The 2018 season of the hit series called “Life” is coming to an end this weekend. By this time next week, we’ll be in 2019.
Where does the time go?
Thankfully, you don’t have to answer those existential questions just yet, as we have some fantastic fights to occupy our minds before the year’s end.
Saturday features the stacked UFC 232 live from Las Ve—err, Los Angeles headlined by two title fights. Rizin will air in the wee hours (for my fellow Americans) on New Year’s Eve, headlined by a cross-promotion super-fight and some sort of boxing exhibition abomination between Japanese mega-star Tenshin Nasukawa and Floyd Mayweather. To cap off 2018, PFL will air the finale of its first season, as six fighters will walk away with a $1 million payday.
I just want to take this time for a little cheese and thank everyone who has not only supported me but every single talented writer that has contributed to this site this year. It means more than you’ll ever know.
For the last time in 2018, let’s talk about the three fights you CANNOT miss this weekend (plus a day).
I have never selected “honorable mentions” since I began writing these weekly pieces, but it is a necessity under these circumstances.
All three major cards airing before New Year’s Day are stacked from head-to-toe and I’d be doing you a disservice if I only limited this list to three fights. In no particular order, here are the fights that aren’t as “must watch” as the top three, but you should make a strong attempt at catching:
Tenshin Nasukawa vs. Floyd Mayweather – Rizin 14: Monday, Dec. 31st
It’s a world-class kickboxer taking on one of the greatest boxers of our generation. I’m still a little unsure of the rules, and for all I know, it might resemble more of a professional wrestling match than a fight. However, I will certainly be tuning into this fight out of sheer curiosity and the magnitude of both parties involved.
Daron Cruickshank vs. Damien Brown – Rizin 14: Monday, Dec. 31
Two UFC veterans who love to strike. I’d be shocked if it disappointed.
Ray Cooper III vs. Magomed Magomedkerimov – PFL #11: Monday, Dec. 31
This is the most competitive of the $1 million bouts at PFL #11. Cooper has knocked everybody out including Jake Shields twice. Magomedkerimov also ran through all of his foes this season. This is a tough one to pick, but I can’t wait.
Chad Mendes vs. Alexander Volkanovski – UFC 232: Saturday, Dec. 29
A potential “passing of the torch” fight between two similar fighters. A true title threat will emerge from this scrap whether it’s the vet Mendes returning to form or the up-and-coming Volkanovski leaving no doubt that he is an upper echelon featherweight.
Now, it’s time for the three must-watch fights of the weekend.
Cris “Cyborg” Justino vs. Amanda Nunes
Saturday, December 29
We’re finally getting the super-fight between Cyborg and a dominant bantamweight champion.
I think most of us thought that fight would be between Cyborg and Ronda Rousey, but for my money, this is a vastly better fight and one of the toughest tests of Justino’s career.
One of the critiques of Cyborg’s dominant run, especially since joining the UFC, has been the quality of her opposition. Justino’s recent opponents have largely been career bantamweights moving up in weight to challenge her, with most simply looking outmatched and undersized. Except maybe Holly Holm, Cyborg’s recent foes have provided little in the way of offense to gain her respect and slow down her patented Chute Boxe style onslaught. The moment women like Lansberg, Evinger, and Kunitskaya tasted the power of Cyborg for the first time, their body language and facial expressions immediately changed, reflecting already defeated fighters.
On Saturday, Cyborg will once again fight a bantamweight, but unlike any she has seen before.
The bantamweight Queen, Amanda Nunes, is riding a seven-fight win streak, with names like Tate, Shevchenko, Rousey and Pennington laying in her wake of destruction. Nunes provides everything Cyborg’s other bantamweight foes did not; relentless pressure and most importantly the power to earn the respect of Cyborg. No other fighter, including Holly Holm, hit Cyborg hard enough to make her think twice about constantly moving forward. Nunes has shown that she possesses such power.
Will it be enough?
That is the theme of this fight. We know what Cyborg does well. We know what Nunes does well, but will it be enough? On paper, Nunes certainly seems to provide the biggest threat to Cyborg in a very long time – maybe ever – but we still don’t know if that will conquer the woman they call Cyborg.
If it is enough, Amanda Nunes will become the first-ever female UFC two-division champ. She will catapult up the pound-for-pound rankings and into female GOAT talks. For Cyborg, Nunes will make for one shiny trophy on her mantle. It will be hard for the world to dispute her claim as the most dangerous woman on the planet.
Darrion Caldwell vs. Kyoji Horiguchi
Monday, December 31
This fight is the main attraction on New Year’s Eve.
Oh, you’re counting down the seconds until the clock strikes midnight ushering in a new year? Cool. Two world-class athletes from different MMA organizations are fighting for a title. Step your game up.
This fight could open up so many doors in the world of MMA and lead to a more enjoyable sport for fans globally, as Bellator sends their bantamweight champion, Darrion Caldwell, to Japan to fight Rizin’s bantamweight champion, Kyoji Horiguchi for his title.
If this fight is a success we could be ushering in an era that sees more companies open up to cross-promotion and gives fighters abilities to win multiple titles simultaneously across the globe. Many fights dubbed “dream fights” by fans can become reality. Fighters who proclaim themselves the best in the world may now get to go and prove it.
Am I getting ahead of myself? Maybe. Am I sorry for my visions of grandiose? Absolutely not.
Even if this ends up being a one time deal and doesn’t lead to a revolutionized MMA product, we’re still in for one damn good fight.
After losing his UFC Flyweight Championship fight with Demetrious Johnson in 2015, Kyoji Horiguchi has become one of the hottest fighters in the world, and one could argue that he is the face of Japanese MMA as a whole. Since that loss, Horiguchi has won 10 straight across the UFC and Rizin, where he won their Bantamweight Grand Prix and crowned himself their bantamweight champion. The 28-year-old karate master has blended absurd footwork, blistering hand speed and deceptive power with sensational results. His ability to dart in on his opponent and land combinations makes good mixed martial artists look slow and uncoordinated. Four of his last ten victims were finished by that combination of speed and power.
However, it is fair to question whether any of the names on Horiguchi’s resume are in the same ballpark as Darrion Caldwell.
The current Bellator bantamweight champion and former NCAA Division 1 national champion in wrestling will represent the best grappler, and physically strongest opponent Horiguchi has faced to date. Caldwell’s most recent fight was an excursion to the featherweight division where he easily outmuscled Noad Lahat. You have to believe his raw power coupled with world-class wrestling technique could play a huge factor in a fight with a man who spent a lot of his career as low as flyweight.
“The Wolf” will also enjoy an eight-inch reach advantage and has learned to utilize his wrestling pedigree to improve his striking game. The southpaw has a very fluid stance, bouncing back and forth on the balls of his feet. His feint game is supremely underrated. Caldwell has mastered the art of slightly faking a level change to throw off his opponents, most of which are already worried about the takedown. From there, “The Wolf” lights up his bewildered foes. Look for Caldwell to keep Horiguchi on the end of his jab, and when Horiguchi inevitably closes the distance, Caldwell will look to add him to his highlight reel of suplexes.
The potential impact of this high-level match up is electrifying. I can’t think of a better way for a company like Rizin to head into a new year.
Jon Jones vs Alexander Gustafsson 2
Saturday, December 29
Let’s tackle the elephant in the room.
I write about fights. I’m not a physicist. I’m not a biologist. I don’t know about the intricacies of anti-doping programs and/or athletic commissions.
I’m not going to speculate on whether the fight deserved to be saved, nor will I discuss the morality of supporting Jon Jones by watching this pay-per-view.
There are a plethora of fantastic pieces written about all of those topics. I’m not adding to them.
If you watched the first fight between these two men, you know we have a damn good fight on our hands. Alexander Gustafsson took Jon Jones to the brink of defeat as a sizable underdog at UFC 165. Five years later, these two men will finally do battle once again for the UFC’s Light Heavyweight Championship.
If you were like me, you probably wanted to see these two men run it back as soon as possible. While it took a wild, five-year ride to get back here, this matchup is still just as intriguing and still provides fans with one of the best stylistic pairings in the history of the company.
Despite losing twice since fighting Jones, Alexander Gustafsson has visibly improved since their first encounter. His boxing, which already gave Jones fits, has looked top-notch. It was most recently on display against Glover Teixeira, where the Swede put an absolute beat down on the Brazilian vet, utilizing his long, pinpoint uppercut. An improvement in this area, which was already so successful against Jones, is a scary thought for fans of “Bones.”
When it comes to Jones, I cannot make any claim with certainty about what type of fighter he is in 2018. He had two incredible performances after fighting “Gus” but then that’s when things get hazy. After his first title defense against Daniel Cormier, Jones’ fighting ability was overshadowed by suspension, crime, drugs, more suspension, and more drugs…allegedly. Neither of his two recent performances against Ovince Saint Preux and the aforementioned Daniel Cormier truly provided us with insight into what type of fighter Jones is today.
Maybe he has improved and hasn’t been able to display it in between his out-of-fighting mishaps. Maybe the suspensions really did help prolong his career as his camp seems to think.
However, there’s the very real possibility that all of this extracurricular activity and time out of the cage has caught up to the man. If it has, the man who gave him such a close fight five years ago could have easily surpassed him going into this next encounter. Gustafsson’s predictions may come true and Jones will suffer the first real loss of his career.
We’ll find out early Sunday morning.
That’s a wrap on 2018! Thanks for coming along, enjoy the fights and here’s to hoping for prosperity for you and yours!
A 29-year-old paralegal by day, but I rather write. MMA nut since '04.