- MMA columnist for ESPN.com
- Analyst for “MMA Live”
- Covered MMA for Las Vegas Sun
UFC 285 delivered. From the dominant return of Jon Jones to the shocking upset victory for Alexa Grasso, the fight night in Las Vegas was electric.
The 2023 version of Jones looked a lot like every other version of Jones. He was precise, mobile and showed that the change of weight class wouldn’t factor into his in-cage ability. He locked into a guillotine submission just minutes into the main event and Ciryl Gane, trapped against the fence and being choked, tapped quickly. Jones is the new heavyweight champion and is back on top of the UFC.
Before Jones reclaimed his throne, it was the dethroning of Valentina Shevchenko that turned Vegas upside down. After losing the second and third round due to an incessant ground attack from Shevchenko, Grasso, in a shockingly quick manner, locked in a rear naked choke and secured a submission win of her own.
Marc Raimondi puts the wins of Grasso and Bo Nickal in perspective, while Brett Okamoto plays matchmaker and lines up who could be next for the new champions and other standouts on the card.
It’s time for GOAT vs. GOAT
Okamoto: Who should be next for Jon Jones: Stipe Miocic
He made it look easy. Was it easy? It was easy for the greatest of all time. No problem at all. Just like that, Jones is a two-division champ. Now, we’re left with the question we always have regarding Jones: What’s next? Who can beat this man, if anyone? Well, Miocic is going to get the next crack.
The UFC had already made it known that Miocic would be next, and Miocic reiterated after the fight that it would be in July. Off we go.
Miocic isn’t in his prime anymore, but he’s arguably the best to do it at heavyweight. One would think that could offer a challenge to Jones, perhaps one he won’t be able to overcome. But history sure suggests otherwise at this point.
Wild card: Winner of Sergei Pavlovich vs. Curtis Blaydes on April 22
If the Miocic plan hits a snag, this is the UFC’s backup plan. The winner of this fight will deserve a title fight, and it will be an exciting matchup either way.
Raimondi: Alexa Grasso may have shocked the world on Saturday, but maybe not Dana White
Alexa Grasso fought Mizuki Inoue on Feb. 27, 2015 in Los Angeles under the Invicta FC banner. UFC president Dana White was in attendance that night. It was a day before a UFC card in the same city and White was scouting the up-and-coming women’s talent. Grasso was just 21 years old, but put on a Fight of the Night performance in a unanimous decision win. White was sold immediately — and said as much after the bout. White said that fight should have been in the UFC and it was “incredible.” Grasso ended up in the UFC two fights later.
White knew what he had then. It took a little bit to all come together. But just a tad over nine years later, Grasso is a UFC champion. She took out Shevchenko, one of the best women’s fighters of all time, with a rear-naked choke in the fourth round. Grasso is the first-ever Mexican-born women’s champion in UFC history, the second Mexican-born undisputed UFC champion ever after Brandon Moreno, and one of three current UFC champions from Mexico with Moreno and Rodriguez.
A lot has been discussed early this year about the upcoming Mexican MMA renaissance. Well, it’s here. In full force. Mexico has been known for its boxing for decades, but MMA is catching up. And the proof is in the performances of these excellent fighters, who have all improved and evolved exponentially over the years. Grasso was once a strawweight prospect struggling to find her footing as a contender. She stopped cutting all that weight, moved up a division and is now the champ. Shevchenko will likely get a deserved immediate rematch, but Grasso can enjoy this amazing feat for the time being, for herself, her country and her Lobo Gym team. Irene Aldana, her teammate, is close to a title shot a women’s bantamweight, as well.
Grasso is 5-0 since moving up to flyweight. The most impressive thing here, though, is how she beat Shevchenko. Grasso has been known for her boxing and she took Shevchenko out by taking her back and finishing a rear-naked choke. Shevchenko had never been finished in the UFC and never been submitted in her entire career. Grasso, the shy girl from Guadalajara who White first saw as a 21-year-old eight years, was the one to do it. It’s a remarkable story and one that is just beginning.
Shevchenko had been champion since 2018 and had accumulated seven title defenses, the most among any woman in UFC history. And that came after a strong run at women’s bantamweight before the UFC introduced the women’s 125-pound division. Shevchenko was dominant for a large portion of her reign, too. She showed some vulnerability lately, especially in her last fight against Taila Santos. But Shevchenko had rounded into a female version of Georges St-Pierre — an incredibly well-rounded fighter who can beat you in so many different ways. She’ll be in the UFC Hall of Fame one day. But for now, after Saturday night, Grasso is the queen of the women’s flyweight division. Or, maybe more appropriately, La Reina.
Okamoto: What should be next for Grasso and Shevchenko: An immediate rematch
This sport never ceases to amaze. The narrative was that Shevchenko would be even more ready to go than usual, after surviving a scary split decision win her last time out against Taila Santos. And actually, I believe that was the case. There was nothing wrong with Shevchenko’s performance. It was just an eye-opening effort by Grasso, in which she showed she had closed the gap against one of the best to do it and was ready to take advantage of a life-changing moment when it came. This was not a fluke. This was Grasso changing her own life and realizing her dream. It immediately appeared Shevchenko had turned the page in her mind to the rematch. I’m all in for it. It’s the only fight to make.
Shavkat Rakhmonov is going to be a problem for the welterweight division
Okamoto: Who should be next: Stephen Thompson
Thompson fought down in rank in his last outing, a victory over Kevin Holland in December. I’m sure he’d like to be rewarded with an opponent ranked ahead of him, but in reality, this is the fight that makes sense.
You’ve got Leon Edwards and Kamaru Usman handling their trilogy in two weeks. Colby Covington is hanging in the wings, as is Belal Muhammad. We should have more clarity on this division following UFC 286, but as of right now, Thompson is the one holding a No. 6 ranking, and that feels like the correct next step for Rakhmanov.
There’s no way you can deny Rakhmanov a shot at the top end of the division at this point, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Thompson is the UFC’s first call.
Wild card: Belal Muhammad
Muhammad is not going to like this suggestion, and I wouldn’t if I were him either. He’s done everything asked of him, he’s been impressive, he deserves a title fight. But as mentioned above, his path to a title fight in his next appearance is not an obvious one.
Maybe it happens for him, but he needs certain things to go his way. If they don’t, he’d be looking at waiting or taking a fight. And if he takes a fight, it might be this one that’s offered.
Raimondi: Bo Nickal is a star, but let’s not rush the competition
Let’s start with what everyone should be able to agree on. The UFC has a future star on its hands with Bo Nickal. There shouldn’t be a whole lot of debate there. Nickal is 4-0 and has finished every single fight in the first round. His wrestling is as good as any other fighter’s wrestling in the UFC. Nickal is a three-time NCAA Division I national champion out of Penn State. Add into the mix that he’s being coached at American Top Team, arguably the best training camp in the world, under elite-level coaches like Mike Brown and others. Nickal has also embraced the public relations aspect of MMA. He carries himself like a star.
The question now is how far should the UFC push him at this juncture. He is incredibly inexperienced compared to other top-tier fighters in the middleweight division. He’s inexperienced, period. Very few fighters in the UFC have only four professional fights. But again, Nickal isn’t like other professional fighters. He’s already been calling out the likes of middleweight champion Alex Pereira and stud Khamzat Chimaev. It’s far too soon to send Nickal into battles against opponents like that, as tempting as it might be. The UFC should take this year and continue to give Nickal fighters outside the top 15 and see what he can do.
Jamie Pickett has now lost three in a row. He’s far from the best in the division. And he was a completely reasonable first UFC opponent for Nickal. The UFC can step up the competition incrementally. But it doesn’t need to completely throw Nickal into the fire right now. His time will come. The UFC had another bluechip middleweight in Edmen Shahbazyan and he just was not ready for the cream of the crop at 185 pounds, losing three straight. Granted, Shahbazyan was and is younger than the 27-year-old Nickal. But he also had more fights and more cage time. Nickal can remain on pay-per-view main cards as an attraction against moderate-level fighters for a bit longer before the UFC unleashes him on the stars of the division.
Okamoto: Who should be next for Bo Nickal: Bryan Battle
UFC commentator Joe Rogan said on the broadcast that Nickal would be thrown into the deep end after this performance. I don’t think so, though. There is zero rush and Nickal understands that. He called out Khamzat Chimaev when he was first signed to the UFC. On Saturday, he didn’t call out anyone. There’s almost no point in doing so.
As excited as we are all to see how far he can go, we won’t see it right away. The UFC will matchmake him appropriately, as Battle is a proven commodity and an appropriate step up. He’s a winner of The Ultimate Fighter and 3-1 in the UFC, despite a loss in his last fight. He’s someone fans will recognize, but still at the right speed for Nickal’s matchmaking.
Wild card: Tresean Gore
If not Battle, how about the other man who fought his way to the finals of that season of TUF? Gore didn’t get to face Battle in the finals due to injury but lost to him in his UFC debut. Currently, he’s 1-2 in the UFC, coming off a win over Josh Fremd in October.
Another win for Dricus Du Plessis
Okamoto: Who should be next: Jared Cannonier
This is the obvious choice. Cannonier doesn’t have anything booked. He’s less than one year removed from an unsuccessful title bid, but he’s coming off a win over Sean Strickland. It would be Cannonier fighting down in rank, but that’s justified, given the recency of his title shot. This would be a big fight for both and the correct one for the division.
Wild card: Winner of Marvin Vettori vs. Roman Dolidze on March 18
Cannonier makes more sense because he has nothing booked, but this would also make sense timing-wise. There is a title fight in this division booked for April between Alex Pereira and Israel Adesanya, but beyond that, Robert Whittaker is lurking for a title bid, as well as a potential newcomer in Khamzat Chimaev. If there isn’t a title opportunity for the winner of this fight, I’d expect him to take another one, and Du Plessis would be a possibility.
A beautiful comeback for Ian Garry
Okamoto: Who should be next: Jack Della Maddalena
I wrote last month — after Della Maddalena picked up another knockout win — that this should be the fight, and this should be the fight. It would be a little unusual to pair two up-and-coming prospects together this early in their UFC careers, but I think it would benefit both right now (win or lose).
Both of these two have momentum and hype. Plus, they both have built-in fan bases from their respective home countries. Stylistically, Della Maddalena would likely be a favorite, but Garry’s striking has impressed me with its versatility and distance management. It would be a very intriguing matchup with a great build.
Wild card: Alex Morono
This would be a legit step up for Garry. Morono has a ton of experience and he’s a dog. He’s tough and he can crack. Morono is the kind of guy who would be licking his chops to be the first to hand Garry a professional MMA loss. A win over the likes of Morono would go a long way toward further validating Garry’s ceiling.
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