It’s that time of year again, when all the media types have a look at the tea leaves to make “bold predictions” of what’s to come in the new year. In MMA, this is a particularly foolish endeavor. It is the most chaotic, plot-switching, purely asinine sport, and to predict what will happen next is like throwing a paper airplane into a tempest and pretending to stand on good authority as to where it’ll land.
For instance, nobody in their right mind would have predicted that Sean Strickland would be the middleweight champion at this time last year. He lost his second consecutive fight to close out 2022, and as far as we knew, the UFC was terrified of what might come out of his mouth if a hot mic was presented to him. He was a million miles from nowhere. Yet somehow, he put together a couple of quiet wins against even quieter Dagestani smeshmouths and found himself standing opposite Israel Adesanya at UFC 293 in September. He didn’t belong there, of course, and people made that known, including the oddsmakers in Vegas who installed him as a massive underdog. Yet there he was.
So what did he do with his chance? He went out there and dominated. It looked like he broke Izzy. And just like that, Strickland became a champion.
He’s the most glaring example of just how futile predictions can be, but there were plenty to choose from in 2023. Who foresaw Alex Pereira moving up to light heavyweight and winning a second title, especially after losing a title fight to Adesanya in April? Who imagined Sean O’Malley—a proud stoner with a head of Silly String hair—would become the bantamweight champion? Who could have foretold that Francis Ngannou would not only get a boxing match against Tyson Fury, but nearly beat him for a non-fumble-able bag? The kind that makes people—like Dana White, who swore Francis was making a grave mistake betting on himself as he did—eat a good amount of crow?
In other words, everything you’re about to read below is based on good intentions, available information, and, in some cases, stubborn intuition. But make no mistake—this is a crapshoot, plain and simple.
Having said that, let’s get on with it! Here’s what we see in our crystal ball for 2024.
Tom Aspinall will be the UFC undisputed heavyweight champion.
As we head into a new year, the UFC’s heavyweight division is a bit jacked up. The champ, Jon Jones, is recovering from an injury that knocked him out of his October fight with Stipe Miocic, and Miocic has been promised (repeatedly) the next crack at him whenever he returns. That fight might not happen until the fourth quarter of 2024.
So where does that leave Aspinall, who stepped into the main event spot at UFC 295 in October and clobbered Sergei Pavlovich to win the interim heavyweight title?
I’ll tell you exactly what will happen: At some point this year, the chants of a unifying Jones-Aspinall title bout will drown out all insistences from Dana White to do Jones-Miocic. This will happen because Jones himself will be accused of dodging the more dangerous threat to his throne, and one of these nights, he’ll fire off a disrespectful tweet toward Aspinall that will essentially fan the low-flame hysteria to see this fight happen.
Because why would the UFC grandfather a title fight between a 41-year-old Miocic and a consensus GOAT like Jones when a perfectly marketable/profitable interim champ like Aspinall is standing there idly mashing his fists?
And while we’re on that topic, here’s another Mindenhall guarantee: Aspinall will beat Jones to become the undisputed king.
Shavkat Rakhmonov will overtake the UFC’s welterweight division.
This one feels like cheating. It feels too obvious. But if ever there was a premonition of a hostile takeover, we felt it when Rakhmonov folded up Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson like he was packing him away in his carry-on, a little souvenir to take back to Kazakhstan.
Rakhmonov is the closest to a Kurosawa figure we’ve seen in MMA. He’s had 18 professional bouts, and he has vanquished all 18 opponents. All of them finishes. Doesn’t matter if the fight goes to the ground or to the fence, if it’s playing out in scrambles or it’s kept standing: Shavkat is the same nightmare. He doesn’t make facial expressions or emote like real human beings, which makes matters worse. It’s possible he time-traveled to our present day from the 1500s. Hard to say.
But I do know one thing: As nice of a story as Leon Edwards’s unlikely reign as the welterweight champ has been, there’s a reckoning closing in. And that reckoning wears dead animals on his head.
Nate Diaz will return to the UFC.
This one might be more wishful thinking than anything, but Nate had his boxing lark against Jake Paul in August and made lots of money. He left the door open to return to the UFC when he departed, though, and has maintained a friendly disposition throughout his “hiatus.”
Does the UFC have an interest in bringing Nate back? After all, it tried to sic Khamzat Chimaev on him on his way out the door at UFC 279 to reduce his market value as a free agent, which was a highly telegraphed “fuck you” to one of MMA’s cult icons.
Still, the answer is yes.
Dustin Poirier was hoping to finally fight Diaz at UFC 300, but that isn’t happening. You know what fight is still out there, though? A fight that (a) doesn’t require a title in play to be huge, (b) doesn’t require the principals to be on any kind of win streak whatsoever, and (c) is completely unresolved?
A fight with Conor McGregor. That fight is in the back pockets of both parties. And the UFC eventually will dig into its own to make it happen—could it be in late 2024?
Conor McGregor will fight twice in 2024.
When it’s all said and done, it will have been nearly 1,100 days between fights for McGregor when he takes on Michael Chandler in June. Leg breaks are very difficult to come back from, and this return is really the hurdle he needs to clear. Watching him regain his timing, speed, and confidence in live rounds will be interesting, yet it’s perhaps beneficial that he’s fighting a hydrant of a man, the shorter fighter Chandler (as McGregor has traditionally boded well against the vertically challenged).
The subtext of this fight is all about overcoming doubts.
As we witnessed with Chris Weidman, who came back a shell of himself in 2023 after a devastating leg break similar to McGregor’s, it’ll take a minute for McGregor to get his bearings. It’s easy to envision a scenario in which he takes awhile to warm up and has to battle his own hesitancy to pull the trigger in real time (especially with the kicks). If that happens, and he ultimately loses the fight because he didn’t feel like himself, he’ll want to fight again ASAP to get closer to the true version of McGregor. It would be extremely hard for an egotistical whiskey baron like him to live with the perception that he’s not the same fighter as he once was.
But here’s the thing—he won’t lose that fight. He will win it, thus setting up an even bigger fight for later in the year. (Worth noting: McGregor has two fights left on his current UFC contract.) And once he has his mojo back with that first victory, whatever he’s been withholding internally will show up in the bright red strained cords in his neck as he yells absurd shit into the microphone. It will be hell unleashed. The UFC will have to batten down the hatches. Who will he fight next?
Here’s guessing that Khabib Nurmagomedov’s apprentice Islam Makhachev will be the front-runner, though the fight would have to be at 170 pounds because there’s no way this densely thicc 2024 version of Conor is getting back down to 155.
Israel Adesanya will return this year.
Adesanya said that he wants to take a modest break from fighting and that we can look for his return in 2027. Everyone knows that’s a load of hooey. Izzy was one of the most prolific champions during his run as the middleweight king, and if anybody enjoys the scrutiny and shine that come with the throne, it’s him.
He will return in 2024 because the sideline is no place for a star of his caliber.
And since the middleweight division is currently letting the new bloods have a minute (Sean Strickland will face Dricus Du Plessis at UFC 297 this month), Adesanya is primed to make a statement. What will that be?
A fight with the bearded bogeyman, Khamzat Chimaev. Nobody wants to fight Chimaev because he operates like a plague for fighter legacies. Former welterweight champion Kamaru Usman gave it a shot at UFC 294 and got major kudos for simply going the distance with Khamzat. One of Kamaru’s good friends happens to be Izzy, who studied that film well and isn’t put off by the imposition.
In fact, he thrives on the idea of squashing one of the UFC’s most invincible assets. What could be a bigger statement?
No, I see it just as clear as day. Adesanya versus Chimaev. That shit’s happening.
Ilia Topuria will take out Alexander Volkanovski.
All the red flags are waving. Volkanovski, the UFC featherweight champion, jumped at the chance to make history at UFC 294 in a rematch with lightweight champion Islam Makhachev and got knocked out for the first time in his UFC career. He explained afterward that he took the fight on short notice because he wasn’t doing well when left to his own thoughts, and he needed to be in training to find peace of mind.
It adds up to a danger zone for Volkanovski, especially with a relatively fast turnaround fight back in his natural weight class.
Here’s the problem, and by problem, I mean the screaming siren that’s being sounded from high up in the clouds. An unsung, undefeated, super-strong, highly versatile, 26-year-old, German-born fighter in Topuria is the last thing you want to see in a “get right” fight, especially when Topuria looks like he could be a lead on a daytime soap. If you’re a Volk fan, this fight isn’t to be trusted. Topuria is one of those fighters who’s on the cusp of big, big things. He will show up like a revelation at UFC 298.
And he will take out Volkanovski in a fight that will have most of you saying, “We should’ve seen that coming!” right afterward. Well, guess who did see that coming?
Deontay Wilder will try out 4-ounce gloves.
This prediction is murky, and the reason is that brand-name boxers aren’t nearly as nimble with their careers as MMA fighters. Wilder is used to making stupid amounts of money, while MMA fighters are traditionally used to making their promotions stupid amounts of money. Yet Wilder looked disinterested and dispirited in his last bout with Joseph Parker in December, which prompted a lot of obituaries in the boxing media.
So what is an exhilarating aside that Wilder can do to sustain a little shine in 2024? Mixed martial arts. The best-case scenario would’ve been for him to challenge Francis Ngannou in a hyper-imaginative, why-the-fuck-not crossover extravaganza under the PFL banner, which still would do big business and fit the advanced Ngannou ethos. The truth is, Ngannou doesn’t much like (or want) to wrestle or grapple, and he’s certainly not trying to make a living in the Thai plum.
So, an MMA bout between Ngannou and Wilder would essentially be a slightly more sadistic boxing match with lighter gloves, which sells itself just fine, thanks.
Francis owes the PFL a fight in 2024, and he belongs in the Super Fight Division, an exclusive class of fighters who, presumably, must live up to the billing. If not Wilder in that role against Ngannou, who?
Kayla Harrison and Cris Cyborg will finally clash.
The biggest strictly MMA fight that can happen outside of the UFC has got to be Cyborg versus Harrison. Cyborg has been rag-dolling competition for nearly 20 years in EliteXC, the UFC, Strikeforce, and Bellator. She has lost just twice over that span, going 13 years between defeats. Otherwise, she’s barely been threatened by the host of whimsical names thrown at her.
The Olympic judo medalist Harrison has been rag-dolling everyone she’s come into contact with, too, whether fighting as a lightweight or a featherweight. She also lost a fight (to Larissa Pacheco in 2022) but has made plenty of cash smashing lesser talents into the soft earth.
What’s fun about this fight is that it’s legit bigger than any women’s fight the UFC can make, and Kayla is legit bigger and stronger than Cyborg. Cyborg has a lot more experience in the cage than Kayla, though, and her time in combat sports is definitely short-lived. It has to take place, see. It has to!
If this fight doesn’t happen in 2024 now that both are under the PFL banner, it never will.
Finally, Ronda Rousey will …
… not come back, so get it out of your head.
But if all of these other things happen, it’ll be a very good year in MMA. Related, if all of these other things happen, we might want to check for signs of the apocalypse, because absolutely nothing can be predicted in MMA—other than these feeble first-of-the-year attempts to do just that.