Ariel Helwani on why now is the time for the UFC to book Jon Jones vs. Francis Ngannou
Ariel Helwani is an MMA reporter at ESPN. Follow him on Twitter at @arielhelwani.
Just like that, life feels a little more normal, right?
Three UFC events in eight days will certainly do that.
After two months of uncertainty, we’re back to arguing about late/early stoppages, title shots and all the wacky, fun stuff that makes being an MMA fan so much fun.
It also means I have a lot of thoughts. So without further ado …
1. I have decided that I am all-in on Jon Jones vs. Francis Ngannou. This took a lot of soul-searching, but I am here to proclaim that I’m sold. I want it to happen. It needs to happen.
I made this decision Monday night. For a week before that, I didn’t like the idea. I didn’t like it because I thought Jones vs. Dominick Reyes 2 was the fight to make. I thought Jones had business to attend to at light heavyweight, and it wouldn’t be fair to Reyes or Jan Blachowicz, the other top contender at 205 pounds, for the champ to all of a sudden move up to heavyweight. A year ago, sure. But not now. Jones’ most recent two performances gave me serious doubts about whether he could hang with the elite at heavyweight.
Then I remembered that I was the first person in the media — or one of the first — to suggest that Jones move up to heavyweight to fight Ngannou. Let me be clear: The idea of Jones moving up has been discussed for years, but last year, after his win over Thiago Santos, I said Jones should move up to fight Ngannou — not fight for the belt but test the waters against one of the division’s best and see how it goes.
If you recall, Jones teased us last year by talking about a Stipe Miocic fight at heavyweight, only for us to find out he had agreed to fight Santos already. That wasn’t nice. So he has been doing this for a while now, and there was a part of me that thought he was just trolling us again. But this seems more real. (At least, I hope it is.) It seems like Jones is down for the challenge, and this seems like something that should be explored. I’m all-in.
2. Why? It’s freaking Jones vs. Ngannou. Arguably the greatest ever, certainly the greatest light heavyweight champion ever, versus the blazing-hot, hard-hitting Ngannou, who has looked like the second coming of Mike Tyson lately. What’s not to love? This would be one of the easiest fights to sell for the UFC because of how Ngannou looks and fights and because of the fact that Jones has never really been defeated and has never fought at heavyweight. The idea of Jones finally moving up is intriguing enough. If he were fighting some scrub heavyweight, people would be intrigued. But Ngannou? How could you not love that?
3. Look, Ngannou has nothing better going on. He’s the odd man out in the Miocic-Daniel Cormier saga. So we know he is good to go. Jones, for his part, has seemed a little bored at 205 lately, even though the competition has become stiffer for him. A motivated Jones is a dangerous Jones, and this seems to have him motivated. And so, for all these reasons, I’m in. I feel bad for Reyes, but we’ve been talking about Jones moving up to heavyweight for so long — and I’ve been talking about this particular matchup for so long — that we need to strike now.
Now, if Jones is messing with us again, so help me God …
4. Worth noting, I’m told the UFC hasn’t engaged in serious talks about this fight with either party. Surprising? Not really, and here’s why.
(a) The promotion just finished a really busy two-week stretch. Nothing else mattered to the folks at the UFC other than pulling off those three events in Jacksonville, Florida, in the safest, healthiest and most efficient way because they knew that so many eyes were on them. Upcoming fights, especially ones that would probably require a little bit — or a lot — of negotiations, were put on the back burner. I suspect we’ll start to see a whole lot more summer fights made now.
(b) There’s also a good, old-fashioned game of chicken going on. You see, when Jones tweets about his interest in this fight, he isn’t doing it to get the fans’ attention or even Ngannou’s. He’s doing it to get the UFC’s attention. And his intentions seem very clear: He is willing to do this fight, but he wants to get paid. Just look at his tweets. He isn’t hiding from this fact. The UFC sees this, and the matchmakers know that if they come to him first, he will feel like he has all the leverage. That’s why they haven’t said much about it, and that’s why Dana White, when asked about the fight during Saturday’s postfight news conference, didn’t seem all that into the idea. Obviously, the UFC would love to make this fight happen. It likes making money. The fight would be massive. But the UFC doesn’t want to seem, as the kids say, thirsty. And neither does Jones. If he makes the first move, he comes across as desperate, so he’ll just continue with the tweets. It will be interesting to see who breaks first.
5. All I know is Jones and Ngannou have gone too deep now. Neither has a fight booked. The fans love everything about a matchup between the two. If the UFC ends up booking Jones against another light heavyweight next, it will feel like a massive disappointment. There’s no turning back.
6. It’s also worth noting that if international travel restrictions persist, the cupboard is about to become really bare for the UFC. I mean, have you seen the UFC 250 lineup? A marquee fight such as Jones-Ngannou would be a gift from the MMA gods, considering how intriguing it is and the fact that both men live in the United States.
7. What do you do with Reyes, you ask? Book him against Blachowicz in a No. 1 contender fight. Seems easy enough, no?
8. I wouldn’t hate the idea, by the way, of the UFC instituting a new rule in which if a champion moves up or down in weight — to fight another champion or anyone else — he or she has to relinquish the title. I know this would hinder the promotion of those sexy champion vs. champion fights, but I think it isn’t fair when contenders have to sit and wait when they are so close to realizing their dreams of fighting for a belt. There isn’t a perfect answer, but I feel for those who are left on the outside.
9. Speaking of champions, has a combat sports retirement been handled worse than Henry Cejudo’s? For all we know, he might never fight again. I would like to believe that he was being sincere when he said he was finished after his win over Dominick Cruz two weekends ago. I also think his reasons for retiring in the Octagon were valid enough. But then he started talking about money at the postfight news conference, and he picked a fight with boxer Ryan Garcia on social media. Now it seems like this was all a ploy to get more money from the UFC.
10. I thought the three shows in Jacksonville were entertaining for the most part. Here’s whose stock rose in the final two shows:
(a) Alistair Overeem: His decision to train with Elevation Fight Team in Denver has proven to be a very wise one. As he begins his 40s with 92 pro MMA/kickboxing fights under his belt, I am surprised that his chin has held up so well and surprised by the evolution of his game.
(b) Walt Harris: I am blown away by the grace and class with which he handled everything leading up to and after his fight against Overeem.
(c) Glover Teixeira: That was a solid win for the 40-year-old, his fourth in a row. If Reyes and Blachowicz fight for a No. 1 contender spot, Teixeira needs to be right behind them. Also, how could you not love a guy who apologizes to his opponent midfight for beating him up?
(d) Drew Dober: I’m a big believer in Dober. He is a completely different fighter than the one who entered the UFC seven years ago. Speaking of which …
(e) Elevation Fight Team: We need to talk more about what’s going on in Denver. This squad is home to Overeem, Dober, Justin Gaethje, Curtis Blaydes, Cory Sandhagen and Neil Magny, among others. Elevation is on some kind of roll.
(f) Brian Kelleher: The Long Island product entered UFC 246 in January on the final fight of his contract and on a two-fight losing streak that had seen him stopped in both fights. He beat Ode Osbourne on the undercard of McGregor vs. Cerrone, got a new contract and knocked out Hunter Azure on Wednesday. What a difference a couple of fights make.
(g) Others: Cortney Casey, who looked really good at 125, Kevin Holland, who has just scratched the surface, and Chase Sherman, who unexpectedly got a second chance in the UFC and made the most of it.
11. You know whose stock didn’t go up last week? MMA officials. That includes referees and judges — but mainly the judges. I thought the scorecards got the first four fights of Saturday’s main card wrong, and it wasn’t just those four fights. There were a bunch of wacky scorecards all over the place. I wonder if the judges being able to hear the commentators and the corners so clearly affected their decision-making. That’s the only thing I can think of. If so, I wonder if anything will be done to change this because though MMA judging is often erratic, these recent decisions have been a little too unpredictable for my liking.
12. A week later, I feel the same way about the Anthony Smith vs. Glover Teixeira fight. In short, it went on too long. Arguably eight to 10 minutes too long. I respect the fact that Smith doesn’t think it should have been stopped. I respect the fact that, as he told me Tuesday, he has told his cornermen that he will fire them if they ever stop a fight. But that doesn’t mean you can’t say it was reckless and/or egregious to let Smith take that much damage when he was clearly injured. The referee, Jason Herzog, came out of the situation looking classy after making a statement taking all the blame. Herzog is one of the best referees in the game. It was nice of him to do that. But I hope he did it because he meant it — not because he was getting heat online.
13. Can I start a movement to combine the May 30 card with the UFC 250 card on June 6? I know the UFC wants to make up for lost time, but I think that pay-per-view needs a little beefing up. Tyron Woodley vs. Gilbert Burns, which is scheduled to be the May 30 main event, would be a welcome addition to the following week’s pay-per-view lineup.
14. I suspect we’ll find out this week if the UFC can resume holding events in Nevada. I mean, we have to find out this week, right? Next week would be Woodley-Burns fight week. I know it’s hard to keep track of time these days, but it’s a little weird that the card is 10 days away, and we still don’t know where it will take place. Of course, the easiest solution would be to hold it at the Apex in Vegas.
15. I was very happy to see the late, great Kevin Randleman get his due in the UFC Hall of Fame. After ignoring the Hall for years, the promotion has done a really nice job recently of honoring its past. I like that the UFC rolls out the HOF inductees every few shows, just like WWE does. But I wonder how the promotion is going to pull this one off with no fans allowed in attendance. But that’s an issue for another day.
I want to close by wishing the best to Adulmanap Nurmagomedov. As you might have heard, the father of Khabib is ill and, per Khabib, in “very serious condition” back home in Russia. I know how close Khabib is to his father and how much his father means to him. Here’s hoping he makes a speedy recovery and will be back coaching his son — and his many fighters — in no time. Inshallah.
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