Jon Jones’s latest victory didn’t leave a lot of room for questions, outside of one: Who’s next?
At UFC 235, Jones authored the first successful defense of his second light heavyweight title reign and ninth championship defense overall, rarely being threatened as he cruised to a unanimous decision win over challenger Anthony Smith. With “Bones” appearing to exit the fight relatively unscathed — though he was given a conditional six-month medical suspension that can be cleared by a doctor — it seems likely that the champion will be back in action sooner rather than later.
Jones’ schedule will depend on how his team decides to manage the fighter’s rest and recovery, and what matchup makes the most sense. Currently, there are several names in Jones’s orbit, including a pair of fresh names at 205 pounds, former middleweight standout Thiago Santos and rising star Johnny Walker.
It’s Santos who appears poised to get the next shot at Jones based on his recent success at light heavyweight. “Marreta” is 3-0 in his new division and he just beat Jan Blachowicz via third-round TKO at UFC Prague, putting an end to Blachowicz’s four-fight winning streak. Santos, 35, has been fighting professionally since 2010 and has won eight of his last nine fights in total, seven by knockout.
UFC president Dana White has endorsed Santos as the No. 1 contender, which put the Brazilian firmly on team Jones’ radar. Jones’ coach Brandon Gibson appeared on The MMA Hour to talk about Santos and answer questions about several other suggested opponents.
“That’s what Dana was alluding to at the press conference,” Gibson said, when asked if he thought Santos would be Jones’ next challenger. “He’s been looking great. He’s a powerful, very powerful 205-pounder. I’m sure that’s something that intrigues a lot of fans and I like that there’s some fresh blood in the light heavyweight division.
“When Jon started it was kind of like the older reign of some of the Pride legends. The Shoguns, the Rampage Jacksons, the Vitors, there were so many of these legends for us to chase after. And now Jon’s the legend and these young guys are coming up like Johnny Walker, like Thiago Santos, so it’s cool to be in this position now.”
Like most of Jones’ opponents, Santos would likely enter a matchup with Jones as a heavy underdog; however, his exciting standup style at least creates the possibility that he can force the champion into a high-paced fight.
Gibson isn’t too worried about JacksonWink MMA’s biggest star getting dragged into a dogfight.
“I think [Jones has] fought a lot of brawlers,” Gibson said. “I would consider Anthony Smith a brawler. I think we’ve finished some very polished MMA boxers with explosive hooks like Rampage Jackson, like Shogun, and then we’ve fought a lot of really polished technical MMA strikers like Gustafsson, like Machida.
“And Thiago brings a different kind of power. I don’t think he’s as polished or refined as a Shogun or a Rampage, I think he’s probably a little closer to Anthony Smith’s style.”
As for Walker, it might be too soon to be talking about him as UFC title challenger, but his three Octagon appearances have been extraordinarily promising: A 1:57 knockout of Khalil Rountree, a 15-second knockout of Justin Ledet, and a 36-second knockout of ranked contender Misha Cirkunov.
Walker is about as fresh as fresh blood can get — and Gibson sees him being on the right path to someday fight Jones.
“That kid’s impressive, he’s explosive,” Gibson said. “I saw a really impressive stat that he’s only thrown 30 strikes or something in his combined UFC career, so his knockout-to-strike ratio is like, 1-to-9. That’s impressive. We’ve definitely got our eye on him. He’s charismatic, he’s fun, he has a swagger to him, he’s creative. That’s a fight that is definitely on the horizon, I’m sure.”
Looking up a division, there are two more names that have a long connection with Jones: Current UFC heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier and former champion Brock Lesnar.
Cormier and Jones have fought twice, with Jones getting the better of “DC” on both occasions; their second encounter was overturned to a no-contest after Jones tested positive for banned substances. Since their last meeting, Cormier has been on an absolute tear and talk of a third meeting has persisted.
Anyone expecting Cormier to chime in on social media during UFC 236 was left disappointed, but Gibson was glad that there was no online bickering at least for one night, even if he knows the rivalry will never disappear.
“I think that will always be looming, everybody will always want to see a trilogy there and DC’s had so much success since Jon’s fighting, and he’s double champ and heavyweight champ, but I think for right now there’s a lot of intriguing matchups in each of their respective weight classes, so I just like having fun with that idea,” Gibson said.
Jones hasn’t shown much interest in moving up to heavyweight and Gibson expects him to stay at 205 pounds for the rest of 2019.
That said, there is still interest in an oft-teased bout with Lesnar, a professional wrestling superstar who was one of the UFC’s biggest draws during his time with the promotion. Gibson agrees that there are a lot of good reasons to have Jones fight Lesnar, even if it isn’t the most compelling fight from a strategic standpoint.
“I think, for the casuals that a guy like Brock brings to the sport, it will be super high numbers and a high payday,” Gibson said. “I think for the challenge, just the size of the man that Brock is, I think that’s something that intrigues Jon. Brock will bring something different.
“It would be fun, it would be intriguing, but as far as, is Brock the most polished mixed martial artist that we’ve ever competed against and what is our gameplan gonna have to be and all these things we’re going to have to watch out for and train for — no, I don’t think it’s that.”
Whoever Jones fights next, Gibson is excited about the prospect of Jones defending his title a few more times this year or making that highly-anticipated move to heavyweight even if it’s only temporary. What matters most is getting Jones back in the cage as soon as he’s ready to go again.
“I know Thiago Santos is looking very strong. Jon always gets hyped for the idea of a superfight. He said he wants to fight three or four times this year. We want to give him a little break though,” Gibson said. “We want to make sure that that fire is always well lit under him and back-to-back training camps is definitely a grind. It was exciting to get in there though and have this quick turnaround and make sure there was no ring rust, and I think as a fan of the sport, we’re lucky to have the greatest of all-time actively competing once again.
“He wants to stay busy. Maybe it’s the big international fight week in July, maybe it’s something big in the fall. We’ll see.”
Anthony Johnson vs. Jon Jones is a dream match-up that could very well come to fruition one day - but the price has to be right.
Speaking to MMA veteran Josh Thompson in a recent episode of Sammy and the Punk (h/t Tom Taylor of BJPenn.com), ‘Rumble’ said a proposed heavyweight fight against ‘Bones’ would generate millions of dollars - and he wants his fair share of the cut.
“Jon and I were supposed to fight four years ago,” Johnson said. “If a fight that was supposed to happen four years ago is still a hot topic, that’s not some half a million dollar payday. That’s worthy of every penny you deserve to fight somebody. “I’m not gonna say a number right now. Put it like this. It’s more than a million — plus pay-per-view buys.”
Johnson, who is currently embroiled in controversy over his restraining order for ‘online stalking,’ said ‘everybody comes out on top’ in a Jones-Rumble superfight.
“At the end of the day, everybody comes out on top,” he said. “The organization is obviously going to come out on top, and the fighters come out on top cause they got paid, and the fans come out on top because they got to see that one fight that they wanted to see.”
When asked about how he matches up against Jones, Johnson, a heavy-hitting knockout artist from Dublin, Georgia, said he is confident that he has the skill-set to usurp the pound-for-pound phenom.
“I do think I can take Jon,” he said. “I honestly believe I can beat anybody. I’m a fighter, I’m supposed to believe in my skills.”
As of now, Johnson is currently retired. The 35-year-old announced his retirement after losing in a championship rematch to Daniel Cormier at UFC 210.
Dominick Reyes is a self-proclaimed "troubleshooter by nature." The 29-year-old loves identifying a problem and doing everything possible to fix it. He proved this each day for two years, from 2015 to 2017, as the IT specialist at Oak Hills High School in San Bernardino County, California.
Computer not working? Call Mr. Reyes. The projector won't turn on? Call Mr. Reyes.
"If it plugged in to any kind of outlet or any kind of Ethernet cord, I was responsible for it," he said.
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So when Reyes enters the Octagon on Saturday in London for a matchup with Volkan Oezdemir -- a former UFC light heavyweight title challenger with one-shot power -- he's confident he'll be ready for anything that may come his way.
"There's always going to be a problem in front of you, but it's how you address it and deal with it that shows you who you are," Reyes said. "My fight IQ is higher [than Oezdemir's] in terms of shot selection and what I'm trying to do. I'm good at sticking to my game plan, but then I'm really good at adapting. I just feel overall I'm just faster. I'm faster everywhere."
Reyes, of Hesperia, California, is one of the hottest prospects in MMA. Undefeated through 10 fights, he ranks No. 8 in the light heavyweight division. Though he has big victories over veterans Jeremy Kimball (first-round rear-naked choke) and Jared Cannonier (first-round TKO), his most recent win against Ovince Saint Preux truly put him on the map.
Fighting on the main card of the biggest event of 2018 -- UFC 229, headlined by Conor McGregor vs. Khabib Nurmagomedov, in Las Vegas -- Reyes completely destroyed his opponent. Saint Preux was battered throughout with sharp leg kicks and heavy punch combinations. As time expired in the three-round bout, Reyes landed a left hook to the face that dropped Saint Preux. Reyes thought it was a knockout, but officials ruled that the fight would go to a decision.
The exact result, eventually called a unanimous decision win, did not matter to Reyes, fans or media alike. What mattered was that he had announced himself on the biggest stage as a force in the division.
"The McGregor card was huge and the placement they gave me, too," Reyes said. "But beating OSP the way I did -- that says more than just being on the card. He's been a staple in the division for years. He had close to 20 UFC fights when I fought him and was No. 6 in the division.
"It did [surprise me]. It's one of those things where you train, do things and then you think you are who you think you are, and then go out there and prove it to yourself."
Reyes, despite the long winning streak, wants to make one thing clear: He doesn't believe he deserves a light heavyweight title shot right now. He thinks he still has more to show. But one or two more strong performances could get him in the picture.
"I'm trying to build my legacy," Reyes said. "I'm not trying to be a flash in the pan. I want to be here for a long time. When I become champion, I want to stay champion. I don't want people to think, 'He got lucky and got one shot.' I want to dominate everybody I fight."
Alexander Gustafsson. The former title challenger is coming off a loss to champion Jon Jones and faces Anthony Smith in Sweden on June 1. Reyes calls Gustafsson "a legend" and wants to add that name to his resume.
And if all goes as planned, Jones could be next after that.
"That's the dream. Who doesn't want to be the guy to take out Jon Jones?" Reyes said. "I'm a clean athlete. I've been fighting clean my whole life. I've been drug-tested since college all the time. When I get there, it's not going to be just for me. It's going to be for all of the clean athletes out there and all of the straight guys who get passed over for the dirty guys because he's on top right now. I feel a moral obligation to the people who do things right.
"You take steroids, you're a cheater. Period. There's no gray area with me. Did you take steroids? Yes? Then you're a cheater. It's in your nature to cheat," Reyes continued. "He's considered one of the greatest ever. If I can be the guy who beats him, that's part of my legacy. That's legendary status."
“Jones and [Anderson] Silva have spoken about fighting each other for years as well, but that never came to fruition,” Adesanya said of this matchup (transcript via MMA Mania). “This I feel is different. So yeah, I look forward to that challenge as well.
Israel Adesanya believes Jon Jones has been talking about this potential fight because he’s wise enough to recognize a threat when he sees one.
“That shows you how serious they’re taking me, the smart ones, how much they know I’m a threat, how serious they’re taking me,” Adesanya said. “Like, [Jones] mentioned it on fight week of 235 or whatever, and then I went back two weeks prior on messages with Eugene when I put the question out there, how are we going to beat Jon Jones? And he kind of just laid down the rough blueprint. And I blurred a lot of it out, but yeah, we’re focusing on Gastelum.”
Former Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) light heavyweight title contender, Anthony Johnson, was expected to make his return to the heavyweight division at some point in 2020, thanks to a recent iron-pumping regimen that had him walking around at 285 pounds.
I guess he suffered from a change of heart, or cold feet, or too many protein farts.
Whatever the case may be, Johnson is now talking about returning to light heavyweight to throw hands with current 205-pound kingpin, Jon Jones. “Bones” had planned to go up to heavyweight anyway, sparing “Rumble” a sizable weight cut, but that didn’t seem to make much difference.
“I’m gonna wait until I get about, when I lose about 10 more pounds, 235, I wanna see how my body feels and then if it feels good, then I’m going to probably make 205,” Johnson told Below the Belt. “We’ll make it happen if I get low enough. We’ll fight at 205. That’s a fight I wanted. I think Jon wanted that fight too, before everything happened. That situation, which, it’s over with, it’s in the past. But that was a fight, that’s why I went up to 205, man.”
While it sounds far-fetched to think the currently-retired Johnson could just walk off the bench and secure a title shot against Jones, the division is giving him some assistance. The top three contenders have already tried — and failed — to unseat “Bones” in their respective title fights.
Jones vs. Johnson was the UFC 187 main event until this happened.
If Johnson could return with a savage knockout win over someone in the Top 5, then it probably wouldn’t take much convincing to get “Rumble” a crack at the 205-pound crown. Assuming Jones hasn’t already agreed to settle his score with this guy.