Jon Jones is about to enter a whole new world.
During his nine-year reign as the undisputed light heavyweight king (and arguably MMA’s best fighter, period), Jones ran through legends of the game while showing mastery of every element of combat, outwrestling wrestlers, outstriking strikers, and just generally winning however he wanted. He remains the youngest fighter ever to win a UFC title, doesn’t have a legitimate loss in 28 fights, and would be universally revered were it not for the weakness he’s shown outside of the cage time and time again.
The magnitude of Jones’ return from a three-year layoff has put his myriad personal failings in the rear-view mirror for now, with all eyes focused on how he will perform in a new weight class and on the heels of a trio of underwhelming championship defenses. Will the opportunity to become a two-division champion invigorate him or were his more recent struggles indicative of how Jones will perform Saturday night (and possibly for the remainder of his career)?
He faces Ciryl Gane for a vacant belt in the UFC 285 main event, a former interim champion who is the second-best heavyweight in the world behind Francis Ngannou. Gane has the chance to make history of his own if he beats Jones, an achievement that could carry more weight than Jones capturing a second UFC title. After all, several stars have won titles in two divisions; Gane would be the only man to defeat Jones.
In the co-main event, Valentina Shevchenko looks to make it eight straight title defenses when she squares off with Alexa Grasso, who has gone 4-0 since moving up to the flyweight division. Grasso is understandably a huge underdog as she looks to stop Shevchenko from moving into a tie with Jones for the fourth-most consecutive successful title defenses in UFC history.
Also on the main card, Geoff Neal faces undefeated welterweight contender Shavkat Rakhmonov, top-ranked lightweights Mateusz Gamrot and Jalin Turner face off, and three-time NCAA wrestling champion Bo Nickal makes his highly anticipated UFC debut against Jamie Pickett in a middleweight bout.
What: UFC 285
Where: T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas
When: Saturday, March 4. The card begins with a five-fight early prelims portion on ESPN+ at 5:30 p.m. ET, with continuing coverage of the four-fight prelim card on ESPNews and ESPN+ beginning at 8 p.m. ET. The five-fight main card begins at 10 p.m. ET and is available exclusively on ESPN+ pay-per-view.
(Numbers in parentheses indicate standing in MMA Fighting’s Global Rankings)
Jon Jones vs. Ciryl Gane (2)
I’ve flipped this coin in my head about a hundred times since the matchup was announced two months ago. In the end, it’s Jon Jones side up.
Call me a sucker, but for the most part I’ve bought into the narrative that Jones steps up for “big games,” that the three years he’s been away only helped him make a proper transition to heavyweight, and that his skill set combined with his physical gifts and in-cage intelligence present major strategic problems for Ciryl Gane.
You can also flip that narrative, meaning that Jones’ forgettable performances against Dominick Reyes, Thiago Santos, and Anthony Smith were due to tangible decline, the three years that he’s spent on the shelf have only further dulled his abilities (we know for a fact that he hasn’t spent all of that time wisely), and it’s Gane who has the edge due to his athletic advantages.
That coin keeps flipping.
Let’s focus on the factors that I feel strongest about: Jones’ wrestling and defense and Gane’s athleticism and striking.
Jones is going to take Gane down. It’s unlikely that he just blast doubles Gane to the mat, but Jones excels in the clinch so he has to close the distance and push Gane to the fence. It’s there that Jones has a variety of ways to trip Gane up and gain an advantage. We highlight Jones’ defense because no heavyweight has been able to outstrike Gane yet, so Jones has to focus on protecting himself as he works his way in close as opposed to standing and trading.
What makes Gane such an intriguing challenge is that I believe he’s the most athletic fighter that Jones has ever fought. Really, he’s one of the most athletic heavyweights we’ve ever seen. The talk surrounding Gane has always been that he moves like a welterweight and he lived up to that hype when he came to the UFC. Jones has been the more athletic fighter in every matchup he’s had, and while that’s hardly the sole reason for his success, it’s one advantage he won’t have against Gane.
Another thing I’m confident about is that the fight will go the distance. Both men have avenues to a finish, with Jones potentially making quick work of Gane once the fight gets to the ground, and Gane having the speed and power to knock Jones out, but I’m foreseeing a tense, 25-minute chess match. Jones will get his takedowns, Gane will do enough to survive, but not enough to get back into position to consistently put Jones in danger.
And once the bell sounds, it’s Jones who will be headed to a win on the scorecards after a comeback performance to remember.
Valentina Shevchenko (1) vs. Alexa Grasso (8)
Valentina Shevchenko just finds ways to win. We saw that in her most recent title defense against Taila Santos, in which Santos’ grappling took Shevchenko to the brink of a defeat with the champion doing just enough to escape with a split decision. With respect to Alexa Grasso, I don’t think Shevchenko has to reach down quite as deep to defend her belt this time.
Grasso is well-deserving of a title shot and a great story in her own right. The Mexican standout was just 23 when she debuted in the UFC with an 8-0 record and plenty of expectations. Her championship charge was soon derailed as she saw mixed results and struggled to make the strawweight cut, which culminated at UFC 246 when she missed weight by over five pounds for a fight with Claudia Gadelha that was subsequently canceled.
She made the logical decision to move up to 125 pounds and the results have been outstanding. Grasso looks like the blue-chip prospect she was projected to be, free of a brutal and unnecessary weight cut. She’s 29 now and right in the thick of her physical prime. There’s no better time for her to challenge Shevchenko.
Even so, she ain’t beating Shevchenko. This is an excellent style matchup for Shevchenko, who will be content to engage in a tactical striking battle with Grasso and quick to counter any risky advances from the challenger. Grasso has a sneaky ground game, but not enough to threaten Shevchenko, at least not at the level that Santos did.
Shevchenko simply has too many strategic options and she’ll employ as many as she needs to take a convincing decision.
Geoff Neal (10) vs. Shavkat Rakhmonov (T7)
I felt a lot better about Geoff Neal’s chances here before he missed weight by four pounds. I guess you could say he’s entering with extra poundage to help deal with Shavkat Rakhmonov’s wrestling, but it feels more like he had issues with the cut and that can’t be good for business.
Neal needs to be the best version of himself to deal with the rampaging Rakhmonov and if his weigh-in gaffe is any indication, he’s less than 100 percent. That’s a shame because Neal has looked spectacular at times and he has the agility and takedown defense to make life difficult for Rakhmonov.
One of the things that makes Rakhmonov so dangerous though is that he’s not this flat-footed wrestle-brawler. He’s extraordinarily light on his feet and enjoys striking. He loves to throw spin kicks, and if all else fails he also loves taking people down and bludgeoning them. I don’t like Neal’s chances to avoid a Rakhmonov mauling.
Rakhmonov by submission.
Jalin Turner (12) vs. Mateusz Gamrot (8)
Jalin Turner has finishing instincts that you can’t teach, a trait that will be tested against the tank-like Mateusz Gamrot. I’m a little surprised that Turner is the betting underdog for this matchup, but given how difficult it is to put Gamrot away (zero losses by finish), it’s understandable. If you’re picking Turner, it should be because you think he ends this inside the distance; if it goes the distance, you’re safer picking Gamrot.
I’m going Turner, because I’ve been blown away by how well he channels his aggression once he smells blood. It’s one thing for him to be effective fighting from distance given that he has an advantage in reach over anyone in the lightweight division, but he’s also smart with his closing offense. He waits for his moment, picks his shots, and shuts the door.
How aggressive he can afford to be against Gamrot is another question altogether, because Gamrot is so tough and dangerous in his own right. He could catch Turner coming in or, more likely, win a scramble on the ground and *ahem* turn the tables on Turner before he realizes what’s happening. Gamrot fights are always super fun and unpredictable, which should be the case on Saturday.
I’m predicting a Turner knockout win, but that’s more of a gut feeling than anything.
Bo Nickal vs. Jamie Pickett
As someone who is frequently late to the party, let me say I’m all-in on the Bo Nickal experience. Hyped prospects flame out all the time in combat sports, but I’ve seen enough from the decorated wrestler to project that he’ll be ranked by the end of 2023 and possibly fighting for the middleweight title by 2024. He’s that good.
Obviously, Jamie Pickett and his 13-8 record are being brought in as a showcase for Nickal. This is how the business works. But Pickett’s takedown defense is decent and he knows how to take advantage of his reach, which makes this a tricky matchup for Nickal if the highly touted Contender Series signing has an off-day. You also can’t discount Pickett’s experience. Maybe he hasn’t shredded the competition, but 21 pro fights is 21 pro fights.
Then again, there’s a world of difference between stuffing the takedowns of Laureano Staropoli and stuffing the takedowns of Nickal, and if we want to talk high-level combat sports experience, the advantage there actually goes to Nickal. It’s not a one-to-one comparison, but when you’ve won national championships in college, you’re probably not sweating your first UFC fight.
Nickal is just so slick, seamlessly weaving in his wrestling gifts as he rounds out his MMA arsenal. What he lacks in in-cage experience, he more than makes up for with a natural feel for the game. Add in a healthy dose of well-earned confidence and you can see why he’s likely to leave UFC 285 as one of its most talked-about athletes.
Credit to Pickett for stepping up here, but Nickal is about to turn him into a trivia question.
Trevin Jones def. Cody Garbrandt
Dricus Du Plessis (12) def. Derek Brunson (T7)
Amanda Ribas (9 SW) def. Viviane Araujo (12)
Julian Marquez def. Marc-Andre Barriault
Ian Machado Garry def. Song Kenan
Cameron Saaiman def. Leomana Martinez
Tabatha Ricci def. Jessica Penne
Farid Basharat def. Da’mon Blackshear