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The Great Divide: Which legacy-changing upset is more likely to happen at UFC 232?

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

The Great Divide is a reoccurring feature here at MMA Fighting in which writers debate a topic in the world of MMA — whether it’s news, a fight, a crazy thing somebody did, a crazy thing somebody didn’t do, or some moral dilemma threatening the very foundation of the sport — and try to figure out a resolution. We’d love for you to join in the discussion in the comments section below.

In past editions, Chuck Mindenhall and Shaun Al-Shatti debated UFC 230’s main event, Tyron Woodley’s UFC 228 dilemma, Daniel Cormier’s potential retirement fight, the winner of the DJ-for-Askren trade, and the ill-fated Bellator 214 vs. UFC 233 duel. This week, the two look ahead to Dec. 29 and wonder: Which unlikely but sport-changing upset is more likely to happen at UFC 232, Alexander Gustafsson stunning Jon Jones or Amanda Nunes stunning Cris Cyborg?

NUNES BEATING CYBORG

Al-Shatti: We’re less than a week away from the UFC’s year-end celebration, Chuck, and I must say, I don’t think any event in 2018 has had such a towering presence atop its marquee as UFC 232. Atop the bill you have the man many in our little community consider to be the most talented fighter to ever compete, if not also the most self destructive. Just below him you have the woman who already casts an imposing shadow as the greatest female fighter in the history of the sport. Both Jon Jones and Cris Cyborg are more than 2-to-1 favorites to best Alexander Gustafsson and Amanda Nunes, respectively, at Dec. 29’s championship doubleheader, and an upset by either of the underdogs would be an earth-shattering moment for the game, one that would instantly redefine the legacies of all involved.

So who has the better chance to rewrite history and turn UFC 232 into an iconic night?

Well, Jones and Cyborg are the two single most dominant mixed martial artists we’ve ever seen, so picking against either one of them feels like an exercise in futility. But if I am forced to side with one over the other… man… I have to go with Nunes stunning Cyborg. And that’s solely for one reason: I simply cannot picture Jon Jones losing. Like, I legitimately cannot picture it. My brain doesn’t understand what that specific imagery is supposed to look like.

Say whatever you will about the man’s decision-making outside of the cage, but inside the cage, there is no one like “Bones.” His combination of once-in-a-generation physical gifts, championship experience, and savant-level fight IQ is unparalleled and unprecedented. His failing of multiple drug tests and throwing the entirety of his career into question does not change that.

I’m sure my friend The Man In The Hat will point to UFC 165 as proof that Gustafsson over Jones is the correct answer here, considering we almost saw that very scenario play out in front of our eyes five years ago. And that’s fair. I nearly did the same. Still, it’s become clearer and clearer over time that the Jon Jones who showed up in Toronto in 2013 was a different person entirely than the Jon Jones of today. He was a man enraptured in his own greatness — someone so engorged by his success that he reached a point of wondering how far he could push his levels of apathy and still summon that greatness inside of him when the moment called for it. The 2013 version of Jon Jones didn’t see Alexander Gustafsson as a threat to his title reign and he partied accordingly. He nearly paid dearly for it. I don’t think he’ll make the same mistake the second time around.

Add that to the fact that the Jon Jones of today is a man supernaturally motivated to recapture the legacy he lost after his second drug-testing suspension, plus the fact that he already destroyed any notion of being affected by ring rust with one mighty swing of his foot upon Daniel Cormier’s head at UFC 214, and it’s safe to surmise that the version of Jon Jones that will show up to UFC 232 is leagues better than the one who stumbled into UFC 165 half-awake from a months-long bender. I don’t know that I can say that same level of growth will accompany Alexander Gustafsson, whose injuries and inactivity have limited his own ascent in the wake of Jones’ multi-year absence.

As one last parting shot, I’ll also point out that I ran across Amanda Nunes numerous times earlier this month in Toronto for UFC 231. She was accompanying her partner Nina Ansaroff, who pulled off a stunning upset of her own over Claudia Gadelha, and I must say... “The Lioness” looked absolutely jacked. She looked huge in the best possible way, and she certainly didn’t appear to be taking the move up to featherweight lightly. She is a long-reigning champion, after all. One does not attain a trophy case like hers without that special something that helps an athlete defy the odds. Gustafsson may have come oh-so-close twice, but he has yet to prove he can dig deep and harness that same energy.

So while either upset would be legendary, if I have to choose one that is more likely than the other on Dec. 29, I’m siding with the woman who has been there and done this before. I’m siding with the co-main.

GUSTAFSSON BEATING JONES

Mindenhall: Jon Jones’s reign as the baddest motherf*cker on the planet has only cooled off in recent times because — and correct me if I’m wrong here, Shaun — he got caught with a grain of sand in an Olympic-sized swimming pool? Right? That doesn’t seem so bad in the grand scheme of things. I understand the dude gets caught messing up all the time outside the Octagon. What we still haven’t seen is him getting caught in it. When Jones is at his very best, he has the generational feel of MMA’s Michael Jordan — which is to say, he’s exceptional to the point of awe.

A titan among mortals.

The other level athlete who aged yesterday’s champions in dog years, and made tomorrow’s champions switch weight classes.

And somewhere along the way — perhaps it was when he stopped Shogun Rua hours after stopping a thief in New Jersey, or when he dropped Lyoto Machida like a dead pile of limbs, or when he finished off Chael Sonnen with his toe pointing in the wrong direction — it started to feel, just like you mentioned, inconceivable that he could lose. That Jon Jones was too good, too cunning, too well coached, too above.

Of course, the closest we ever saw him of being toppled in the cage was against Alexander Gustafsson at UFC 165 back in 2013. You want to know what made that one of the best fights of all time? That the outcome was in doubt. Gustafsson struck with Jones, frustrated him, took him down, made him bleed. For a little while there was a sense of history being made, and everyone was nudging the guy next time him saying things like, “can you f*cking believe this?!” It sent a tingle down our collective spines to witness an invincible getting worked. The spirit of Ingemar Johansson was alive and well in Toronto that night.

Then the spinning elbow in the fourth round changed the fight in Jones’ favor, and within a week, he was back at the discotheque.

Here’s the thing: We saw, for the first time in Jones’ career, what it looks like for him to be on the ropes, having to dig deep to find his way out. It’s not a stretch to imagine Gustafsson dragging Jones into the deep side of the pool again, only this time getting the job done.

I’m going to tell you something, and you’ve got to promise not to share this: I still have nightmares about Cris Cyborg rag-dolling Jan Finney out there in San Jose while Kimmy Winslow stood by idly by admiring the action. Cyborg is a beast — a beast, I say! — and if Amanda Nunes goes up a weight class and takes her featherweight belt, that will be among the greatest feat this sport has known. It will deliver Nunes into the ranks of the women’s all-time pantheon of greats, and maybe even land her at the top. It’s such a tall task that I find it verging into the realm of fantasy. Cyborg is the bigger fighter; Cyborg is the stronger fighter; Cyborg is the witch doctor women go to to get rid of their delusions.

As hard as it is to imagine Jones losing a fight, it’s doubly difficult to imagine Cyborg losing. Hell, it’s difficult to imagine Cyborg doing anything other than doling out punishment. So, while it would be amazing to see Gustafsson pull off the upset of Jones, it would be downright shocking to see Nunes standing over Cyborg, celebrating the unthinkable.

Poll

Which UFC 232 upset is more likely in your opinion?

This poll is closed

  • 63%
    Alexander Gustafsson def. Jon Jones
    (1839 votes)
  • 36%
    Amanda Nunes def. Cris Cyborg
    (1049 votes)
2888 votes total Vote Now

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