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Fortunes changed for five at UFC 239

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Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

On first watch Saturday night, the Jon Jones title defense over Thiago Santos was an unremarkable ending to an otherwise explosive show in Las Vegas.

When it was over, with Jones winning a closer-than-expected decision in a fight with few highlights, most of the talk was the undercard. Jorge Masvidal scored the fastest knockout in UFC history. Amanda Nunes solidified herself as the greatest female fighter of all-time. Should Luke Rockhold retire? Should Holly Holm retire? Should Diego Sanchez retire? Should Gilbert Melendez retire?

Dana White blew off the idea of a rematch, saying Jones dominated and clearly won, and that anyone who scored the fight for Santos should never judge a fight again. Jones did land more strikes in every round except the first, but the strikes Santos landed were harder. Both men’s legs were shot when it was over. While the fight itself wasn’t overly exciting, it was a somewhat captivating fight. It was clear Santos was fighting with one leg. It was clear Jones was not himself, and that a lot of fighters on this given night would have done well with Jones, including Santos if he had two good legs. And it felt close.

When the fight was over, I had Santos winning rounds one and five and Jones winning three and four. The second round to me was very close. Actually, many were close but the second was close to a pick-em. I had Jones winning that round, and because in a close round or fight, whether you like it or not, there is an inherent advantage to the star, expected a 48-47 score for Jones. I thought Santos could get the decision, but people would be furious because of the adage of the challenger not doing enough to win the title. It’s an adage that also is not supposed to exist with judges, yet the phrase is still used constantly in boxing and at times in MMA.

Now the narrative should be quite a bit different.

Santos tore every ligament in his left knee in the first round. He came into the fight after secretly undergoing minor surgery on his right knee. He may need more surgery on his right knee. He definitely does on his left knee. He fought five very close rounds with the greatest fighter in the history of the sport, admittedly not on his best day. And he became the first fighter in Jones’ career to have at least one judge give the fight to the opponent.

Jones did outland Santos 16-11 in round five, but Santos clearly had the better and harder shots. But the championship ended up coming down to this. Had Derek Cleary given round five to Santos, he, on two bum legs, would be champion today.

With all that, combined with a lack of strong contenders in the division, Santos definitely deserves a rematch. But due to his injuries, that can’t come any time soon. And the reality is, it’s possible he may not be the same fighter coming back. So he’ll probably need at least one fight, and win, around next spring. So we’re talking a long time before that rematch could take place. And a lot can happen in a year in this sport.

As far as the questions of whether people should retire, every question is different. It’s easy to say Rockhold, Holm, Sanchez or Melendez should, as all were major stars, all but Sanchez were major champions and Sanchez was a one-time top contender. And all have seen better days.

Rockhold clearly has the skills, but the way he was rocked by every blow from Jan Blachowicz, a fighter not known for power, is a major concern. His chin won’t improve, and his move to light heavyweight seemed more to show how much that 20-pound difference from 185 to 205 really is. His grappling, clearly his key direction in the fight, would have been more effective against a smaller opponent.

Holm is still a name fighter, and losing a championship fight to the all-time greatest is not a reason to retire. But her path to a championship seems difficult and there doesn’t seem like anything more she can accomplish in a stellar multi-sport career.

Sanchez wasn’t hurt badly, but he also wasn’t competitive with Michael Chiesa. He hasn’t been in the title picture for years and is still a name fighter from the past who can get people interested in an undercard fight.

Melendez moved to featherweight, a speed division, and was too slow for Arnold Allen. He was one of the most exciting fighters to watch for years, but that was in a different era.

In all cases, it’s a matter of earning a living. They could all make good money fighting, whether in UFC, or if Dana White doesn’t want them, they could attempt a second life in Bellator. They are all the type of fighters that Bellator in the past has gone after. Of the four, Rockhold is the only one where fighting again, particularly at light heavyweight, looks like it could be a mistake.

Let’s look at how Fortunes Changed for Five stars of Saturday’s show.

JON JONES - Jones (25-1, 1 no contest) is clearly the biggest star in the sport as long as Conor McGregor isn’t around. Saturday’s show expected to be the first big hit of the ESPN+ pay-per-view era.

For years, there has been talk of Jones moving to heavyweight, a move he’s never seemed excited about doing. But he has now has far bigger name opponents than at light heavyweight.

As far as a big pay-per-view fight that would draw mainstream interest, the next fight for Jones should be against the winner of the Aug. 17 heavyweight title fight with Daniel Cormier (22-1, 1 no contest) and Stipe Miocic (18-3). Jones has also indicated a willingness to do that.

Right now the light heavyweight division doesn’t have a big challenger ready. Had Rockhold won, Jones vs. Rockhold would have been a major fight. Blachowicz (24-8) would seemingly be the next challenger, but he’d be a heavy underdog against Jones. The two most interesting potential challengers simply need more experience with top guys first, Johnny Walker (17-3) and Alonzo Menifield (9-0).

AMANDA NUNES - After knocking out Holm in the first round, two-division champion Nunes (18-4) is running out of contenders. What appears to be her direction, and the direction that would draw the most interest, would be a rematch with Cris Cyborg (20-2), provided Cyborg beats Felicia Spencer (7-0) in their July 27 fight in Edmonton. Such a fight would have Nunes defending her featherweight title.

At bantamweight, Ketlen Vieira (10-0) is the most deserving of a title fight, but doesn’t have a big name and has been out of action with a knee injury. The winner of this coming Saturday’s Sacramento, Calif., main event between Germaine de Randamie (8-3) and Aspen Ladd (8-0) would also be a contender. Perhaps the best direction, is for Nunes to defend the featherweight belt against the Cyborg-Spencer winner, and then have the de Randamie-Ladd winner face Vieira for the next bantamweight title shot.

JORGE MASVIDAL - Even though Masvidal (34-13) is only 2-2 in his last four fights, knockout wins over Darren Till and his record-setting five second knockout of Ben Askren has built his name up to where he could get a welterweight title shot at Kamaru Usman (15-1) next. At this point Usman has two contenders, Masvidal, who is hotter coming off the win, and Colby Covington (14-1), who earned a title shot more than a year ago when he took the interim title.

If Masvidal doesn’t get a title shot, he should face Tyron Woodley (19-4-1) next.

JAN BLACHOWICZ - Blachowicz is the most logical light heavyweight contender, but if that doesn’t materialize right away, his next fight should be with Dominic Reyes (11-0).

MICHAEL CHIESA - Chiesa (16-4) manhandled Sanchez on the ground. If nothing else, an interesting next test could be Demian Maia (27-9), for high level grappling. If Ben Askren (19-1) wants to come back, a Chiesa-Askren fight would garner attention.