Brett Okamoto and Marc Raimondi10 minutes of reading
UFC 285 delivered. From the dominating comeback of Jon Jones to the shocking upset win for Alexa Grasso, fight night in Las Vegas was electric on Saturday.
The 2023 version of Jones looked a lot like all other versions of Jones. He was precise, mobile and showed that the change of weight class would have no effect on his ability in the cage. He locked in a guillotine submission just minutes into the main event and Ciryl Gane, trapped against the fence and choked, quickly tapped out. As the new heavyweight champion, Jones is back on top of the UFC.
Before Jones reclaimed her throne, it was the dethroning of Valentina Shevchenko that turned Vegas on its head. After losing the second and third rounds to a relentless ground attack from Shevchenko, Grasso, in shockingly quick fashion, locked in a rear naked choke and secured a submission victory of his own.
Marc Raimondi puts the victories of Grasso and Bo Nickal into 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 the 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 champion. Now we’re left with the question we always have about Jones: What’s next? Who, if anyone, can beat this man? 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. Let’s go.
Miocic isn’t in his prime anymore, but he’s arguably the best to do it at heavyweight. You’d think that might present a challenge for Jones, perhaps one he won’t be able to overcome. But history surely dictates otherwise at this point.
Wild card: Winner of Sergei Pavlovich vs. Curtis Blayde’s April 22nd
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 fight either way.
Raimondi: Alexa Grasso may have shocked the world on Saturday, but maybe not Dana White
Alexa Grasso fought Mizuki Inoue on February 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 upcoming female talent. Grasso was only 21 years old, but put on a Fight of the Night performance in a unanimous decision victory. White was sold immediately – and said as much after the match. White said the fight should have been in the UFC and it was “unbelievable.” Grasso ended up in the UFC two fights later.
White knew what he had then. It took a while for everyone to come together. But just over nine years later, Grasso is a UFC champion. She took out Shevchenko, one of the greatest women’s fighters of all time, with a naked back choke in the fourth round. Grasso is the first Mexican-born women’s champion ever 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.
Much has been discussed early this year about the upcoming Mexican MMA renaissance. Well, here it is. In full force. Mexico has been known for its boxing for decades, but MMA is catching up. And the proof is in the performance of these excellent fighters, all of which have improved and evolved exponentially over the years. Grasso was once a strawweight prospect who struggled to find his footing as a contender. She stopped cutting all that weight, moved up a division and is now the champion. Shevchenko will likely get a deserved immediate rematch, but Grasso can enjoy this amazing feat for now, for himself, his country and the Lobo Gym team. Irene Aldana, her teammate, is also close to a title that shot a women’s bantamweight.
Grasso is 5-0 since moving up to flyweight. However, the most impressive thing here is how she beat Shevchenko. Grasso has been known for her boxing, and she took out Shevchenko by taking her back and finishing with a back-naked choke. Shevchenko had never been finished in the UFC and had never been submitted in her entire career. Grasso, the shy girl from Guadalajara whom White first saw as a 21-year-old eight years ago, was the one who did it. It is a remarkable story and one that has only just begun.
Shevchenko had been champion since 2018 and had amassed seven title defenses, the most by any woman in UFC history. And it came after a strong run in the women’s bantamweight division before the UFC introduced the women’s 125-pound division. Shevchenko was also dominant for much of her reign. 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 wants to 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, perhaps 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, having survived a scary split decision and winning her last time out against Taila Santos. And actually I think that was the case. There was nothing wrong with Shevchenko’s performance. It was just an eye-opening effort by Grasso, showing she had closed the gap on 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 that Shevchenko had turned the page in her mind to the rematch. I’m totally on board with that. It’s the only fight to do.
Shavkat Rakhmonov is going to be a problem for the welterweight division
Okamoto: Who should be next: Stephen Thompson
Thompson struggled down the rankings in his last outing, a win over Kevin Holland in December. I’m sure he wants to be rewarded with an opponent ranked ahead of him, but in reality this is the fight that makes sense.
You have Leon Edwards and Kamaru Usman handling their trilogy in two weeks. Colby Covington hangs in the wings, as does Belal Muhammad. We should have more clarity in this division after UFC 286, but right now, Thompson is the one with the No. 6 ranking, and it feels like the right next step for Rakhmanov.
There’s no way you can deny Rakhmanov a shot at the top 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 neither would I if I were him. He’s done everything he’s asked, he’s been impressive, he deserves a title fight. However, as mentioned above, the path to a title fight in his next appearance is not an obvious one.
Maybe it will happen for him, but he needs certain things to go his way. If they don’t, he would look at waiting or taking a fight. And if he takes a fight, it could be this one on offer.
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 much debate there. Nickal is 4-0 and has completed every match 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 from Penn State. Add to the mix that he is training 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 PR aspect of MMA. He carries himself like a star.
The question now is how far the UFC will push him at this point. He is incredibly inexperienced compared to other top fighters in the middleweight division. He’s inexperienced, period. Very few fighters in the UFC have only four professional fights. But then again, Nickal is not like other professional fighters. He has already called out the likes of middleweight champion Alex Pereira and stud Khamzat Chimaev. It’s way too early to send Nickal into games against opponents like that, as tempting as that might be. The UFC should take this year and continue to give Nickal fighters outside of the top 15 and see what he can do.
Jamie Pickett has now lost three in a row. He is far from the best in the division. And he was a perfectly reasonable first UFC opponent for Nickal. The UFC can increase the competition gradually. But there’s no need to completely throw Nickal into the fire right now. His time will come. The UFC had another blue-chip middleweight in Edmen Shahbazyan, and he simply wasn’t ready for the grind at 185 pounds, losing three straight. True, Shahbazyan was and is younger than the 27-year-old Nickal. But he also had more matches and more prison time. Nickal can remain on pay-per-view main cards as an attraction against moderate-level fighters a little 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. However, I don’t think so. There is no rush and Nickal understands that. He called out Khamzat Chimaev when he was first signed to the UFC. On Saturday, he didn’t call anyone out. There is almost no point in doing so.
As excited as we all are to see how far he can go, we won’t see it right away. The UFC will match him up the right way, as Battle is a proven commodity and a fitting step up. He is a winner of The Ultimate Fighter and 3-1 in the UFC, despite losing 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 on 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. He is currently 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 has not ordered anything. He’s less than a year removed from a failed title bid, but he’s coming off a win over Sean Strickland. It would be Cannonier fighting down the rankings, but that’s justified, given his recent title run. This would be a big match for both and the right one for the division.
Wild card: Winner of Marvin Vettori vs. Roman Dolidze 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 eyeing 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 expect him to take another, and Du Plessis would be an opportunity.
A beautiful comeback for Ian Garry
Okamoto: Who should be next: Jack Della Maddalena
I wrote last month — after Della Maddalena won another knockout — that this should be the fight, and this should be the fight. It would be a bit unusual to pair two up-and-coming prospects this early in their UFC careers, but I think it would benefit both of them right now (win or lose).
Both of these two have momentum and hype. In addition, they both have built-in fan bases from their respective home countries. Stylistically, Della Maddalena would probably be a favorite, but Garry’s striking has impressed me with its versatility and distance handling. It would be a very exciting matchup with a great build.
Wild card: Alex Morono
This would be a legitimate step up for Garry. Morono has tons of experience and he’s a dog. He is tough and can break. Morono is the type 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 towards further validating Garry’s ceiling.