It is very likely UFC 285 will be the defining moment of Jon Jones legacy. Jones is already an all-time great. Even those who find him to be a despicable human being acknowledge he’s in the running for GOAT status. Fair or not, whether many see him as the GOAT likely hinges on his securing heavyweight gold against Ciryl Gane. In many ways, the night is just as important for Gane. Gane already has a cloud hanging over him given he didn’t just lose to Francis Ngannou, but lost to him by being outwrestled by the powerful striker. While Gane has won a fight over Tai Tuivasa in the interim since failing in his first big to outright lay claim to heavyweight gold, few care to remember that. Now, if he wins, he’ll be the first to pin a legit loss on Jones. If he loses, he’s come up short twice. Given Gane’s reputation as a boring fighter, it’ll be difficult for him to get another opportunity.
With the return of Jones, Valentina Shevchenko looking to break the record for successful UFC title defenses by a woman is being overlooked. Currently, Shevchenko is tied with her rival Amanda Nunes with seven successful defenses, looking to secure number eight over Alexa Grasso. Granted, Shevchenko has struggled to gain eyeballs – despite all those successful defenses, she has never headlined a PPV – so it’s no surprise she’s not getting much attention.
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Jon Jones vs. Ciryl Gane, Heavyweight
While there’s an extensive amount of tape on Jones, he’s never been a bigger mystery in his career. That’s what happens when he not only moves up to a new division, but he hasn’t been seen in three years. Even worse, the version of Jones we saw in the three previous contests before his layoff was the most uninspired version of him that we had ever seen. Each of those contests saw Jones come dangerously close to losing his title. A good chunk of people thought he lost to Thiago Santos, even more thought he was outpointed by Dominick Reyes. Many tend to forget Jones had a major bonehead moment against Anthony Smith that could have seen Jones lose the belt via DQ had Smith opted to take the easy way out. Thus, even before his layoff, the question was whether his arrogance was finally catching up to him.
On the flip side, Jones has had three other year-plus layoffs in his UFC career, coming back looking exceptionally sharp in two of those contests while managing to sweep the scorecards on the third. It appears Jones tends to get bored with the fight game, requiring him to step away for an extended period to rejuvenate himself. Does Jones have a love of the sport again? Was it the constant need to maintain his frame within a striking distance of 205?
Of course, we’ve all seen the pics of Jones now that he’s officially a heavyweight and no one appears to be impressed by Jones’ transformation. Jones looked more ripped after the first time he was stripped of the title. This time around he looks… soft. Not that he’s in terrible shape, but it’s easy to see he’s taken advantage of not having to prep for a weight cut. If I were to judge where Jones is at based on his physical appearance, the guess here is he hasn’t rediscovered his motivation.
Aside from Jones’ headspace, there’s a lot of questions in terms of his matchup with Gane. Jones has always relied heavily on his incredible 84” reach. Not that anyone can blame him; it’s the surest route to victory. However, given it is such an incredible advantage for him, Jones has struggled with opponents who can come close to his reach. His epic contest with Alexander Gustafsson, the contest with Reyes that many believed he lost… those opponents have come closest to matching Jones’ reach. Gane’s reach doesn’t quite match Jones, but it comes closer than either Gustafsson or Reyes. Plus, it doesn’t take a hardcore fan to recognize how clean of a striker Gane is. It’s possible Gane knows how to use his length better than Jones does at this point.
Another thing many have pointed out is Jones is an excellent wrestler. I’m not sure that’s true. I’ll absolutely agree he was; I’m just not sure he still is. The deeper fighters go into their career, the less they tend to use their wrestling. Daniel Cormier was very selective in using his wrestling late in his career. Dan Henderson, an Olympic wrestler, scored one takedown in the last nine fights of his career. Perhaps the most immediate example is Josh Emmett. Emmett scored eight takedowns in one of his early UFC contests at lightweight. After moving to featherweight, he secure three in nine contests. Wrestling is hard on the body and the body can’t do it as much when it gets older. I get that Jones isn’t ancient, but he did start the sport at a young age. Plus, we’re all aware of his history of drug use. What type of damage has that done to his body? It doesn’t help that Jones struggled to not just get Reyes down; he struggled to keep Reyes down.
Given Gane couldn’t stop the takedowns of Ngannou, many believe it doesn’t matter that Jones probably isn’t the wrestler he used to be. In fact, Gane’s grappling IQ is a massive question mark now following his idiotic pursuit of a heel hook. Plus, if Jones gets the top position on top of him, Jones has the most devastating GnP I’ve ever seen. When he unleashes his elbows, it’s one of the most distinctive sights in all MMA… and one of the most violent. Gane has shown toughness, but he’s also shown panic on the mat. While there’s a lot of questions about Jones, I have no doubt he’ll capitalize should Gane show an ounce of fear. Part of the reason Jones is so successful is his willingness to do whatever it takes to win, even if it’s something considered to be unethical. For instance, there’s a wide swath of people who believe elliptical kicks should be illegal. That hasn’t stopped Jones from making that one of his favorite weapons.
Given the mystery of how well Jones translates to heavyweight, I have every right to give pause. After all, Jones has overcome long layoffs before. He’s proven he can do what he wants when he made a point to manhandle Cormier for a takedown. He’s the GOAT for many people. But he is also one of the most arrogant human beings on the planet. I’m not saying he doesn’t have a reason to be confident, but arrogance tends to catch up to people at some point. There’s a big part of me that is saying “It’s Jon Jones.” I get it. But there’s another part of me that says Jones poor decision making in his personal life is going to catch up to him at some point in the cage. And Jones likes to beat people at their own game to prove a point. I don’t think that point gets made this time. Gane via decision
Valentina Shevchenko vs. Alexa Grasso, Women’s Flyweight
There’s a good reason Shevchenko doesn’t get a lot of eyeballs: she’s a boring fighter. I have no doubt Shevchenko is aware of that, even if she wouldn’t admit it. I wouldn’t expect her to admit it anyway; part of a fighter’s job is to promote themselves. Admitting that would be some piss poor promotion. Regardless, Shevchenko’s first objective is to win, not to entertain. That isn’t the case with all fighters. Thus, Shevchenko will play to her strengths at the expense of entertaining the fanbase. Given her biggest strength is fighting off the counter, that means she’s willing to have a staring contest with her opponent if they aren’t willing to engage. Thus, it’s difficult for Shevchenko to refute the idea that she’s a boring fighter.
Regardless, it also can’t be argued she’s one of the most successful fighters of all-time. Shevchenko enters every fight with a gameplan to both exploit their weakness and accentuate her strengths. If she sees an opponent whom she can bully, she’ll look to pursue takedowns. If she sees a hole in their striking defense, she’ll look to keep things standing. There are strong boundaries that she’ll set, but it’s hard to argue with her success. For instance, her title defense against Liz Carmouche is one of the worst title fights in UFC history. Shevchenko wanted nothing to do with Carmouche on the mat given Carmouche’s wrestling background. Thus, Shevchenko opted to engage in a staring contest, prepped and ready to counter and stuff Carmouche’s takedown attempts. Despite the miserable aesthetic of the contest, there was no doubt Shevchenko was the victor.
However, within the Carmouche contest comes part of Shevchenko’s chink in the armor: Shevchenko struggles with bigger, stronger opponents. The UFC audience saw that in her bantamweight run. Nunes and Julianna Pena bullied her pretty badly. Holly Holm didn’t, but Holm was still early enough in her MMA career that her ground game was still very green. Shevchenko’s last contest, a controversial decision win over Taila Santos, saw her struggle with Santos’ size, strength, and athleticism.
That’s problematic for Grasso. Grasso is a solid athlete – probably better than Shevchenko – but she entered the flyweight division from the opposite direction than where Shevchenko has had her issues. Yes, Grasso has filled out her frame nicely since coming up from strawweight. She’s improved her wrestling too. But most of the improvements came on the defensive end. Taking down Ji Yeon Kim and Joanne Wood isn’t nearly as difficult as taking down Shevchenko.
As for Grasso’s striking, she’s in the running for the best pure boxer in the division. Of course, MMA striking isn’t strictly about boxing, much less the entirety of the sport itself. Nevertheless, Grasso pushes a good pace and throws enough combinations that it’s hard to believe she won’t find any success landing some good punches on Shevchenko. However, Grasso has also eaten her fair share of damage in her last couple of fights for the length they have lasted. In fact, Wood outlanded her over two to one. While Shevchenko doesn’t throw a lot, she’s accurate when she does. Plus, if she gets the right read, she’s anything but boring.
I’ve heard many say Shevchenko’s time is coming to a close. While I agree we’ve seen the peak version of Shevchenko come and go, Grasso is a favorable matchup for her. While Grasso is known for her striking, she doesn’t have a striking finish in the UFC. That’s because her strikes sting more than overwhelm. If this fight were taking place a year or two from now, I might favor her. But sitting where it is now, I think Shevchenko still has the tools to handle Grasso handily. Grasso is tough as nails, so I expect she’ll last for a while, if not go the distance. Shevchenko via decision
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