For Jon Jones, years of promises and debates finally come to fruition at UFC 285 when the former 205-pound champion moves up in weight to challenge for the vacant heavyweight title against Ciryl Gane. At age 35, Jones is already the most decorated light heavyweight in MMA history, so how will his successes or failures at heavyweight affect his overall legacy?
MMA Fighting’s Shaun Al-Shatti, Steven Marrocco, Damon Martin, and Jed Meshew sidle back up to the roundtable to debate Jones’ return and the biggest storylines of UFC 285.
1. How much will UFC 285 determine Jon Jones’ overall legacy?
Al-Shatti: Let’s be clear: If Jon Jones never fights again, he’ll still be on the short list of the greatest fighters of all-time. He’s already the greatest light heavyweight to ever lace up a pair of four-ounce gloves. And realistically, there’s only two factors holding him back from being a shoo-in at No. 1 on the overall GOAT list: 1) His murky, years-long relationship with performance-enhancing drugs and suspicious testosterone-to-epitestosterone ratios; 2) the fact that he only did his work in one division, while other the main GOAT candidate — Georges St-Pierre — has the distinction of calling himself a two-division UFC champion.
Jones can’t do much to remedy factor No. 1 aside from staying clean for the rest of his career, but he can certainly take care of No. 2 with a dominant heavyweight run. Even as far back as 2012, Jones knew the land of the big boys was his eventual destiny — and his road to MMA immortality. Jones has some ground to make up on St-Pierre because of his PED history, but if he beats Ciryl Gane then rattles off a win or two more against the world’s best non-Ngannou heavyweights, it’ll be hard to argue against his case as the GOAT.
Marrocco: There’s a reason it took Jones so long to move up to heavyweight, and that’s because the genes for that division went to his brothers. Combine that with the weight-cutting culture of high-level MMA, his success in the cage, success rebounding from troubles outside the cage, and an un-winnable fight against the UFC for Deontay Wilder money, and that’s why we’re seeing Jones, at 35, trying something new.
It doesn’t feel fair to judge his legacy by a heavyweight turn. Heck, it almost feels like two separate careers, no thanks to the three-year layoff he was half-shoved into. If Jones has success in the big-man division, it will strengthen his argument as the pound-for-pound best. If he doesn’t, he’ll still have an argument. At this point, I think his legacy is pretty well set: He’s an extremely talented guy — probably the best, skill for skill — with some extremely persistent demons that tarnished his legacy. A dalliance at heavyweight isn’t going to change that much — only dumb recency bias can cloud it.
Martin: In theory, Jon Jones’ legacy should already be cemented after he became the longest reigning light heavyweight champion in UFC history by a wide margin while defeating every single contender thrown in his path. Jones is widely considered by many to be the greatest of all-time without doing anything else. But winning a heavyweight title would absolutely add to his career accolades, especially when nitpicking his record against those sharing that same rarified air.
Even with a win at UFC 285, Jones won’t be the first to accomplish this particular feat; he would actually be the third behind Randy Couture and Daniel Cormier. But he already thumped Cormier, and while Couture is absolutely an icon, he also holds a 19-11 overall record so he just won’t get the same kind of consideration for all-time status. Meanwhile, Jones is effectively undefeated (sorry Matt Hamill your “win” doesn’t really count), so he would be able to surpass other unbeaten legends like Khabib Nurmagomedov by becoming a two-division champion — and then we’re probably only stacking up his résumé against Georges St-Pierre.
But once again, St-Pierre had legitimate losses in his career, including a particularly glaring setback against Matt Serra, and Jones has never fallen prey to those same missteps. So as much as winning the heavyweight title shouldn’t define his legacy, Jones has to know how much this fight could put distance between him and every other great in the same stratosphere as him.
Meshew: A lot.
Fans in all sports are fickle, but none more than MMA fans. Just look at the careers of guys like Jose Aldo, Fedor Emelianenko, and Anderson Silva. At various points in their careers, they were held in the same esteem many fans hold Jon Jones now: As unquestionably the best. They each reigned for the better part of a decade before finally losing, but when they did, the narrative shifted. And as they continued to compete, and added more losses, those men fell out of the Greatest conversation because we saw them fail. Jones is in the same boat.
For now, Jones is many people’s choice for GOAT. They aren’t wrong (though they may not be right, either). His résumé and run of dominance are nearly unmatched. But should he lose? Then that résumé gets viewed from an entirely different angle. I wrote about this last week, but if Jones loses, there will be people who start to throw dirt on Jones’ run at light heavyweight. “Jones could only beat older, smaller fighters than himself. He’s the Jake Paul of MMA.” That line is coming if he loses to Gane.
But if he wins? Then the only real critique anyone can have of him is that he wasn’t a great person outside of the cage. And looking at how people view Mike Tyson now, I gotta say, that doesn’t seem like it’s a huge issue for people.
2. Which prospect is more likely hold UFC gold in their career: Shavkat Rakhmonov, Bo Nickal, or Jalin Turner?
Marrocco: Easy. Bo Nickal. That’s not because Rakhmonov and Turner aren’t fabulously talented contenders that could one day hold UFC gold. They just fight in two divisions that are verifiably deeper, with challengers that possess many of the same skills and talent. In lightweight and welterweight, it often feels like a miracle just to fight your way out of the middle of the pack, especially if you have one bad night. Then to get to the title … well, just ask Beneil Dariush.
Then we have middleweight. There are diverse challenges, indeed. But I believe for a guy with Nickal’s skill set, it’s a place where he always has a trump card in taking opponents down. Add to that his development at a world-class gym in American Top Team and the performances he’s put on already, and I see a guy that’s going to be champ, sooner or later. It also doesn’t hurt that Alex Pereira is champion right now.
Al-Shatti: I was an early season tickets holder to the “Tarantula” hype train, so I wish I had the guts to pick my guy Jalin Turner here, but ultimately this is a two-horse race between two of the best male prospects in all of combat sports. So sorry, Jalin, my hands are tied.
It’s possible these next few sentences look totally daft a decade down the line when Bo Nickal is working on UFC title defense No. 12 and supplanting St-Pierre/Jones/whomever as the greatest MMA fighter to ever do it, but hell, give me the proven talent who’s already made mincemeat of a legitimately skilled UFC veteran — give me Shavkat Rakhmonov. His two-round demolition of Neil Magny was all I needed to see to confirm my suspicions that Rakhmonov is the real threat to welterweight’s old guard more so than Khamzat Chimaev.
Nickal may have all the potential in the world, but Rakhmonov already has all tools needed to win the UFC welterweight title tomorrow; he’s a terror on the feet, a demon on the ground, and his dreaded “-ov” surname instantly instills the kind of fear one should demand from one of the best fighters on the planet. (Mostly kidding about that last part, but don’t lie and say you’d be excited to fight anyone with last name Rakhmonov.) The 28-year-old has been one of the UFC’s most avoided fighters over the past few years, but if he blasts through Geoff Neal as convincingly as he did Mangy, would anyone out there really be surprised if Rakhmonov was wearing the UFC welterweight crown as early as 2024?
Martin: Just based on rankings and current stature in their respective divisions, Shavkat Rakhmonov is the easy answer here, but he’s also competing in one of the deepest and toughest divisions in the sport at welterweight. Rakhmonov has a very tough test awaiting him at UFC 285 in Geoff Neal and a victory there is far from a sure thing. The same can be said for Jalin Turner, who has shown flashes of what it takes to become a contender one day, but even on short notice he might not get past Matuesz Gamrot.
That leaves only Bo Nickal — the three-time NCAA champion wrestler and arguably the best raw prospect to sign with the UFC since Jon Jones. Nickal hasn’t even had his first fight yet but the potential on him is almost limitless. Based on every metric available as well as a ringing endorsement from coaches and training partners, Nickal has all the tools to become a UFC champion.
But here’s the kicker — Nickal’s skill set as a world-class wrestler already makes him a huge threat at middleweight right now. Outside of Derek Brunson, there are no other notable wrestlers near the top of the 185-pound division, with the top three fighters — Alex Pereira, Israel Adesanya, and Robert Whittaker — all considered strikers by trade. That makes Nickal a lethal weapon and the kind of generational talent who could become champion and stay there for a long, long time.
Nickal has the longest road out of the three fighters listed, but he still seems like the safest bet, especially if the current crop of middleweights remain near the top of the division.
Meshew: Cowards, one an all. Jalin Turner is a future welterweight title holder, mark my words.
Here’s the thing about Turner: HAVE YOU LOOKED AT HIM?! That man is a 6-foot-3 lightweight with nasty mitts! And he’s only 27! Hell, if he ends up having to eventually move to 170, Shavkhat don’t want those problems.
Bo Nickal is the easiest choice because of his pedigree and the fact that middleweight is a (pun absolutely intended) middling division, and Shavkhat is like, two fights away from actually challenging for a belt. But y’all are forgetting the most important rule of MMA: It’s never who you think it is.
Remember when Mirsad Bektic strolled into the UFC and everyone thought he was a future title challenger? Or the brief Brandon Thatch moment? For every Daniel Cormier and Henry Cejudo who make good on their potential, as many and more become Jake Rosholts. Don’t get me wrong, I love Bo Nickal and think he could become a champion, but it’s just as likely that he becomes Yoel Romero: Perennially great but unable to actually win the damn thing. And Shavkhat rules, but I’m still of the belief that Khamzat Chimaev is going to rule 170 for some time.
That leaves Turner who, right now, presents the most intriguing physical challenge for top lightweights, has a deep well of experience, and is just weird enough to end up being the guy who randomly becomes champ. Give me “The Tarantula.”
3. Which prelim fight is most intriguing?
Martin: Some fighters seemingly get an endless number of second chances — see, Sam Alvey — but Cody Garbrandt is teetering on the precipice of being one of the all-time great “what if” stories in MMA history, especially if he suffers one more loss. It feels like a lifetime ago when he was styling all over Dominick Cruz to become bantamweight champion while moving to 11-0 in his career.
Just over six years later, he’s gone 1-5 in his past six fights with four knockouts, failed in his lone attempt to compete at flyweight, and now he’s returning to 135 pounds in what feels like a make-or-break moment for his career.
He’s got a very winnable fight ahead of him in Trevin Jones, who comes into UFC 285 off three straight losses of his own and with a tendency to get a little sloppy at times. That could allow Garbrandt to resurrect people’s faith in him again, much like he did after flatlining Raphael Assauncao in 2020. But there’s also a chance he’s the one who gets flattened. Those kinds of stakes are just too high to ignore.
Al-Shatti: I’m all-in on 2023 being a changing of the guard year for the UFC’s most geriatric divisions, so give me Derek Brunson vs. Dricus Du Plessis.
If Bo Nickal didn’t exist, we’d be talking about Du Plessis as the best rising talent currently at 185 pounds. He’s not a prospect on the same level as the three-time NCAA wrestling champ, and he still has a few concerning holes in his game (just go re-watch Round 2 of the Darren Till fight), but “DDP” still has all the makings of a guy who’s going to bruise his way into the UFC’s top seven then stay there for the next half-decade.
Marrocco: Welterweight certainly isn’t geriatric, but Shavkhat Rakhmonov’s arrival has certainly given the octagon an injection of youth. The guy is 28 and has steamrolled everyone he’s faced, including perennial tough guy Neil Magny in his previous outing.
In Geoff Neal, Rakhmonov faces an extremely dangerous striker that’s derailed a hype train or two. We’re going to see how good he is at dismantling Neal’s best weapons, or if he does what he’s been doing so far, show us how fast his hype train is moving. Neal isn’t the gatekeeper to a title shot, but he’s not far off the mark.
Meshew: Umm, none of them?
Look, UFC 285 has an unimpeachably great main card, but the ESPN+ portion of things is pretty mid. Brunson vs. DDP is the most obvious “best” fight of the undercard, but I can’t seem to make myself care about that one for whatever reason, so if you’re going to make me choose, I’ll give some shine to someone new:
In the first fight of the evening, we’ve got a classic and important matchup taking place: A prospect making his debut against a grizzled veteran. Esteban Ribovicz is an undefeated 26-year-old out of Argentina that has run over all of his opponents thus far. He’s shown tenacity, well-roundedness, and very good power for lightweight in his 11 career bouts, and I’m excited to see what the future could hold for him. Loik Radzhabov is a KillClif guy who spent the past three years keeping his head above water in the PFL. He’s exactly the right kind of introduction fight for Ribovicz to see if this kid has the goods.