Saturday’s UFC 285 was the kind of event that changes the future of the sport in more significant ways than the average UFC pay-per-view. And it’s arguable whether Jon Jones’ easy domination of Ciryl Gane to become heavyweight champion or Alexa Grasso’s shocking submission of longtime flyweight champion Valentina Shevchenko was the moment that changed the landscape more.
Fans have wondered about a Jones heavyweight run for more than a decade and the moment finally came on Saturday, with Jones facing a top-tier heavyweight in Gane. Jones’ greatness was on full display, taking just over two minutes to force Gane to tap out and winning a title in the second weight class in his career.
Jones winning changed the heavyweight division in a massive way and could spark big returns for the UFC’s overall business, but Grasso snatching the title from Shevchenko was far more shocking. Shevchenko, in the midst of one of the greatest title reigns in UFC history, fell victim to Grasso’s ability to pounce on a single missed strike and force the submission.
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But even those two weren’t the only impressive performances on Saturday night. Shavkat Rakhmonov continued to do Shavkat Rakhmonov things with a late submission of Geoff Neal. Matuesz Gamrot grinded out a decision over a game Jalin Turner at lightweight. And Bo Nickal made a very successful debut in the UFC with a first-round submission of Jamie Pickett to open the PPV.
With all that in mind, let’s take a look at some of the biggest takeaways coming out of the wild fight card that was UFC 285.
Jones secures his place as the GOAT
Like pound-for-pound debates, discussions over MMA’s “Greatest of All Time” are entirely subjective and there’s no way to convince anyone to agree with your opinion. That said, Jones secured his place as MMA’s “GOAT” on Saturday night by not only finally moving to heavyweight, but making incredibly easy work of Gane, a proven and capable top-tier heavyweight.
Jones may have already had a claim to that status, with a resume littered with legends and elite light heavyweights, very few of whom were able to force Jones into a competitive fight until he appeared to lose interest in competing at his best once he lapped the 205-pound field. We’ve all heard it for years, Jones’ biggest enemy is himself, as evidenced by his drug test failures and run-ins with the law.
The long-awaited move to heavyweight wasn’t just something Jones needed for his legacy, but it was exactly what Jones needed to spark that old competitive fire.
While there was plenty of talk about how dangerous an opponent Gane was, the reality is that a properly motivated Jones will always be a nightmare for someone with Gane’s grappling deficiencies. Even so, the fight should not have been that easy, except that Jones is that special.
Now a two-division champion, with an 18-fight winning streak at the highest level of the sport — and his lone career loss a controversial disqualification in 2009 — it just feels as though the debate is over.
Jon Jones is the UFC heavyweight champion. Jon Jones is the Greatest of All Time.
Grasso scores latest stunning title upset
The UFC’s women’s divisions tend to produce incredible, long-reigning champions. But mixed martial arts is a volatile sport with so many paths to victory that it is almost a guarantee that defeat will eventually find even the greatest fighters. You can safely add Alexa Grasso’s rear-naked choke submission of Valentina Shevchenko to capture the women’s flyweight championship to the list of upsets that include the likes of Holly Holm hick-kicking the sense out of Ronda Rousey, Rose Namajunas knocking out Joanna Jedrzejczyk and Julianna Pena choking out Amanda Nunes.
Grasso fought well in the first round, but Shevchenko appeared to have downloaded the necessary information to turn the tables as the fight wore on. Shevchenko continued to use wrestling to take Grasso away from her preferred striking tools. But Grasso took advantage of a split-second opportunity, latching onto Shevchenko’s back after the champion missed a spinning kick and immediately taking the fight to the floor and locking in the choke, snapping a nine-fight winning streak for Shevchenko that included seven successful title defenses.
Shevchenko will certainly be given an immediate rematch, which will force Grasso to prove the win was not a fluke. Of those previously discussed women who ended the reigns of dominant champions, only Namajunas won her first title defense.
No one can ever take away that Grasso shocked the world and she will forever be able to claim to have held UFC gold, but if she wants to build a bigger legacy, she has to go out and defeat one of the greatest champions in UFC history all over again.
Rakhmonov passes the test
The UFC 285 main card opened with several fights featuring heavily-hyped prospects getting a chance to shine on the big stage. Shavkat Rakhmonov was among those men and he showed the qualities that have so many MMA fans excited for his future in the Octagon in his submission victory over Geoff Neal.
To be clear, the fight was anything but easy for Rakhmonov. Neal was fully willing to engage in striking exchanges that saw both men eat clean, heavy shots. In the third round, Neal even appeared to badly hurt Rakhmonov with a combination, forcing Rakhmonov to switch to grappler mode and pin Neal to the cage until an opportunity to lock in a standing bulldog choke brought the fight to a close.
These are the kind of fights you hope to see a prospect go through. You want to see an up-and-coming fighter pushed a bit and have to respond to moments of adversity. And, just like fans want to see it, a fighter needs to know what they’re capable of in those moments. Rakhmonov has now been tested and has proven that when adversity presents itself, he can find a way to make an adjustment and finish the fight.
Rakhmonov is now 17-0, with all 17 wins coming by stoppage. He claims he’s now ready to get in the title mix, calling out Colby Covington for a No. 1 contender fight. A fight with Covington is a test with a far higher difficulty but it’d be better to see Rakhmonov advancing up the ranks quickly than getting stuck fighting middle-of-the-road contenders for the next few years.
A successful — but questionable — UFC debut for Nickal
Very few fighters have made their UFC debuts with more hype than Bo Nickal. The decorated amateur wrestler blitzed through his first three professional fights — two of which came on Dana White’s Contender Series — and both some fans and Nickal himself were claiming the 27-year-old was already capable of competing for a world championship.
So immense was the hype for Nickal’s debut that some major American sportsbooks were offering lines as low as +175 that Nickal would defeat Jamie Pickett in the opening minute of the fight. To be fair, before the first minute was up, Nickal was already fishing for a submission finish. That finish would come at the 2:54 mark of the opening round when Nickal was able to force the tap to an arm-triangle choke.
There was just enough controversy to take a little of the shine off of Nickal’s win, with a clear low blow that led to a takedown not spotted by the referee. Given how pivotal the takedown was to Nickal’s gameplan, it’s understandable that Pickett’s manager is reportedly planning to appeal the loss on the grounds that the foul changed the course of the fight.
Still, it’s hard to see the fight being overturned and a rematch with Pickett is a waste of everyone involved’s time. As unfair as it may be, here’s hoping both men simply move on to the next step in their careers.