Big changes are coming to the MMA landscape in July as the UFC is set to debut two momentous changes: a revamped drug testing policy and a new uniform code.
The new drug policy will be overseen by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. The UFC's fighters will be tested multiple times per year, and penalties for performance-enhancing drugs begin with a minimum two-year suspension for the first offense. Initial reactions in the MMA community have been largely positive, and it will be interesting to see how many fighters find themselves sidelined for a significant portion of their careers should they fail a test.
Less well-received has been the UFC's partnership with Reebok, which mandates fighters exclusively wear the brand when coming to and while competing inside the octagon. Fighters have expressed concern for the loss of sponsorship money -- which can account for a sizable portion of their income. However, it may be months before the true financial impact on fighters is known.
As for the fights themselves, July is jam-packed with UFC events. MMA's top dog will hold five in all -- four over an eight-day stretch -- and three championships will be on the line.
Here's a look at the most-important UFC contests scheduled this month, as well as a few standouts from the rest of the MMA world. All rankings in parentheses come from my personal rankings, which are available to view in full at www.ufc.com/rankings.
July 11: UFC 189
Welterweight Title: Robbie Lawler (C, 8 pound-for-pound) vs. Rory MacDonald (2)
Interim Featherweight Title: Chad Mendes (2) vs. Conor McGregor (3)
Featherweight: Dennis Bermudez (5) vs. Jeremy Stephens (13)
Welterweight: Matt Brown (7) vs. Tim Means
Not all pay-per-views are created equal, but this one ought to be worth the price. Both title fights will be interesting despite featherweight champion Jose Aldo being forced to withdraw due to injury. Like Aldo, replacement Mendes has beef with the chatty McGregor. The interim championship that's up for grabs will just be added motivation for Mendes, who's been an elite 145-pounder for years and should finally taste gold with a victory.
Lawler (25-10, 1 No Contest) might have a tougher time with MacDonald (18-2), whose combination of technical striking and sound takedowns will be a potent combo against Lawler's power striking game. Very intriguing matchup.
Long Island's Bermudez (14-4) has only lost by submission, which is not Stephens' (23-11) forte. He'll cruise to a win. Brown (19-13) should see his hand raised after two straight losses, but Means (24-6-1) is like a younger, longer version of Brown and could turn some heads.
July 12: The Ultimate Fighter 21 Finale
Welterweight: Jake Ellenberger (8) vs. Stephen Thompson (10)
Women's Strawweight: Michelle Waterson vs. Angela Magana
A highly-skippable card given the sheer number of fights this month -- unless you're a huge fan of "The Ultimate Fighter."
Still, the main event between Ellenberger (30-9) and Thompson (10-1) is worth checking out. Thompson has won four in a row and a win over the established-but-fading Ellenberger would be the biggest feather in his cap.
Also of note is Waterson's debut in the octagon. The former Invicta FC atomweight (105-pounds) champion may already be a top-10 strawweight. Waterson (12-4) holds a submission win over recent UFC strawweight title challenger Jessica Penne.
July 15: UFC Fight Night: Mir vs. Duffee
Lightweight: Gilbert Melendez (6) vs. Al Iaquinta (10)
Lightweight: Tony Ferguson (7) vs. Josh Thomson (12)
Women's Bantamweight: Holly Holm (9) vs. Marion Reneau (12)
Heavyweight: Frank Mir (10) vs. Todd Duffee
The main attraction on this midweek card isn't the main event; it's a pair of pivotal lightweight contests. Melendez (22-5) is 1-3 since signing with the promotion and will be stiffly tested just 4½ weeks after losing a close decision to Eddie Alvarez. Iaquinta (12-3-1), a Long Islander, rides a four-fight winning streak into the fight.
In the other 155-pound contest, Ferguson (18-3) puts a five-fight winning streak on the line against grizzled veteran Thomson (20-7, 1 NC), whose last three losses over the past four years have come via split decision.
Perhaps more important to the immediate title picture is the women's fight between Holm (8-0) and Reneau (6-1). Although neither has reached 10 MMA bouts, Holm is a decorated world boxing champion. An impressive win may be enough to vault her to a title shot.
Mir (17-9) and Duffee (9-2) will make for a fun, quick scrap. Mir's time in the sport is approaching its end, and the ex-champ will look to stave it off a little longer against the younger Duffee.
July 18: UFC Fight Night: Bisping vs. Leites
Middleweight: Thales Leites (5) vs. Michael Bisping (10)
Women's Strawweight: Joanne Calderwood (7) vs. Bec Rawlings (14)
If you're budgeting your time, this is another event that would be OK to overlook. If you've got the time, however, these two fights are worthwhile.
Bisping (26-7) is the name, but Leites (25-4) has the game. The fifth-ranked Brazilian is vastly improved since his poor showing against Anderson Silva in a 2009 title bout. He's won eight in a row now and has a well-rounded game that should be problematic for Bisping. The Englishman, known for his mouth as much as his fists, must outstrike his foe and keep the fight standing in order triumph.
Calderwood (9-1) needs a win after a stunning loss to Maryna Moroz in April.
July 25: UFC on Fox: Dillashaw vs. Barao 2
Bantamweight Title: T.J. Dillashaw (C, 7 P4P) vs. Renan Barao (2, 12 P4P)
Women's Bantamweight: Miesha Tate (2) vs. Jessica Eye (4)
Bantamweight: Bryan Caraway (7) vs. Eddie Wineland (11)
Lightweight: Edson Barboza (8) vs. Paul Felder
At last, July wraps with another worthwhile card, this one on network television. This event's title bout may be even more intriguing than the UFC 189 contests.
Both Dillashaw (11-2) and Barao (33-2, 1 NC) are prominent in the pound-for-pound rankings. This rematch comes 14 months after Dillashaw surprised the former champion with a five-round clinic that gave the Brazilian his first loss in nine years. Was it an off-night for Barao, or is Dillashaw just that good? Burning questions that are worth watching to learn the answer.
The women's bout in the co-main event slot figure to produce the next challenger to champion Ronda Rousey. Tate (16-5) has lost twice to the champ, but a win over a top-five fighter like Eye (11-2, 1 NC) should be enough to earn a third try.
Tate's boyfriend Caraway (19-7) likely needs a win to stay in the fringe title picture, and former title challenger Wineland (21-10-1) might be on his last legs if he can't get through this challenge. While they're not entirely one-dimensional fighters, this is basically an old-school striker (Wineland) vs. grappler (Caraway) matchup.
Barboza (15-3) bouts always are appointment viewing thanks to his highlight-reel finishing prowess, and his opponent is no joke. Felder (10-0) is a rising prospect who could find himself ranked by the end of the month.
Outside the octagon...
July 9: Invicta FC 13
Women's Featherweight Title: Cristiane Justino (C) vs. Faith Van Duin
Women's Strawweight Title (vacant): Tonya Evinger vs. Irene Aldana
Women's Atomweight Title: Herica Tiburcio (C) vs. Ayaka Hamasaki
The premier female-only fight promotion boasts three title bouts. Justino (13-1, 1 NC) is the highlight here, as she is a possible future opponent for Rousey -- if she can eventually cut down to 135 pounds. Invicta's atomweight division is perhaps the best in the sport. Evinger is a UFC-caliber bantamweight.
July 17: Bellator 140
Welterweight Title: Douglas Lima (C) vs. Andrey Koreshkov
Lima (26-5) and Koreshkov (17-1) are two of the few top welterweights not currently fighting under the UFC banner. The champion Lima is 15-1 over the last six years.
July 18: One FC 29
Bantamweight Title: Bibiano Fernandes (C) vs. Toni Tauro
Perhaps the best sub-155-pounder outside the UFC, Fernandes (17-3) has not lost in nearly five years. The grappling specialist probably won't lose this one, either.