Big fights typically have two things: at least one star and some semblance of the unknown.
The UFC has the star in Jon Jones, but opponents that will throw new looks at him are becoming increasingly difficult to come by.
While his multitude of issues both in and out of competition absolutely factor in, a large portion of Jones’ complicated legacy will be centered around his performances inside the Octagon. He is ruling his weight class with ease, but his fights against the top contenders are trending into prime Mike Tyson territory. It’s not a question of who will win, it’s when and how will “Bones” keep the train rolling.
Jones has already shown enough to be considered one of the greatest fighters to ever step foot in the cage. He can easily stay within his comfort zone at light heavyweight and continue his reign. But if he wants to leave no doubts about who the “GOAT” is, he’ll need to venture into the unknown in the heavyweight division.
Jon Jones’ demolition of light heavyweight
To be perfectly clear, Jones’ domination of his weight class is nothing short of remarkable. He entered the UFC as a lanky 21-year-old, but tore through fellow rising prospects and veterans alike on his way to a title shot. Since beating Mauricio “Shogun” Rua to become the youngest champion in UFC history at age 23, he’s only lost his belt due to his aforementioned problems.
Jones boasts a near-perfect 24-1 (1 no contest) professional record, and if Dana White has his way, that disqualification loss to Matt Hamill could soon be wiped from his resume. He strung together eight light heavyweight title defenses, a UFC record, before being stripped of the belt the first time. In that time, he took out some of MMA’s biggest names: Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, Lyoto Machida, Rashad Evans, Vitor Belfort, Chael Sonnen among others.
Somewhere along the way though, Jones’ fights crept more and more toward feeling like surefire wins, leading up to today.
Jones reclaimed the light heavyweight belt — which his longtime rival Daniel Cormier relinquished — by decimating Alexander Gustafsson. Gustafsson previously gave Jones the biggest test of his career when the two met for the first time at UFC 165, but lightning didn’t strike twice for the now-retired Swede. Jones finished him by third-round TKO in a dominant showing.
Jones’ next challenger was Anthony Smith, a journeyman middleweight who strung together three-straight wins at 205 pounds. Once again, Jones prevailed, winning four out of five rounds, only losing the fourth due to a two-point deduction for an illegal knee.
The current state of the division
His next opponent, Thiago Santos, is yet another former middleweight who benefited from a move up in weight. Santos’ three wins over Eryk Anders, Jimi Manuwa and Jan Blachowicz, all of which by KO/TKO, got him the shot at Jones’ gold. Santos is undoubtedly an exciting fighter, but he doesn’t have an advantage over Jones in any area. He enters this fight with a puncher’s chance, but not much else in the hope department.
With Jones now actively defending his belt more frequently, the light heavyweight division simply cannot keep up with him.
The talent pool at 205 pounds was viewed as a barren wasteland for some time, but that’s not quite the case anymore. Now, some fresh faces are arising.
Aleksandar Rakic and Johnny Walker headline the new class of hopeful young fighters who are climbing through the rankings. Former middleweight champions Luke Rockhold and Chris Weidman are also joining the race to catch Jones. That doesn’t mean that the division is experiencing a full-on renaissance though.
Even with new names entering the fold, it feels more like the top contenders are simply getting sent to their execution when put across from Jones. It is interesting to see light heavyweights pop up and provide hope for the future, but that buzz surrounding fighters is quickly silenced when they get thrown up against the champion before they’re ready. Doing so is an easy way to eliminate any perceived depth in the division.
The wins over up-and-comers don’t do much for Jones and his legacy either. It shows that he can still compete with the next generation, but the perception soon shifts toward the idea that those fighters were never that good in the first place. Just ask former UFC flyweight king Demetrious Johnson about that.
New opportunity at heavyweight
Above all else, the heavyweight division currently provides a more exciting endeavor for the light heavyweight champion. Unlike at 205 pounds, that feeling of the unknown is abundant. Jones has never competed at heavyweight in his professional career, and as we have seen so many times before, a shift in weight class changes a fighter.
There’s no shortage of options for Jones in the division.
A third fight with his adversary Cormier at heavyweight has been a major topic of discussion since Jones’ return. Cormier has shown that he is a different beast when he’s not nearly killing himself to get to 205 pounds, knocking out reigning champion Stipe Miocic and defending the belt against Derrick Lewis.
If Jones and Cormier both successfully defend their belts at UFC 239 and UFC 241 respectively (and Cormier holds off on his already-delayed retirement), the trilogy fight would be a logical booking. It would give Jones a chance to become the UFC’s fifth simultaneous two-weight champion and would close out one of the sport’s legendary rivalries.
Of course, there are a number of other heavyweights who would welcome Jones to the division, but one non-title fight sticks out more than the rest, especially following UFC Minneapolis’ emphatic ending: a bout with Francis Ngannou
Jon Jones vs. Francis Ngannou
A dream fight for many was Jones against Anthony “Rumble” Johnson. The power Johnson possessed was unlike anything Jones has faced, which made the potential bout so exciting.
Unfortunately, Johnson’s rise to the top of the light heavyweight division coincided with the peak of Jones’ self-inflicted problems, so we never saw the two fighters square off in the Octagon. A fight between Jones and Ngannou would be an amazing consolation prize though.
Johnson’s time as a contender parallels Ngannou’s current situation. “Rumble” obliterated top-tier light heavyweights like Manuwa, Ryan Bader and Glover Teixeira with his otherworldly power but fell short of the title when he faced a more dynamic opponent in Cormier.
Ngannou now finds himself in no man’s land after his most recent first-round TKO of Junior dos Santos. Miocic defeated him handily with his wrestling, and while his three-straight first-round stoppage wins are mind-blowing, Ngannou’s ground game remain hasn’t been tested. A title shot against the winner of Cormier and Miocic’s August bout is far from guaranteed.
Ngannou may not get a title shot next, but he has certainly made waves with his fists. His fan-friendly style (aside from his fight with Derrick Lewis) has earned him name recognition, which bodes well for a match up against Jones.
Jones and Ngannou is a pay-per-view-headlining fight whether there’s a belt involved or not. It’s also an opportunity for Jones to start building his heavyweight resume with a win over the sport’s most devastating power puncher. The bout also carries much more risk than anything in the pipeline at 205 pounds.
The question is whether or not Jones believes that increased risk is worth the historical (and financial) reward. He is already one of MMA’s greatest fighters, and he has made his fair share of money in the game. But if he bridges the gap and imposes his will on yet another weight class, “Bones” will be in a league of his own.
Shane Connelly is a journalism student at Penn State with a passion for sharing the stories of MMA fighters.