As each year draws to a close, it is commonplace to look back and see how far we have come in that year, what we have learned, and what we can expect to occur in the next calendar year.

In the context of MMA, we can safely say that the landscape of the sport has evolved considerably over the last 12 months, namely with the expansion of the women’s divisions and a changing of the guard across more than one weight division.

Additionally, we have learned that… Testosterone replacement therapy (TRT) is seemingly here to stay, for better or worse. Heavyweights can go five rounds in spite of universal expectation to the contrary. Never to hold a submission longer than necessary if you want to stay in the good graces of fans and promoters alike. And perhaps most recently, MMA takes its toll mentally on those who compete to a degree which we may never truly understand.

Now, as we look ahead to 2014, we consider what we might be talking about this time next year and what we can look out for as the year progresses. Although there will be many things to watch out for in 2014, we have sampled just five:

UFC Global Domination

The UFC has announced its intention to launch a new online digital network, dubbed UFC Fight Pass, which will be the host for every event held in non-traditional markets under the UFC umbrella in 2014 and beyond. This concept has been cobbled together seemingly overnight—though the UFC says it has been in the works for some time now—in order to provide somewhere for die-hard MMA fans to watch even the most obscure of UFC events around the globe.

Many detractors of the UFC’s proposed expansion have cited a dilution of quality as their main reason for opposing the move, but what must be considered is that when the UFC first began, the quality of fighters and fights was at a level far below what we have come to expect from the UFC as it appears today.

As such, as we head through the first few years of this expansion, it is safe to say we will steadily see the quality improve and provide an impressive balance of quality and quantity in all corners of the globe for years to come.

That is not to say that in the next five years we can expect UFC champions coming outside the traditionally dominant countries such as the United States and Brazil, which account for the vast majority of UFC champions in the modern era. Across the world, however, we can expect the talent gap to sufficiently reduce so that in the next generation we might well see a UFC champion from Australia, Germany or even someone from my own backyard in the United Kingdom.

The Evolution of Women’s MMA

Women’s MMA is very much in its infancy. If we were to measure its progression against that of men’s MMA, it could be argued that the ladies, despite all of their progress in the last year, are still very much on the first rung of the ladder.

Ronda Rousey is the undisputed women’s champion within the UFC, and she is very much the face of women’s MMA. However, looking at her record, whilst undeniable, it is clear to see her reliance on her submission skills much to the same extent that Royce Gracie was reliant upon his Gracie Jiu-Jitsu in the early days of the sport.

Over the next few years, we will (hopefully) see an influx of female talent which will showcase a complete MMA skill set, just as we did with the men. This is not to say that the first female to do so might not be Rousey herself, but more so that it requires an opponent who has the capabilities to drag her into a fight which requires her to implement all the tools associated with mixed martial arts.

The Return of a “Prodigy”

In the last month alone, the UFC has suffered two devastating blows to its roster, at least for the foreseeable future. With Georges St-Pierre taking a leave of absence and Anderson Silva facing a lengthy spell in recovery from his horrific broken leg following UFC 168, the UFC has lost two of its biggest draws.

Make no mistake about it, the absence of these two crossover stars is a major blow for the UFC’s marketing machine, as it would be for any sports organization, and it leaves a void that will need to be filled by someone who captures the imagination of men and women outside of the traditional MMA hardcore fan demographic.

Enter B.J. Penn, a fighter who, regardless of results in the past few years, has the capability to excite and create intrigue that few other MMA fighters have throughout the relatively short history of the sport, especially in the lower weight classes. The vast majority of the remaining fighters can only aspire to create interest in the corners of society that Penn is capable of reaching.

In 2014, we are not only blessed with a return of the legendary Penn against Frankie Edgar, but also an extended glimpse at his progression during the airing of The Ultimate Fighter, on which Penn will serve as a coach.

This exposure will be a great opportunity for his fans and detractors alike to get an early indication of whether we will see the mythological “motivated B.J. Penn” or a Penn who has yet again failed to perhaps meet his undeniable skill with the dedication that is required of any modern-day athlete, let alone an elite mixed martial artist.

The Most Talent-filled Heavyweight Division in Years

In the recent past, the heavyweight division across all of MMA was fairly thin on the ground in terms of quality fighters. At its best, you had the likes of Fedor Emelianenko, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, Josh Barnett, Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic, Igor Vovchanchyn, Mark Coleman and many others who were considered the elite MMA fighters of their time.

Since the retirement and/or declining years for many of these fighters, we have seen a distinct lack of up-and-coming heavyweights ready and willing to take their place. We saw Randy Couture come out of retirement to fight the then-UFC champion Tim Sylvia simply because he felt that the division was so weak at that time that he could prolong his career.

The division was later supplemented by the reintroduction of a returning Frank Mir and the debuting Cro Cop, as well as Nogueira, though in truth the division felt somewhat stagnant at the time, until a certain Brock Lesnar entered the fray. Lesnar’s arrival alone provided new life for an ailing heavyweight class and perhaps singlehandedly supplanted the light heavyweight division as the most talked-about division once again.

Now, the heavyweights have the opportunity in 2014 to progress and create renewed interest with the arrival of Travis Browne, Fabricio Werdum and Mark Hunt, all of whom have been discussed as possible title challengers in the near future alongside those who are working their way back to a title shot, such as Junior Dos Santos, Antonio “Bigfoot” Silva, Alistair Overeem and the aforementioned Barnett.

Cain Velasquez’s untimely injury will certainly make for an interesting year at heavyweight as we see all of the above jostling for pole position come September, when the champion is expected to be ready to return.

Expect the Unexpected

When I first began watching MMA, you could head into a major weekend of fights knowing with some relative degree of certainty who was going to win a particular fight.

Thankfully, those days are now long gone. Anyone wishing to make money from sports betting should keep their wallets closed when it comes to MMA. On the whole, the sport has evolved to a point whereby literally anything could happen, including some scenarios that could not have been considered a possibility for the most part in the past.

This progression is now moving worldwide, and as a result, the influx of more talented athletes will eventually provide an even greater level of uncertainty than we find ourselves faced with today.

As we look ahead through the countless number of fights already signed for 2014, it is difficult to say what situation we will find ourselves in come January 2015, much the same as how at the beginning of January 2013 you would have not found any MMA commentators predicting the rise of Chris Weidman and the fall of Anderson Silva or the self-imposed exile of Georges St-Pierre.

Who will appear from nowhere to dethrone a champion? Who will fade off into the sunset? And who will fill the void left by those who have left the scene in 2013? Only time will tell.

  • mike

    Absolutely cannot wait for the return of the prodigy. Gonna be epic!!!!!!! I got goosebumps already