Jon Jones is back.
After three long years on the sidelines, the greatest mixed martial arts (MMA) fighter of the modern era will make his return to the Octagon as a heavyweight contender with the vacant title on the line, abandoned by former champion Francis Ngannou after the promotion failed to come to terms with the power-punching “Predator.” Hoping to spoil “Bones’” homecoming in the UFC 285 pay-per-view (PPV) main event on ESPN+, which takes place this Sat. night (March 4, 2023) at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada, is heavyweight hurter and ex-interim titleholder Ciryl Gane, who knows a thing or two about high-profile title fights.
That’s just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.
The UFC 285 championship co-main event will pit reigning women’s 125-pound titleholder Valentina Shevchenko against No. 6-ranked flyweight contender Alexa Grasso. There’s been talk of “Bullet’s” mortality following her razor-thin decision win over Taila Santos last June. In addition, UFC 285 will showcase the ascension of Shavkat Rakhmonov, who looks to continue his unblemished rise through the 170-pound ranks at the expense of welterweight bruiser Geoff Neal. Wrestling whiz kid Bo Nickal will also see action this weekend in “Sin City” opposite middleweight marauder Jamie Pickett before Jalin Turner and Mateusz Gamrot hook ‘em up at 155 pounds.
Pretty dope lineup, any way you slice it.
Before we get into the finer details, be sure to take a closer look at our comprehensive preview and predictions for all the UFC 285 “Prelims” undercard action on ESPNN and ESPN+ by clicking here and here. The latest UFC 285 odds and a complete betting guide for the entire “Jones vs. Gane” PPV event can be located here.
Remember, you’ll need a subscription to ESPN+ to order this weekend’s fight card (get one here), but you’ll also get complete access to all the subsequent “Fight Night” events in 2023 and beyond.
Let’s get to work.
265 lbs.: Jon “Bones” Jones (26-1, 1 NC) vs. Ciryl “Bon Gamin” Gane (11-1) for vacant heavyweight title
Jon Jones is (finally) back and as I explained in the UFC 285 preview you don’t care about and didn’t read, we don’t really know what to expect from the new-look “Bones,” who if we’re being honest, was not exactly setting the world on fire when he left. Prior to surrendering his 205-pound title over a money dispute back in 2020, Jones went to a decision in three consecutive victories over Anthony Smith, Thiago Santos, and Dominick Reyes, with the latter two falling into that “questionable scoring” category. I’m not sure those are the performances anyone’s talking about when arguing for Jones in the “greatest of all time” discussion. Was Jones no longer in his prime, as UFC 285 opponent Ciryl Gane suggested? Perhaps. You can also argue that a fighter like “Bones,” who pretty much did everything you can possibly do as champion, was bored and unmotivated. I don’t want to dig up the old “silk pajamas” excuse but Jones is rich and I can’t imagine it was easy to talk him out of going to the strip club to instead train for “one of the greatest athletes in Apple Valley history.”
I can, however, imagine Jones waiting patiently for the right opportunity to make his UFC return and Francis Ngannou helped write the script, abandoning his heavyweight title to pursue a better contract on the open market. Based on what we saw when “The Predator” beat Gane at UFC 270 — with only one good knee — Jones was probably tripping over himself to get that fight booked, in much the same way Georges St-Pierre magically reappeared when Michael Bisping was crowned middleweight champion — only to magically disappear when “Rush” was asked to make his first title defense against Yoel Romero. Jones was a formidable collegiate wrestler and used those skills to complement his devastating clinch game to run roughshod over the light heavyweight division. I won’t waste time rehashing his 205-pound accomplishments but I will say that his talent, skill, and fight I.Q. were all working in tandem. It also helped that he had Greg Jackson and Mike Winkeljohn in his corner, which is no longer the case after last year’s falling out. Brandon Gibson is still on the scene but I won’t be popping any bubbly for Walt Harris or Maurice Green. Jones is also 35 years old and competing with extra weight for the first time in his career, so regardless of how good he feels in camp, he doesn’t know how well his cardio will hold up in the championship rounds, assuming he needs them.
If you’re a Jones fan, that has to be a concern.
Gane on the other hand is a natural heavyweight and has been for his entire career, tipping the scale at 247 pounds in his most recent appearance. That led to a knockout win over Tai Tuivasa, proving that “Bon Gamin” was still a ferocious striker who was adept at toe-tagging fat heavyweights with little-to-no defense. I think that gets lost in all of the Jones talk, but when you don’t have grape-busting power, defense is the next best thing. Gane is an imposing Muay Thai striker with heavy hands but he may not be able to find his rhythm against a mobile fighter like Jones — who also sports a granite chin. In addition, this will be the first time Gane has been paired with an opponent who sports a longer reach and actually knows how to throw a decent jab. Will it matter? Probably not. I have a hard time believing Jones won’t follow the blueprint set by Ngannou at UFC 270. I know coach Fernand Lopez has been talking about Gane training with Dagestani wrestlers to prepare for UFC 285, but is a few weeks of takedown defense enough to repel a savage like Jones?
Former UFC middleweight champion Israel Adesanya once said that packing on pounds was “stupid” because he only needed skills to compete against heavier opponents. Then “The Last Stylebender” was defeated by Jan Blachowicz because he wasn’t big enough or strong enough to stay off his back, so it’s hard to criticize what Jones has done in the buildup to UFC 285. Can Gane win this fight? Yes, either early or late. Early by knockout while Jones is shaking off the cage rust or trying to calm himself down. Late if “Bones” mismanages his cardio reserves and runs out of gas. Outside of those two scenarios, I think Jones plays keep away until he’s ready to shoot, clinch, or otherwise drag this fight to the floor — where a flurry of elbows await. Gane is a fantastic heavyweight but I would still pick an older, rustier version of Jones to defeat him, simply because Gane has 12 professional MMA fights and Jones has 14 title fight wins. Regardless of what you think of him outside the cage, I consider “Bones” to be the greatest MMA fighter in the promotion until someone proves otherwise.
Prediction: Jones def. Gane by technical knockout
125 lbs.: UFC Flyweight Champion Valentina “Bullet” Shevchenko (23-3) vs. Alexa Grasso (15-3)
Every time Valentina Shevchenko posts something or social media, or UFC adds a clip touting her dominance as flyweight champion, MMA fans saturate the timeline with snarky remarks about how “Bullet” was “dog walked” by Brazilian bruiser Taila Santos. I’m not sure why Shevchenko gets so much hate from people or why so many (cough) “fans” are lining up to see her fall, but I have a feeling it has something to do with how fragile, insecure men view women in power. If what I just said triggers you; guess what homie, you might be one of those guys. As far as the Santos fight, I think Shevchenko was presented with a stylistic challenge the may have surprised her during the fight and she clearly struggled to make the necessary adjustments. This is not uncommon for even the most dominant of champions when you consider the first meeting between Jon Jones and Alexander Gustafsson, or George St-Pierre’s welterweight swan song opposite Johny Hendricks. The history books have it recorded as a win for Shevchenko so it’s time to move on and wait for the inevitable rematch, which may or not happen depending on the outcome of this weekend’s title fight.
Alexa Grasso is ranked No. 6 at 125 pounds and got the nod after the promotion passed on Shevchenko vs. Santos 2. There was an argument for No. 1-ranked Manon Fiorot but “The Beast” has only been with the promotion for two years against six years for Grasso. Erin Blanchfield is now sitting in the No. 3 spot but didn’t get there until last month’s submission win over Jessica Andrade, so Grasso gets her chance to pull the sword from the proverbial stone. Respectfully, I don’t like her chances. Grasso was taken down four times by Randa Markos and three times by Maybe Barber, but managed to win those fights by landing more strikes. I don’t know if that’s a realistic gameplan against Shevchenko, who is widely-regarded as the division’s deadliest striker. In addition, “Bullet” averages 2.53 takedowns per fight — 31 total as a flyweight — and holds 11 division records, including most knockouts and stingiest defense. She also has outstanding cardio, so a Nunes-Pena type of upset is probably off the table. There’s no denying that Grasso is a well-rounded fighter with some quality wins and she’s certainly earned her spot at the table. I just can’t build a case for the upset based on what we’ve seen thus far in her UFC career. There’s no way to sugarcoat it: Grasso is completely outmatched in every category facing a champion who is anxious to remind the Doubting Thomases she’s the best (and most violent) fighter in the division.
Prediction: Shevchenko def. Grasso by technical knockout
170 lbs.: Geoff “Handz of Steel” Neal (15-4) vs. Shavkat “Nomad” Rakhmonov (16-0)
I view the Geoff Neal vs. Shavkat Rakhmonov matchup in much the same way I do the middleweight showdown between Jamie Pickett vs. Bo Nickal, which may be too insulting to “Handz of Steel” and too complimentary to “Nomad.” But the purpose behind the pairing remains the same. Rakhmonov does not yet have the hype of Khamzat Chimaev — partly because the Kazakhstanian lacks the charisma of “Borz” — so matchmakers may be stuck with him until Dana White and Co. figure out how to market him, or until Rakhmonov steamrolls everyone in the Top 10, leaving no choice but to talk titles. On paper, it doesn’t feel like Neal is much of an improvement over Neil Magny, who defeated “Handz of Steel” back in early 2021. But Neal is different from the “Haitian Sensation” in that he’s got knockout power and has been known to over-perform. Remember, Neal is the last fighter to defeat top contender Belal Muhammad and also became the first fighter to knock out Vicente Luque, so it would be foolish to dismiss the Texan based solely on his shortcomings against Magny and Stephen Thompson, who outpointed Neal in their “Fight Night” headliner back in late 2020. My concern, and I think rightfully so, is whether or not he can stop the takedown.
The wrestle-heavy Rakhmonov only has four wins inside the Octagon but all four have been finishes, three of which came by submission. Two of those stoppages resulted in post-fight performance bonuses and an extra $50,000 in his wallet. “Nomad” also proved in his knockout win over Carlston Harris that he’s equally dangerous on the feet, with surprising speed. We saw a repeat of that spinning back kick against Magny but the real story of that contest is how easily Rakhmonov did ... well, pretty much whatever he wanted. I would expect him to do likewise against Neal. I know it seems like Rakhmonov is a newcomer based on his short tenure in UFC but he’s got 16 fights as a pro and more than a dozen bouts on the amateur circuit, plus whatever contests he’s competed in overseas that haven’t been recorded in the online databases. Simply put: “Nomad” is a well-traveled, battle-tested welterweight who’s already proven he can beat ranked competition and has finished all 16 of his opponents. Neal turns 36 this summer and I think we’ve already seen him peak, which is not a bad thing when you consider what he’s accomplished. I just think this is a case of the new school supplanting the old. Unless “Handz of Steel” can stun Rakhmonov early, this may end with a first-round white flag.
Prediction: Rakhmonov def. Neal by submission
155 lbs.: Mateusz “Gamer” Gamrot (21-2, 1 NC) vs. Jalin “The Tarantula” Turner (13-5)
UFC lightweight phenom Mateusz Gamrot, currently ranked No. 7 at 155 pounds, was quickly on his way to becoming the man to beat in one of the promotion’s most competitive divisions, overcoming some pretty tough tests along the way, including his five-round “Fight of the Night” banger opposite Arman Tsarukyan last June. Then the promotion sent him into battle against Beneil Dariush, who has made it his personal mission to ruin things for every lightweight prospect until the promotion grants him a 155-pound title shot. Prior to the Dariush fight, Gamrot racked up four straight wins with three finishes and already boasts four performance bonuses in his young UFC career. I talked about the “new school” in the column above and “Gamer” is the best of it, boasting proficiency in all facets of mixed martial arts. At age 32, the time to make a run at the title is now and the next hurdle to clear comes in the form all-action lightweight Jalin Turner.
Turner has been something of a surprise following his Octagon debut back in 2018. After a couple of knockout wins for World Series of Fighting and Bellator MMA, Turner earned his place among the UFC elite with a first-round finish over Max Mustaki on Season 2 of Dana White’s “Contender Series.” Apparently matchmakers thought that was enough to slot him against Top 10 welterweight Vicente Luque and ... no, it was not. Turner was creamed in the opening frame but it was probably the best thing for him because it gave him the chance to refocus on the real prize: a run through the ultra-competitive lightweight division. Since then, “The Tarantula” is 6-1 and coming off five straight wins, all five ending by way of knockout or submission. So why does he lose this fight? Because Gamrot can’t overcome the five-inch disadvantage in height and seven-inch disadvantage in reach, so he’s going to follow the Matt Frevola blueprint and turn this into WrestleMania. “Gamer” averages nearly five takedowns per fight and is too experienced to make a mistake and leave himself caught in a diving guillotine or surprise triangle choke. The boo birds may have a lot to chirp about in this three-round contest, but Gamrot is here to win, not to make the fans happy.
Prediction: Gamrot def. Turner by unanimous decision
185 lbs.: Bo Nickal (3-0) vs. Jamie “The Nightwolf” Pickett (13-8)
Jamie Pickett was taken down three times in a unanimous decision loss to Punahele Soriano and then taken down another three times in a submission defeat to Kyle Daukaus. I could probably start and end this prediction just on those stats alone since Pickett is facing Bo Nickal in this 185-pound curtain jerker. For those of you who’ve been asleep at the wheel these last six months or don’t really pay attention to Dana White’s “Contender Series,” Nickal is a three-time NCAA Division I National Champion and a three-time Big Ten Conference Champion out of Penn State University and widely-recognized as one of the most fearsome collegiate wrestlers to ever suit up for the Nittany Lions. If Nickal wants to take you down, you’re going down, and I’m not sure there’s a middleweight on the current UFC roster who can stop him. Does that mean he’ll beat every opponent? Not necessarily, but I’m not sure Pickett is the guy to give him problems at this stage of his combat sports career.
Pickett lost his first two fights on “Contender Series” but finally earned a UFC contract on his third try, stopping the unheralded Jhonoven Pati by way of second-round technical knockout. Since then, “The Nightwolf” has been ... uh ... not good. Pickett has dropped four of six under the UFC banner and got finished in three of those four losses. His two wins came over Laureano Staropoli and Joseph Holmes and those were both by way of unanimous decision, so I’m finding it rather difficult to make a case for the upset. Remember, Nickal is not just taking his opponents down and laying on them from bell-to-bell. He’s finished all three victims within the first round and racked up a pair of quick stoppages on the amateur circuit. Nickal is not just here to win, he’s here to destroy. When you consider how good he’s looked thus far — helped in part by his dedicated training at American Top Team — his -2000 betting line on Fan Duel seems like a bargain. Until Nickal starts facing Top 10 competition, expect him to be unstoppable.
Prediction: Nickal def. Pickett by technical knockout
For complete UFC 285 “Prelims” previews and predictions click here and here.
MMAmania.com will deliver LIVE round-by-round, blow-by-blow coverage of the entire UFC 285 fight card right here, starting with the early ESPN+ “Prelims” matches, which are scheduled to begin at 6:15 p.m. ET, then the remaining undercard on ESPNN/ESPN+ at 8 p.m. ET, before the PPV main card start time at 10 p.m. ET on ESPN+ PPV.
To check out the latest and greatest UFC 285: “Jones vs. Gane” news and notes be sure to hit up our comprehensive event archive right here. For the updated and finalized UFC 285 fight card and PPV lineup click here.