mma

Jones and state of UFC’s heavyweight division

Thomas Shea-USA TODAY Sports
A year after winning the heavyweight title, Jon Jones has yet to defend it. The Sporting Tribune's Max Nichol wonders what's next.

Even to those who are unfamiliar with the UFC, there are a few fighters who have transcended the boundaries of mixed martial arts and become household names.

Conor McGregor, Nate Diaz, Ronda Rousey — these are names that might be thrown around the break room of an office, or may be overheard on the train during a morning commute. They are fighters whose fame exists somewhere between talent and sensationalism; they may not have perfect records, but they’ve built notoriety for themselves with electrifying soundbites and spectacular, violent performances.

But in this sport of violence and notoriety, one name seems to stand alone as the most violent, the most notorious — a fighter whose ferocity inside the cage and controversy outside of it have been the blueprint for what many younger fighters have attempted to replicate. 27 wins, 17 finishes, 0 defeats — and a bogeyman of the sport.

Jon Jones.

Jon Jones. Sean M. Gaffey, Getty Images

On March 4, 2023, the former Light Heavyweight Champion, Jon Jones, returned to the UFC after a three-year layoff to face Ciryl Gane for the newly vacant Heavyweight Championship title. In shocking fashion, Jones secured a guillotine choke on Gane during the first two minutes of the first round and was crowned the new heavyweight champion.

This victory added Jones to a very short list of UFC champions who have held belts in two divisions, and for many MMA fans, cemented Jones as the greatest fighter of all time.

Since winning the Heavyweight belt, Jones has had one name on his mind: Stipe Miocic. Considered by many as the greatest heavyweight of all time, Miocic held the heavyweight title over two separate reigns from 2016 to 2021, accumulating four title defenses during this time.

Jones’ desire to fight Miocic was met with immediate criticism from fans, as Miocic has not fought since 2021 when he lost to Francis Ngannou via second-round knockout. 

Stipe Miocic, Jerome Miron – USA TODAY Sports

Despite critics’ calls for him to face a more active contender, Jones remained steadfast in his desire to face Miocic, and a fight between him and the former champion was scheduled for November 11, 2023, at Madison Square Garden. However, two weeks before the championship bout was set to take place, Jones suffered a pectoral injury during training and announced that he would not be cleared to fight for at least twelve months.

With the fight date rapidly approaching, the UFC scrambled to replace their main event, and soon announced that the card would be headlined by #2 ranked, Sergei Pavlovich, and #7 ranked, Tom Aspinall. Rather than strip Jones of the title, the UFC announced that an interim belt would be created in his absence, and on just two weeks’ notice, one of these contenders would be the new face of the Heavyweight division. 

The announcement of the replacement fight was well-received by fans, many of whom preferred the new bout over the original. In the place of a somewhat tired, legacy bout, there were now two rightful, hungry contenders who would challenge for the belt. To many, it was the fight that the Heavyweight division deserved — a showdown between two of its very best, albeit on short notice. 

Aspinall and Pavlovich share respects before their fight, Wendell Cruz – USA TODAY Sports

Sergei Pavlovich was originally scheduled as the backup fighter for the original bout between Jones and Miocic and had been training accordingly, but his opponent, Tom Aspinall, took the fight on short notice — giving himself less than two weeks to prepare for who many considered to be the most dangerous contender in the division.

Though Aspinall is one of the most well-rounded fighters at Heavyweight, Pavlovich boasted a six-fight win streak, defeating each of his opponents by first-round knockout. With the discrepancy in preparation time and the fate of Pavlovich’s last six opponents considered, many believed that Aspinall would be simply outgunned in this matchup.

However, Aspinall possesses one skill more than anyone else in the Heavyweight division — speed. Less than two minutes into the fight, Aspinall landed two ultra-fast right hands to the temple of Pavlovich, knocking him unconscious in the very first round. In a shocking turn of events, David had defeated Goliath, and Aspinall was crowned the new Interim Heavyweight Champion of the World. 

Aspinall celebrates after win, Wendell Cruz – USA TODAY Sports

March 2024 marked one year since Jon Jones last made an appearance in the octagon, and the question that seems to be on everyone’s mind is not so much when he will return, but who he will face when he does.

Graphic: Max Nichol

Like a ship without a captain, the absence of an active champion has caused confusion in the heavyweight division, and the rankings have fallen into disarray as a result. With no confirmed news as to when Jones will be returning, or who he will be facing, heavyweight contenders fight amongst themselves in stagnant bouts with little possibility of upward mobility, because there is no movement amongst the top-ranked fighters.

Simply, the heavyweight division has a bottleneck at its higher ranks and the pressure is rapidly building.

The seemingly most obvious opponent for Jones is the interim champion, Tom Aspinall. By pitting the champion against the interim champion, a clear victor is crowned as the best in the division who can then provide movement amongst the rankings.

However, since Aspinall was crowned Interim Champion in November, Jones has disregarded him as the next contender for the belt — remaining adamant that his next opponent will be the 41-year-old, former champion Stipe Miocic.

Since Aspinall was crowned Interim Champion, Jones has shown little interest in a fight between the two of them, and seems focused solely on Stipe Miocic. This attitude towards the Interim Champion has struck a chord with many MMA fans, who have been quick to accuse Jones of “ducking” Aspinall — who many regard as a much clearer threat than Miocic.

To add insult to injury, Jones has recently shown more interest in a potential bout against Alex Pereira, the former Middleweight Champion who now holds the Light Heavyweight Championship belt. 

“Pereira is one of the most polarizing figures this sport has seen. Toms a contender who won a belt against another contender,” Jones recently tweeted. 

Pereira Celebrates his UFC300 win, Mark J. Rebilas – USA TODAY Sports

Despite being one of the sport’s most talented knockout artists, Pereira has been criticized throughout his UFC career for his lack of grappling and ground-fighting skills — which happens to be one of the strongest aspects of Jones’ game. Though a fight between the two champions would undoubtedly be a massive event, this callout feels more like Jones looking for an easier fight than Aspinall. 

Over a year since his last appearance, Jon Jones’ next fight has still not officially been scheduled — though signs are pointing to a likely matchup on November 9th at Madison Square Garden against former champion, Stipe Miocic. This was further hinted at during this past weekend at UFC St. Louis, when president Dana White responded, “Sounds right,” to a media question about the possibility of Jones making a November return at MSG.

As of now, however, the fight date between Jones and Miocic has yet to be officially confirmed. What has been confirmed is that Tom Aspinall will defend the Interim Championship belt against Curtis Blaydes at UFC 304 this July in his home city of Manchester, England.

An Interim Champion defending their belt is a rare occurrence in the UFC, but many feel that it will strengthen Aspinall’s legacy as well as provide movement to the division. During a recent interview with Michael Bisping, Aspinall described his choice to defend the belt.

“I want to make my own legacy, man,” Aspinall said. “I’m not gonna wait for something that’s not happening forever.”

Regardless of the UFC’s plans for Jon Jones, the Heavyweight division has no shortage of challengers, and no shortage of talent. Should Jones and Aspinall both defend their respective titles there should be nothing standing in the way of a future bout between the two of them. Jones vs. Aspinall is the fight that MMA fans have been asking for more than anything — but it seems they may have to wait a little longer.

Photo credits: Thomas Shea, Per Haljestam – USA TODAY Sports