Where We Currently Stand
Fans of the UFC heavyweight division might feel like they’re in a Simpsons Treehouse of Horror episode these days. Imagine making that first wish “Jon Jones finally move up to heavyweight!” The monkey’s finger curls into the palm and an extremely beefy Jones materializes in the octagon, chokes out an overmatched Ciryl Gane and wins the vacant title belt. Some fans have been waiting for this moment ever since ‘Bones’ humorously faced off with then-champion Cain Velasquez in 2013.
For those of you unfamiliar with the moral of the Monkey’s Paw story it can be summed up as: Be Careful What You Wish For. Jon Jones walzed into the cage, scooped up the heavyweight title and immediately started talking about retirement. Sure he wants to fight Stipe Miocic next, and sure most MMA retirements possess the finality of a Marvel movie franchise, but this twist is more bitter than sweet. A small but formidable collection of challengers are teeming withing the relative wasteland of UFC heavyweights.
A Great New Hope
Tom Aspinall looked to be one of those men until blowing out his knee last year, fifteen seconds into his fight with Curtis Blaydes. On Saturday night at the O2 Arena he looked like that man again dispatching the perennial heavyweight measuring stick Marcin Tybura while taking virtually no damage. Aspinall, unlike Gane, has a grappling background and might be able to mix the martial arts with Jones but who can know whether the stars will ever align in a way that allows us to see Jon Jones fight the next generation of heavyweight contenders.
I wanted to write about Tom Aspinall but it’s so hard to quantify what opportunities realistically lay in front of the current heavyweight contenders. There are only three fights available to Jones that truly pique my interest, with Aspinall in the mix for sure after Saturday’s performance.
The next two have already fought each other but each present a test to the champ in two very different skill sets. Sergei Pavlovich and Curtis Blaydes. I’m aware that Blaydes has already been stopped by the surging Russian knockout artist but hear me out: the true test of a GOAT is in sitting atop the mountain, taking on all challengers, and facing specialists to either beat or neutralizing their weapons.
We watched Georges St. Pierre outwrestle strikers and outstrike wrestlers. When Jon Jones was at his peak he seemed determined to beat challengers at their own game, choosing to wrestle with Chael Sonnen and strike with Lyoto Machida.
These are the things that make fighters into legends, not cherry picking an aging former champ with one foot out the door (apologies for this characterization, Stipe). So take on the striking dynamo, and wrestle someone your own size, Jon. The final three fights of Khabib’s career solidified his legacy, and Jon Jones has the opportunity to do the same at heavyweight.
Predicting the UFC Champ at the end of 2023
I’ve been avoiding this, but my prediction as to the UFC heavyweight champion come December 31st, 2023 is that the belt will be “vacant.” I’ve always wondered why Jon Jones relenquished the light heavyweight belt before securing a new contract, a move that left that division in the shambles that persist to this day.
My pet conspiracy theory is that Jones will beat Stipe Miocic, “retire” in-cage, and then leverage that scarcity to negotiate a new contract before every single fight he has, henceforth. The idea that the UFC would wait around for a popular “retired” champ to come back instead of pinning the belt on someone else is not without precedent.
Former lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov retired in October of 2020 at UFC 254, stranding Dana White in the friendzone for seven months until the UFC president finally allowed Charles Oliveira and Michael Chandler to fight for the vacant belt at UFC 262. Let’s not be surprised if we find ourselves in a series of encores like a Lynrd Skynrd concert where they haven’t yet played Freebird.
Thanks for all your time and support, these images are part of my book series The Fine Art of Violence, a collection of art & essays chronicling the best and most important fights each year in MMA. Join my patreon to get a copy of the 2023 edition and support the art studio. Take care of yourself and I’ll talk to you Thursday at bloodyelbow.substack.com and right here next Monday.
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