In the words of Alice Cooper, “he’s back.” He, of course, is Jon Jones, the former king of the light heavyweight division and arguably the greatest mixed martial artist of all time. Jones returns to the Octagon for his heavyweight debut, as he takes on Ciryl Gane for the vacant title. The title sits vacant after former champion Francis Ngannou opted to leave the UFC to pursue other combat sports options, when he and the promotion could not agree on the terms of a new contract. Ngannou’s most recent opponent, Gane, gets another crack at the title after coming up short when the two training partners met back in Jan. 2022.
Since that decision loss to Ngannou, Gane has fought just once, but he came away with a massive knockout victory over Tai Tuivasa in the main event of the UFC’s first event in France. The elite kickboxer will have his work cut out for him against Jones, who is a former junior college national champion in wrestling. After dominating the light heavyweight division, whenever he was able to compete, for nearly a decade, the latter portion of Jones’ run saw him tested more than ever. He won a split decision over Thiago Santos and then a controversial unanimous decision over Dominick Reyes before his three-year hiatus.
The co-main event is a women’s flyweight title fight between incumbent champion Valentina Shevchenko and challenger Alexa Grasso. The last time Shevchenko fought, she lost one of the judge’s scorecards for the first time since the beginning of her title run. Taila Santos was able to test the champion in a way that no other challenger has, showing that the champ does indeed have flaws. Grasso will be trying to stop Shevchenko from notching her eighth successful defense while extending her own winning streak to five. Should Grasso pull off the upset, she will become the third Mexican fighter to currently hold a UFC belt, following Brandon Moreno’s flyweight title and Yair Rodriguez’s interim featherweight strap.
Also on the main card is a clash of welterweight stalwarts, as Geoff Neal looks for a third consecutive win as he takes on Shavkat Rakhmonov. Rakhmonov has quietly put together one of the most impressive runs to start a UFC career in recent memory. He has won all four of his UFC bouts by stoppage, combining three submission wins with one knockout victory. After steamrolling Neil Magny in Jun. 2022, Rakhmonov will make some serious noise at 170 pounds if he is able to dispose of Neal within the distance.
UFC 285: Jones vs. Gane takes place inside the T-Mobile Arena live from the fight capital of the world, Las Vegas. The early prelims event air live on UFC Fight Pass and ESPN+ starting at 6 p.m. ET. The preliminary card stays on ESPN+, as well as ESPN and ESPNEWS at 8 p.m. ET, with the main card following on ESPN+ pay-per-view starting at 10 p.m. ET. Combat Press writers Andrew Sumian and Matt Petela preview the action in this week’s edition of Toe-to-Toe.
It has been just over three years since we last saw Jon Jones inside the Octagon; how does the former light heavyweight champion look in his heavyweight debut, and can he defeat Ciryl Gane?
Sumian: It is finally here. The world of MMA is set to welcome back one of the greatest – if not the greatest – combat sports athletes in the world this weekend. This is inarguably the most anticipated return to competition that MMA fans can dream of, and the anticipation will only grow throughout a historic and exciting fight week. The question is: Will the MMA world witness a historic outcome that cements Jones as the undisputed GOAT or will Ciryl Gane utilize his extraordinary kickboxing background to defeat Jones and spoil the return we have all been waiting for?
Gane is good, there is no question about that. The former UFC heavyweight title challenger went the distance with former champion Francis Ngannou, but came up short as many had anticipated. Nevertheless, Gane is a prolific striker capable of overwhelming and knocking out any heavyweight on the roster if he is on point. The Frenchman lands 5.11 significant strikes per minute and a 60-percent striking accuracy. Gane will look to play spoiler to one of the biggest returns in MMA history .
There are many notable names on this week’s UFC pay-per-view card. However, there is no question that everything and anything revolves around Jones this coming weekend. He has already solidified his place in history as being the most successful and dominant champion in MMA history. His accolades as light heavyweight are second-to-none, and it is only sensible to finally make a move to heavyweight, in hopes of further cementing himself as a combat sports icon for the ages. However, Jones has definitely looked less and less dominant in his last few fights at light heavyweight. There are many that believe he lost to both Thiago Santos and Dominick Reyes prior to his three-year layoff, which is certainly reasonable. Will Jones return to his former glory and reclaim his mantle as pound-for-pound champion or fall victim to a long layoff?
Jones has had many instances inside the Octagon, where he has showcased his flashy striking and creativity. However, flashy and creative don’t necessarily translate to prolific striking. Thus, his path to victory needs to revolve around utilizing his wrestling to emerge victorious. This is one of the few times where Jones will not have a height advantage nor a lengthy reach advantage. For Gane, he will need to keep this on the feet, where he is comfortable, and throw combinations similar to how Reyes game-planned for Jones in 2019.
There are really few paths to this main event resulting in a boring fight. Both of these competitors are exciting, smart and capable of finishing their opponents in devastating fashion. However, this night will belong to Jones in his long anticipated return. Gane is truly the perfect return fight for Jones, given his lack of wrestling prowess. He was taken down by Ngannou, which should translate into Jones finding success round after round and battering Gane with heavy ground-and-pound. Jones will execute this game plan to perfection and earn himself a third-round stoppage. This will be a showcase performance that will solidify just how great Jones is despite a long layoff.
Petela: While it is impossible to downplay the legacy of Jon Jones at light heavyweight, I am less sold that he is going to look like the same unstoppable force at heavyweight. There are two main reasons why I like Ciryl Gane to come away with the victory this weekend. First and foremost is the inactivity of Jon Jones. Three years off is a long time. We have seen certain stars, like Dominick Cruz in particular, come back from extended layoffs with no ring rust, but Cruz is a much different person outside of the cage than Jones. Surely, Jones has been in the gym a lot over the last three years, but, considering his less-than-chaste personal life, there surely have been stretches where he wasn’t actively working out.
That brings me to the second major reason why I don’t think Jones comes away as the heavyweight champion – the weight class. Yes, Daniel Cormier moved up to heavyweight and didn’t miss a beat, knocking out Stipe Miocic in the first round to become champion. The difference between Cormier and Jones in that regard is that Cormier didn’t bulk up to make the move to heavyweight. He simply just didn’t cut any weight. Visually, it is clear that one thing Jones has done in his time out of action is hit the weight room. He has bulked up significantly in preparation for his heavyweight debut, and that will backfire. He won’t have the same speed and flexibility that he did at light heavyweight, which will allow Gane to stop the takedown attempts. There is a huge difference between practicing takedowns in the gym and doing it in a live-fight scenario.
Gane is fleet of foot, not just for a heavyweight. While, throughout his career, he has used that to set up his striking offense, this weekend, it will benefit his defense. He will keep Jones at distance and force him to shoot takedowns from the outside, where Gane will be able to cut angles to avoid getting his legs tangled up.
Once Jones gets frustrated, because he can’t implement his takedown heavy approach, he will find himself in a position he has never experienced before – being definitively behind on the scorecards. That means, for the first time, he will be forced to search for a finish, rather than securing one when an opportunity presents itself.
By the championship rounds, Jones will be visibly flustered and also exhausted. Carrying all that muscle around will drain his gas tank more than normal, especially while trying to offensively wrestle. Gane will go from cautiously counter-striking to leading the dance more in the fourth and fifth rounds, and continuing to be the more effective fighter. It wouldn’t shock me to see Gane walk away with a clean sweep, 50-45 on all scorecards.
For the first time in a long time, Valentina Shevchenko showed signs that she is not invincible against Taila Santos; does Alexa Grasso have the skills to dethrone the long reigning champion?
Petela: I’ve been high on Alexa Grasso for a while now. She made me look like a genius when I correctly predicted her to pick up her first career submission win over Joanne Wood. Grasso has gotten noticeably better each time she steps in the cage, and she is still on the right side of 30 years old for a few more months. The version of Grasso that we see this weekend will be the best version to ever step foot into the Octagon. However, with that being said, she still won’t come away as the new flyweight champion.
Grasso’s strength is her boxing, despite the improvements in every other facet of her mixed martial arts game. That is going to be a problem against Shevchenko, because, as good as Grasso’s boxing is, Shevchenko’s is better. So, even if Grasso gets to dictate where the fight takes place, she is going to get out-boxed. There is no way that Grasso wants to turn this fight into a grappling match, as she would certainly be at a substantial deficit in that realm. She also doesn’t want to stand at kickboxing distance against the champion, for fear of winding up on the wrong end of a thunderous head kick a la Jessica Eye. I just don’t see an avenue to victory for the Mexican contender.
That isn’t to say that Shevchenko is the same unbeatable champion that she seemed to be a year or two ago. Whether she is slowing down or the division is catching up to her – or both – it looks like the stranglehold she has on the rest of the weight class is finally loosening. We just saw Erin Blanchfield steamroll Jessica Andrade, and, this past Saturday, we saw the return of Tatiana Suarez, appropriately dubbed “Thabib” for her Khabib Nurmagomedov-like ability to “smesh” her opponents. Either one of those two potential challengers, if Suarez stays in the flyweight division, could be the one to dethrone Shevchenko, but I don’t think that Grasso has the style to get the job done.
Sumian: Similar to colleague, I am a fan of Alexa Grasso and believe she has some of the best boxing in the division. However, we just haven’t seen enough to think she has anything but a puncher’s chance in defeating the second greatest female fighter of all time in Valentina Shevchenko.
Shevchenko will hold an obvious power advantage over the challenger, and she will thrash her with heavy kicks and jabs. She will eventually take this fight to the ground and utilize her grappling advantage over Grasso to earn a slick submission victory. Grasso will show her toughness, but she will come up short as many opponents do against Shevchenko.
Who’s the biggest winner at UFC 285?
Sumian: It is too easy to pick Jon Jones, so I will go with Shavkat Rakhmonov, who is already a top-five welterweight in many peoples’ eyes. It was not long ago that Neil Magny dominantly defeated Geoff Neal, and we all saw what Rakhmonov did to Magny last June. This will be one of the most dominant performances of the night and show just how high Rakhmonov’s ceiling as a contender. He will finish Neal by second-round TKO or submission.
Petela: Mateusz Gamrot. Stepping in for Dan Hooker, he takes on another hot prospect in Jalin Turner. Turner is on a five-fight winning streak, with all five coming by finish. That has gotten him a lot of attention, and understandably so, as it really increased his profile within the lightweight division. Gamrot will come in and stop that winning streak, slowing down the momentum of Turner, but, more importantly, reinserting himself into the title picture. A loss to Beniel Dariush set Gamrot back a bit, but a bounce-back victory over Turner will erase that fight from the memories of many fans. It is exactly what Gamrot needs, and he will capitalize on this opportunity in a big way.
Who’s the biggest loser at UFC 285?
Petela: Geoff Neal. He has bounced back nicely from his back-to-back losses to Stephen Thompson and Neil Magny with two consecutive victories. Most recently, he scored a third-round knockout over Vicente Luque. Neal is right on the cusp of being a legitimate threat to the welterweight crown. Unfortunately for Neal, he is going up against an absolute wrecking ball in Shavkat Rakhmonov.
The undefeated product of Uzbekistan has just been steamrolling his way through his opponents, and that’s exactly what he will do to Neal this weekend. His rise hasn’t been as meteoric as Khamzat Chimaev, but he has been no less impressive in my opinion. Nobody, outside of the absolute elite of the division, will be able to give him any trouble at all, and Geoff Neal is a notch below that level. Neal’s winning streak doesn’t make it to three, and this loss will be a major setback, because it will show him, his team, the UFC, and fans how big the gap is between him and the best of the best at welterweight.
Sumian: It really sucks to be Jamie Pickett this weekend. It is obvious he is being offered as a sacrificial lamb to the hype of newcomer Bo Nickal. Nickal will lock up a submission in Round 1 and probably send Pickett to a new promotion.
What one fighter’s UFC career is on the ropes at this event?
Sumian: The loser of Trevin Jones versus Cody Garbrandt needs to be removed from the UFC roster. In fact, both could have already been removed, and nobody would have had an issue with that. Both of these gentleman have struggled immensely as of late, and the loser should probably not be on the UFC roster.
Petela: Where does Jessica Penne go from here, if she comes up short against Tabatha Ricci? She is 40 years old and nearly eight years removed from contending for the strawweight title. She missed nearly four years of activity due to issues with USADA, and the strawweight division is too deep for her to climb back to the top, especially if she comes up short this weekend. The fight is on the early prelims, so it isn’t like she’s a big enough name for the promotion to keep around from a ratings perspective. If Ricci gets her hand raised on Saturday, it could likely be the final time we see Penne wearing a UFC fight kit.
Which fight is the sleeper match-up on this card?
Petela: Derek Brunson vs. Dricus Du Plessis. How loaded is this fight card if a fight between top-ten middleweights is stuck on the prelims? Brunson has evolved a little bit, and he doesn’t throw caution to the wind in the way he used to, but, against a guy like Du Plessis, he could get pulled into a slugfest, and that will make this fight incredible to watch. Du Plessis comes in with his chin way up in the air behind looping punches. He gets hit often, and he always looks like he is one punch away from collapsing due to exhaustion, but somehow he finds a way to clobber his opponents. This clash with Brunson is a step-up in competition, and it will show, to a certain extent, how far he can go with that style. Maybe Brunson will stay composed and just pick Du Plessis apart, but, more than likely, this turns into a wild slugfest after Du Plessis stuffs a couple takedowns early.
Sumian: Jalin Turner versus Mateusz Gamrot might be my favorite fight in this entire card. Both of these lightweights are future top-five competitors, and they will put on a show that showcases just how strong each lightweight is. Ultimately, this will be Turner’s night, but Gamrot will, yet again, prove himself as a worthy dance partner.
Who takes home the “Performance of the Night” honors?
Sumian: Bo Nickal. The UFC loves him, and they have certainly not shied away from showing their admiration. He will take Pickett by first-round submission and earn 50 thousand dollars without a doubt.
Petela: Trevin Jones. He’s not a power puncher by nature, and he definitely needs a win if he is going to keep his roster spot. I expect him to pick up a knockout this weekend. He takes on Cody Garbrandt, the division’s former champion, who has repeatedly shown that his chin is vulnerable. With all due respect, the current version of Garbrandt is really a shell of his former self. The man who beat Dominick Cruz is not walking through that cage door. Expect Garbrandt to get touched up a bit by Jones and do what he always does – get into a firefight. As normal, that won’t go well for Garbrandt, and he will get hit clean, and the lights will go out. It will be exciting, as Garbrandt fights always are, and that will help Jones secure an extra 50 thousand dollars.
Pair this card with…
Petela: The best of Edith Piaf. “The Little Sparrow” is a French musical icon and one of the greatest artists of all time. Celebrate Ciryl Gane capturing the heavyweight title in style by playing the hits of the best musician in his country’s history, like La Vie en Rose, No je ne regrette rien, and padam padam.
Sumian: A-5 Wagyu. This is the cream of the crop when it comes to steak, just like this incredible MMA card. This event will live up to the hype and deliver some jaw-dropping action that is sure to capture the attention of both hardcore and casual fans. Bring out the top-shelf drinks, high-end food and enjoy what it surely one of the best lineups we have had in some time.
|Fight||Sumian’s Pick||Petela’s Pick|
|Main Card (ESPN+ pay-per-view, 10 p.m. ET)|
|Vacant HW Championship: Jon Jones vs. Ciryl Gane||Jones||Gane|
|Women’s FlyW Championship: Valentina Shevchenko vs. Alexa Grasso||Shevchenko||Shevchenko|
|WW: Geoff Neal vs. Shavkat Rakhmonov||Rakhmonov||Rakhmonov|
|LW: Mateusz Gamrot vs. Jalin Turner||Turner||Gamrot|
|MW: Bo Nickal vs. Jamie Pickett||Nickal||Nickal|
|Preliminary Card (ESPN/ESPN+/ESPNEWS, 8 p.m. ET)|
|BW: Cody Garbrandt vs. Trevin Jones||Jones||Jones|
|MW: Derek Brunson vs. Dricus Du Plessis||Du Plessis||Du Plessis|
|Women’s FlyW: Viviane Araujo vs. Amanda Ribas||Ribas||Ribas|
|MW: Julian Marquez vs. Marc-Andre Barriault||Barriault||Marquez|
|Early Prelims (UFC Fight Pass/ESPN+, 6 p.m. ET)|
|WW: Ian Machado Garry vs. Song Kenan||Garry||Garry|
|BW: Mana Martinez vs. Cameron Saaiman||Martinez||Martinez|
|Women’s StrawW: Jessica Penne vs. Tabatha Ricci||Ricci||Penne|
|BW: Da’mon Blackshear vs. Farid Basharat||Basharat||Blackshear|
|LW: Loik Radzhabov vs. Esteban Ribovics||Radzhabov||Radzhabov|