The most intriguing name in every UFC division: All eyes on Jon Jones, again
There are 12 weight classes in the UFC. Only three of them have title fights booked. There’s a lot of “TBD” going on at the moment at the very top of MMA’s leading promotion.
However, there are plenty of big-stakes fights either on the books, in the works or worth considering as possibilities. There are fighters on the brink of championship opportunities. Others are at a career crossroads that could be their on-ramp to an express lane toward the top of the mountain or could send them down a dead end. Some who are unranked as we head into the spring could have a number next to their name by summer.
Marc Raimondi, Brett Okamoto and Jeff Wagenheim went division by division to highlight the fighters who are currently surrounded by the most intrigue.
Heavyweight: 265 pounds – Jon Jones
I could say Sergei Pavlovich, who is taking the division by storm. Or Tom Aspinall, who I think is the future of the division. But let’s be real: If Jon Jones is in a division, he’s the most intriguing fighter in it. He made his title win over Ciryl Gane this weekend look like a stroll in the park. A leisurely stroll. That wasn’t a title fight, that was a GOAT crowning.
Stipe Miocic is next, and that’s as intriguing as they come. So intriguing in fact, that fight seems to be a shoo-in to headline the UFC’s annual International Fight Week event in July. How will Jones look — both physically and technically — in his second appearance at heavyweight, against an opponent who (one would think) should drag him into deeper waters than the kiddie pool he sprinted through at UFC 285? — Okamoto
Light heavyweight: 205 pounds – Ryan Spann
Spann went 2-0 in 2022 with a pair of first-round finishes. He was supposed to fight Nikita Krylov in a UFC Fight Night main event last month, but Krylov fell ill on the day of the fight, forcing a cancellation. The bout has been rebooked for Saturday, and if Spann wins, it could vault him onto that short list of top contenders at 205. He looked great in a knockout of Dominick Reyes at UFC 281 back in November. He’s still only 31 years old and seems to have found a new gear.
After beating Reyes, Spann said in his postfight interview that he didn’t train much for previous fights and that felt to him like his first real training camp. If that is indeed the case, then the ceiling could be high for a focused, disciplined Spann. He always had athleticism and power in his hands. He has a good team with Fortis MMA and coach Sayif Saud. A win this weekend would really put him on the 205-pound contender map. — Raimondi
Middleweight: 185 pounds – Israel Adesanya
Remember him? Yes, of course, everyone knows “The Last Stylebender” is a long way off from being a forgotten man. But when he steps into the Octagon on April 8, Adesanya will be weighed down by expectations that ignore his past and threaten to limit his future.
The former champion is the betting favorite in his UFC 287 rematch with Alex Pereira, despite the fact that the Brazilian dethroned him via TKO in November — the third time Pereira had beaten Adesanya, counting their two meetings in pro kickboxing. The betting odds tell us that smart people expect Adesanya to take back the belt next month, but what if he falls for a fourth time? That would relegate him to no man’s land among 185-pounders (at least while Pereira owns the title), and 205 might not be a more fertile landscape for him either, considering how Adesanya was manhandled in his 2021 challenge of light heavyweight’s then champ, Jan Blachowicz. Where would a defeat leave one of the most dynamic fighters in MMA? — Wagenheim
Welterweight: 170 pounds – Shavkat Rakhmanov
It’s not just because he’s coming off a Fight of the Night performance at UFC 285 last Saturday. Quietly, Rakhmanov has been one of the most intriguing names at 170 pounds for a while now. I’ve heard more than once from some respected names in the sport that he’s actually better than another talented welterweight who emerged in recent years: Khamzat Chimaev.
Rakhmanov just had a stiff test against Geoff Neal, in a fight where he was about a 5-to-1 betting favorite. Don’t let the competitiveness of that fight fool you into thinking the top of this division will be too much for Rakhmanov. Neal is legit, even if he has never had a top-5 number next to his name. Rakhmanov faced adversity and still kept his finish streak alive — extending it to a perfect 17-0. When this guy reaches a title fight (and I do feel confident saying when, and not if) don’t be surprised if he’s favored against the defending champ. — Okamoto
Lightweight: 155 pounds – Rafael Fiziev
Fiziev could shake up the lightweight hierarchy this spring. At UFC 286 on March 18, the Muay Thai fighter will take on former interim champion Justin Gaethje in a bout that many expect to win Fight of the Night. The two men have striking styles that mesh well. Gaethje is a handful on the feet, though he is prone to getting into firefights. Fiziev is extremely technical and dangerous with his hands as well as his kicks. It should make for an excellent matchup.
If Fiziev is able to beat Gaethje, everything changes for him in the 155-pound weight class. Gaethje has been in the title conversation there for years, and in his most recent bout, he fought for the title against Charles Oliveira. Fiziev has won six straight, a run that netted him $50,000 in fight-night bonuses (a Gaethje-like run). Gaethje will be his toughest opponent to date, but if Fiziev is up to the task there will be talks of him getting a title shot in the future. — Raimondi
Men’s featherweight: 145 pounds – Arnold Allen
When the division’s champion, Alexander Volkanovski, challenged for the lightweight title last month, on that same UFC 284 card, Yair Rodriguez defeated Josh Emmett for an interim featherweight title. That appeared to leave Allen out of the championship picture, but he soon ended up with something that he told MMA Fighting is “bigger than that opportunity.” An April 15 main event against Max Holloway, the former champ who owns UFC featherweight records for wins (18), win streak (13), finishes (10) and KO/TKOs (8), among others. This is an attention-grabbing booking for Allen, who is 9-0 in the UFC but has flown under the radar. An Allen win would be huge, as it’s been nearly a decade since any 145-pounder other than Volkanovski has defeated Holloway. — Wagenheim
Men’s bantamweight: 135 pounds – Henry Cejudo
Umar Nurmagomedov could be the most intriguing in the long term. He comes from a camp with a long history of performing at near-perfect levels. Ask behind the scenes who will be the champ of this weight class in a few years, and you’re going to hear the name “Umar” quite a bit. But right now, as we head into spring of 2023, Henry Cejudo is the most intriguing. He left as the defending champion in 2020. Now he’s coming back to try to reclaim the title from Aljamain Sterling in May, and if he does, the path is set out beautifully for Triple C.
A big title defense against Sean O’Malley in a summer blockbuster. And if all goes well there, all eyes are on moving up one more weight class in an attempt to become the first fighter to win titles in three weight classes. I’m on record saying if Cejudo goes undefeated in 2023, he will almost certainly be my Fighter of the Year because the year is so well set up for him. And I’m not backing off now. — Okamoto
Men’s flyweight: 125 pounds – Tatsuro Taira
The Brandon Moreno vs. Deiveson Figueiredo rivalry at the top of the division is finally over. Figueiredo has announced his intention to move up to bantamweight, leaving contender spots at 125 pounds wide open. Alexandre Pantoja is likely up next for a title shot against Moreno. After Pantoja, there are several fighters who can establish themselves, such as Manel Kape, Amir Albazi and Matheus Nicolau, or reestablish themselves, such as Kai Kara-France or Alex Perez. Taira is not currently ranked, but that won’t hold for much longer. The undefeated fighter has won his first three fights in the UFC, the past two via armbar finish.
Taira is the former flyweight champion of Japan’s Shooto organization, the first MMA promotion to be founded. While Muhammad Mokaev has gotten a lot of hype as the top prospect in the division — and for good reason — Taira is right there as well. He’s only 23 years old and the sky seems like the limit for his potential. Despite all of its history in MMA and martial arts generally, Japan has never had a UFC champion. Taira still has a way to go, but he’s the closest of any Japanese fighter. — Raimondi
Women’s featherweight: 145 pounds – matchmaker Sean Shelby
Can we just leave this spot blank, like UFC.com does in the space devoted to its divisional rankings? No? OK, then let’s pop a cork and celebrate an anniversary: It was two years ago on Monday that this division’s belt was last put up for grabs. Amanda Nunes, the champ at both featherweight and bantamweight, doesn’t have many options in a division with just seven other fighters on the roster. But where are Shelby and the rest of the UFC talent scouts supposed to find featherweights? The PFL just introduced the division for the 2023 season (replacing women’s lightweight), and the cupboards are practically bare at Bellator and Invicta FC. Maybe Jones can offer some bantamweight women a seminar on bulking up? — Wagenheim
Women’s bantamweight: 135 pounds – Irene Aldana
This is the year of the Mexican title challengers, it would appear. Brandon Moreno in January. Yair Rodriguez in February. Alexa Grasso in March. Irene Aldana … this summer? Perhaps later in the year in Mexico, if the UFC decides to build an event around all of this Mexican momentum.
Aldana is entering her seventh year in the UFC. She came into the organization riding high expectations as a former Invicta FC title challenger. She has the physical tools to compete with anyone at 135 pounds, including Nunes. She would be an underdog, of course — but so far that hasn’t been a problem for Mexican fighters this year. And I have to think Aldana will be emboldened by the success of her fellow countrymen, particularly Grasso, whom she has trained alongside for years. I don’t mean to sound like a broken record and keep talking about the Mexican MMA scene, but what’s going on is legitimately amazing and Aldana could be next up in terms of adding to the country’s UFC gold. — Okamoto
Women’s flyweight: 125 pounds – Tatiana Suarez
Erin Blanchfield could have been the choice here, but she has crossed over from being intriguing to being the potential No. 1 contender. Plus, everything changed in this division Saturday night when Grasso stunned longtime champion Valentina Shevchenko to win the title via fourth-round submission.
There will likely be an immediate rematch, putting the rest of the division in flux. But let’s not look past what Suarez did in her comeback fight, submitting Montana De La Rosa on Feb. 25 in the second round. Suarez, who nearly made the Olympics as a wrestler, was the heir apparent at strawweight before a series of injuries. In fact, she beat Grasso by first-round submission in a dominant performance in 2018. The win over De La Rosa was Suarez’s first fight in almost four years. And she looked good. If Suarez is able to stay healthy, she has the skill set to not only get to the top of the division but would probably be the favorite against the new champ, Grasso, and maybe even Shevchenko if she wins the title back. — Raimondi
Women’s strawweight: 115 pounds – Amanda Lemos
The champ, Zhang Weili, does not have a fight scheduled. Neither does anyone in the top five.
Yes, there are interesting title-bout storylines available to the matchmakers. Zhang vs. Rose Namajunas, who beat her twice? Zhang vs. Andrade, whom she beat for the belt? But both of those potential challengers are coming off losses. Lemos, on the other hand, is on a two-fight winning streak after a pair of top-10 finishes (Marina Rodriguez and Michelle Waterson-Gomez). True, Lemos was finished in the first round by Andrade less than a year ago. But in a division that sometimes feels like a game of musical chairs with the same few participants circling the throne, there’s something refreshing about creating a brand-new matchup for the belt. — Wagenheim
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