- The UFC 239 card is loaded with big fights, but the ramifications could lead to even greater clashes. Here are the five biggest questions ahead of Saturday's fights in Las Vegas.
Jon Jones returns to the Octagon to defend his light heavyweight title this Saturday at a loaded UFC 239 card in Las Vegas.
Per usual, the fight has less to do with the opponent (in this case, Thiago Santos) and far more to do with Jones, who enters every fight with a laundry list of question marks. Will there be any post-fight drama? Can he add another win without an asterisk to his resume? And is this finally his last fight before making the move to heavyweight to challenge Daniel Cormier?
Another must-see fight this weekend is Holly Holm challenging bantamweight champ Amanda Nunes, which could serve as the fight of the night.
Here is a look at the top five questions as we approach UFC 239.
1. Will Jon Jones challenge Daniel Cormier after a win over Thiago Santos?
Jones puts his light heavyweight title on the line against Santos this Saturday in a fight that, frankly, should only end in one manner: another Jones victory.
His brilliance in the cage is undisputable, yet so are the endless controversies that follow him. Even when Jones is not doing anything wrong, he continues to carry that albatross of past mistakes with him.
Santos is a power-puncher and he will look to brawl, but Jones knows exactly how to do handle a fighter of Santos’ caliber. This fight should play out similarly to Cormier’s victory over Anthony Smith this past March in his last title defense. While Santos is not a legitimate threat, it will be a pleasure to watch Jones at work.
But there is a larger issue at stake in this fight, and that is UFC’s light heavyweight division cannot compete with Jones.
The most-worthy challenger is undefeated Dominick Reyes, but he is not ready to solve the Jones enigma. The money fight, once again, is Jones challenging Daniel Cormier. One more fight between the two legends should finally allow there to be some clarity in the ongoing debate of whether Cormier can ever beat Jones.
The risk in that fight falls entirely on Cormier’s shoulders. If Cormier were to lose to Jones for a third time, how does that affect his legacy? But these are the two best fighters in the world, and it needs to happen for fight fans, the UFC, and most of all, Jones and Cormier.
2. What is the real draw of UFC 239?
Amanda Nunes defending her bantamweight title against Holly Holm is the fight that will complete this card.
Undoubtedly the best female fighter on the planet, Nunes will still have her hands full with Holm.
Holm has lost four of her last six fights, but the reason she continues to put in the spotlight by UFC is that she is an incredible athlete capable of upsetting the best in the world. If she finds a way to knock out Nunes, she will shock the fight world for the second time in her career, with the first being the brutal beatdown of Ronda Rousey in 2015.
This is also Holm’s final chance. If she loses, it will be extremely hard to find a route back to title contention.
3. Are there ramifications for the two welterweight fights on the UFC 239 card?
The two welterweight fights on the card are Diego Sanchez vs. Michael Chiesa and Jorge Masvidal vs. Ben Askren.
Chiesa should be able to walk away with a victory, though tangling with Sanchez is no easy task. By this point in his career, the blueprint for the 37-year-old Sanchez is clear: he is going to be crafty, quick, and incredibly difficult to put away.
Masvidal-Askren has bigger ramifications, and it should decide the next welterweight title contender, placing the winner above Colby Covington.
Since moving up to 170, Masvidal has looked more dominant, especially with his knockout power. But he will be staring across from Askren, who is undefeated at 19-0-1. This is only Askren’s second fight in the UFC–he defeated Robbie Lawler at UFC 235 in March–and represents another tremendous opportunity.
This fight is the biggest toss up of the night. Askren could easily use his wrestling to dictate the entire pace of the fight. Or we could we see a repeat of Masvidal’s performance in his win this past March over Darren Till, where Masvidal caught Till and put him to sleep.
In the background looms welterweight champion Kamaru Usman, who last lost in May of 2013 and is desperately looking for a good fight.
4. What is the money fight on the preliminary card?
Appointment-viewing on the early preliminary card is the Edmen Shahbazyan vs. Jack Marshman fight.
Shahbazyan is worth watching. Trained by Edmond Tarverdyan, who is Ronda Rousey’s coach, the 21-year-old Shahbazyan appears to be the real deal. He won’t have an easy task on Saturday, as Marshman is extremely tough. A win over Marshman, particularly with a first-round knockout, would compel the UFC to put the machine fully behind Shahbazyan.
The connection to Rousey, who represents Shahbazyan, makes him that much more of a draw.
5. Speaking of money, is there a chance for any of the fights to end in a big upset?
The best chance of an upset is the Luke Rockhold vs. Jan Blachowicz fight.
Rockhold’s career has endured some significant ups and downs ever since December 2015 when he won the middleweight championship.
Chris Weidman was in control of that UFC 194 fight over Rockhold until he threw that spin kick and got caught by Rockhold. The title reign did not go as planned for Rockhold, who was knocked out in embarrassing fashion by Michael Bisping in his only title defense. Rockhold then went MIA from the Octagon following that loss, and he did not fight for the next 15 months. In his return, he beat David Branch in September of 2017, but then was demolished by Yoel Romero at UFC 221.
A bigger question here is whether Rockhold still wants to fight. Despite Rockhold’s status as the Vegas favorite to win on Saturday, Blachowicz is in a perfect position to knock him out.
Blachowicz is an incredible boxer. The last few times we have seen Rockhold, his chin hasn’t held up. This fight has all the makings of the surprise of the night.
Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.