We’re back again with more of the bitter and more of the sweet from all around the MMA world.
In this week’s Love/Hate to see it, we’ve got Aljamain Sterling making concrete plans for 145 and Francis Ngannou laying out his plans for 2024. Over on the flip side we’ve got Jon Jones getting far too much screen time and Israel Adesanya passing the buck. Plenty to mull over.
LOVE TO SEE IT
Aljamain Sterling staying at 145
Few things feel more chancy and unforgiving in MMA than a late career change in weight class. For one reason or another fighters often spend years tuning their bodies to a competition weight that either they or their fans feel isn’t actually ideally suited for their build.
For some, they cut massive amounts for years on end, to the point that they’re permanently depleted. For others, they enjoy the speed advantage that comes with being the small guy in a bigger division, up until the point they start losing a step, and then feel like they need to make the drop. Either way, the result can be short and disastrous, especially at first.
Fighters like Anthony Pettis, Luke Rockhold, Chris Weidman, Ovince St. Preux, Miesha Tate, and many many others have tried to make late career shifts only to abandon them after finding that they didn’t provide the kind of immediate advantage they’d hoped to have.
Still just 34-years-old, former Aljamain Sterling looks to make the jump up to featherweight against Calvin Kattar at UFC 300. He’s young enough that he should still have some tread on the tires. And hopefully not cutting anymore will help keep him going in the later years of his career.
Win or lose this April, however, at least it doesn’t sound like he’s making this move out of desperation. In a recent interview with MMA Junkie, Sterling made it clear that he’s preparing to stay at 145 lbs.
“Safe to say (I’m done at bantamweight),” Sterling explained. “One of my managers was asking about that, about going down to 135, and I said, ‘Brother, let’s stop this conversation right here.’
“There’s no more 135. I didn’t even want to do it the last time. Whatever, I’m not going to bring it up again because people are going to say I’m making excuses, but this is all factual, but 135 is done.”
I hope that he sticks with the decision. It may be entirely anecdotal, but it feels like fighters who really buy into the idea that they’re making a real career shift and not just hoping for an immediate stock boost tend to do better for longer. Even if that’s not the case, it always feels worse somehow to see someone go back to the division they left, hat in hand, after losing in a new weight class.
Francis Ngannou may not return to MMA in 2024
I know this is going to make some people sad. An article I wrote recently on Ngannou landing his fight with Anthony Joshua prompted more than one comment from readers about how they were disappointed that we wouldn’t be seeing Ngannou in an MMA bout in the near future. Honestly, however, I can’t say I share the feeling.
Francis Ngannou’s combat sports career has always been a wildly unique one. A massive powerhouse of a man, even in MMA his bouts have rarely (never?) been marked by displays of his technical prowess. Over 9 years and 20 fights, his most deft showing was likely his second bout against Stipe Miocic, where he out-boxed the champion to take home UFC gold. That was, however, followed by a hilariously sloppy grappling battle with Ciryl Gane and preceded by one of the most awkward series of violent blows to ever grace the Octagon in his KO over Jairzinho Rozenstruik.
A single moment of “good” MMA in a sea of wild violence.
I bring that up not to say that Francis Ngannou is bad, but to say that I don’t feel like I’m missing a whole lot when I see Ngannou turn his attention to boxing. The prospect of a bout between the ‘Predator’ and the likes of Ante Delija, Denis Goltsov, or Renan Ferreira isn’t some chance to see Ngannou ‘in his element.’ Because he doesn’t really have an element outside of violent chaos.
The opportunity to see him try and create that in the boxing ring is just as interesting, if not more so, to me. Especially after he showed himself at least somewhat capable of it against Tyson Fury. In a recent conversation on the MMA Hour Ngannou admitted that depending on how the Joshua bout goes, he very well may not see the cage again until 2025.
“I win this fight, I’m fighting Fury –period,” Ngannou said (transcript via MMA Junkie). “Whether or not he has the belt.”
“When I received a call and the offer for proposal of this fight, what happened? I reached out to PFL and told them because we’re in the business together,” Ngannou said. “They gave me their blessing and said they can’t take away this opportunity from me, so I was happy to do that. I didn’t want to know what else they’re going to say, as long as they approved. They didn’t have a problem with this.”
The most entertaining part of the Francis Ngannou saga right now is watching him stick it to the UFC and blaze a trail for other talent to bet on themselves and not just play it safe with whatever rope Dana White is willing to give them. There’s no better way for him to do that than securing these kinds of huge fight opportunities.
Even a couple years from now, Ngannou in the PFL is still going to have mystique and prestige to it. But at this moment, he’s got a chance to do something historic in the boxing ring, and it’d be foolish to waste his time with anything else.
Bloody Elbow merch available
Bloody Elbow is pleased to announce our partnership with Revgear. They have been a pioneer in the MMA gear industry and have grown into a formidable brand and true leader in the market. Revgear now have Bloody Elbow t-shirts, hoodies and hats so you can show your support for independent MMA journalism.
HATE TO SEE IT
UFC champ Jon Jones can’t handle the Tom Aspinall heat
The moment Tom Aspinall got his interim UFC title belt, his one, singular task was clear as day. By whatever means necessary, this man needed to unify the heavyweight title belt, ideally in a fight against Jon Jones.
I’d say he needed to do it against the winner of Jones/Miocic, but it’s hard not to feel like that fight is already something of a foregone conclusion. If Stipe does somehow manage to win and doesn’t retire, then sure, Aspinall should be trying to fight him too. But for now, Jones is champ, and once he recovers from injury he’ll be taking on a 41-year-old challenger 4 years removed from his last victory in the Octagon.
Thus (although often in a far too kind and soft spoken way, honestly), Aspinall has made it clear that his goal is a fight with Jon Jones, and that the UFC making any other bout is just ego stroking and getting one last squeeze of juice from one of their longtime stars before he too likely rides off into the sunset. It’s all absolutely true and nothing Jones or Dana White can say is going to change that. But, man is Jones trying.
I’m not a big Instagram stories guy, but this is absolutely what that platform was designed to do. Get on camera, record a video, vent, let it all out, and have the whole thing be gone a few hours later. Sure, someone would save it and upload it, and it’d still get circulated around, but we’d all know the intention. This? Jon Jones doesn’t need to do this. He doesn’t want to fight Tom Aspinall and he’s not going to. The UFC has already said as much. All he’s gotta do now is rehab and talk about how much he wants to smash Stipe.
Trying to spin this whole yarn about how he was young once and he did things the right way by fighting great fighters only makes Shogun look damn foolish for not telling Jones to hit the bricks when the UFC pushed him into a title shot just three years after his UFC debut. Jon Jones doesn’t need to convince everyone that Stipe Miocic is the deserving challenger. It’s the fight he wants and it’s the fight the UFC wants and it’s the fight that will sell. In combat sports that’s all the excuse anyone needs.
Israel Adesanya shirks the blame
There are no two ways about it, Israel Adesanya’s performance against Sean Strickland sucked. The two-time middleweight champion looked completely surprised by Strickland’s pressure and persistance and offered little in the way of resistance on his way to a 5-round decision loss in which he got dropped hard early in the fight.
Fans would have to hope that the bout would have been a learning experience for Adesanya and a point of reflection, as he increasingly found himself reliant on a style that was more subtractive than anything else, in an era where the MMA meta-game increasingly rewards busy fighters. And maybe in his own way, that’s what this is. But if so, it doesn’t seem so much focused on his own flaws as it does the coaching in his corner.
“I went back to the corner, round three or round four, whatever it was, I was like, ‘Right, we go this round, we must go this round,” Adesanya explained in a recent video on his YouTube channel (transcript via MMA Fighting). “Even like, when I asked Eugene in the fifth round, I said ‘Should I just go?’ and he’s like, ‘No, let’s be tactical.’ I wanted to kind of be like, ‘F— it, let’s go.’ Like, if I die, I die, like, go out on your shield. Kill or be killed.
“He was like, ‘Let’s be tactical.’ It got to the point where I realized this fight’s getting away from me. It got to a point where I felt like, ‘Damn. It’s too far gone.’ Like when someone’s in a race in the 100 meters, he was too far ahead and I just couldn’t catch up. I was trying my best to try and finish him in the early rounds. Regardless, I never lost hope, that’s the thing.”
Adesanya has landed more than 100 significant strikes in a five round fight just once since beating Kelvin Gastelum back in 2019. That’s 10 title fights, largely defined by patient, cautious approaches. But he didn’t look patient or cautious or even “technical” like his coaches wanted him to be against Strickland. Mostly he looked confused and gunshy.
Fighting technical and fighting on the front foot aren’t two different things. And being busy isn’t the antithesis of being a counter puncher, plenty of great counter fighters over the years have built their opportunities off of solid output and offense. Alexander Volkanovski tore Max Holloway to pieces at UFC 276, all while out-landing him almost two to one… and he trains with Adesanya’s coaches too.
Then again, fighting is also a game of ego maintenance. For as easily picked apart a cover story as this feels like, maybe it’s just what the man needs to convince himself that he can go back out there and win more fights, that the problem of his last bout was just a pep talk away. I can understand that, but I’d also council not trying to make it a public conversation.
Join the new Bloody Elbow
Our Substack is where we feature the work of writers like Zach Arnold, John Nash and Connor Reubusch. We’re fighting for the sport, the fighters and the fans. Please help us by subscribing today.
About the author