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Don’t call it a comeback: A look at fighters returning to title shots and what to expect from Jon Jones at UFC 285

Jon Jones is no stranger to golden opportunities, but he’s never had a championship challenge quite like this one.

The longtime light heavyweight king fights Ciryl Gane in the main event of UFC 285 this Saturday in Las Vegas, with the winner leaving T-Mobile Arena with a heavyweight title around their waist. As if Jones changing divisions isn’t intriguing enough, he’ll also be fighting for the first time in over three years.

Fighters immediately jumping into title fights after long layoffs is rare, but several UFC stars have done it to varying degrees of success. Here, we’ll take a closer look at previous championship comeback performances as well as the circumstances that led to these fights being booked.

Let’s start with Georges St-Pierre and Randy Couture, two of MMA’s most respected champions, who both pulled off what Jones is attempting to do this Saturday: Become a two-division champion.

Georges St-Pierre
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

The Champ-Champs

Georges St-Pierre

Why the immediate title shot?

Unequivocally one of the pound-for-pound GOATS, Georges St-Pierre set a standard for excellence in the welterweight division that still hasn’t been matched. He won two UFC titles, successfully defending his championship nine straight times in his second reign while becoming one of the promotion’s most proven box office draws.

Where did he go?

After narrowly defeating Johny Hendricks via split decision at UFC 167 in 2013 for his ninth defense, St-Pierre admitted that he was burnt out. He announced a break from competition, with no set date for his return. It turned out that he wouldn’t fight again for four years.

In 2017, St-Pierre’s return was made official, but at 185 pounds to face champion Michael Bisping, with the fight eventually scheduled for UFC 217 at Madison Square Garden.

How did he do?

St-Pierre showed plenty of flashes of his championship form, matching up well with Bisping in the standup, which he had to do because Bisping had St-Pierre’s wrestling scouted. When St-Pierre took the fight to the mat, it was actually Bisping who took advantage as he bloodied St-Pierre with elbows from bottom position.

A short left hand from St-Pierre changed everything. The blow dropped Bisping, and St-Pierre followed up with a furious ground attack before choking Bisping unconscious.

As amazing as that moment was, the aftermath was disappointing. St-Pierre vacated the middleweight title a month later due to a bout of ulcerative colitis and later retired for good in 2019.

Ultimate Fighting Championship 68-Sylvia vs Couture
Tim Sylvia and Randy Couture
Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

Randy Couture

Why the immediate title shot?

No list of championship comebacks would be complete without Randy Couture, who pulled it off twice.

Couture has one of the more complicated histories on this list, as he twice returned to immediately fight for the heavyweight title — once after leaving the promotion in 1997 and then returning in 2000, and then again after his first retirement in 2006, which lasted a little over a year.

Let’s take a look at how his credentials looked ahead of his comebacks.


  • UFC heavyweight champion
  • UFC 13 heavyweight tournament winner


  • 2x UFC heavyweight champion
  • 2 straight successful heavyweight title defenses
  • 2x UFC light heavyweight champion
  • Interim UFC light heavyweight champion (beat Tito Ortiz to unify titles)

Where did he go?

Couture’s initial departure from the UFC came soon after winning his first heavyweight title. Already 34, he vacated the title to pursue fights overseas, and after a 2-2 stint in Japan, he returned to the octagon and was granted a title shot against Kevin Randleman.

His second comeback title shot came after he supposedly hung up the gloves. At 42, Couture lost a light heavyweight championship trilogy bout to Chuck Liddell in February 2006, then announced a retirement. It wasn’t long before he got that itch and 13 months later he returned to face Tim Sylvia at UFC 68.

How did he do?

The Randleman and Sylvia fights couldn’t have played out more differently, but the result was the same: Couture becoming champion again.

With the younger, more explosive Randleman (for the record, “more explosive” applies to every matchup Randleman was part of), Couture had to deal with being out-wrestled for two rounds before deploying that Greco-Roman expertise to turn the fight around in the third. He took Randleman down, worked to mount, and didn’t stop punching until Big John stepped in.

The Sylvia fight looked like an even steeper climb on paper, because Couture retired as a light heavyweight and hadn’t actually fought at heavyweight for over four years before UFC 68. Sylvia, while not technically the world’s best heavyweight — Fedor Emelianenko existed, after all — had put together a couple of title defenses and won six straight fights, justification for Couture to be the underdog in this matchup.

Seconds into the fight, Couture rocked Sylvia with a right hand and “The Maine-iac” never recovered. They went the full five, but Couture dominated every round en route to a sweep of the scorecards.

Conor McGregor and Khabib Nurmagomedov
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

The Rock Stars

Conor McGregor

Why the immediate title shot?

Conor McGregor skyrocketed to fame from his first night inside the octagon, capitalizing on memorable moment after memorable moment to eventually claim titles at featherweight and lightweight. He’s MMA’s No. 1 box office draw, so no amount of inactivity was keeping him out of the title picture.

Where did he go?

After crushing Jose Aldo and Eddie Alvarez, McGregor passed on defending either of his belts, instead choosing to pursue a massive crossover boxing bout with Floyd Mayweather What once was a pipe dream came to fruition in August 2017 as Mayweather beat McGregor via 10th-round TKO in one of the biggest events in combat sports history.

McGregor was more famous than ever, even in defeat, and when it was time to go back to the UFC, a lightweight title shot against hated rival Khabib Nurmagomedov awaited him.

How did he do?

McGregor managed to take a round off of the indomitable Nurmagomedov, but that was about it. For the majority of their contest, Nurmagomedov out-wrestled, out-struck, and outworked McGregor before putting him away with a neck crank in Round 4. The post-match brawl that Nurmagomedov started was arguably more memorable than the fight itself.

That was back in 2018 and McGregor has yet to fight for a title since, though a win in his upcoming The Ultimate Fighter coaches’ clash with Michael Chandler will put him right back in the championship picture.

Ronda Rousey and Amanda Nunes
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Ronda Rousey

Why the immediate title shot?

Before McGregor, Ronda Rousey made history as one of MMA’s first true mainstream stars as well as a pioneer for women in the business. She had one of the most thrilling championship runs ever with six straight defenses, creating of a highlight reel that feels more surreal as time goes on.

Where did she go?

Rousey’s championship reign came crashing down hard when she ran into Holly Holm. Though Rousey was a heavy favorite, plenty of pundits gave Holm a chance, and the former boxing champion more than lived up to the challenge as she vaporized Rousey with a head kick.

And I mean “vaporized,” because Rousey disappeared from the public eye for months, which says as much about her ability to handle a loss as it does with how viciously spectators pounced on it.

How did she do?

If you watched the Holm fight and thought, “Hey, it could have gone worse?” Well, Rousey’s comeback fight went much, much worse.

For Rousey supporters out there, her UFC 207 run-in with Amanda Nunes was a nightmare as the new champion bulldozed Rousey in just 48 seconds. It was the last time Rousey fought. She’s since moved on to a highly successful WWE career after flirting with Hollywood.

UFC Fight Night 81 photos
T.J. Dillashaw and Dominick Cruz
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

The Survivor

Dominick Cruz

Why the immediate title shot?

The bantamweight roster isn’t what it is today without Dominick Cruz. “The Dominator” rattled off 20 wins in his first 21 fights, which included four straight successful title defenses across the WEC and the UFC. Even with the division now thriving, Cruz still has a strong case to be the 135-pound GOAT.

Where did he go?

No one on this list has lost more time to injury than Cruz.

In 2011, “The Dominator” was coming off of an impressive title defense over Demetrious Johnson (remember bantamweight D.J.?) and headed towards a TUF coaches’ dual with blood rival Urijah Faber. However, a torn ACL in his left knee put him on the shelf and started him on a miserable path of injuries that would stretch for the better part of the next five years.

A groin injury spoiled Cruz’s plans to return in 2014 and unify the belts with interim titleholder Renan Barao, then the spark he showed in a 61-second blitzing of Takeya Mizugaki later that year was quickly extinguished when Cruz tore his other ACL soon after.

Finally, in January 2016, Cruz was healthy enough to fight for the bantamweight title again, this time against T.J. Dillashaw at UFC Boston.

How did he do?

Did Cruz come back? Or was he never gone?

The bantamweight GOAT was at his evasive best in his clash with Dillashaw, producing several memorable moments where his herky-jerky movements had Dillashaw swinging at air. It was an incredibly tight matchup, with the fighters combining for over 700 attempted strikes and cutting a five-round pace that few could ever hope to match. In the end, Cruz eked out a split decision win.

I had it for Dillashaw and still do (not a robbery, by the way), not that it matters. Cruz reclaiming gold after never losing it in the cage remains one of MMA’s best comeback stories.

UFC 280: Sterling v Dillashaw
Aljamain Sterling and T.J. Dillashaw
Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC

The Cheat

T.J. Dillashaw

Why the immediate title shot?

The other man in the bantamweight GOAT discussion, T.J. Dillashaw won UFC gold twice and successfully defended the belt three times across two reigns. Prime Dillashaw is probably the winner of any fantasy matchup at 135 pounds, but the reality of how his career played out isn’t that simple.

Where did he go?

After the loss to Cruz, Dillashaw went right back to his winning ways and two fights later he earned a shot at new champion Cody Garbrandt. This resulted in a succesful two-fight series for Dillashaw as he knocked out Garbrandt in Round 2 in their first encounter, and then needed less than a round to repeat the feat in their rematch.

Dillashaw then made a move to flyweight that was ill-fated, to say the least. His title challenge against Henry Cejudo in January 2021 ended in a 32-second TKO loss and two months later it was announced that he had tested positive for EPO. Dillashaw admitted to using the banned substance, relinquishing the title and going on to serve a two-year USADA suspension.

How did he do?

I’m bending the parameters a little with this entry because Dillashaw didn’t walk right into a title shot after coming back from his suspension. He actually fought Cory Sandhagen first, resulting in a controversial split decision nod for Dillashaw. However, a knee injury put Dillashaw out of action for another 15 months, so I’m bundling all of his mishaps together for the purposes of this discussion.

However however, one could argue that Dillashaw shouldn’t be here at all because he probably shouldn’t have attempted a comeback. At UFC 280, Dillashaw was given a shot against bantamweight champion Aljamain Sterling — and he crashed and burned, exposing a shoulder injury early in the fight that left him defenseless against Sterling’s wrestling. The bout was mercifully waved off in Round 2.

Dillashaw retired soon after, ensuring that the last three years of an otherwise outstanding career might go down as a damp squib.

Jon Jones
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

The Mystery Man

Jon Jones

Why the immediate title shot?

Jon Jones might be the greatest fighter of all-time.

In 28 pro bouts, Jones is yet to suffer a legitimate loss, and his 11 total successful title defenses include wins over Daniel Cormier, Shogun Rua, Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, Lyoto Machida, Rashad Evans, Alexander Gustafsson, and Glover Teixeira. Even against these esteemed names, there were times that Jones looked untouchable.

Simply put, everyone wants to know if he can do it all over again.

Where did he go?

Where do you want to start?

Firstly, we’re not going to get into the 2015 hit-and-run that ended his first title reign nor his failed drug tests, both of which cost him significant time earlier in his career, because all that is a whole other thing. Besides, if you ask Jones, he’s of the belief that recent changes to USADA testing thresholds should strike an ugly chapter from his legacy. Agree to disagree. But yes, Jones has already had multiple comebacks from misfortune (much of it his own creation), so we’re focusing solely on the lead-up to this Saturday. Even that is a doozy.

When we last saw Jones, he had narrowly won a unanimous decision over Dominick Reyes at UFC 247 back in February 2020 (now this was a robbery!). Jones looked disinterested at points during his second light heavyweight title run, and it wasn’t surprising when he announced that he was finally making an oft-discussed transition to heavyweight. A public dispute over his compensation with UFC President Dana White followed, which led to Jones relinquishing his belt (the fourth time he’d given up a UFC title without actually losing it) and focusing on transforming his body to change divisions.

Jones’ personal demons also continued to rear their ugly heads. He was arrested in March 2020 after being found intoxicated in a jeep with a firearm under the driver’s seat (Jones later pleaded the charges down to a DWI), and then arrested again following his UFC Hall of Fame induction (alongside Gustafsson) in September 2021. The second incident was particularly disturbing as one of Jones’ daughters reportedly had to ask hotel security to call the police after witnessing a domestic dispute between Jones and his fiancee. Jones later blamed the incident on alcohol and a domestic battery charge was eventually dropped.

This past January, it was announced that Jones would fight Gane for a vacant heavyweight title at UFC 285 following the release of undisputed champion Francis Ngannou.

How will he do?

It sounds weird to call Jones an unranked fighter heading into Saturday’s main event, because based on his past accomplishments, I imagine most would still rank him at or near the top of the pound-for-pound list, and if he had decided to return to light heavyweight instead, he’d be heavily favored to reclaim gold against any 205er. But he’s been gone for a long time and it’s fair to ask if he’s anywhere close to the competitor he was in his prime.

How will he move after being out of action for over three years? Were his struggles against Reyes and Thiago Santos because of disinterest or decline? Is fighting with a heavyweight frame the ideal situation for him? And what if the talented Gane is just too big a hill for Jones to climb after a long layoff?

I’ll hold off on an official prediction for now (I’ve gone back and forth on it about 50 times), but as you can see from the small sample size above, it can go in any number of directions. Jones’ skills could carry him to two-division glory like St-Pierre and Couture, or he could get snuffed out like McGregor and Rousey. Maybe he proves he hasn’t lost a step, like Cruz, or maybe we find out he’s more compromised than he seems, like Dillashaw.

Your guess is as good as mine. The only thing I’ll say with confidence is that, as with anything involving Jones, his comeback will be one of the most discussed, dissected, and deconstructed performances of the year.

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