July 24, 2024
UFC 285 fight card, storylines: Jon Jones, Valentina Shevchenko get chance to silence any doubters

For the first time since 2020, Jon Jones will return to the Octagon on Saturday when he makes his heavyweight debut in the main event of UFC 285 at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas. 

Jones will snap a three-year layoff when he takes on former interim titleholder Cyril Gane for the heavyweight title recently vacated by Francis Ngannou. In the card’s other title bout, Valentina Shevchenko will attempt to make the eighth defense of her women’s flyweight title against Alexa Grasso in the co-main event. 

Just days out from this weekend’s loaded pay-per-view card, let’s take a closer look at the biggest storylines entering UFC 285.

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1. Jones can remove any debate to the G.O.A.T. conversation

Despite being stripped a UFC record three times of the light heavyweight title he wore on and off over a nine-year stretch amid constant legal trouble outside the cage, Jones remains firmly entrenched atop most debates surrounding who is the greatest fighter in MMA history. It’s a testament to how great of a fighter he truly is that Jones, 35, can still be considered the G.O.A.T. despite multiple failed drug tests and a tarnished image as UFC’s greatest cautionary tale. Yet if he wins a UFC title in a second division on Saturday against Gane — fresh off a three-year layoff, no less, in his debut fight in a new division — it’s going to be hard to see anyone supplanting him in terms of historical greatness anytime soon. For all the talk about what Jones could’ve been had he stayed on the straight and narrow, who he was throughout a 15-year pro career has been nothing short of remarkable. Outside of a 2009 disqualification loss to Matt Hamill that almost no one considers an actual defeat, Jones has been perfect despite facing (and defeating) one future Hall of Famer after another. 

Over a 10-fight span from 2011 to 2015, Jones defeated Ryan Bader, Mauricio Rua, Quinton Jackson, Lyoto Machida, Rashad Evans, Vitor Belfort, Chael Sonnen, Alexander Gustafsson and Glover Teixeira … in succession. And even though he has teased moving up to heavyweight for nearly a full decade, the time is finally now. No one, in the history of the sport, has been a better big-fight performer than Jones, who has been just as dog tough in close fights as he has been brilliant in finding a path to victory when things appeared they might get away. If Jones wins, he’ll become the eighth two-division champion in UFC history, which might make it seem as if the feat is a bit watered down. But no one else on that exclusive list has the same resume as Jones or has remained as perfect throughout their entire career as has up to this point. 

2. Is Gane the best or worst possible matchup for Jones?

Jones will be a slight betting favorite when he touches gloves with Gane this weekend in his heavyweight debut, which shows the respect oddsmakers have for his history despite the long layoff. But the eventual choice of Gane as an opponent — instead of the recently departed Ngannou or former two-time champion Stipe Miocic — might explain a great deal of that. Gane is not known as having one-strike finishing power, which would be the biggest challenge Jones’ chin will have to face in making the biggest gap in weight between any two adjoining divisions in the sport. Gane, as evidenced by his lone career defeat to Ngannou in 2022, also has a ground game that is not anywhere close to as impressive as his striking. Considering Jones’ size and the grappling prowess that was more pronounced in his early prime, there’s certainly a few reasons to believe “Bones” will have a pronounced edge. But one assumed advantage Jones would have against most heavyweights in moving up — his speed and elusiveness — might not come into play against Gane, who moves like a middleweight and possesses the kind of next-level striking ability that is almost never seen at this weight class.

If Jones can rely on his length and grappling to minimize his opponent’s success, the last-minute pairing opposite Gane (after Ngannou and the UFC were unable to come to terms on a new deal) would be seen as an advantageous turn of events for Jones in terms of matchmaking. But what about if the time off and the newly added muscle conspire against Jones and limit his world-class cardio? That’s where Gane’s strengths could feel a lot more like Kryptonite for UFC’s longtime Superman. 

3. Look for Shevchenko to make a statement

Already the record holder for title defenses by a female in UFC history with seven, Shevchenko has a shot at moving even closer to Demetrious Johnson’s mark of 11 when she faces Grasso. For “Bullet,” now would be the time to remind any lingering critics just how great she still is at age 34, as she looks to extend her current win streak to 10. The reason for the lingering doubt is two-fold. First, Shevchenko struggled to a split-decision victory over Taila Santos last June, which was the first time she truly looked human since first returning to 125 pounds in 2018 after UFC debuted the division. And secondly, it’s starting to look as if the once dormant weight class is finally catching up with Shevchenko just a bit after a recent number of rising contenders — including Erin Blanchfield and Manon Fiorot — have stated their claim for a run at the belt. Is age catching up with Shevchenko or did Santos represent the wrong style matchup at the wrong time? Either way, Shevchenko returns as a massive favorite against Grasso who, despite riding a four-fight win streak since moving up to 125 pounds, doesn’t appear to have the right style to give Shevchenko issues. In fact, everything Grasso does well, Shevchenko does even better. 

4. Shavkat Rahkmonov closes in on a potential breakthrough moment

Unbeaten in four UFC fights (all by stoppage) and 16-0 overall as a pro, Rakhmonov might just be the next breakout performer to commandeer the attention of fight fans as he closes in on title contention. The 28-year-old Kazkah welterweight, who was born in Uzbekistan, has just about everything one would want in a rising prospect. He’s technically sound, has a high fight IQ and is equally adept at finishing on his feet or via submission on the ground. Ranked No. 10 by UFC at 170 pounds following his demolition of perennial contender Neil Magny last June, Rakhmonov welcomes No. 7 Geoff Neal on Saturday in his stiffest test to date since making his UFC debut in 2020. With unbeaten Khamzat Chimaev possibly head north to middleweight for his next bout, Rahkmonov could become the division’s new boogieman in waiting with victory over Neal, which would likely propel him to a matchup against the division’s true elite. 

5. The Bo Nickal show finally makes its long-awaited debut

As a three-time NCAA Division I wrestling champion at Penn State, it has felt as if Nickal has been in headlines within the periphery of combat sports for years. The 27-year-old middleweight finally made his pro debut in 2022 and followed up the 33-second knockout with a pair of equally as impressive victories on the Dana White Contender Series to earn a UFC contract. A recent injury delayed his inevitable debut, but Nickal is poised to leave his mark in the opening bout of Saturday’s PPV main card opposite Jamie Pickett, who is riding a two-fight losing skid. Nickal, who opened as an astronomical betting favorite, is expected to win, although whatever level of difficulty he has in potentially doing so should still be compelling enough to watch. The bigger question would become how aggressively UFC might look to match him moving forward, especially after a series of public comments made by Nickal last year that he feels ready, right now, to fight for a UFC title.