UFC 285 – Big questions about Jon Jones’ return, Ciryl Gane’s heavyweight title chances and more

UFC 285 – Big questions about Jon Jones’ return, Ciryl Gane’s heavyweight title chances and more

  • Sports
  • January 15, 2023
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Jon Jones has been talking about heavyweight fights for years. For much of his dominant tenure as the UFC light heavyweight champion, he had one eye on the big boys.

Even in the week leading up to his 205-pound title defense against Dominick Reyes in February 2020, Jones seemed more focused on the then-heavyweight king. “I feel like I really want to fight Stipe Miocic,” he told ESPN. “I feel like I could beat him.”

By the following May, Jones had shifted his focus to another heavyweight, Francis Ngannou, whose sledgehammer fists terrorized the division. “All that power means nothing if your hay machines are too slow,” Jones wrote to Ngannou on Twitter.

But none of those heavyweight matchups came to fruition. In fact, Jones didn’t fight for nearly three years — until Saturday night, when the UFC announced Jones would face Ciryl Gane at UFC 285 on March 4 in Las Vegas. The fight will be a title fight as the UFC announced Saturday night that they had stripped and released champion Ngannou from the roster.

This developing scenario was a wild turn of events for Jones, which is par for the course for a fighter whose entire career has been an express train chugging to glorious heights only to be derailed time and time again.

What does all this mean for Jones, the fighter many consider the greatest of all time? ESPN’s Brett Okamoto, Marc Raimondi and Jeff Wagenheim try to make sense of it.

After a long layoff and reshaping his body, what are realistic expectations for Jones?

Jon Jones will make his heavyweight debut against Ciryl Gane at UFC 285. Thomas Shea – USA TODAY Sports

It’s hard to set expectations for someone who hasn’t fought since early 2020 and has progressed strongly in a new weight class. Jones is the greatest MMA fighter that ever lived – period, nobody’s equaled more – but he’ll go into this heavyweight title fight with Gane as something of an enigma.

Let’s not forget that the last two light heavyweight title defenses for Jones in 2019 and 2020 (before the start of the coronavirus pandemic, btw) were somewhat lackluster. Many thought he should have lost a decision against Reyes and before that Jones had a difficult time with Thiago Santos who was struggling on two broken knees. The thing about Jones is that he has an innate fighting spirit and knows how to win MMA competitions. No one in the history of the sport has come close to Jones’s scholarly acumen.

People have been talking about his generous physical attributes for years. While they’re not wrong, many fighters just as gifted have never done anywhere near what Jones did, amassing a streak of 18 fights unbeaten and 11 title defenses. The only thing Jones had in this move to heavyweight is time. And it seems like he certainly has been working hard and increasing the weight in all the right ways while adapting to it from an MMA training standpoint. He still trains with excellent coaches in Albuquerque, New Mexico and Scottsdale, Arizona. We can’t expect a prime Jones in two months time – that wouldn’t be a fair expectation – but we should see a prepared one. – Raimondi

What would a win mean for Jones’ legacy?

Like everything in Jones’ career, it’s complicated.

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Many fans and pundits already consider Jones to be the greatest MMA fighter of all time; others shake their heads at his multiple failed drug tests, disqualifying him from GOAT Talk. And while adding a second division championship to his résumé would put Jones at an exclusive club of UFC greats, even that accomplishment would deserve an asterisk because if he had the UFC belt wrapped around his waist, he wouldn’t be the No .1 in the world — no, not with Ngannou, who still walks the earth.

And yet, what a night it will be on March 4th when Jones gets to climb back into the Octagon for the first time in over three years, with a completely overhauled, hulking physique he has yet to test, and making his debut in the heavyweight division to an overwhelming success. If Jones can conquer Gane more forcefully than Ngannou – Gane and Ngannou went back and forth five rounds last year – it would add shine to a legacy that already shines blindingly. But it seems to me that this heavyweight debut is just another fresh start for Jones. Can he keep building this time? -Wagenheim

How did we get to Ciryl Gane? What happened to Curtis Blaydes and Stipe Miocic?

Stipe Miocic could be next in line after UFC 285 to win the heavyweight title. Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC

Simple answer, Gane is the best option.

The best option and the right choice. He is the No. 1 heavyweight division, one and two spots ahead of Miocic and Blaydes respectively. Gane deserves this, and he happens to be the most viable option in the division. His only heavyweight loss is Francis Ngannou. Other than that, he’s 8-1 in the UFC. He’s the most deserving heavyweight title challenger and luckily for the UFC, he’s also the most viable option against Jones. When the UFC was looking for a big fight in December, Miocic and Blaydes were options, but now that everything has been reset, Gane is the right option based on timing and marketability. So here we are. – Okamoto

Is Gane the worst possible matchup for Jones’ heavyweight debut?

Ciryl Gane fought Francis Ngannou for the UFC Heavyweight Title at UFC 270 in January 2022. Gary A Vasquez – USA TODAY Sports

Gane is a tough matchup for most heavyweights, but Ngannou would likely have presented Jones with a much more difficult code to crack. While Gane has the striking ability and athleticism to hold his own against Jones, he has also been defeated numerous times by Ngannou, who is a power puncher and no one would mistake for a wrestler. Jones is a wrestler – and a very good one at that. He defeated Olympian Daniel Cormier in two bouts. Gane will be aware of this and will take care of it, perhaps to the extent that it makes him less slippery and less aggressive on his feet. That opens the door for Jones to attack with front kicks to the knee, elbows, and long left hand. No one would ever mistake Jones for a knockout artist, but his shot is dangerous in its unpredictability, length and unorthodox angles.

Ngannou would have been harder for Jones to defeat, and of course he can KO anyone on the planet in one punch. Gane has the power in his hands, but no more so than the majority of the heavyweights in the division. His standup isn’t entirely impenetrable either. Tai Tuivasa knocked Gane down with one punch in September before Gane came back to finish. Jones will be unlike anyone Gane has ever fought. Gane will be bigger than anyone Jones has ever fought before, but Jones has faced different styles and beat them all.

One of the first things you notice when these two meet is hand speed and overall quickness. That was always a strength for Jones at light heavyweight back in his 20s. Gane is fast for a heavyweight. Will he be faster or at least as fast as Jones, who has gained significant weight? Even if Gane is significantly faster, Jones will still have the wrestling advantage in his back pocket. He could put Gane on his back sooner. That’s probably something MMA Factory trainer Fernand Lopez, Gane’s mentor, is already thinking about. – Raimondi

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