A reality check on Jon Jones vs. Francis Ngannou, and helping the UFC matchmakers
Now that UFC president Dana White is back in Las Vegas after a frantic three-cards-in-eight-days stretch in Jacksonville, Florida, he said the promotion will turn its attention to the future during a matchmaking meeting Tuesday.
The first order of business likely will be filling up the cards on May 30 and June 6, although the locations are still to be determined. White said if Nevada doesn’t relax its pandemic-induced guidelines enough to allow him to hold cards at the Apex facility on the UFC’s campus, he’ll move the May 30 event to Arizona, which has welcomed back pro sports. The hope is June 6 will be at the Apex.
Once those cards are filled, White eventually will have to take a look at several possible blockbusters for the summer and fall, including Kamaru Usman‘s defense of his welterweight crown, the long-awaited Stipe Miocic–Daniel Cormier trilogy bout, and who’s next for light heavyweight Jon Jones, who has been flirting on social media with the idea of moving up to heavyweight to take on Francis Ngannou.
White also has some fallout from the first Jacksonville card to deal with as Henry Cejudo announced his retirement on May 9, but skeptics believe Cejudo was sending a message to White that he wants more money. Cejudo’s manager, Ali Abdelaziz, told TMZ he doesn’t believe his fighter will retire. So what’s next for the bantamweight champ? Will White start looking to book bouts for a title that would be vacant if Cejudo really is retired?
ESPN’s panel of Brett Okamoto, Marc Raimondi and Jeff Wagenheim weighs in on these topics as well as its favorite moments from a busy week in Florida.
What’s the one fight you hope the UFC books other than Khabib-Gaethje?
Colby Covington, who last fought vs. Kamaru Usman in December, predicts he’ll get a rematch this July at the UFC’s Fight Island.
Okamoto: The other fight I’m most looking forward to is Kamaru Usman vs. Jorge Masvidal. I know Dana White mentioned they might have something else for Masvidal, but when the dust settles, I do think we’ll see Usman vs. Masvidal next. I hope so, anyway. To me, that’s the fight to make at welterweight, and I’m optimistic we’ll see it this summer. Other than that, I would really love to know what’s going to happen at strawweight. There are so many options for Zhang Weili‘s next fight. Joanna Jedrzejczyk rematch. Jessica Andrade rematch. Rose Namajunas. Tatiana Suarez is in the mix. There are a lot of variables and potential matchups at 115 pounds, and I’m anxious to know how everything shakes out.
Raimondi: Kamaru Usman was scheduled to defend his UFC welterweight title against Jorge Masvidal in July. Now seems like as good a time as any to get that one hammered out. The UFC’s future schedule is murky, but presumably once the promotion gets back to Las Vegas at its Apex facility (probably next month) the cards can come weekly — maybe even more than one per week. If Usman and Masvidal are going to get a full camp — or whatever that phrase constitutes during a pandemic — it would be good to get this booked as soon as possible, so we can see the best version of both in the cage when the time comes. Usman and Masvidal are both already training, but fighters will tell you there’s a different intensity level once the contract is signed.
Wagenheim: I’m most eager to see Zhang Weili‘s next title defense. Half of the ESPN women’s pound-for-pound Top 10 are strawweights. And all four of the other ranked 115-pounders — Rose Namajunas, Joanna Jedrzejczyk, Jessica Andrade and Tatiana Suarez — can make a legitimate claim on that spot across the Octagon from Zhang. Let’s see how the game of musical chairs plays out. In general, the most urgent matchmaking, for me, is always with regard to title fights. So let’s get everyone wearing a belt (or two) paired up with someone who has climbed to the top of the hill in order to take on the king or queen. The rest of the divisions will sort themselves out.
What’s your take on the Jones-Ngannou Twitter beef, and who do you think Jones actually will fight next?
Francis Ngannou says he doesn’t want to fight just to fight out his contract and expresses frustration with the lack of a title shot.
Okamoto: I’m not one to get too excited about a “Twitter beef,” if I’m just being honest. That said, I’ve seen potential for a Jones vs. Ngannou fight for a long time now. I mean, it’s not really all that shocking. Jones is the greatest of all time, and a move to heavyweight has felt inevitable for years. Ngannou is the scariest man on the planet. A fight between them would do very well. And I also think there is a real possibility Daniel Cormier and Stipe Miocic both retire after they complete their trilogy. But that said, I don’t think this will end up being Jones’ next fight. I still believe his next fight will be a rematch against Dominick Reyes.
Some of you have been waiting to see me lose for over a decade, now finally you stick me in there with a giant with your mouthwatering. Maybe you’ll see what you’ve been waiting for for years, maybe you won’t. The question is how much are you willing to pay to see it? pic.twitter.com/FufJuVCaMI
— Jon Bones Jones (@JonnyBones) May 18, 2020
Raimondi: I think there is something there. I believe both men have interest in that fight. Jones’ manager, Abe Kawa, wrote as much Sunday on Twitter. If offered enough money, I believe Ngannou and Jones would both do it. But these are uncertain times. And frankly, Jones still has business to attend to at light heavyweight. The Dominick Reyes rematch would be highly anticipated. Many felt Reyes won the first contest at UFC 247 in February, which feels like a lifetime ago at this point. That seems to be the likely next fight for Jones. Though if the UFC can somehow figure out Jones vs. Ngannou at heavyweight, I don’t think anyone would be too upset. It would be a blockbuster matchup.
Wagenheim: Back in February, on the night that Jones defeated Reyes, I wrote a column suggesting it was time for Jones to move up to heavyweight. He had done all he needed to do at light heavy, and given that in the weeks leading up to his title defense he had been talking more about Miocic than he had about Reyes, I imagined that Jones-Miocic would be next. Or perhaps Jones-Cormier 3, this time in DC’s ideal weight class. Jones-Ngannou also sounded tantalizing, but with no belt on the line or bitter storyline at play, that one seemed like a remote possibility. If Brett’s hunch is right, though, and the sport does soon lose both Cormier and Miocic, a fight between Jones and Ngannou would be the heavyweight of heavyweight fights. I don’t see it as next, though — Stipe-DC 3 seems to be a fait accompli, and momentum appears to be pushing for one more Jones defense at 205 pounds. If it were up to me, the title shot would go to the next man in line, Jan Blachowicz. Reyes came close in February, but I don’t think that warrants a do-over.
What do you expect the resolution will be with the UFC and Stipe?
After Daniel Cormier called out Stipe Miocic to “sign the contract” for a heavyweight title bout, Miocic explains his timeline for returning. For more UFC, sign up here for ESPN+ https://plus.espn.com/
Okamoto: Miocic vs. Cormier 3. It’s the fight that needs to happen. All sides agree on that, they just can’t completely agree on a date. I think a resolution will be met, and we’ll see this title fight in the fall. The UFC had a target date of early August, according to its pay-per-view schedule. Miocic wanted something in September or October. Maybe a compromise will be reached in mid or late August. Miocic needs to be able to train, and that’s not asking for too much. The UFC is trying to get its schedule back on track. We’ll see how it plays out, but I’ve always expected this fight to be the outcome, and I’m not switching my stance now.
I’ve already said I’m going to fight DC. He just likes to make noise. My team is working on securing a training location and dates w UFC. I have five belts at home. I don’t need to sit on anything. If I didn’t have a torn retina, I would’ve already fought & retired @dc_mma . #SM https://t.co/6ZHnd1xhlg
— Stipe Miocic (@stipemiocic) May 11, 2020
Raimondi: Cooler heads will prevail. Miocic won’t get stripped. He’ll come back and defend the heavyweight title against Daniel Cormier in late summer or early fall. It’s already mid-May. August or September isn’t that far away. The heavyweight division can wait a little longer while Miocic gets things sorted with his currently closed gym as he works as a firefighter and paramedic. Miocic vs. Cormier 3 is a great fight and could be an all-time UFC trilogy. No one wants to see either man go in there not at 100%.
Wagenheim: If there is a word in the English (or Croatian) language that describes the polar opposite of a prima donna, it is “Miocic.” As my colleagues have said, it’s not unreasonable for Stipe to ask for a little more time while he sorts out the details of conducting a training camp befitting a championship fight. The UFC wants to get fights booked, which is understandable, but when you rush a title bout, you risk losing some shine from that belt. Now, if it were Cormier balking at the timeline, I could envision the UFC skipping over him and booking Miocic-Ngannou. But all parties involved in the planning for Miocic-Cormier 3 agree that this is the matchup that needs to happen. It’s worth waiting for.
Henry Cejudo’s manager doesn’t think he will retire. What do you think is his next move?
Dana White explains why he isn’t surprised by Henry Cejudo’s plans for an early retirement.
Okamoto: It really all comes down to how his conversations go with the UFC. He has made his stance pretty clear. There are other things in his life he’d like to focus on … but “money talks.” If the UFC makes it worth his while to stick around, he’s willing to stick around. Now, what exactly does Cejudo expect, financially, to stick around? Only he knows that. If the UFC doesn’t budge at all on renegotiating his contract, I do think there is a chance Cejudo walks away temporarily. He’s done it before, as an amateur wrestler back in 2012. We’ve also seen other champions do it, although it’s obviously rare. Georges St-Pierre stepped away from the welterweight title, and the middleweight title years later, as a matter of fact. Ultimately, one way or another, I do think Cejudo will fight again. Will the division move on without him in the short term? I’m not counting it out.
— Henry Cejudo (@HenryCejudo) May 12, 2020
Raimondi: I don’t think Cejudo will retire, either — provided the UFC restructures his contract and gives him significantly more money. If that does not happen, I believe Cejudo will have no problem walking away. He’s a smart guy and there’s no doubt he can carve out another career elsewhere. The UFC might call his bluff here. That wouldn’t be shocking, especially with financial uncertainty due to the pandemic. The promotion is looking at not having revenue from ticket sales for many months. So now might not be the best time for a hard negotiation. Hopefully, both Cejudo and the UFC can come to some kind of understanding and each side can ultimately get what it wants. It would be a shame for Cejudo, one of the best pound-for-pound fighters in the world, to walk away now, in his prime.
Wagenheim: Cejudo is at the top of the game right now, and if ever there were a time to play hardball in contract negotiations, this is it. But while Cejudo is No. 3 in the ESPN men’s pound-for-pound rankings, that’s not the number that matters to the bean counters. The UFC’s stance depends on how much needle movement it sees on a “Triple C” fight night. Bottom line: I think Cejudo will remain retired unless or until the UFC bends its knee in order to put a nice stack of cash at his feet.
What was your favorite memory of the three cards in Jacksonville?
Following UFC 249, Daniel Cormier suggests moving the broadcast table away from the octagon because fighters could hear his analysis during the fights.
Okamoto: It’s the obvious answer: Gaethje’s self-proclaimed “masterpiece” was truly that. It was the best performance of his career, against an elite opponent. That moment before the fifth round, when his coach, Trevor Wittman, got him to settle down and refocus and reminded him he’d been knocked out in previous fights when he got too comfortable. That was very fun to watch. I love it when an athlete and a longtime coach have that kind of connection, and you can see the value of it play out in real time, in such a big moment. I also loved it when UFC commentators mentioned how big Ricky Simon is for the 135-pound division, and he heard them, and flexed midfight against Ray Borg. That was pretty funny, and just a reminder of the weird times we’re in, holding fights in a quiet, empty arena.
Gaethje would “be sharp as a m—– f—–,” going on to finish Tony Ferguson in that round and secure his first UFC championship. pic.twitter.com/oieLoZth7H
— ESPN MMA (@espnmma) May 11, 2020
Raimondi: This is a tough one. I loved the third round between Anthony Pettis and Donald Cerrone when both were trying to take each other’s heads off for five minutes. Then, the bell rang and they both smiled at each other and hugged. I loved seeing this evolved version of Justin Gaethje cement himself as one of the top two lightweights on the planet after all of us have followed his career so long, going back to World Series of Fighting. I loved seeing Glover Teixeira, one of the nicest men in MMA, persevere against an incredibly game, durable Anthony Smith.
And the fight that really brought me back to normalcy personally was Nate Landwehr vs. Darren Elkins on Saturday. Just two insanely tough dudes, bloody and swinging, trying to knock each other out for three rounds. That felt like a battle from the old days of MMA; no big crowd needed. No frills. A pure, organic struggle.
Wagenheim: I will always remember hearing the fights. It was as though the surround sound in my home theater kicked in, and suddenly I was wearing the aural equivalent of 3D glasses. That moment Brett describes above — Wittman refocusing Gaethje going into the final round — might have been caught by a mic inside a packed arena, but amid the quiet solitude it felt so intimate, as if it was just Trevor, Justin and us. That fight and others last week would have inspired fans to raise the roof with wild cheers, no doubt, but let’s face it: As much as crowd noise adds to the fight night experience, it’s not all sweet sound. I did not miss the “Stand them up!” jeers we would have heard during high-level grappling; the booing of an appropriately cautious doctor’s decision to end the bloodshed; the egging on a fighter to not delay and just go fight after absorbing a groin strike. Arena fans will be back as part of live fights someday soon, but for me, their absence did not diminish the experience.