Jon Jones seeks to cement himself as the greatest of all time when he makes his eagerly-awaited return to face Ciryl Gane in a titanic clash for the vacant heavyweight championship at UFC 285 in Las Vegas on Saturday night (Sunday morning SA time), writes Quintin van Jaarsveld.
A second title will be on the line in the co-main event at the T-Mobile Arena as flyweight queen Valentina Shevchenko goes toe-to-toe with Alexa Grasso.
Undefeated welterweight wrecking ball Shavkat Rakhmonov rumbles with Geoff Neal, top-10 lightweights Mateusz Gamrot and Jalin Turner go toe-to-toe and wrestling phenom Bo Nickal makes his much anticipated UFC debut against Jamie Pickett at middleweight.
Plus, the South African duo of Dricus du Plessis and Cameron Saaiman feature on the prelims.
MAIN CARD (from 5 AM Sunday SA time):
Jon Jones (1.60) v Ciryl Gane (2.40) (Heavyweight championship)
That’s how long Jones (26-1-1NC with 10 knockouts and six submissions) has been out of action due to outside controversies, contract issues and rebuilding himself from the light heavyweight GOAT into a full-fledged heavyweight.
Destiny is now on his doorstep. While it won’t be the dream fight against Francis Ngannou, who vacated the title and left the UFC in January, he has an opportunity to become a two-weight champion, a feat that would cement his legacy as the best mixed martial arts fighter ever.
Eight years and 11 months.
That’s how long “Bones” ruled the light heavyweight division after becoming the youngest champion in UFC history when he stopped the legendary Mauricio Rua at the age of 23 in 2011. In his last fight in 2020, he beat Dominick Reyes by decision before vacating the 205-pound crown and announcing his move to heavyweight.
It’s a 15-fight streak interrupted by outside scandals and incidents but inside the Octagon, it’s unrivalled in terms of the quality of opponents he beat. Of the 12 men he defended his title against during his reign of terror, eight are either already in the Hall of Fame or destined for it – Quinton Jackson, Lyoto Machida, Rashad Evans, Vitor Belfort, Chael Sonnen, Alexander Gustafsson (twice), Glover Teixeira and arch-rival Daniel Cormier.
With a superhuman 84-and-a-half-inch reach, an Einstein-esque fight IQ and a willingness to do whatever it takes to win, Jones is an unprecedented puzzle that no one’s been able to solve. His only “loss”, against Matt Hamill in 2009, was by disqualification for a 12-to-six elbow while his knockout win over Cormier in their rematch was overturned to a no-contest after he popped for a performance-enhancing drug.
Gane (11-1 with five knockouts and three submissions) is a one-of-a-kind athlete in his own right. A 1.93m, 112kg muscle-bound freak athlete, there’s never been a heavyweight that moves with the speed and grace of “Bon Gamin.”
A former elite kickboxer, the Frenchman’s as fast as a welterweight and extraordinarily light on his feet, constantly bouncing in and out of range and never getting tired. His discipline to remain patient on the feet and supreme technical striking, along with his submission skills, makes him an anomaly and arguably a tougher test for Jones than knockout artist Ngannou would’ve been.
Gane marched to the interim title with a perfect 10-0 record but fell to former teammate Ngannou in their title unification bout last January. That lone defeat, which he bounced back from with a knockout win over Tai Tuivasa in front of his partisan home fans in Paris, showed a kink in the armour with Ngannou surprising all and sundry by taking and holding him down for extended periods to win the decision.
Jones, who’ll have a three-and-a-half-inch reach advantage, will have no fear striking with Gane. He’ll pop out his jab like a piston and use another go-to technique, the controversial oblique kick that targets the knee, to keep Gane at range.
However, he’s also the one who’ll mix in takedowns. With his reach, timing and technique, he’s taken down everyone he’s fought, including Olympian Cormier, and it’s a safe bet that he’ll ground Gane as well.
It’s here, as the fight goes into the championship rounds (fourth and fifth) where Jones could sync in a submission, but it’s more likely that he gets it done by decision, as he did in his last three and seven of his last nine fights.
Valentina Shevchenko (1.12) v Alexa Grasso (6.75) (Flyweight Championship
Shevchenko (23-3 with eight knockouts and seven submissions) is second only to two-division champion Amanda Nunes in terms of all-time greatness in women’s mixed martial arts. A feared, versatile and lightning-quick striker, “Bullet” is a sharpshooter on the feet and fantastic on the ground as well.
She’s had a five-year reign during which she’s defended her title seven times with four of those wins coming by knockout. Taila Santos proved to be a tricky opponent last June, but Shevchenko did enough to retain her belt by split decision. This time around, she looks primed to return to her dominant ways.
Grasso (15-3 with four knockouts and one submission) is game like all Mexican fighters. On a four-fight win streak, she’s a crisp boxer with good footwork but enters as a massive underdog – like most of Shevchenko’s opponents – because she’s one-dimensional.
As a second-degree taekwondo black belt, the champion throws punches, elbows, kicks and knees whereas Grasso generally sticks to boxing with a couple of kicks mixed in and doesn’t have much punching power to speak of.
It’s in the grappling department, however, where Shevchenko has the biggest advantage. Grasso was controlled by Tatiana Suarez and Carla Esparza and Shevchenko will follow that blueprint.
The Kyrgyzstan ace is ferocious with her ground-and-pound and versed in establishing a crucifix position from where she rains down strikes on her defenceless opponent. Grasso is tough, but the gap on the ground is too severe and will see Shevchenko retain by TKO.
Geoff Neal (4.90) v Shavkat Rakhmonov (1.20) (Welterweight)
An ominous force out of Uzbekistan, Rakhmonov not only boasts a perfect 16-0 record but also a 100% finish rate. With eight knockouts and just as many submissions, he’s the epitome of a complete killer and has nine first-round wins, making him a heavy favourite in this clash of top 10 welterweights.
Known as “Handz of Steel”, seventh-ranked Neal (15-4) is a devastating power puncher with nine knockouts to his name. The southpaw has to keep the fight standing to have a chance and even then it’s a long shot as he gives up three inches in height and two inches in reach.
Ranked ninth, Rakhmonov’s wrestling is something else so even though Neil has good takedown defence, “Nomad” will find ways to take him to the mat where he’ll get the finish. A submission is slightly more likely than a TKO, but a stoppage covers both bases.
Mateusz Gamrot (1.48) v Jalin Turner (2.75) (Lightweight)
Gamrot (21-2 with seven knockouts and five submissions) comes in on short notice for Dan Hooker, who was forced out of the fight with a broken hand. Hooker’s a big name, but Gamrot’s the bigger fish at present as he’s seventh in the rankings.
“Gamer” is one of the best and most relentless wrestlers in the lightweight division. The former two-division KSW champion’s like that one friend who only uses one move in a fighting video game. It’s a risky but necessary style in this match-up as his opponent’s a lightweight anomaly.
At 6’3″, 10th-ranked Turner (13-5 with nine knockouts and five submissions) is a towering 155-pounder with a ridiculous six-and-a-half-inch reach advantage. Getting on the inside is non-negotiable and grappling’s one’s best bet to beat him. Even so, it’s no picnic on the ground as “Tarantula” is a constant threat with his long limbs.
If you’re looking for an underdog to back and you’re not going with Gane, the rangy and red-hot Turner – who’s on a five-fight win streak – is your guy. That said, I see Gamrot – who’d won four in a row before dropping a decision to top contender Beneil Dariush in his last fight – staying safe in top position and grinding out the win.
Bo Nickal (1.06) v Jamie Pickett (10.00) (Middleweight)
Once or twice in a generation, a force of nature comes along and captures the imagination of the mixed martial arts world. Brock Lesnar, Cain Velasquez, Khabib Nurmagomedov and Khamzat Chimaev are prime examples. Nickal, despite being just 3-0 (one knockout and two submissions) and making his UFC debut, fits that bill.
A three-time Division I national champion wrestler and four-time All-American, Nickal’s a wrestling phenom who’s blown through his opponents without getting a scratch on him. The longest of his three fights lasted just 62 seconds and he’s as big of a favourite as you get.
As a veteran, Pickett’s experience makes him an intriguing test for Nickal, who’s already being dubbed the future. That said, “The Night Wolf” (13-8 with eight knockouts and one submission) is just 2-4 in the UFC and was stopped in his last two fights.
Landing a lucky punch as Nickal shoots in is the only chance the 10.00 underdog has to shock the world. It’s not going to happen. Instead, Nickal will dump Pickett on his back and finish him in a flash.