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UFC 285 takeaways: Jon Jones puts the GOAT debate to rest for now

Jon Jones is back — and he’s seemingly better than ever. Jones stormed back from a three-year layoff to submit Ciryl Gane with a guillotine choke just two minutes into his heavyweight debut and capture the vacant UFC title at UFC 285. Jones’ return headlined a crazy card which also saw Alexa Grasso stun the world with a submission of Valentina Shevchenko, Shavkat Rakhmonov stake his claim as a welterweight contender, plus much more.

With so much to discuss, let’s hit our five biggest takeaways from UFC 285.

1. Remember all that chatter about how Jon Jones lacked motivation for his last few fights at light heavyweight and that’s why he looked like a shadow of his former self, nearly losing to men he should’ve demolished in his heyday? Yeah, maybe it wasn’t lip service after all.

For the first time in a long time, Jon Jones was Jon Jones on Saturday night. His two-minute drubbing of Ciryl Gane? A literal flawless victory, the first “Bones” has manifested since his 2018 rematch against Alexander Gustafsson, and a stark reminder of the awe-inspiring destructive power Jones is capable of when he feels as if he has something to prove. The fight lasted a bit longer than 13 seconds, sure, but UFC 285’s main event invoked the same feeling of wonderment that Conor McGregor vs. Jose Aldo did, in the sense that the moment ended before it even really began. Hell, Jones need just five significant strikes to get it done. I repeat: Five. After spending more than a decade teasing a heavyweight move, the reality of what that move looked like couldn’t have played out more in his favor.

At this point, it is impossible for me to deny: Jones is the GOAT.

He is greatest fighter mixed martial arts has ever seen.

As someone who has long reserved that title for Georges St-Pierre, this isn’t a position I expected to take on this Sunday morning. I even argued in the lead-up to UFC 285 that, in the event of a Jones win, he’d still have some work left to do before I could vault him over St-Pierre, if only because of his sordid history with PEDs and the fact that Gane isn’t the actual No. 1 heavyweight in the world. But no, I was wrong. That performance? The ease with which it all came to him? Nah, that was enough. Jones is now 15-0 in championship bouts — the best mark in UFC history — and just had one of (if not the) strongest outings of his absurdly decorated career, even despite a three-year layoff and the myriad of factors that come into play when you’re entering the cage 40 pounds heavier than ever before.

It’s him. He’s the guy. At least in my eyes, UFC 285 put the debate to rest.

The big question now is how much distance Jones can put between himself and every other pantheon-level GOAT challenger before he calls it quits for good.

If I had to wager, I’d set the over/under for Jones fights we have left at 2.5 — and I’d pick the under. “Bones” is all about legacy now, which is why UFC 285 made sense regardless of opponent. He just needed to check off the box of being a UFC heavyweight champion. It’s also why him wanting Stipe Miocic so badly for his first title defense makes sense, because Miocic brings with him the kind of historical cache that matters to Jones.

But after that? Sorry, but wins over Curtis Blaydes and Sergei Pavlovich don’t carry that same kind of historical weight, even if they may or may not be tougher stylistic matchups in reality. I’d be stunned if Jones sticks around long enough to ever fight either man.

That’s why it’ll be an all-time bummer if we don’t get to see Jones vs. Francis Ngannou before this is story is told. After Miocic (and I think this version of Jones destroys a 40-year-old version of Miocic), Ngannou is the only name left with the cache to bolster the GOAT résumé in a significant way that Jones is clearly focused on building. The historical ramifications of that fight are simply too great to ignore. UFC president Dana White says a lot of things that end up being untrue, so I’m not too dismayed by his comments this past week dismissing an eventual Ngannou UFC return. If we reach that point and the dollar signs are there, I tend to believe the UFC will bring Ngannou back to print the kind of money a Jones-Ngannou marquee would generate. But if not, and Jones-Ngannou falls by the wayside of history, it’ll forever be heavyweight’s Nurmagomedov-Ferguson in my eyes.

Let’s hope cooler heads prevail by the end. In the meantime, the king is back, just as if he never left. And this time there’s no asterisks on the mastery we just witnessed.

2. Man, Valentina Shevchenko is really going to be replaying that missed spinning back kick in her mind for the rest of her life, huh? Weidman-esque, it was.

Not since UFC 194 has a division been flipped upside-down in such a seismic manner because of an ill-advised fourth-round spinning strike. But that’s how these things go — one mistake and suddenly one of the greatest eras in women’s MMA history ends with a two-tone PSA on the importance of protecting your skin from the horrors of the sun.

Let’s be clear upfront: Grasso-Shevchenko isn’t Pena-Nunes 1. The latter was as close as you can get to a fluke in high-level MMA. But the former? No, Alexa Grasso won the stand-up war and forced Shevchenko to resort to her wrestling, then seized upon her opportunity the moment it availed itself, leaving zero doubt about the rightful UFC flyweight champ.

Mexico suddenly has two-and-a-half UFC titleholders (depending on how you view Yair Rodriguez’s belt), and the prospect of holding a Mexico City event featuring two (or all two-and-a-half) of them should’ve rocketed straight to the top of the UFC’s to-do list. We already had a moment like this for something special with UFC Africa and watched it get bungled. These windows don’t come around often and certainly don’t last forever. If the UFC lets this chance come and go in similar fashion without capitalizing, it’ll be unforgivable promotional malpractice. A layup just fell into your laps, guys. Don’t mess this up.

But the Shevchenko era is also suddenly in the past tense, which is still a bit bizarre to consider.

In retrospect, the signs were there. We spoke about it on our UFC 285 preview show, but Shevchenko’s otherworldly dominance over the years allowed her otherworldly longevity to go largely unnoticed. How long do you think she’s been doing this? However long you answered, you probably undershot it. Shevchenko is on Year 20 of her MMA career. Yes, she made her professional debut in 2003. Here’s a brief list of women whose pro MMA debuts came after hers, all of whom are retired and considered legitimate pioneers: Roxanne Modafferi, Shayna Baszler, Julie Kedzie, Sarah Kaufman, and Jessica Aguilar.

Shevchenko’s career started just a few years after Fedor’s, for God’s sake.

We’ve seen it time and time again — the hardest thing to do in MMA is defend your title ad nauseam, and Shevchenko did it seven consecutive times. The end comes for everyone eventually, and any cracks we saw in her once-invincible armor against Taila Santos suddenly feel like much less of an aberration or an off night. She may only be 34 years old, but after two decades, Shevchenko is sneaky old in fight years. I won’t be surprised if the rematch goes the same way and we’ve watched a changing of the guard for good.

If so, take nothing away from “Bullet.” Her career is an almost impossible feat. To be at this for 20 years and still kicking the highest levels of ass? Truly, she is a one of one.

No, the biggest loser in this whole affair, really, is Erin Blanchfield, who suddenly went from a guaranteed title fight to the odd woman out of the eventual Grasso-Shevchenko rematch. There’s no way Blanchfield watched Saturday’s co-main without feeling as if she could’ve replicated the history-making upset Grasso just pulled off. Blanchfield will get her chance (and no doubt, she’s still a future UFC flyweight champ), but she’ll likely be forced to defend her No. 1 contender position at least once now while this saga plays out.

The MMA gods can be cruel indeed.

3. What else even needs to be said about Shavkat Rakhmonov?? The man just Jones-Machida’d Geoff Neal! That was ridiculous. He *IS* violence. There’s a good chance his impromptu walk-off choke of Neal is going to be the most cold-blooded finish of 2023.

If you’re a season tickets holder to the Shavkat hype train, Saturday was exactly what you wanted to see. Faced with his version of Chimaev vs. Burns — the incandescent prospect who finally gets thrown to the wolves and is forced to learn whether he can sink or swim — Rakhmonov shined. It’s a general rule of thumb in MMA that you can’t be the hammer forever. Climb high enough up the ladder and eventually someone is going to push you. UFC 285 was that moment for Rakhmonov. He was tested and pushed in the ways he needed to be pushed, and sure, maybe his striking defense is a little alarming, but his chin is officially terrifying, and there’s no doubt in my mind where all of this is heading.

I wrote earlier this week that Rakhmonov is actually what most people assume Khamzat Chimaev to be — the reckoning to an old guard at 170 pounds.

I stand behind that forecast now more than ever.

This man is going to be UFC welterweight champion. Sooner rather than later.

4. Speaking of ultra-violent prospects, Saturday’s card featured no shortage of prove-it fights for MMA’s next generation aside from Rakhmonov. The three names under the biggest spotlights were Dricus Du Plessis, Bo Nickal, and Jalin Turner. Two passed with flying colors. And the third? I’d consider to be more of a wait-and-see than an actual failure.

It was a tough lesson for Turner to learn. Mateusz Gamrot is master at turning fights into slogs and making A-level talents look like C-level pretenders who are out of their depth. That’s not what UFC 285 was, though. Turner came out on the wrong side of a split decision, sure, but at no point did he look like he didn’t belong among the lightweight elite. He’s only 27, and even if it continues to blow my mind that he makes 155 pounds with his 6-foot-3 frame, he’s going to be a problem in this division before all is said and done.

As for the two winners, that’s now 5-0 in the UFC with four stoppages for Du Plessis. It may never be pretty any time he fights, but hell, somehow the man gets it done. There isn’t much farther up the middleweight mountain to go after Derek Brunson. Can I perhaps interest you in a dalliance with Paulo Costa or Jared Cannonier next? Either sounds lovely.

Nickal, meanwhile, was a 20-to-1 favorite for a reason, so it’s no surprise he cut through Pickett as easily as he did, even if his win may have been assisted by an unnoticed knee to the nuts. (Spoiler warning for Jamie Pickett’s team: I understand why you feel aggrieved enough to file an appeal to overturn the result. It’s just not going to work. That’s unfortunately how these things go.) Nickal acquitted himself well on the big stage. Now I’m mostly curious to see how fast or slow of an escalation the UFC plots out from here, especially considering Nickal is less than two years into his actual MMA journey. He’s young and has time. There’s no need to rush things like there was with Alex Pereira. I know patience isn’t a common virtue of the UFC’s, but let’s give the man a chance to find his sea legs before throwing him against the Vettoris and Whittakers of the world.

5. Maybe this is unfair, because ultimately Cody Garbrandt accomplished mission No. 1 by saving his UFC career with a decision over Trevin Jones. No doubt, few fighters needed a win more than the former UFC bantamweight champ. So why, then, does it feel as if Garbrandt is farther away than ever from rediscovering the heights his career once had?

Here’s the hard truth: White always claims there are no gimme fights in his promotion, but Jones was as hand-picked of a gift as exists in the UFC — someone with a near .500 record after 24 professional fights and a losing streak that had him with one foot already out the door. It was clear UFC matchmakers were trying to give Garbrandt an opponent he could finally look good against to reclaim some momentum. Instead, Garbrandt barely eked out a decision — and even found himself in running into the same old chin issues during a shaky third round. If we scored the fight by Pride rules, Jones may have actually won.

That’s damning.

Fortunately for Garbrandt, we don’t. But a middling performance against a top-60 (?) foe does not inspire confidence that the former champ’s return to the elite is forthcoming.

Decades from now, Garbrandt’s career may end up being among the most bizarre to try to explain for the generations who didn’t witness it in real-time.

That being said, “No Love” is still here with a big name for now. My guy Damon Martin threw out the idea of Garbrandt vs. Dominick Cruz 2 next — and you know what? I kind of love it. Both men somehow only have two wins each seven years after their first meeting, and both essentially find themselves in the same nebulous places today regarding their UFC careers and their positions in the bantamweight division. That’s the fight. Book it, UFC.

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