All things considered, 2016 was a pretty decent year for Canadian mixed martial arts.
There were ups and downs, for sure, but the year produced big fights from rising prospects, strong cards in major Canadian markets and a regional scene that continues to produce improving, entertaining fight nights.
Looking forward, what’s on the horizon? As the sport continues to grow and develop internationally, can Canada reclaim its place as one of the world’s leading incubators for high-end talent?
Let’s take a look at five storylines Canadian fight fans should keep an eye on in 2017:
- Is anybody ready for a run at a belt?
It has been 14 months since Valerie Letourneau became the last Canadian to fight for a UFC title when she lost to Joanna Jedrzejczyk at UFC 193.
Right now, nobody is particularly close to following in her footsteps.
Look past the obvious immediate contenders, though, and there could be a few Canadian title challengers coming down the pipe.
Misha Cirkunov, most notably, has shot up the ranks in the UFC’s light-heavyweight division and is sitting at No. 8 in the official rankings and No. 11 in the more credible MMAJunkie.com rankings.
Cirkunov has smartly asked for a Top 10 opponent and he might only be two or three fights away from a title shot in a division that’s short on depth.
Elsewhere, Olivier Aubin-Mercier is a little further off at lightweight, but he’s won five of six and a solid run against higher-ranked opponents in 2017 could set him up nicely.
Other than those two, it’s pretty slim pickings at the top.
- What’s Rory going to do?
Rory MacDonald is arguably the most talented Canadian fighting in MMA today, but his defection from the UFC to Bellator leaves a lot questions unanswered.
Only 18 months ago, he was fighting Robbie Lawler for the UFC welterweight belt in one of the most memorable battles in recent memory, but the damage he suffered in that fight was substantial.
He didn’t look the same when he stepped into the octagon against Stephen Thompson in Ottawa last June, so it’s smart of him to take a year off before fighting again.
There are a lot of interesting fights for him in Bellator, but the spotlight isn’t nearly as bright as it is in the UFC. He has work to do if he wants to stay in any way relevant in the minds of casual fans.
If he can manage to stay in the conversation, Canadian MMA will be better for it.
- Who’s getting a call-up?
The last substantial infusion of Canadian talent into the UFC came in 2014 with The Ultimate Fighter: Nations season that pitted Canada against Australia.
Guys like Elias Theodorou, Aubin-Mercier and Chad Laprise have all made an impact, but it’s time for a few new names to get their shot.
Sitting atop the list of Canadian prospects is Hakeem Dawodu. The Calgarian has deservedly made a name for himself in the World Series of Fighting as one of the most intriguing featherweight prospects in the world and has the striking to beat anyone.
Dawodu showed serious improvement on the ground and against the fence in his last fight against Marat Magomedov, and it’s time for him to test his skills against UFC competition.
Bantamweight Jesse Arnett is riding an eight-fight win streak, too, and probably should have gotten a call from UFC brass a while ago.
Fans should also make sure to keep tabs on 19-year-old bantamweight T.J, Laramie, who fights at TKO 37 in Montreal on January 13.
There’s lots of other talent out there as well, and it’d be great to see more of these guys get their chance to shine.
- Which markets get fights?
At this point, it’s generally understood that the UFC will make three trips to Canada every year.
That could change under the new ownership group but, assuming nothing changes, Canada will host one pay-per-view event and two other fight cards in 2017.
The question is, which cities will get that opportunity?
Halifax is set to host the first event of the year in Halifax next month, and Toronto hosted a massively successful PPV in December, so it’s probably not in the running for another UFC card this year.
So, where to next?
Ticket sales have been slow in Vancouver the past two times the UFC has visited — most recently in August — and Montreal wasn’t exactly a runaway success when it hosted UFC 186 in 2015.
At this point, it’s almost harder for the UFC to avoid returning to Alberta than it would be to just host an event in Calgary or Edmonton. Dana White has promised a return to Calgary ever since the disastrous UFC 149 event in 2012, and it’s time for him to make good on that guarantee.
Of course, Edmonton has a new arena that would probably love to host a big fight night, so Calgarians might have to make the two-hour drive north if they want to watch a UFC event live.
- Anything with GSP?
Between claiming he was a free agent and making himself the public face of a would-be fighters association, in recent months Georges St. Pierre hasn’t made it look like he is on the verge of a return.
That doesn’t mean rumours of his imminent comeback are going to stop circulating any time soon.
Of course, this is a story about Canadian MMA for a Canadian publication, so we still must talk about GSP.
St. Pierre remains the biggest name Canadian fighting has ever produced, and even as it gets more and more unlikely he’ll ever return to the octagon, he’ll continue to be a part of the MMA story.
Or rather, he will be part of the story until one of the aforementioned fighters gets to the point where they can start headlining cards.
Hopefully, that time comes sooner rather than later.
Source: By Daniel Austin, Calgary Sundaustin@postmedia.com