UFC light heavyweight champ Jon Jones hasn’t fought since a razor-thin decision win over Dominick Reyes on Feb. 8, but his current war of words with UFC president Dana White is threatening to overshadow anything taking place in the Octagon.
Jones is saying he will relinquish his title and has asked White to release him from his contract. This all began when Jones started to pursue the idea of moving up to heavyweight to fight knockout artist Francis Ngannou, but then he said the UFC wouldn’t pay him more for the superfight.
White claimed Jones was asking for an astronomical amount, and that wasn’t going to happen.
Light heavyweight isn’t the only division with drama, but when it involves perhaps the greatest MMA fighter in history, it carries weight.
Meanwhile, fighting continues in Las Vegas this weekend with UFC 250. Amanda Nunes, widely considered the greatest women’s mixed martial artist in history, returns to action in the main event. The two-division champion will defend her featherweight crown for the first time as she takes on Felicia Spencer.
Nunes is known for having immense power, but Spencer has shown impressive toughness in her brief UFC career, especially in a three-round battle against Cris Cyborg. Spencer lost that fight last July, but she bloodied Cyborg early and proved her durability.
The bantamweight division also will be spotlighted this weekend with a bout between top contenders Aljamain Sterling and Cory Sandhagen. The winner could get a title shot against the winner of the potential matchup between Petr Yan and Jose Aldo. There’s also the return of former champ Cody Garbrandt, and the highly touted Sean O’Malley will be back in action.
ESPN’s expert panel of Ariel Helwani, Brett Okamoto, Marc Raimondi and Jeff Wagenheim addresses those topics and more heading into UFC 250.
There’s drama in several weight classes right now — which one intrigues you the most?
Dana White reveals the fiery negotiations with Jon Jones in an attempt to make a fight with Francis Ngannou.
Helwani: Jon Jones vs. the UFC. Not so much because of the actual tweeting/media drama, but because I’m curious to see if they can figure this out and make the fight everyone wants to see: Jones vs. Ngannou. The story took another twist on Sunday when Jones said he would be vacating his title. I’m told he’s very serious about this. Does he relent if they pay him what he wants? We’ll see. But the gloves are off again between Jones and Dana White. These two have been butting heads for eight years, but they always made up because there was business to be made. Will they do so again? It has been awhile since we have seen someone openly challenge White like this. This is reminiscent of Randy Couture‘s battles with the promotion in 2007, when he retired because they wouldn’t book him in a cross-promotional fight against Fedor Emelianenko, who wasn’t signed to the UFC. Couture returned a year later to fight Brock Lesnar for the heavyweight title.
Regardless of how you feel about the methods during this public negotiation and the words being used, I think we can all agree that Jones vs. Ngannou would be one of the most intriguing fights the UFC can put on this year. Here’s hoping they figure it out soon. This will be a fascinating one to monitor. Honorable mention: the Usman-Masvidal-UFC drama.
Okamoto: Welterweight. I know Jon Jones is a major headline right now, and for good reason. The MMA GOAT is talking about vacating his title and leaving it up for grabs between Dominick Reyes and Jan Blachowicz. Of course that’s a huge story … but honestly, am I more interested in finding out what happens between Kamaru Usman and Jorge Masvidal? I think I am. Are we getting that fight or what? Is Masvidal’s interest in a BMF rematch against Nate Diaz legit? Where does Colby Covington fit in? Because even off a loss, he’s still highly relevant, and in his prime. When is Leon Edwards going to get some respect? Is Gilbert Burns actually the best out of all of them? And if Burns were to end up fighting his teammate, Usman, for the belt, what does that mean in terms of where they would train? The top of this division might be as good as it has ever been.
Bones out, when you see me in the streets just call me JJ 🤙🏾
— Jon Bones Jones (@JonnyBones) May 31, 2020
To the light heavyweight title Veni, vidi, vici
— Jon Bones Jones (@JonnyBones) May 31, 2020
Raimondi: I’d really like to see how this Jon Jones situation plays out. He and Dana White have been going back and forth for days. White says something in an interview and Jones responds on Twitter. The latest revelation has been Jones saying he will relinquish his light heavyweight title. Definitely did not see that one coming. Jones has had issues before with White and the UFC, but this feels like it could be a deep rift. Oddly enough, it comes at a time when Jones has more interesting matchups ahead of him than he has had for a while. Reyes and Blachowicz are legitimate light heavyweight title contenders. You can throw Thiago Santos in that mix, too. Plus there’s the talk of heavyweight, whether that be Ngannou or a title shot. Jones is in a good position, but it’s unclear how this beef — and perhaps it’s more than that — with White and the UFC will shake out in the coming days, weeks and months.
Wagenheim: Jones says White is lying about their brief negotiation. Dana says Jon is fibbing. Who knows where the truth lies … and who cares, really? The only relevant untruth is this, spoken by White about Jones after Saturday’s fights: “He can do whatever he wants.” No, he can’t. Jones is under contract to the UFC, so his options are limited to (a) fighting for whatever pay he agreed to when he signed his deal or (b) sitting out. The truth that matters in MMA, in other words, is leverage. And White has it in his pocket, right next to his thick wallet.
However, if Jones follows through with Sunday’s threat, via Twitter, to vacate his belt, that might shift the balance of power. It depends on whether the UFC’s so-called champions clause — which enables the promotion to unilaterally extend the contracts of its champs — would still apply to Jones. And it depends on how many fights Jones still owes the UFC. If Jones still has several fights left on his contract, he’s going nowhere. If his deal is due to end soon, though, this could get interesting.
If Amanda Nunes wins, should her next fight be the trilogy bout vs. Valentina Shevchenko?
Helwani: No. Shevchenko should fight Joanne Calderwood next because that is the fight that was scheduled before Shevchenko got hurt. It wouldn’t be fair to penalize Calderwood, who was ready to go. Also, I don’t hate the idea of Nunes fighting someone like Irene Aldana next at 135, should she win on Saturday. I think we’re still about a year or even two away before we should seriously consider the trilogy.
Okamoto: It’s hard for me to say one way or the other right now. A third fight between these two feels inevitable to me. It also feels like the biggest fight for both, so there’s a big part of me that doesn’t want to rush it. I’d like to see this fight happen at the perfect time. I want to see it get the attention it deserves. Is that “perfect time” later this year? I’m not sure. Maybe. I thought Shevchenko won the second bout, but it was close. If she did, it was by the thinnest of margins. It’s a fight I’m certain we’ll see again and I’m very much looking forward to it — but if I had to lean one way or another, I actually think it could benefit from a little more time to build. I think we’ll see it within the next 18 months, though.
Raimondi: Shevchenko is scheduled to return in late summer or early fall from a leg injury. She’s expected to defend the flyweight title against Calderwood. If she wins that fight — and she’ll be a heavy favorite — Shevchenko won’t have a clear next contender at 125 pounds. Meanwhile, Nunes would have very few contenders at featherweight and bantamweight if she beats Spencer. Perhaps Aspen Ladd and Aldana can fight each other in a bantamweight title eliminator, while Nunes faces Shevchenko in a third fight.
Eventually No. 3 has to happen between the two best female fighters in the world, and there might not be a better opportunity than later this year. Nunes won the first two, but the most recent in 2017 was incredibly close. And Shevchenko has only gotten better since then.
Wagenheim: Nunes is the champion in two divisions, and Shevchenko fights in neither of them. No doubt Amanda vs. Valentina 3 is the most appealing fight possible in women’s MMA — No. 1 pound-for-pound vs. No. 2, with their most recent meeting, in 2017, going to a split decision. But as champion, Nunes bears a responsibility to defend her belts against the top challengers at both bantamweight and featherweight.
If she gets past Spencer, the cupboard will be bare at 145 pounds. That leaves just 135, where Ladd could soon stake her claim on a title shot. She’s No. 3 in ESPN’s divisional rankings, and was scheduled to face No. 4 Julianna Peña. But Peña pulled out, and there have been reports that Ladd might instead face Sara McMann at the end of June. If that matchup with an unranked opponent comes to be, the onus would be on Ladd to make it a special performance. If she were to do so, I’d say the title shot is hers. If Ladd doesn’t wow us, then yeah, it’s trilogy time if Shevchenko is ready to move up a weight class.
What does Felicia Spencer have to do to pull off the upset?
Helwani: First, she has to fight with the same mindset she had against Cris Cyborg last summer. In other words, she needs to be fearless. Now, that doesn’t mean fight with reckless abandon. On the contrary. Against a dangerous striker like Nunes, you must be measured and patient. But Spencer can’t get intimidated by Nunes’ presence or by the fact that she’ll be fighting in her first pay-per-view main event. The fact that the event is happening in an empty facility should help in that regard. But if Spencer fights with the same confidence and attitude as she has displayed throughout her brief UFC run, and if she can take this fight to the ground, she has a shot.
Okamoto: Take Nunes down and keep her down. It’s interesting, because the blueprint is actually right there. It’s no secret how Spencer potentially wins this fight. She’s a big featherweight, bigger than I think most people realize. If she’s able to get Nunes on her back, we’re going to see how Nunes deals with a real physical grappling style that I’m not sure she has ever faced in competition. And if Spencer is able to have success with that early, what does that do to the power and efficiency of Nunes’ striking as the fight progresses? Like I said, the blueprint is right there … there’s just the matter of executing it.
Raimondi: It’s going to be a hard road. That goes for anyone, not just Spencer. What made Germaine de Randamie so effective against Nunes was her kickboxing pedigree, her big right hand and length. Spencer doesn’t necessarily have any of those things, at least not at the level of de Randamie. What Spencer does have is toughness, will and durability, which she showed in lasting all three rounds with Cris Cyborg last year. Nunes has had trouble with cardio in the past (thought it hasn’t been a huge issue lately, honestly). If Spencer can last into the deep rounds, there’s at least a chance she could put Nunes in a precarious position with pressure striking and opportunistic wrestling and grappling. Again, it will not be easy.
Wagenheim: Anything can happen in a fight. Just last year, Spencer stepped into the cage as nearly a 4-1 underdog against Cyborg, but after she opened a bad cut on Cyborg’s face early on, what appeared to be a mismatch turned into a real fight. Short of a game-changing occurrence like that, Spencer’s best hope is for this to be a ground fight with her on top. That’s anyone’s best hope against anyone, right? But it’s especially true here. Though Spencer is a black belt in both jiu-jitsu and taekwondo, she’d be wise not to test her standup fighting skills against the speed and power of Nunes. And she doesn’t want to be the one grappling from her back, either. But if she can get the champ on her back, Spencer has a chance. A slim one, to be sure, but a chance nonetheless.
Whom are you most excited to see on Saturday?
Helwani: Cory Sandhagen. By now, you’re probably sick of hearing me talk about Sandhagen, but I really feel he’s a future title contender. He’s long, talented, smart, humble … and I’ve really been impressed with him throughout his perfect five-fight run in the UFC. Now, I’m equally as excited to see Aljamain Sterling return, because this has been the best stretch of his career, and I’m curious to see how he looks after recovering from wrist surgery. Early in Sterling’s UFC run, I never felt like we were seeing his total repertoire. But I feel like we’ve seen it during this four-fight winning streak, and if he wins on Saturday, he’ll be on the first five-fight winning streak of his UFC career.
Okamoto: Cody Garbrandt. I’m fascinated by Garbrandt’s career. He took a direct line to the title and flashed superstar potential. His five-round performance against Dominick Cruz in 2017 is probably one of the best I’ve seen in a UFC title fight over the past five years. I mean, right? And then he suffers back-to-back knockout losses to a former teammate and rival, TJ Dillashaw, and another knockout loss to Pedro Munhoz. It has been a hard, fast fall from the top for Garbrandt, but I still believe in his skills. And I believe the lack of a true head coach has hurt him over the past two years. Now, he has a head coach again, Mark Henry. Can Garbrandt rise to the top again, or is it too late? I think it’s one of the best storylines of the year, quite frankly.
Raimondi: I really love this main card. It doesn’t quit. There’s an important fight in every slot. But if I had to choose, I’d say Aljamain Sterling and Cory Sandhagen. As far as divisional importance, Sterling vs. Sandhagen is the most significant fight on the card aside from the main event. The winner could very well get a title shot in a wide-open bantamweight division recently left by now-retired champion Henry Cejudo. In addition to all that, Sterling vs. Sandhagen is a fascinating stylistic matchup. Sterling is an outstanding wrestler and grappler whose striking has come a long way. Sandhagen is the second coming of Dominick Cruz, a befuddling distance striker with sublime footwork. I’m all the way in on this fight. Can’t wait.
Wagenheim: Amanda Nunes, obviously. She’s the greatest female fighter of all time and among the top five or six in the GOAT discussion across genders (along with Georges St-Pierre, Jon Jones, Anderson Silva, Demetrious Johnson and Fedor Emelianenko). If there’s basketball to be played, you want to watch LeBron James. If it’s soccer, your eyes are on Lionel Messi. When women’s MMA is on tap, it’s Amanda time. There is no one else on this card who even approaches her stature.
The B side, for me, is Aljamain Sterling vs. Cory Sandhagen, which could — and should — determine the next men’s bantamweight title challenger.
My bold prediction for UFC 250 is …
Helwani: Felicia Spencer will be Nunes’ toughest fight in a while. She will test her and challenge her. A lot more people will know who she is this time next week.
Okamoto: Amanda Nunes successfully defends her 145-pound title, but it turns into her toughest and closest fight since the second Shevchenko bout in 2017.
Raimondi: Sean O’Malley looks impressive again, beating Eddie Wineland, and he fights for the bantamweight title before the end of the year. O’Malley seems to be on the fast track right now, making up for those two years he lost battling with USADA. If he can beat Wineland, a grizzled veteran with big power in his hands, it should propel him into a huge fight next. Bantamweight is crowded at the top with Petr Yan apparently facing Jose Aldo for the vacant title, plus Sterling, Sandhagen and Marlon Moraes all in the mix. But the UFC clearly sees something special in O’Malley — for good reason — and I wouldn’t be shocked if it gives him a big contender fight next. This will definitely be a pivotal night for O’Malley, who is still only 25 years old.
Wagenheim: Even on a fight card featuring the women’s GOAT, a former UFC champion and a legit No. 1 contender showdown, O’Malley will open the pay-per-view show by stealing the headlines. The unbeaten 25-year-old has a fight tailor-made for him. His opponent, Wineland, is a veteran whose résumé this decade has been a checkerboard of wins and losses. He has had trouble with speed, and “Sugar” Sean has plenty of that to burn. Wineland is a former WEC titleholder with just enough name recognition that a victory over him will supercharge O’Malley’s rise to among bantamweight contenders.