plan.
UFC fans will also be hoping for a better year, given that the promotion has not been able to allow fans into its events since March. Entirely when that changes is anyone’s guess, but most people will be hoping that by the end of 2021, fans will once again be able to watch UFC events live.
With all of this in mind then, here are five things UFC fans can expect in 2021 that they might not have experienced before.
#1 UFC events on Fight Island with fans in attendance
The UFC has been putting on events on Abu Dhabi’s ‘Fight Island’ since July, mainly to provide a way to give their international fighters a way to compete without having to enter the US. However, despite significant events like UFC 251 and UFC 254 taking place on the island, the UFC has still not been able to welcome fans in attendance there.
That could all change in 2021. Just a few weeks ago, the idea of building an ‘International Fight Week’ around UFC 257 was mooted by UFC President Dana White, with fans in attendance all part of the plan.
Given the global rise in coronavirus cases since then, it’s hard to believe now that the UFC could welcome international fans to an event that’s due to take place in just over three weeks.
However, with coronavirus vaccines now becoming more readily available, could the UFC pack the Fight Island facility with fans later in 2021, by the Spring? It’s a possibility.
To see fans return to live UFC events for the first time in a year would be a breath of fresh air – and with UFC 259 scheduled for March 6th, it would almost be poetic to have the event take place on Fight Island with fans in attendance, nearly a year after UFC 248 was the last event to do so.
#2 Jon Jones moving up to the heavyweight division
A heavyweight move has been teased by former UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones for what seems like years now. However, it does feel like 2021 will be the year that the move finally happens.
‘Bones’ relinquished his UFC light heavyweight crown back in May, and at that point, it seemed like he’d reached an impasse with the UFC over his pay. However, while those issues seem to have settled down since, there’s a new UFC champ at 205lbs – Jan Blachowicz – and Jones doesn’t seem to care.
Instead, he outright stated that he has no interest in the light heavyweight division any more, and is dead set on the new challenge of the UFC heavyweight division.
To say this is an exciting move would be an understatement. Jones has run roughshod over the UFC’s light heavyweights since his 2008 UFC debut, and his questionable disqualification loss to Matt Hamill remains the only black mark on his ledger.
However, the fact remains that for the most part, he’s had a size and reach advantage over foes at 205lbs.
So can ‘Bones’ thrive against giants such as Francis Ngannou, Stipe Miocic and Alistair Overeem? 2021 should be the year that we find out, particularly as rumours suggest he could receive an immediate UFC heavyweight title shot against the upcoming Miocic/Ngannou clash winner.
#3 The debut of TUF on the ESPN network
It’s been over two years since we last saw The Ultimate Fighter on our TV screens, with TUF 28: Heavy Hitters currently standing as the most recent season of the reality show.
At the time, TUF 28 hardly set the world alight; so when the UFC didn’t put together a further season for 2019, nobody missed it. After all, TUF’s reality show trappings were beginning to feel worn out, and Dana White’s Contender Series seemed to have replaced it as the primary method of getting prospects into the UFC.
But it’s now been confirmed that the reality show is back. The 29th season of TUF will air on ESPN+ at some point in early 2021, and while there are still plenty of questions around it – such as how it will be filmed in the post-Covid world – it’s intriguing.
After all, enough time has gone by that TUF might feel fresh now. And of course, last time the reality show moved to a new channel – onto FX back in 2013 – it produced one of the best seasons in the form of TUF 17.
Only time will tell whether TUF 29 is a success, but it will definitely be worth watching.
#4 Conor McGregor returning to the UFC roster on a full-time basis
Okay, so it’s fair to say that some UFC fans have already experienced Conor McGregor being a full-time member of the UFC roster. However, enough time has gone by since that was the case – nearly five years – that the UFC probably has plenty of fans who only recognise ‘The Notorious One’ as a part-time fighter at best.
After all, McGregor has only fought in the UFC on two occasions since the end of 2016. He was defeated by Khabib Nurmagomedov in October 2018 before later returning to trounce Donald Cerrone a year ago.
The Covid-19 pandemic has largely kept him out of action since – the UFC essentially didn’t want to waste his drawing power on an event without fans in attendance – but McGregor will officially return this month against Dustin Poirier at UFC 257.
And win or lose, the Irishman is expected to stick around this time. With Nurmagomedov now retired, there’s every chance that McGregor could find himself in line for another shot at the UFC lightweight title should he beat Poirier.
Even if he loses, the truth is that ‘The Notorious One’ is still likely to return to the UFC on more than one occasion during 2021. At the age of 32, he’s not getting any younger, and he’s likely to want to maximise his legacy – and bank balance – while he still can.
#5 The first UFC champion from Dana White’s Contender Series
Since its inception in 2017, Dana White’s Contender Series has become the most common route for highly touted prospects to find their way into the UFC. In fact, despite The Ultimate Fighter being set to return in early 2021, it’s safe to say that DWCS has primarily supplanted the reality show.
However, while TUF ended up producing several UFC champions – from Rashad Evans and Michael Bisping to Matt Serra and TJ Dillashaw – we’ve yet to see a graduate of the Contender Series capture UFC gold.
But could 2021 be the year that changes? It’s a possibility. Season One graduate Alex Perez came up short when he challenged Deiveson Figueiredo for the UFC flyweight title in November. Still, he isn’t the only graduate to have risen through the UFC ranks.
The likes of Sean O’Malley, Miguel Baeza and Sodiq Yusuff have all been recognised as being among the best prospects in their divisions right now. At the same time, Kevin Holland is perhaps only one more win away from a UFC middleweight title shot following his victory over Jacare Souza.
Only time will tell whether a Contender Series graduate reaches the same heights as Dillashaw and Bisping, but 2021 feels like as good a time as any for one of them to claim a UFC title.Published 02 Jan 2021, 04:08 IST