The Great Divide: What three non-champions have the best shot of ending 2019 with UFC gold?

The Great Divide is a reoccurring feature here at MMA Fighting in which writers debate a topic in the world of MMA — whether it’s news, a fight, a crazy thing somebody did, a crazy thing somebody didn’t do, or some moral dilemma threatening the very foundation of the sport — and try to figure out a resolution. We’d love for you to join in the discussion in the comments section below.

In past editions, Chuck Mindenhall and Shaun Al-Shatti debated UFC 230’s main event, Tyron Woodley’s UFC 228 dilemma, Daniel Cormier’s potential retirement fight, the winner of the DJ-for-Askren trade, the ill-fated Bellator 214 vs. UFC 233 duel, and the chances for a major UFC 232 upset. This week, the two look ahead to 2019 and wonder: Which three non-champions have the best chance of ending the new year wrapped in UFC gold?

Al-Shatti: Well here it is, Chuck. The new year is upon us. And with it, the time to throw wild and reckless predictions at the wall and see what sticks. Wheeee!

For a little background, a few of us here at MMA Fighting did an in-house pick’em game at the beginning of last year for funsies, basically trying to predict who all 12 UFC champions would be by the end of 2018. The results were predictably disastrous. (I ended up with only four out of 12 correct: Holloway, Dillashaw, Shevchenko, and Nunes at bantamweight. Somehow I still finished in the middle of the pack. It’s harder than it looks.) So for the first piece of a multi-part series we’ll be doing in this space to preview 2019, how about we flip things around and try something a little different? Chuck, I propose that we each handpick three fighters for whom we feel UFC gold is destined to reach in 2019.

And what better way to do this than with a fantasy draft, of course! I just lost by three points in the title game of my decade-long fantasy football league and I damn well feel the need to redeem myself here. So let’s do a quick rundown of the rules. The draft will be three rounds. We’ll go snake-draft style, meaning Person A makes their first selection, then Person B gets picks two and three, then it goes back to Person A for picks four and five, then Person B rounds out the exercise with their last selection. The goal is to put together the three-fighter squad most likely to end the year with at least one UFC title in tow. Only non-champions are available to be rostered, but that includes former champions as well.

Through totally fair and completely non-bribery-related means, the MMA Fighting rules committee has determined that I shall have the inaugural first pick. (Your WWE floor tickets will be waiting at will-call, Raimondi.) Alright, here we go. Are you ready, my friend in the hat? Team Al-Shatti is on the clock!

With the first pick of the 2019 MMA Fighting contender draft…Team Al-Shatti selects…at strawweight…a 5-foot-5 wrestler out of Rancho Cucamonga…the No. 3 ranked UFC contender… Tatiana Suarez!


Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Ooohhh, that’s right! A surprise pick to kick things off here, Chuck. I know most draft experts had Israel Adesanya as the odds-on favorite to be this year’s No. 1 pick after an utterly sensational 2018 campaign — but screw the draft experts! I’m the GM here and I’m investing all of my cap space into Tatiana Suarez stock. I feel damn good about it too.

When I say that no non-champion opened my eyes as much as Ms. Suarez did in 2018, it’s 100 percent not hyperbole. The TUF 23 winner has always been a sneaky-good name to watch at 115 pounds, but inactivity and injuries held her back for the first few years of her Octagon run. That finally changed in 2018. Suarez opened the year by utterly destroying another prospect on the rise — Alexa Grasso — and that was one thing. But man, you and I were both there in Dallas for UFC 228. The experience of watching Suarez do terrible, terrible things to Carla Esparza cageside embedded itself deeply into my brain.

No one does that to Carla. Not in that fashion. Suarez made one of the best wrestlers in the division look like a freshman who had never before stepped foot on a mat. The scorecards could’ve been littered with 10-7s and I wouldn’t have been shocked. With a massive frame for 115 pounds and a prodigious wrestling background, Tatiana Suarez lived up to every ounce of her reputation as the female Khabib Nurmagomedov. Now she appears to be one win away from a title fight in a division devoid of exceptionally strong wrestlers, a division ruled over by a champion who appears to be an exceptionally favorable matchup for her. It also doesn’t hurt that the UFC loves Suarez. That sounds like a silly reason to note here but is actually low-key important when we’re choosing between fighters who are reliant on the granting of an opportunity.

If there is one name I can pick to headline my 2019 Future Champion team, there are no doubts in my mind which direction I’m headed. You are officially on the clock, Mindenhall!

Mindenhall: And with their first selection of 2019 contender draft…the pick is in for Team Mindenhall… No. 2. Israel Adesanya!


Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

One thing to consider in this discussion: Dana White trolls his downriggers in hopes of dredging up the next person with that “it” factor. I think that Tatiana Suarez has a share in that pronoun, as you’ve expertly laid out here, Shaun, but for my money Israel Adesanya checks all the boxes of a future champion in the UFC. He has the striking. He has the “big moment” feel. He has the charisma. He has the path.

It’s that last thing that leads me to believe the UFC is complicit in not only making him a star, but slyly expediting his progression. Not only did the UFC showcase Adesanya at Madison Square Garden at UFC 230 for a step-up-in-competition fight with Derek Brunson, they fake-tripped into the boom mic extensions to redirect them over his head. After he passed that test with flying colors (and Dana White gushed about him for 10 minutes in the post-fight presser), the UFC booked him to a fight with Anderson Silva. The Anderson Silva. The legend in the record books with the Big Name, that the casual fan still looks at with residual reverence.

Why Silva? Because of, if you’ll allow me to coin a term, the Mojo Baton. If Adesanya beats Silva, he beats every version of Silva, from the sublime striker of yesterday to the grazing GOAT he’s become. It’s a ceremonial changing of the guard fight, allowing the “new” Anderson Silva to replace the old. And here’s where the UFC is smart: It’s already guaranteed Silva a title fight if he gets by Adesanya. Normally that kind of promise can be taken with a wink and a nudge, but in this case it’s just some smoke and mirrors; because if Adesanya wins, does he inherit the same promise?

Of course he does!

Adesanya is going to fight for a title in 2019, and Anderson Silva is his last warm-up. It gets him one more highly visible fight, in which he’ll absorb ten tons of admiration and acquire a thousand layers of mystique, and he’ll take the last embers from Silva’s glow and make it his own. After that he’ll be fighting either Kelvin Gastelum or Robert Whittaker, and that fight then becomes one of the major attractions of the year. By then Adesanya’s ego will be stratospheric, and he’ll be a confident showman heading in. I think he wins the belt because he will be at the top of his powers, and he can’t conceive of not winning the belt. Mark my words!

Team Mindenhall is back on the clock… and the pick is in… at No 3. Kamaru Usman!

Kamaru Usman
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

For my second choice to become a champion this year, I’m going with Kamaru Usman. People are talking about a potential fight between current champ Tyron Woodley and Colby Covington — led by Ariel Helwani, our old pal who is doubling as a majorette for this cause — and that’s fine. And you know what else? It doesn’t matter. Even if that fight emerges as the one in this combat love triangle, Usman can simply wait in the wings, smashing his fist into his palm. When he gets the chance, I like him to beat Woodley or Covington.

Usman isn’t a feast-or-famine fighter, or a go-for-broke slugger, or even a guy who sticks his chin out there inviting your best traffic — what he is is cold son of a bitch. He doesn’t kill his prey quick; he tears off the wings, and lets you squirm. He takes away game plans and looks into your eyes to record the existential vertigo he finds there in his diary. He slowly saps the will and makes you realize that a thousand rounds with him would result in a thousand terrifying realizations about how weak and feeble you actually are.

Am I overboard on Usman? Hell yes I am! But what’s the point of this exercise if you don’t allow yourself a little exaggeration?

Al-Shatti: Oh, nice picks there. I was thinking of snagging Usman if he fell to me here. But that means with him off the table, I know exactly which direction I’m going.

The No. 4 pick of the 2019 draft is in…with it Team Al-Shatti selects… Cain Velasquez!


Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Oh yes! We’re going old-school with the second-round selection for Team Al-Shatti. Go ahead and lecture me all you want about the definition of insanity (I picked Velasquez to be heavyweight champ by the end of 2018 in last year’s picks pool), but I don’t care, I’m reinvesting all of last year’s stock into 2019!

What can I say? I still believe in Cardio Cain. At this point, no one knows how long Daniel Cormier will stick around to defend the heavyweight title, but regardless of whether it’s one or two or three more, the most poetic way for DC to ride off into the sunset would be to hand the title back to his longtime friend and teammate Cain Velsaquez. And the path certainly appears to be there. The oft-injured former champion has been healthy for a year now and only missed 2018 because of a combination of stalled contract talks with the UFC and a desire to play dad for his new baby boy. Now he’s back next month for a hometown return against Francis Ngannou at UFC Phoenix, and it’s incredibly likely that the winner of the matchup could be in line to vie for the vacant title once Cormier makes his exit.

At his best, Cain Velasquez was one of the most talented heavyweights in the history of the sport. The last time we saw him, he landed an improbable spinning heel kick to the 6-foot-7 mug of Travis Browne en route to a bonus-winning first-round stoppage. Other than Stipe Miocic, I don’t think anybody in this current heavyweight division even touches a healthy Sea-Level Cain. Add that to what I believe is a very good stylistic matchup against Ngannou…and Chuck, this one is easy. Somebody has to be UFC heavyweight champion after DC retires. Why not the former two-time king? This is an opportunity pick at it’s finest.

And with the final pick for Team Al-Shatti of the 2019 MMA Fighting contender draft…wait…what’s that… IS THAT TONY FERGUSON’S MUSIC?!?


Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Damn straight. Y’all already know.

Look, it’s no secret I’ve long maintained my belief that Tony Ferguson is most talented lightweight in the world. I also believe that a fight between him and Khabib Nurmagomedov is the most necessary and most needed fight in the entire sport — one that would, in my eyes, determine the greatest 155-pound fighter to ever walk the planet, if only by sheer force of their respective résumés. Am I worried that the fight will never happen? Of course. Nurmagomedov’s manager Ali Abdelaziz told me last week that there is a “100 percent” chance Ferguson isn’t next for the undefeated sambo master.

There’s obviously much left to figure out with the UFC’s lightweight division. The fates of Nurmagomedov and Conor McGregor still rest in the hands of the Nevada Athletic Commission, a rematch of UFC 229’s record-breaking main event remains one of the most lucrative fights in the entire sport, and Georges St-Pierre continues to salivate outside of the arena at the idea of a third belt and a true legacy-changing fight. But for the sake of history, Nurmagomedov vs. Ferguson must happen — nay, it will happen! And when it does, let it be known that “El Cucuy” was the final pick of Team Al-Shatti.

Mindenhall: Here we go…Team Mindenhall is back on the clock…the final pick of the 2019 contender draft…at No. 6…is that…no, can’t be… it’s Francis Ngannou!

Alistair Overeem vs Francis Ngannou
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

I tend to agree with the Ferguson selection, and was happy to see you out there testing the strength of that limb, Shaun. But the Velasquez pick can’t happen, and here’s why: Francis Ngannou is going to beat him. That’s right. The ol’ Batterer of Batié is going to your hometown of Phoenix to put the wallops on Cain.

I realize that is hard to accept, and particularly ballsy to even envision. I saw what you saw in 2018. I saw that dose of reality fight that Ngannou had with Stipe Miocic right when the hyperbolists started banging the gong about Ngannou’s invincibility. I also saw that chess match between him and Derrick Lewis in which cobwebs began to form on the pieces. I’m fully aware he’s capable of a stinker. But then again, he went across the globe in what I think was a make-or-break fight with Curtis Blaydes (psychologically speaking), and he needed just 45 seconds to dust him. That was a nice bounce back.

And it kicked in the portends once again.

Once again the trees are rumbling as he makes his march, and the hoofbeats of his fellow heavies can be heard as they start to retreat. A wiser, more experienced, laser-focused Ngannou is the scariest kind. Miocic showed him he was mortal, and Lewis taught him that miming doesn’t translate in MMA. These were important lessons. And he’s got his confidence back. Ngannou’s going to time out a big shot on Velasquez that does him in, and then stand at the ready for a second crack at the title at some point in mid-2019.

This time? This time he doesn’t come up short.

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