UFC

Jon Jones returns for legacy-defining Heavyweight Championship clash at UFC 285

By Sports Desk March 03, 2023

When Jon Jones returns to the cage on Saturday to challenge Cyril Gane for the vacant UFC heavyweight championship, he will be coming off the longest layoff of his professional career.

It is shaping up as the most unique test of 35-year-old Jones' career, and a chance to strengthen his resume as arguably the greatest talent in the history of the promotion.

Standing at six-foot-four with a seven-foot wingspan, Jones was blessed in the genetic lottery with an enormous frame for his weight division, coming from a family where both of his brothers (Chandler and Arthur) were college football stars who secured decorated careers in the NFL. 

Instead of sticking with football, Jones wrestled in college, and he quickly combined those skills with his physical gifts to earn his UFC debut just five months after his first professional MMA fight at 20 years old.

Jones immediately emerged as a special talent in the light heavyweight ranks, which at the time was considered the most glamourous division in the company thanks to the legacy left behind by the era of Chuck Liddell, Tito Ortiz and Randy Couture.

Less than three years after his first professional fight, Jones was given the chance to become the youngest champion in UFC history, and he took the opportunity with both hands.

He finished Hall-of-Famer Mauricio 'Shogun' Rua in the third round, claiming the belt at 23 years old – a record that may stand the test of time.

That was in 2011, and 12 years later the immortal Jones is still yet to legitimately lose a cage fight, with the only blemish on his record coming from an accidental disqualification in a fight he was dominating in every aspect.

But it is fair to say he has not looked truly impressive since his 2019 unanimous decision over Anthony Smith, with his two fights since both ending up unexpectedly close.

Jones was pushed to the limit by Thiago Santos, emerging with a split decision victory despite Santos suffering a serious knee injury early in the contest, and a number of pundits felt Jones actually should have lost his most recent decision against Dominick Reyes as he struggled against an opponent his own size.

After 15 consecutive wins in fights for the Light Heavyweight Championship, Jones took a hiatus as he continued to tease a potential heavyweight move – at one point supposedly against Brock Lesnar – and although many felt it may never eventuate, he is now set to try his hand at joining the short list of fighters to ever reach the mountaintop in two divisions.

A win this weekend would again spark conversations about the greatest fighter in UFC history, and could potentially narrow the discussion down to Jones and Khabib Nurmagomedov – who never won a second belt, but was also never threatened in his 29 unbeaten fights.

The only thing standing in his way is the conundrum of Gane – and perhaps Jones' own ego.

Jones' route to victory

While Jones is a terrific size for the heavyweight division, this will be the first time that he will fight someone taller, and likely heavier, than he is.

Size is not everything, but when that size is partnered by an elite skill set, it presents the most dangerous striking matchup of Jones' career.

Whenever Jones has been made to look uncomfortable in the cage, it has come from long strikers who mostly negate his physical advantages, namely Alexander Gustaffson, Santos and Reyes – but those experiences should provide the template of how to succeed.

Having only rematched against one of those three fighters who gave him serious trouble (Gustafsson), Jones showed exactly how he can make life miserable for a dangerous striker – wrestling.

One of only two fighters to ever take down Olympian Daniel Cormier in the cage, Jones' wrestling chops are legit, and it is reasonable to assume his skill in this department is at a level too great for the 32-year-old Gane to bridge at this stage in his career.

But Jones has always been an elite wrestler, and outside of a few occasions (rematch against Gustafsson, late against Anthony Smith), he has neglected to rely on it, showing a clear preference to keep things standing where he can show off his creative striking.

Jones never wants to appear 'afraid' to throw hands with his opponents, but that is exactly what Gane will be hoping.

Gane – who was an undefeated muay thai fighter before transitioning to MMA – has just one loss on his record, but it was a telling defeat.

It came in his first crack at the heavyweight championship against feared striker Francis Ngannou, who decided to expose Gane's lack of takedown defense and inability to get back to his feet, instead of giving the crowd the exciting back-and-forth stand-up war they anticipated.

Gane will have been obsessively preparing for those exact situations in the 14 months since, but the wrestling gap could become clear, and insurmountable, if Jones swallows his pride and comes out grappling in the opening minutes of their fight.

Gane's route to victory

First and foremost, Gane needs to stay on his feet, and his entire game plan needs to revolve around ensuring that is the case.

That means instead of trying to control the middle of the cage and dictate the pace, the smarter strategy is likely to play a more conservative style with his back closer to the fence. That way if a takedown is landed, he can use the cage to help himself back up, instead of being stranded in the centre of the octagon flat against the mat.

If he can turn this into a kickboxing match, Gane's chances skyrocket, as he possesses the size (six-foot-five) and length (six-foot-seven wingspan) to both hurt and put fear into Jones.

However, Gane runs into his own difficult conundrum in the striking arena, as he is still at a reach disadvantage and Jones has shown the ability to point-fight as well as anyone to ever step in the cage.

Gane's advantage will come in the power department, and the fact that his strikes will hurt Jones more than vice-versa, but to draw Jones into the kind of exchanges where he can do damage, he will have to put himself in a position where is risking being taken down.

A win for Gane would earn him not just the Heavyweight Championship, but the chance to be forever known as the one man who beat Jon Jones – and jumpstart his own legendary reign as king of the heavyweights.

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  • Young guns and old heads form the perfect blend as Germany get off to a flyer Young guns and old heads form the perfect blend as Germany get off to a flyer

    Florian Wirtz needed only 10 minutes to spark Euro 2024 into life.

    After a brilliant season for Bayer Leverkusen, in which he was named the Bundesliga's Player of the Season, Wirtz came into Euro 2024 as one of the standout youngsters.

    His first-time finish to put Germany ahead in Munich on Friday, a cute side-footed effort that Scotland goalkeeper Angus Gunn could only help in off the post, proved why everyone is so excited to see how Julian Nagelsmann gets the best out of a player who scored 18 goals and set up 19 more in all competitions in 2023-24.

    Wirtz's goal set Germany on their way to a 5-1 rout – the biggest win for a host in the opening match of a Euros in the tournament's history.

    He was not the superstar of Germany's performance, though. His fellow youngster, Jamal Musiala, was spellbinding.

    Having lashed in a wonderful second goal for the hosts, Musiala ran the show in the final third, and played a key role with a wonderful pass when super-sub Niclas Fullkrug made it 4-0 midway through the second half.

    Musiala, who was the one bright spark from Germany's dismal performance under Hansi Flick at the 2022 World Cup, teased and toyed with Scotland. He attempted eight dribbles, completing five, had a game-high six touches in the opposition box and came out on top in nine of his 15 duels before he was replaced, fittingly perhaps, by the vastly experienced Thomas Muller.

    The intriguing question ahead of kick-off was how Nagelsmann, the youngest-ever coach in the history of the Euros, would manage to get those two fantastic number 10s into the same team.

    His answer was to dovetail the duo with an experienced midfield – Ilkay Gundogan (33) played ahead of Robert Andrich (29) and the imperious Toni Kroos (34) – and it worked a treat.

    Wirtz is the youngest player to score the opening goal at a Euros, and the youngest player to net for Germany at the tournament. 

    Once Musiala drilled home, Germany became the first team to have two players aged 21 or younger score for them in the same Euros match.

    But it was not all about the flair of youth at the Allianz Arena, where the only blemish on Germany's copybook was an Antonio Rudiger own goal as Scotland mustered a meagre 0.01 xG and failed to have a shot on target.

    Kroos, in the first game of his swansong, led the game for touches (108), and completed 101 (99 per cent) of his 102 passes. It was his crossfield pass that opened up the pitch for Joshua Kimmich to cut inside from the right and lay on Wirtz's opener.

    Gundogan nipped around, linking the play; the Barcelona midfielder won the penalty from which Kai Havertz made it 3-0 – and which led to Scotland defender Ryan Porteous becoming the second Scottish player sent off at a major tournament, after Craig Burley in the 1998 World Cup against Morocco. 

    At the back, goalkeeper Manuel Neuer made his 35th appearance at a major tournament. It saw the 38-year-old surpass Philipp Lahm as Germany's all-time appearance maker in the Euros and World Cup combined.

    Indeed, for all the talk that Nagelsmann had gone with a relatively inexperienced squad for this home tournament, and that it could act as a way to build towards the 2026 World Cup, Germany's starting XI on Friday had an average age of 29 years and 22 days. 

     

    That makes it Germany's oldest starting XI at a World Cup or Euros since 2000.

    There was a healthy balance all around the pitch for Germany, as Nagelsmann became only the second manager to win by four goals in his first game at the European Championship, along with Lars Lagerback in 2004 (Sweden 5-0 Bulgaria).

    And the men in the middle are worth a mention.

    Havertz is no longer the bright new hope for German football, but the 25-year-old was hugely impressive as he led the line, providing the assist for Musiala and coolly converting his penalty.

    Niclas Fullkrug, fresh from helping Borussia Dortmund reach the Champions League final, replaced Havertz around the hour mark. Soon after, he fired in a wonderful strike.

    He will be playing a back-up role in this tournament, but he should not mind that. Three of Fullkrug's major tournament goals have been as a sub, a joint-record for a European nation, along with Hungary's Laszlo Kiss, Portugal's Rui Costa, and Germany's Andre Schurrle.

    Fullkrug's club-mate Emre Can, a late call-up, rounded matters off late on. 

    Germany have not always clicked under Nagelsmann, but they are clearly the best team in Group A and have the weight of a nation behind them.

    Hungary and Switzerland will likely provide sterner tests than Scotland, though with a perfect blend of youth and experience, the hosts laid down a marker.

  • The Numbers Game: Three Lions target winning start against Serbia The Numbers Game: Three Lions target winning start against Serbia

    Looking to end 58 years of hurt, England get their Euro 2024 campaign under way against Serbia on Sunday.

    Three Lions boss Gareth Southgate has suggested it may be a case of all or nothing as he enters his fourth – and potentially final – major tournament at the helm.

    Southgate has transformed England from perennial underachievers to genuine contenders, overseeing a surprise fourth-place finish at the 2018 World Cup, then seeing the nation's old nemesis – the penalty spot – haunt them in the Euro 2020 final versus Italy and a 2022 World Cup quarter-final against France.

    Penalty shoot-outs excluded, the Three Lions have only lost one of their last 18 games at the Euros (10 wins, seven draws), going down by a 2-1 scoreline in an infamous last-16 clash with Iceland in 2016.

    Despite the same opponents inflicting another defeat upon England in their final pre-Euros friendly last week, the Opta supercomputer makes them tournament favourites.

    They lift the trophy in 19.9 per cent of competition simulations, just ahead of France (19.1 per cent).

    Serbia, however, will be looking to throw a spanner in the works on their first Euros appearance as an independent nation, with the presence of several capable attackers leading some to tout them as a potential surprise package.

    Here, we delve into the Opta data to preview Sunday's game.

    What's expected?   

    England have started all three of their major tournaments under Southgate with a victory, and the Opta supercomputer is backing them to do so again in Germany.

    They are given a 62.1 per cent chance of a win, with Serbia only triumphing in 16 per cent of scenarios and the spoils being shared in 21.9 per cent.

     

    In the supercomputer's Group C predictions, the Three Lions are given a huge 95.4 per cent chance of reaching the last 16, finishing top in 66 per cent of simulations. 

    Serbia advance in 56.2 per cent of projections, fewer than Denmark (69.2 per cent) but more than Slovenia (42.1 per cent). However, they are only given a 12 per cent chance of topping the pool.

    This will be England and Serbia's first encounter since the latter re-emerged as an independent state in 2006. In fact, since the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, England have only faced Serbia and Montenegro once, winning 2-1 in a 2003 friendly.

    The Three Lions are, though, unbeaten in their last six matches against Serbia or Yugoslavia, winning each of the last four.

    Their most recent defeat to them was a particularly notable one, though, as Alf Ramsey's world champions lost 2-1 in the semi-finals of Euro 1968, a four-team competition that saw Yugoslavia finish as runners-up.

    Attack the best form of defence for Serbia

    With Jude Bellingham, Phil Foden, Bukayo Saka, Cole Palmer, Jarrod Bowen, Anthony Gordon and Eberechi Eze competing to support Harry Kane, England's firepower is not in question.

    Their ability to keep things tight at the back, though, just might be.

    With Harry Maguire sidelined by a calf injury and Luke Shaw not yet ready to feature after recovering from a hamstring issue, Southgate will be forced to field a new-look backline on Sunday. 

    Marc Guehi is expected to partner John Stones, and England need to recapture the solidity they displayed at previous tournaments under Southgate. 

    Across the 2018 and 2022 World Cups and Euro 2020, England conceded just 0.59 goals per game and allowed opponents a paltry 0.72 expected goals (xG) per match – a figure only bettered by France (0.67) among the leading European teams to make each tournament. 

    Should they fall short of those standards in Gelsenkirchen, the likes of Aleksandar Mitrovic, Dusan Vlahovic and Dusan Tadic are well-equipped to punish them.

    Serbia have only managed five clean sheets in 25 competitive outings under Dragan Stojkovic, who took over in 2021.

    However, they have only failed to score on two of those outings, against Norway (0-1 in the Nations League) and Brazil (0-2 at the 2022 World Cup).

    Generally using a 3-5-2 shape and looking to isolate Mitrovic and Vlahovic against their markers, Serbia will pose a real physical test. They scored one third (five of 15) of their goals in Euro 2024 qualifying via headers, the highest percentage of any team to reach Germany.

    The Three Lions must be prepared to withstand an aerial bombardment. 

    Can Alexander-Arnold solve midfield conundrum?

    Aside from Maguire's replacement, the main talking point in the build-up to England's opener has been the identity of Declan Rice's midfield partner.

    Manchester United's Kobbie Mainoo looked to be in pole position at the end of the domestic season, but reports now suggest Liverpool's Trent Alexander-Arnold – who will don the number eight shirt – will start as first-choice.  

    Alexander-Arnold has played a total of 25,078 minutes of competitive football for Liverpool, and only one per cent of those have come in central midfield, so playing the position at a major tournament could represent something of a baptism of fire.

    However, Alexander-Arnold – who is accustomed to inverting into central areas at club level – could prove a useful asset as England look to prise open low blocks.

     

    He ranked eighth among all outfielders for accurate long balls (147) in the Premier League last season and third for switches of play (32). If he can help to get the likes of Foden and Saka isolated against Serbia's wing-backs on Sunday, that could be key to opening the door.

    Meanwhile, England are well aware of the importance of dead balls at major tournaments. They ranked either first or joint-first for goals from set-pieces at the 2018 World Cup (six goals), Euro 2020 (three) and the 2022 World Cup (two).

    Since making his Premier League debut in December 2016, Alexander-Arnold leads all players in the division for set-play assists (20) and ranks joint-third for chances created from such scenarios (184). 

    Maguire may be absent, but if Alexander-Arnold brings his dead-ball prowess to Germany, England will be a force to be reckoned with from corners and free-kicks.  

    PLAYERS TO WATCH

    Serbia – Aleksandar Mitrovic

    Mitrovic, who is Serbia's all-time leading scorer with 58 goals in 91 matches, still looks sharp despite swapping the Premier League for the Saudi Pro League last year.

    The former Fulham man plundered 28 goals in 28 league games for Al-Hilal in 2023-24, with only Cristiano Ronaldo – with 35 strikes in 31 matches – topping him in the scoring charts.

    Under Stojkovic, Mitrovic has 21 goals in 23 competitive appearances for his country, with the majority of his goals coming via headers (52 per cent).

    England – Harry Kane 

    If England are to go all the way, they will need Kane to deliver in his new home country, after he saw a 44-goal debut season with Bayern Munich go unrewarded in terms of silverware.

     

    Kane is also a proven operator on the international stage, scoring 12 goals across the last three major international tournaments – six at the 2018 World Cup, four at Euro 2020 and two at the 2022 World Cup. 

    No European player has bettered that tally, with only France's Kylian Mbappe matching it.

    He also scored or assisted on all seven of his starts in qualifying (eight goals, two assists), including a brace in an impressive 3-1 win over European champions Italy last October.

  • Brown overcomes broken foot to defeat dos Santos by unanimous decision at UFC 302 Brown overcomes broken foot to defeat dos Santos by unanimous decision at UFC 302

    Jamaican Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) Welterweight secured his third win in a row and seventh win in his last eight fights with a unanimous decision victory over Brazilian veteran Elizeu Zaleski Dos Santos at UFC 302 at the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey on Saturday.

    The 33-year-old Brown won two out of three rounds on all three of the judges scorecards to move his overall MMA record to 19-5.

    Despite the win, Brown, in the post-fight interview, maintained that he still has work to do to get to where he needs to be to be a top contender.

    “Still not happy. We got work to do. Skills pay the bills,” Brown said.

    Brown then gave love to his Jamaican fans.

    “You know I have to big up Jamaica. I have to big up all my people. We’re here on the biggest stage doing a lot. Big up Spanish Town, Old Harbour, the whole of St. Catherine,” Brown said.

    The night could’ve gone much differently for Brown as he fought the final two rounds of the fight with a broken foot.

    “I broke the foot close to the big toe knuckle at the instep,” he told SportsMax.tv on Tuesday.

    “It happened one minute into the first round,” he added.

    When asked about who he wants to fight next, Brown called out number 10 ranked Welterweight, Geoff Neal.

    “Come on Geoff Neal, it’s my time. I didn’t get the finish tonight but I’ve got to get to the top 15. I’m on a mission right now. It’s my time and I’ll do whatever it takes,” he said.

    “Geoff Neal, you are that guy right now and I need you. Come on let’s do this. You don’t have a fight so let’s go,” he added.

    Neal is 2-3 in his last five fights and has an overall record of 15-6 in MMA.

     

     

     

     

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