Mixed martial arts will never experience anything like this year’s NBA trade deadline — when second-round draft picks seemingly turned into Monopoly money — but it’s fun to dream.
So, in the spirit of all the drama that unfolded on the hardwood, here are a few trades we’d like to see take place in MMA. And while trades are a rarity in this sport, this did actually happen in MMA not too long ago, when the UFC and One Championship reached an agreement to swap the contracts of Ben Askren and Demetrious Johnson. So, never say never.
Brett Okamoto, Marc Raimondi and Jeff Wagenheim offer up their ideas for potential moves that could benefit the sport’s top promotions or fighters due for a change of scenery.
Featherweight all-time great to Bellator
Few would deny that Holloway is the second-best 145-pounder in the UFC. Unfortunately for him, he has lost three times to the best at 145, champion Alexander Volkanovski. So, with Holloway’s upward mobility severely limited, why not give the pride of Hawaii a homecoming? Bellator has staged six fight cards in Honolulu since 2018 and will revisit the city for two more events in April. The UFC, on the other hand, has never set foot on the islands in its 636-event history, despite Hawaii being the home of two of its all-time great champions, Holloway and BJ Penn. If Bellator were to bring Holloway home, perhaps in a title fight with the promotion’s greatest ever, Patricio “Pitbull” Freire, it would be a “Blessed” event.
If I’m UFC chief business officer Hunter Campbell at the negotiating table, the first name out of my mouth would be AJ McKee, but I imagine Bellator isn’t going to let go of its homegrown star. So, ask for Eblen, instead. He is perhaps the best fighter in Bellator right now, although he doesn’t get the recognition of McKee or Pitbull. Maybe Bellator CEO Scott Coker would be willing to give up his 185-pound champ for the sublime opportunity to bring Holloway aboard. And what an addition Eblen would be to the UFC middleweight division. — Wagenheim
“MVP” moves to the UFC
Costa’s recent tweets suggest he is unhappy with the UFC and his contract. The Brazilian slugger could use a change of scenery. Costa is still one of the best middleweights in the world, and he has a large fan base due to his extremely irreverent humor on Twitter, his ripped physique and his continued touting of “secret juice.” Bellator, meanwhile, could use another elite fighter at middleweight, where Eblen has the potential to be a dominant champion. Costa also has star potential and possible drawing power. He is someone Bellator can build up, and he already has a close relationship with the “Pitbull” brothers, two key cogs on Bellator’s roster.
Michael “Venom” Page — often just referred to as “MVP” — seems to be treading water in Bellator. He has fought only once for the promotion since October 2021, and he was even loaned out last year to face Mike Perry in a Bare Knuckle FC matchup, which Perry won via split decision. Page has proved himself to be one of the top welterweights in Bellator. The problem is that the guys ahead of him at 170 pounds — Yaroslav Amosov and Logan Storley — are excellent wrestlers and represent a stylistic mismatch for “MVP,” who is a wildly exciting karate fighter. Page has likely hit his ceiling in Bellator, and the UFC is always in the market for action fighters. You could throw him in there with the likes of Kevin Holland and produce fireworks. And best of all, a potential fight with fellow karateka Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson would be a classic. — Raimondi
PFL gets another women’s MMA star
The one thing PFL needs more than anything is a big-money opponent for Kayla Harrison, and Cyborg is the best option. Yes, Harrison lost in her last bout to Larissa Pacheco. But Harrison also has beaten Pacheco twice and has been dominant otherwise. She is also, easily, the biggest name on the PFL roster. Cyborg loves fighting for Bellator and has a long history with promoter Scott Coker. But she also is 37 years old and won’t be fighting forever. Who knows how her boxing career will play out, but a Harrison bout could be her last chance at a big payday. Bellator doesn’t have a woman at 145 pounds or up who can headline a major show with Cyborg. The same goes for PFL and Harrison. That fight needs to happen. There already has been plenty of trash talk between the two.
Bellator would surely demand a lot in return for Cyborg, who is the most accomplished fighter on its roster and a legitimate draw. PFL would have to be willing to part ways with high-level talent, and Burgos and Ditcheva fit that bill. Burgos is an action fighter who could contend in Bellator’s featherweight or lightweight division right away. Both divisions are strengths for Bellator — this year’s lightweight grand prix should be excellent — but Burgos can add depth and exciting bouts with nearly everyone in the rankings. Meanwhile, Ditcheva is a 24-year-old prospect whom PFL is very high on. She is a terrific striker, and she is marketable. Bellator could badly use more stars and depth at 125 pounds, and Ditcheva could be the future face of that division. — Raimondi
UFC lands Harrison
UFC receives: PFL women’s lightweight Kayla Harrison
PFL receives: UFC middleweight Paulo Costa and men’s featherweight Josh Emmett
Harrison vs. Amanda Nunes just makes sense. Although this matchup lost a tiny bit of luster when Harrison suffered the first defeat of her career in November, this is still a pay-per-view-worthy main event. And Nunes is desperately in need of a new challenge.
And while Harrison has been the face of PFL for years and the company would strongly resist giving her up, unless it can sign Cyborg, there are no big fights left for Harrison in PFL. Pacheco is the only one, but the two have already fought three times. How many times can PFL package this matchup? If the company can’t sign Cyborg, then getting something in return for Harrison might benefit everyone.
The PFL is getting into the pay-per-view business, as it announced earlier this year alongside Jake Paul. But the regular season is still its bread and butter, and the addition of two former UFC title challengers would inject life and interest into that format.
Emmett just came up short against Yair Rodriguez in an interim featherweight title bout at UFC 284. Emmett still has plenty to offer and is one of the hardest hitters in the division. Rather than seeing him try to scratch and claw his way back to a title shot, how about watching him fight at lightweight four times in one year for a $1 million prize, in a division that has the likes of Burgos and Olivier Aubin-Mercier? Costa has one fight left in the UFC and has been vocal about wanting to test other options. Have him fight in the regular season at light heavyweight. Everyone wins. — Okamoto
Bellator adds depth at women’s featherweight in three-way deal
Bellator receives: the entire UFC women’s featherweight roster (minus Amanda Nunes)
One Championship receives: Bellator bantamweight Danny Sabatello
UFC receives: One men’s strawweight champion Jarred Brooks
I’ve always loved three-way trades in sports, mainly because I’m curious how three organizations navigate the wheeling and dealing: OK, sounds like we’re in agreement; let me put you on hold and go check with the other guy. Fun, fun, fun.
If Bellator hopes to entice Cyborg back into the fold, it needs to provide her with some competition. Might a different Nunes, this one named Josiane (with a 10-1 record), put up a fight? How about Macy Chiasson, Norma Dumont or Stephanie Eggar? This deal would instantly fill out the Bellator women’s featherweight roster with seven new names and would open the door for these women to step up for bigger fights.
At the same time, the UFC would finally be done with a weight class it has neglected for years, while also bolstering a division that is now finally flourishing. In One Championship, strawweights compete at 125 pounds, and Brooks is unbeaten in six fights since a 2-2 run in the UFC, which included a split decision loss to Deiveson Figueiredo and a bizarre defeat in which Brooks knocked himself out while executing a slam. Could Brooks be a contender in the UFC? Let’s find out.
As for One, Johnson and Adriano Moraes will complete their championship trilogy in May, but what happens after that for the 135-pound title? Something tells me Sabatello would be a favorite in Asia, where the genteel fans appreciate fighters like him who, ahem, conduct themselves respectfully. — Wagenheim
PFL adds two heavyweight contenders
Adding Blaydes and Rozenstruik would be a huge upgrade to the PFL’s heavyweight division, and let’s face it: Heavyweight is the division fans most care about in combat sports. These two have hovered in UFC title contention for years, but there always seems to be a traffic jam just above them at the top tier. So instead of waiting for Ciryl Gane, Jon Jones or others to sort things out, Blaydes and Rozenstruik can instead go for the $1 million payday that comes with a PFL championship.
As for the UFC, Loughnane and Wilkinson were once well within the sights of Dana White & Co. Loughnane even appeared to do enough to earn a UFC contract with a dominant win on “Dana White’s Contender Series” in 2019, but was not offered a deal. This trade grants the UFC a mulligan. Wilkinson has won six fights in a row — all finishes — since an 0-2 run in the UFC that included the Octagon debut of Israel Adesanya in 2018. Loughnane and Wilkinson each has what it takes to create big opportunities in the UFC. — Wagenheim
One Championship gets former UFC champion
Figueiredo’s days at flyweight are over after a second loss to champion Brandon Moreno. Figueiredo will move to bantamweight and will be competitive there, but the UFC’s 135-pound division is filled with bigger fighters and dominant wrestlers and grapplers. With One’s weight-cutting rules, Figueiredo could remain a “flyweight,” One’s designation for 135-pound fighters, and continue to compete against opponents his own size. One would likely be salivating over potential matchups for Figueiredo against the likes of Johnson, John Lineker or even Rodtang Jitmuangnon in a mixed-rules bout. “The God of War” would be a perfect fit for the Singapore-based promotion.
Figueiredo’s contract should not come cheap. He is a former two-time UFC flyweight champion. So, how about One offers Le, the promotion’s former 155-pound champion. It’s almost odd Le isn’t already with the UFC. He is a former Legacy Fighting Alliance featherweight champion with a knockout win on “Dana White’s Contender Series.” He also was on “The Ultimate Fighter 22” in 2015. Le is a knockout artist with a fun, karate-based style. He finished all of his One victories via KO/TKO. It would be intriguing to see him against Rodriguez, “Korean Zombie” Chan Sung Jung or Giga Chikadze. — Raimondi