The UFC need a fresh crop of pay-per-view stars to seize the moment with their big names in disarray
The sight of Conor McGregor collapsing to the floor, his ankle horribly bent out of shape, spelled out what many have already believed for quite some time – the UFC’s biggest pay-per-view superstars are in disarray.
McGregor is now expected to be out for a year. He successfully underwent surgery soon after being carried out of the octagon on a stretcher, but his trilogy loss to Dustin Poirier will hurt and the road to recovery is long.
To little surprise, he has been bullish about his chances of becoming all-conquering once again on his return, thanks to his new ‘unbreakable titanium leg’, but there is now a power vacuum to be filled in his absence.
Conor McGregor suffered defeat against Dustin Poirier after a horror break to his left leg
He is not the only fighter currently facing up to an uncertain future. After all, Jon Jones was locked head-on in a pay dispute with the UFC. The fallout came after he had vacated his light heavyweight title last year.
Jones then announced he planned to take the step up to heavyweight, and wanted to take on the newly-crowned champion Francis Ngannou. Dana White, however, accused him of pricing himself out of the fight, and the two openly bickered.
While he continues to bulk up and prepare to enter the heavyweight division, Jones’ career remains in limbo and he appears in no real rush to return.
Jon Jones has been involved in a war of words with UFC chief Dana White over a pay dispute
Meanwhile, Jorge Masvidal was left reeling just a matter of months ago after being knocked out cold by his old foe Kamaru Usman for the first time in MMA history.
The stunning right hand is certainly in contention for KO of the year.
The manner of the defeat has cast a shadow over Masvidal, who had promised ‘violence’ to the spectators in Florida. There was plenty although, unfortunately for him, it was sent in the other direction instead.
Jorge Masvidal was knocked out cold by Kamaru Usman for the first time in his MMA career
He lay finished while Usman continued to rain down blows, forcing the referee to step in and wave the bout off. It was brutal, but Masvidal has already insisted he is eyeing up a return in the latter half of this year.
Until then, there is a clear gap to be filled. The UFC are set to take a sizeable hit over the coming months, and a host of fighters will be desperate to step into the PPV spotlight and become the next big sensation.
So, who are the fighters trying to take advantage? Here, Sportsmail takes a look.
SEAN O’MALLEY (14-1-0)
After knocking out Alfred Khashakyan back in 2017 in Dana White’s Contender Series, Sean O’Malley more than introduced himself into the world of MMA.
And the highlights have continued for him, with O’Malley now 5-1 in the UFC. Three of those wins came via stoppage.
His latest appearance in the octagon saw him beat late replacement Kris Moutinho in a one-sided bantamweight encounter, further enhancing his reputation.
Sean O’Malley (left) enjoyed a one-sided bantamweight clash with Kris Moutinho this month
The rip-roaring bout saw both men given the Fight of the Night award, and O’Malley showed off his colourful character by miming dribbling a basketball around his legs.
While the comparisons to Conor McGregor may be premature for now, O’Malley does share some similarities with him and will be targeting a similar path to glory.
‘I think as far as popularity goes, I’m in the right direction,’ O’Malley told DAZN.
O’Malley has been compared to Conor McGregor by some and is an extremely bullish fighter
‘I think skill set, I think I’m better. I think I have more tools, more weapons, more skilled.
‘That’s obviously my opinion, but I just truly believe in my skill set. I think you can say that I’m the bantamweight Conor.
‘I think at the end of the day I’m “Suga”. You can’t compare “Suga” to anyone. I think I’m going to take over and just be something way bigger than anyone’s ever seen.’
JIRI PROCHAZKA (28-3-1)
It is quite an honour to be identified as one of the finest prospects in the UFC’s light heavyweight division, but it is one that Jiri Prochazka has more than earned.
He made his promotional bow in July at UFC 251 and propelled himself to become a contender in the division almost immediately, having beaten Volkan Oezdemkir.
The second-round stoppage over the former title challenger underlined his fearsome ability, so it was a shame to see his initial match-up with Dominick Reyes scrapped.
Jiri Prochazka made his bow at UFC 251 and quickly became a contender at light heavyweight
Having then been made to wait until UFC Fight Night in early May, Prochazka put on a show and took the victory with a crunching spinning elbow.
The hype that has followed him is well justified then, and his powerful style makes him a wonder to watch every time he takes to the squared circle.
His 2021 has experienced the perfect start, too, and in the midst of his 12-fight unbeaten streak, current champion Jan Blachowicz will be firmly in his sights next.
Light heavyweight champion Jan Blachowicz praised Prochazka’s unorthodox fighting style
Blachowicz praised Prochazka ahead of their highly-anticipated expected showdown next year, saying: ‘Yeah, it was an impressive fight.
‘He’s got this weird style, but in a good way weird – it’s working. But if in the future I will fight against Jiri, I know how to fight against fighters like him.
‘For me, it would be a good opponent. Good for me because stylistically I know how to fight against fighters like him. I just show the world how to beat crazy fighters.’
CIRYL GANE (9-0-0)
Without a doubt, Ciryl Gane is one of the best talents to watch out for in the UFC heavyweight division.
His TKO win against former kingpin Junior dos Santos helped him move into seventh in the rankings, before he also beat Jairzinho Rozenstruik and Alexander Volkov.
Now sitting in fourth, Gane looks more than ready to take on the rest of his rivals at 265lbs – and he has all the makings of a future heavyweight contender.
Ciryl Gane (right) is one of the finest prospects to watch out for in the heavyweight division
White has said that Gane, 30, is too fast for a man of his stature, and his lightning speed is more than enough to cause headaches for any opponent.
With his enviable skillset, Gane moved from making his debut to beating an ex-titleholder in the space of just 18 months, generating plenty of hype along the way.
He notably shifts around differently to most other heavyweights, with his movement centred around the balls of his feet as he floats and looks to pounce.
Gane’s style is also unusual, but he has shot up to be a star roughly three years into his career
Because of this unorthodox style, White was right, but it is undoubtedly effective.
Around three years into his career as a professional mixed martial artist, Gane continues to break new ground and will continue to improve.
That is a truly terrifying thought for the others in his weight class, and standing in his way next is Derrick Lewis for an interim belt at UFC 265’s main event.
FRANCIS NGANNOU (16-3-0)
It is fair to say that Francis Ngannou is not best pleased with the UFC’s decision to book an interim title fight in the heavyweight division.
After all, he has the potential to be a significant draw for the promotion, but instead it will be Lewis and Gane who battle it out on August 7 after an impasse was reached.
The bout looked set to be Ngannou’s first title defence, but the UFC quickly moved on – and the choice was met with shock three months on from when he took the belt.
Francis Ngannou was left angered by the UFC’s move to book an interim heavyweight title fight
Having beaten Stipe Miocic for the title back in March, Ngannou was in pole position to fight Jon Jones next in a highly-anticipated blockbuster clash.
Instead, talks collapsed and the UFC looked to move on to other options. This is despite Ngannou’s camp saying he will be ready to fight as soon as September.
The promotion have made it clear they are not willing to wait, though, meaning Ngannou will likely take on the winner of the interim encounter.
White hit out at Ngannou for expressing surprise at the decision with the UFC unwilling to wait
He has often found himself at odds with the UFC, and White hit out at Ngannou for expressing his surprise with the decision to set up Lewis v Gane.
Away from the octagon, however, the fireworks have made for enthralling entertainment and whatever Ngannou does next will make for great viewing.
Because of this, he may very well be the man to fill the void that the UFC desperately needs to address.
NICK DIAZ (26-9-0)
This has been a return long in the making. Nick Diaz will step back into the octagon and fight Robbie Lawler on September 25.
Diaz is the brother of fellow UFC big-name Nate and is clearly a fan favourite.
His status will take another boost ahead of his next bout, considering that he last took on former welterweight champion Lawler 17 years ago at UFC 47.
Nick Diaz will make his long-awaited return to the octagon when he takes on Robbie Lawler
Almost two decades on, this old rivalry will resume, and spectators are excited to take in a battle between two of the sport’s old guard.
White confirmed that the fight would happen in Las Vegas to Yahoo Sports, with Diaz, 37, set to re-emerge into the limelight surrounded by glitz and glamour.
Diaz last fought back in 2015, when he lost to Anderson Silva. The result was overturned, however, after his opponent tested positive for banned substances.
Diaz last fought in 2015 during his loss to Anderson Silva (right) and is clearly a fan favourite
Controversially, Diaz then faced up to disciplinary action of his own after failing a marijuana test for the third time, which saw him hit with a hefty five-year ban.
The suspension was later slashed down to 18 months, and Diaz, despite having remained in the shadows since, was cleared to scrap again in 2018.
He will fight Lawler at UFC 266 at the T-Mobile Arena, and this showdown may very well help aid the headache currently facing the promotion.