Jon Jones returns this weekend.
Allow me to repeat that with appropriate emphasis and enthusiasm: Jon Jones! Returns! This weekend!
I had to resist the urge to go all caps there, because this is BIG. Jones will be fighting for the first time in over three years when he steps into the Octagon for the main event of UFC 285 on Saturday night in Las Vegas (ESPN+ PPV, 10 p.m ET).
Jones’ meeting with Ciryl Gane for the vacant heavyweight championship is not just the biggest fight on this weekend’s pay-per-view card at T-Mobile Arena, it’s the biggest fight the sport has seen in years. This is the return of the consensus GOAT of MMA, and he’s not simply coming back to reclaim what he left behind. The seemingly forever light heavyweight champ is stepping into a new domain, making his debut in the world of the big boys.
The importance of Jones being back in the cage is obvious to longtime mixed martial arts fans, but for those who weren’t yet following the sport way back in the pre-pandemic days of February 2020, when “Jonny Bones” last competed, here’s a primer:
Jones won the UFC light heavyweight title in March 2011 at age 23 by stopping Mauricio “Shogun” Rua, becoming the youngest champion in the fight company’s history. He then proceeded to mow down a procession of ex-champions and future Hall of Famers while standing head and shoulders above the crowd at 205 pounds. Jones built and fortified an ironclad case for recognition as the greatest fighter in the history of MMA.
Among a long list of superlatives, Jones owns the UFC record for most title fight wins, with 14. They came during an unbeaten run through three reigns with the belt — an incongruity that brings us to the grim side of the Jones story.
Jones never lost his championship inside the cage but was stripped of it for bad behavior three times, making him the only fighter ever to have a title taken away by the UFC more than once. He has served three suspensions for doping violations, plus one in connection with an arrest following a hit-and-run accident that injured a pregnant woman. Jones has been arrested several other times, including on a domestic violence charge and twice for suspicion of driving under the influence.
So yes, Jones’ career path has been a twisty road covering a dizzying route of thrills and spinouts. But one thing about that career is undeniable: When Jones has made it into the cage to fight, he has been sublime. Mostly. His past couple of defenses at 205 pounds were not as domineering as we’d become used to, and that adds a layer of intrigue to his return. Did Jones struggle a bit because the game has caught up with him? Or, after nearly a dozen title defenses, was he just getting bored? This weekend might answer that. As Jones turns the page to a new, weightier chapter, can he resume his command of the game?
Jones’ heavyweight quest is the story of the weekend, but it’s not the only story. His fight is not even the only title bout at UFC 285, as Valentina Shevchenko defends her flyweight championship against Alexa Grasso in the co-main event. And there are other potential highlights sprinkled throughout the night.
Here’s a ranking of the most essential fights to watch.
1. Jon Jones vs. Ciryl Gane
Having already laid out why Jones’ return is a must-see event, it’s now time to note that this fight isn’t Jones vs. Just Some Guy. Gane is as good as it gets in the heavyweight division right now. He has knocked out Tai Tuivasa, Derrick Lewis and Junior dos Santos, and in the only loss of his career, Gane gave Francis Ngannou problems. He has the size (6-foot-4, 247 pounds) and elite striking skills to control this fight, even finish it. However, Gane was taken down and controlled on the canvas four times in last year’s fight with Ngannou, who is nowhere near the wrestler Jones is. That could be a pivotal factor.
2. Valentina Shevchenko vs. Alexa Grasso
Shevchenko will be making the eighth defense of her 125-pound title. That’s twice as many defenses as any other current UFC champion. Shevchenko has been queen of the flyweights since 2018, and it has been over a decade since she has lost to anyone other than women’s GOAT Amanda Nunes, the champ at 135 and 145. Can Grasso put a dent in that supremacy? She’s from Mexico, and two of her countrymen, Brandon Moreno and Yair Rodriguez, recently won UFC belts. Grasso has an opportunity to help usher in a fresh new era of Mexican champions.
3. Shavkat Rakhmonov vs. Geoff Neal
Rakhmonov is 16-0 with finishes in every one of his fights — a perfectly balanced blend of eight knockouts and eight submissions. He is No. 10 in ESPN’s welterweight rankings, putting him one spot behind Neal, who has won two in a row, most recently handing the tough Vicente Luque the first knockout of his career last August. This fight should be fiery.
4. Bo Nickal vs. Jamie Pickett
Hype-loving fans might be looking forward to this middleweight fight as much as the title bouts. Nickal, a three-time NCAA Division I national champion out of wrestling powerhouse Penn State, is as puffed up a prospect as the UFC has seen in years. His Octagon debut will tell us a little about him: how he handles the bright lights and how he holds up against UFC-level competition. But this is just a baby step for Nickal. If he gets past Pickett, the tests will only get more challenging.
5. Viviane Araujo vs. Amanda Ribas
Flyweight has been the fiefdom of the champion in the co-main for so long that it has become difficult to generate support for anyone challenging Shevchenko for the title. But in recent months we’ve seen great champs from Kamaru Usman to Israel Adesanya take a fall, so that gives hope to the rest of the 125-pound division. Erin Blanchfield made a bold statement last weekend by beating Jessica Andrade, and now it’s time for either Araujo or Ribas to shine.
A couple of other things to watch (or not)
Cody Garbrandt is a former UFC men’s bantamweight champion. But he has not fought since 2021 and, even when active, has lost five of his past six bouts, with all but one of those defeats coming by knockout. It has been a brutal fall to witness. Can Garbrandt remain standing against Trevin Jones, a loser in his past three fights? Or must we cover our eyes again?
Is Derek Brunson in, or is he out? After he was knocked out by Jared Cannonier a year ago to end a five-fight winning streak, Brunson wrote on social media that he planned to fight just once more, then retire. However, in December the middleweight tweeted out a plan for “4 fights in 2023.” Brunson had better decide on his level of commitment before stepping into the cage with Dricus du Plessis, winner of six in a row, including five finishes.
The full UFC 285 fight card
ESPN+ PPV, 10 p.m. ET
Heavyweight championship: Ciryl Gane vs. Jon Jones
Women’s flyweight championship: Valentina Shevchenko (c) vs. Alexa Grasso
Welterweight: Shavkat Rakhmonov vs. Geoff Neal
Lightweight: Mateusz Gamrot vs. Jalin Turner
Middleweight: Bo Nickal vs. Jamie Pickett
ESPN/ESPNews/ESPN+, 8 p.m. ET
Men’s bantamweight: Cody Garbrandt vs. Trevin Jones
Middleweight: Derek Brunson vs. Dricus du Plessis
Women’s flyweight: Viviane Araujo vs. Amanda Ribas
Middleweight: Julian Marquez vs. Marc-Andre Barriault
ESPN+, 5:30 p.m. ET
Welterweight: Ian Garry vs. Song Kenan
Men’s bantamweight: Mana Martinez vs. Cameron Saaiman
Strawweight: Jessica Penne vs. Tabatha Ricci
Men’s bantamweight: Da’Mon Blackshear vs. Farid Basharat
Lightweight: Kamuela Kirk vs. Esteban Ribovics
(c) = defending champion