- Ryan Hockensmith
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Consider where MMA was a year ago. Who had the better fighters, UFC or PRIDE? Could anybody beat Chuck Liddell? Would somebody stand up and challenge Tim Sylvia?
One year later, those questions have been answered. PRIDE guys struggled. Yes, Liddell could be beaten -- more than once, actually. And Sylvia, well, we all remember Randy Couture's stunning comeback to reclaim a UFC belt. So 2007 answered plenty.
But 2008 presents a new wave of questions. Here are eight things to expect in '08.
1. Randy's re-return
Sure, Couture seems done with the UFC, and probably is a huge legal upset away from his much-desired bout with Fedor Emelianenko. But look for Couture to fight in the Octagon this year.
For one, Couture just sat down with Dana White a few weeks ago to air his grievances. Not much progress was made. But his chief beef all along has been money, and this feud could turn out to be a gigantic money-generator. Say Antonio Nogueira beats Tim Sylvia and Brock Lesnar mauls Frank Mir in upcoming fights. Then Lesnar beats Nogueira, or the other way around. Can't you see White in the Octagon, mic in hand, announcing Lesnar's first title defense will come against drumroll please Couture?
"I hope that's the case," White says. "For me, the door is definitely not closed."
2. A year of mega-fights
M-1 has the people in place and the resources to follow through on finding a big fight for heavyweight hotshot Fedor Emelianenko. But the UFC already has a few mega fights lined up. Dan Henderson and Anderson Silva will go at it in March. Quinton Jackson and Forrest Griffin will fight at the end of this year's "Ultimate Fighter" show. It's conceivable that we get a big heavyweight matchup, and White says Georges St. Pierre vs. Matt Serra (in Canada, by the way) will get the green light. While some fans may complain about some of the other fights they'll have to pay for (and rightly so -- BJ Penn vs. Joe Stevenson?), the year should be balanced out with plenty of huge matchups.
3. A boxer will cross over, but it won't be Floyd Mayweather
Mayweather is a smart businessman, and he's surrounded by even more smart businessmen. They have to realize that even a novice mixed martial artist would humiliate him in a MMA bout. Now James Toney well, he's a different story. Expect somebody else (does Ray Mercer really count?) to try it and get choked out the same way Mercer did.
4. Here come the lightweights
The 2007 year was not a great one for UFC's 155-pounders and many of the division's top stars still aren't in the organization. But 2008 could change all of that. Things get going with the Stevenson-Penn fight. But with Kenny Florian, Roger Huerta, Manny Gamburyan, Frank Edgar, Clay Guida and Mac Danzig all in the UFC -- and with Sean Sherk back in the mix soon as well -- '08 may very well end up being an explosive year for the lightweights.
5. More fighters will flunk steroid tests
Big-time athletes take performance-enhancing drugs? No way! The dream scenario in all sports is that nobody takes performance enhancers. The reality of it is this: People cheat, and athletes are no different as they seek a competitive advantage. So yes, there will be more positive tests in 2008. But at the end of the day, a flunked drug test means that, as far as the shady world of drug testing goes, at least a plausible system is catching people.
6. St. Pierre and Silva become the consensus Top 2 pound-for-pounders
If St. Pierre is anywhere close to peak form, he's unbeatable. The problem, of course, is that St. Pierre has had some blips in his career. Don't expect any of them in 2008. The guy's a world-class striker, knows submissions and is perhaps the most complete physical specimen in the sport. Oh, and he has dominated two of the UFC's best wrestlers, Hughes and Josh Koscheck, with his own wrestling skill. He should hammer Matt Serra to get rid of the "interim" championship, and there's really nobody else who can push him.
Silva is a similar case. He's explosive, well-rounded and nobody fights better off his back (if he ends up there) than the crafty Brazilian. Expect him to be tested by Henderson, but win. Then what? How about GSP vs. Silva?
7. A crazy "TUF" year
Big changes are coming for the UFC's reality show "The Ultimate Fighter," though Spike TV execs and the UFC aren't revealing exactly what they'll be just yet. They're just saying it'll be a crazy year. And with Rampage and Griffin as coaches, here's betting they're not exaggerating.
8. A new era of fighters
Money is still not great for fighters in smaller organizations, and even UFC undercard fighters aren't exactly millionaires (at UFC 77, for example, Jorge Gurgel and Kalib Starnes made $7,000 for their fights; four other fighters earned less than $10,000 that night). That needs to improve, especially in the UFC. One big incentive has become bonuses for "Fight of the Night," "Submission of the Night," etc. Those have skyrocketed to more than $30,000. And the UFC is known to hand out other bonus money. But the sport still has a long way to go. Look for 2008 to be another step in the right direction, with fighters earning salaries more proportional to what they bring in. There are still quite a few small steps to go, though.
Ryan Hockensmith is an associate editor at ESPN The Magazine.
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