It’s been a long time in the making, but Jon Jones’ heavyweight debut is finally upon us, and the biggest prize in the sport is up for grabs at UFC 285.
It’s just one of a number of fascinating narratives that are set to play out inside the T-Mobile Arena on March 4 and, ahead of fight night in Las Vegas, we take a look at those key storylines as fight week starts to build momentum in Sin City.
Will “Bones” reclaim the throne?
Jones takes on Ciryl Gane for the vacant undisputed UFC heavyweight title in the main event in Las Vegas on March 4, with the longtime pound-for-pound king also looking to reassert himself on the sport as its best fighter, at any weight.
When he was active and competing, Jones was cemented in the number one spot of the UFC’s pound for pound rankings. But, after vacating the light heavyweight title in August 2020, Jones has been absent from the Octagon as he has prepared his body for the move up to heavyweight.
Potential bouts with former champion Stipe Miocic and then-champ Francis Ngannou were mooted but, following the latter’s free agency departure, Jones will now face No. 1-ranked heavyweight contender Gane for the newly-vacated championship.
How will Jones look at heavyweight? Will his wrestling be as big a factor in the heavier weight class? How will he adapt to heavyweight punch power? Saturday’s bout with Gane might not definitively answer all of those questions, but it should give us a fair guide of Jones’ abilities as a UFC heavyweight.
If he defeats Gane to capture the heavyweight title, Jones will also thrust himself straight back into the pound-for-pound discussion. Only inactivity has kept him out of that conversation of late. But a victory, and a title in a second weight division, on his return would put him right back at the sharp end of that P4P list.
Jones is considered by many to be the greatest of all time. Can he add yet more strength to that accolade at UFC 285?
Will “Bullet” make it eight title defenses in a row?
When Fighters Only chatted to Valentina Shevchenko on the red carpet at the 14th Annual Fighters Only World MMA Awards, we asked “Bullet” about her plans for 2023. Her response, delivered with a smile, was short and sweet: “More rubies!”
That was a reference to the jewels added to a champion’s UFC title belt after each successful title defense. Currently, Shevchenko has seven rubies, with one more space left on the octagonal badge on her women’s flyweight title belt.
That final jewel can be earned at UFC 285, where she’ll face the Mexican challenger Alexa Grasso in the co-main event. Grasso is riding a four-fight win streak, with victories over Ji Yeon Kim, Maycee Barber, Joanne Wood and Viviane Araujo. Now she’s stepping up to face one of the most dominant women’s champions in the history of the sport.
Put simply, Shevchenko is a beast at 125 pounds. She’s never lost a fight as a flyweight, and has run through a who’s who of the UFC’s women’s 125-pound division.
However, her last outing against Taila Santos was without doubt the toughest test of her flyweight reign, as the Brazilian contender pushed her all the way to a split decision at UFC 275 in Singapore. Shevchenko will want to reassert her dominance this weekend against Grasso, and in the process capture that eighth ruby for her championship belt.
Will it be another routine title defense for “Bullet” or can Grasso spring a surprise and capture UFC gold?
Is Shavkat Rakhmonov the real deal at 170 pounds?
The UFC welterweight division is a pretty crowded place, but standing out from the pack is a fighter from Kazakhstan who plans to take his undefeated record all the way to the top of the sport.
Shavkat Rakhmonov is perfect at 16-0 so far in his professional MMA career. He’s never seen the judges’ scorecards, and has a perfect 50-50 split between knockout and submission finishes.
Rakhmonov’s five most recent victories came in the UFC Octagon, where he has submitted Alex Oliveira, Michel Prazeres and Neil Magny, and knocked out Carlston Harris. It’s a resume that has demanded he be moved up in class, and with his win over perennial fringe contender Magny in his last appearance, people are starting to wake up to the Kazakh’s immense potential as an elite operator at 170 pounds.
His latest test comes at UFC 285 against Geoff Neal, who is plotting his own path toward the top of the welterweight division. “Handz of Steel” has bounced back superbly from back-to-back decision losses to Stephen Thompson and Magny in 2020 and 2021, respectively, and claimed a split decision win over Santiago Ponzinibbio, then a knockout victory over Vicente Luque.
It means both men have plenty of momentum heading into the matchup. But, with his perfect record, and with people already fantasy matchmaking him in bouts with the likes of Khamzat Chimaev, all eyes will be on Rakhmonov this weekend.
Can the Kazakh serve up a 17th successive finish to demand a run at the welterweight strap, or will Neal pump the brakes on Rakhmonov’s rise? It should make for a fascinating scrap.
How high is the ceiling for Jalin Turner?
It’s fair to say Jalin Turner has well and truly found his feet in the UFC’s lightweight division. The six-foot-three American earned his spot on the UFC roster through the Contender Series, but alternated wins and losses in his first three bouts.
Now Turner is settled, and in outstanding form. He heads into UFC 285 on a five-fight win streak, with all five victories coming inside the distance. His most recent outing saw him make a big statement as he submitted Brad Riddell in just 45 seconds at UFC 276.
Now “The Tarantula” is looking for his next victim as he moves up the 155-pound ladder, and he’s facing the toughest competitor of his career to date. Poland’s Mateusz Gamrot as as legit as they come. The former two-division KSW champion is solid on the feet, and outstanding on the mat. His only defeats so far came on his UFC debut in a controversial split-decision to Guram Kutateladze and in his most recent bout, a unanimous decision loss to elite grappler Beneil Dariush.
Despite those losses, Gamrot is undoubtedly one of the best in the UFC’s 155-pound division. A perfect test, then, for the surging Turner, who has been marked out as a potential contender of the future.
A win over Gamrot would be an even bigger statement than his sub-60-second win over Riddell, and would catapult him into the upper echelon of the division. Can he get it done, or will “Gamer” prove to be a roadblock in Turner’s ascent?
Just how good will Bo Nickal look on his Octagon debut?
Two minutes, 27 seconds. That’s how much competitive cage time Bo Nickal has had so far in his young pro MMA career. But the three-time NCAA Division I wrestling national champion is already making big noises about ruling the UFC’s 185-pound division, and he hasn’t even made his debut yet!
Nickal will make his UFC bow at UFC 285, where he’ll take on Jamie Pickett. It’s a bout that most are expecting Nickal to win, but it’ll be the manner of his performance that will likely be analyzed by many.
His credentials as a mat specialist are sky high, but in his pro debut, Nickal has also shown that he carries dangerous punch power to go with them. After that 33-second KO victory, Nickal had back-to-back showings on Dana White’s Contender Series, where he picked up a pair of submission finishes in a combined time of one minute, 54 seconds.
Now Nickal steps onto the big stage, where he’s been given the opportunity to open up the pay-per-view main card at UFC 285. He’s been cool, calm, and confident throughout his run up to the UFC. How will he look on his Octagon debut? We can’t wait to find out.