2016 has been one of the most entertaining years in MMA history and perhaps the most successful so far too. We’ve had the continuation of the rise of Conor McGregor, the returns of Brock Lesnar and Ronda Rousey, Michael Bisping became the UFC middleweight champion, the sale of the UFC and many more epic fights and crazy things happened. To beat it, MMA in 2017 will have to be pretty special year.

So, where is MMA headed in 2017? What will be different in the sport, the fighters, the promotions?

True mixed martial artists

While we still see a few fighters who are extremely good at one aspect of MMA and manage to beat everyone using it, to have success at the top level, you have to be well-rounded. In women’s MMA, we are just entering this era: the losses of Ronda Rousey showed us that despite the youth of the division, a singular approach can no longer take you to the very top.

In men’s MMA, that has been true for a while. Still, it is becoming even more prominent. Practically every top contender has: great striking and striking defense plus great grappling, both in wrestling and submissions. And those who can dominate just by using one half of the equation(like Demian Maia, Khabib Nurmagomedov) are extremely well versed at getting the fight where they want it to take place.

As the level of skill in MMA goes up, there are still some areas that are lacking.

The lack of good boxing in MMA showed clearly this year, with Conor McGregor and Cody Garbrandt, two former amateur boxers, ran through the competition that didn’t understand distance, angles and precision on the same level they did.

Ring generalship is still at a rudimentary level at best. Most fighters still don’t know how to cut the cage and are happy to turn on the spot and let their opponent escape.

But all in all, the fighters we are seeing today would wipe the floor with the previous generation, and that is the goal.

Free agency

The UFC is still MMA’s premier league and will probably be for a while longer. But the market is opening up, with Bellator especially becoming more prominent. They managed to snatch some of the best fighters from the UFC, such as Ben Henderson and Rory MacDonald. Many fighters are complaining about their pay – and free agency is the logical answer, but it doesn’t come without risks.

Benson Henderson in Bellator mma in 2017
Benson Henderson in Bellator

One can’t necessarily get a better deal and the UFC won’t be as likely to offer anything nice to someone who went out and couldn’t make it. It also keeps potential talent away from the sport; if they can’t support themselves while they are still training and becoming that great fighter, why do it? But I think fighting will always remain in the domain of slightly crazy individuals. I mean, you get punched in the head for a living. It takes a special kind of person to do that. The athletes who want to make money will go to other sports.

The sport of MMA is still much more entertainment than sport. As such, fighters who bring more eyes will get paid more – only fair. However, while the base pay remains low, the sport will stay at the level it currently is. There are some motions to change that, which brings me to my next point…

“Unions”

It’s high time MMA got a union that actually pulled some weight. The newly formed MMAAA could be just that. The board is impressive: George St-Pierre, Cain Velasquez, TJ Dillashaw, Donald Cerrone and Tim Kennedy, while Bjorn Rebney(founder of Bellator) is acting as a strategic advisor.

MMAAA mma in 2017
The MMAAA – Mixed Martial Arts Athletes Association

Their goals are high: higher fighter pay, support after retirement and a benefits package. They want to move closer to a 50/50 split between the fighters and the company, similar to other professional sports and they claim that currently, only about 8% goes to the fighters.

The only problem is, MMAAA is not a union, it is an association. Because UFC fighters are legally independent contractors, any sort of union that could actually force the company to improve anything would be doomed to fail in court.

For now, while this is a step in the right direction, this changes little. When and if more fighters join, it could become something truly industry-defining.

Not sure how any of that will sit with the…

New UFC ownership

The sale of the UFC is old news by now. But the implications and consequences of the move are only beginning to reveal themselves. We do not know what else will change, but it is clear by now that the WME-IMG are looking to make the UFC as profitable as possible.

WME-IMG mma in 2017
WME-IMG

The two companies took on quite a debt to buy the UFC for $4.2 billion. They have to make their money back, and they will. Question is, will it be good for the sport? Profit has turned boxing into something we don’t want the UFC to become. MMA is an interesting sport almost by default: there are so many ways you can finish an opponent that few fights are complete duds. No need to add unnecessary drama.

That said, we don’t know what their approach will be. We know that they plan to do more events on Fox, but little else.

New rules and regulations

UFC 207 was the last event that used the old unifed MMA rules. As of the start of 2017, the new rules will be in place and it will change the approach fighters have to take. Damage will be rewarded more, which means that fighters relying on a point-fighting approach won’t be able to take rounds based solely on volume.

With the early weigh-ins that were implemented in 2016, we will likely see a few more months of fighters figuring out what weight class is best for them. I for one am hoping for additional weight classes, especially between the more stacked divisions. A 150 or 160 division wouldn’t be a bad idea – you get another champion who you can promote and it gives some fighters who are right between a permanent home. Just don’t let guys run around and make them defend their belts first.

***

After the great year that 2016 was, it will be hard to top it. I hope we are not standing at the beginning of another dark time for MMA, but I have hope. The new rules, new ownership, new faces, all will have to work together to deliver like the old guard did. And yes, we will most likely complain at the beginning and long for the “good old days”. But change is to be embraced, not rejected. I look forward to the future of the MMA as a sport.

What do you think of the coming changes? What will MMA look like in 2017? Leave your thought below, I’d love to hear them.

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