Conor McGregor or Jon Jones? Two of the biggest names in MMA are finally back in 2023, as both former champs gear up for their upcoming UFC returns. McGregor meets Michael Chandler on a yet-to-be-determined date after filming The Ultimate Fighter 31, while Jones makes his long-awaited move to heavyweight to challenge Ciryl Gane for the vacant title at UFC 285. Both are coming off long layoffs, but who’s under the most pressure to win?
MMA Fighting’s Shaun Al-Shatti, Alexander K. Lee, Damon Martin, and Jed Meshew sidle back up to the roundtable to debate McGregor and Jones’ highly-anticipated UFC returns.
Al-Shatti: Is this even a debate? Jon Jones is the answer.
Look, when it comes to Conor McGregor, we’re long passed the point where wins and losses actually matter. He’s still going to be the biggest superstar in MMA regardless of what happens against Michael Chandler. How do I know? Because we’ve already seen this story play out plenty of times before. The man hasn’t had a single relevant win since 2016. That’s seven years of mediocrity and inactivity, yet the game still screeches to a halt to hear his every whisper. McGregor is who he is by now, and no one should be under any illusions about his legacy. He’s the cash cow. Money Mac. Chandler could rolling thunder his face off and their inevitable rematch would only lead to another mega pay-per-view payday.
If you want to talk about a legacy that is very much tied to wins and losses, well, you’ve found it, buddy. Nearly every aspect of how MMA considers Jones from a historical context is framed around the fact that he’s never truly been defeated — or at least not by anybody other than himself. To put it simply: In 2023, McGregor just wants to make money and compete; Jones wants to retire with an unassailable case as the greatest of all-time.
He can’t do that unless he wins at UFC 285. And considering the factors already working against him — the failed drug tests, the new weight class, how mortal he looked three years ago against lesser competition, and the very valid question of whether 2018 sneakily marked the end of his fighting prime — Jones is under absurd pressure to prove there’s more to his GOAT case than what we’ve already seen. Hell, he’s been promising to test himself at heavyweight as far back as 2012! That’s 11 years! He can’t mess this up now.
One man’s return can affect the MMA pantheon forever. The other’s is a fun (if meaningless) diversion between two dudes with a combined 2-6 record over their last eight.
This is an obvious pick.
Lee: I don’t know which of these two has the most to gain in their upcoming fights, but I can tell you who has the most to lose: Conor McGregor.
As much fame and wealth as McGregor has accumulated over the past few years, his reputation as a fighter has trended in the opposite direction. Once a fair pick to include on a list of the top 20 best UFC fighters of all-time, we’re at the point now where including him in the top 30 might be a stretch. For a guy who once excelled at capitalizing on the history-making moments that were presented to him, he’s done a horrible job of cementing his legacy. It’s been so long since McGregor was a relevant UFC fighter that he doesn’t even have a leg up on Jose Aldo, Alexander Volkanovski, nor Max Holloway when it comes to discussing who is the No. 1 featherweight of all-time. And he’s beaten two of them!
Even his “champ-champ” triumph feels like a long time ago, the memory of the Eddie Alvarez knockout getting lost in a fog of inactivity, plus lackluster losses to Khabib Nurmagomedov and Dustin Poirier. He’s become a sad old man belligerently shouting about his past accomplishments, with little to show for his recent efforts (or lack thereof).
That’s why the Michael Chandler fight is so important, and not just the fight alone. The Ultimate Fighter 31 could be a showcase for a different side of McGregor, a side that’s still brash and supremely confident, but also self-aware and possibly even — dare I say it — likeable. What better way for McGregor to show that he’s turning over a new leaf than by playing the humble coach (though if rumors are true that the cast was shaken up to include McGregor associates, this narrative could already be out the window).
Most importantly, people just want to see the man fight again. And win. Because as fun as it is to root against “Notorious,” business was at its booming best for McGregor and the UFC when he was backing up his trash talk with actual substance inside the cage. MMA has a terrible habit of forgetting its history and McGregor isn’t immune to this phenomenon. Another devastating loss — especially to Chandler, who has been constantly calling for his shot at McGregor to anyone who will listen — could have McGregor facing a question that all fighters dread: Was he actually ever that good?
Jon Jones’ place in history as a top 5 pound-for-pound fighter is locked in for at least another couple of decades, so while this move up to heavyweight can make his GOAT case even more airtight, even if he never becomes a two-division champion, I doubt that failure will erase the success he had at light heavyweight.
If McGregor can’t muster up a convincing third act, it’s likely that a man who actually succeeded in winning belts in two divisions won’t be considered anywhere near the best in either of them.
Martin: After three years away, Jon Jones has a lot of expectations riding on his return, especially now that he’s finally moving to heavyweight.
But the only answer to this question is clearly Conor McGregor.
Unlike Jones, who is already considered one of the greatest fighters of all-time based on his current résumé, McGregor is returning after another two-year absence and this time he’s trying to bounce back from a devastating broken leg. It’s really difficult to come back from a severe injury like that, and McGregor will turn 35 before his next fight against Michael Chandler, which means he’s likely cruising towards the final years of his career.
With a 1-3 record in his past four fights, it’s been a long time since McGregor looked like the beast who became the first ever simultaneous two-division UFC champion in 2016. In the six years since, McGregor lost to Floyd Mayweather in a boxing match — a fight that reportedly earned him a nine-figure payday — and his only win came over an aging Donald Cerrone, who never again tasted victory before calling it a career in 2022.
McGregor is the biggest star in the sport by a wide margin and he’s got a potentially winnable fight in front of him, but as much leeway as his star power grants him, the demand and interest surrounding his future endeavors could largely hinge on the outcome of this matchup. A win vaults McGregor back into title contention, but another setback puts him on a three-fight losing streak, with many of his peers — including reigning UFC lightweight champion Islam Makhachev — believing one more loss could lead to his retirement.
It doesn’t get much bigger than that.
Meshew: To peel back the curtain here, I was prepared to answer for either of these men. After all, that’s what a good take-artist does — he spins. Fortunately, I don’t have to spin anything because the very obvious answer to this is Jon Jones.
Damon and AK are correct in saying that Jones’ legacy is secure for now, but you know what ruins a legacy? Losses. We’ve talked about this a lot of the DAMN! They Were Good podcast recently, but had Fedor Emelianenko retired in 2009, he would universally be considered the heavyweight GOAT (and maybe just the overall GOAT). There would be no real opposition to it. But instead, he fought until he lost, and then he lost some more, and now there is a vocal group of opposition to his status as an all-timer. It’s not fair, but it’s true. Just look at B.J. Penn! For most of his career, Penn would have been considered an all-time great. And then he lost nine of his final 11 career bouts, and there goes that.
Fandom is fickle and fighters are stubborn, and when those two things meet, legacy tends to catch it in the teeth.
Jon Jones is the greatest light heavyweight of all-time, that’s undeniable. But his myriad issues outside of the cage, both personal and USADA related, already cast a pall on his résumé, as do his most recent performances in the cage. Jones should have lost to Dominick Reyes and barely eked out a decision over Thiago Santos, who had zero working knees. Reyes and Santos are a combined 1-7 since their title shots. That a bad look to go out on, but ultimately, they are wins. But if Jones comes back now, after all this time off and with all the things he’s said, and lays an egg? The narrative is going to flip at warp speed.
“Jon Jones was never that good, he just had a huge physical advantage over everyone, particularly because he mostly fought middleweights and old guys!” Those takes are coming, and truth be told, they aren’t all the way wrong. Jones’ résumé is less impressive if you have a critical eye. But if he beats Gane? Different story.
This one win would immediately shut down almost all of the criticism that can be lobbied at Jones and makes the greatest of all-time argument pretty perfunctory at that point. Jones can chisel his name in stone atop the entire sport with one single win. It has to be him.
Who is under more pressure for their UFC return?
This poll is closed