Let’s be clear: the UFC isn’t in any trouble, and won’t be any time soon.
2022 was another standout year for the world’s largest mixed martial arts promotion. That despite the declining quality of Apex cards and the promotion’s seeming complacency with those in-house shows.
Less than a week ago, parent company Endeavor was trumpeting double-digit growth for the promotion in multiple areas in an earnings call. Seven or so years on from purchasing the promotion (originally as a majority owner, then scooping up the remaining shares outright), Endeavor’s acquisition of the UFC remains a sound business decision.
Still, fight fans have been listless of late. The UFC dropped the ball with the light heavyweight belt after Jiri Prochazka fell to injury, booking a questionable fight between Jan Blachowicz (filling in for Glover Teixeira) and Magomed Ankalaev, then essentially calling a mulligan following the pair’s draw last December. Teixeira and Jamahal Hill at least delivered in January, but outside of that fight and UFC 284 in Australia — topped by a champ versus champ fight the UFC appeared to forget about at times — there has been little to get excited about.
Lacklustre cards housed in the promotion’s own Apex facility in Las Vegas haven’t helped. That was before last week’s show lost its main event. And so the return of marquee stars Jon Jones and Conor McGregor could not have come at a better time.
The yawns that greeted the past few Apex-based events are not knock on the fighters involved — there were standout performances both weeks, after all. But MMA is only as big as the casual fans make it. There’s no home team in mixed martial arts, and more often than not, a McGregor-sized personality is what’s required to move the sport out of its niche.
Who better, then, to do just that once again than McGregor himself? The Irish star is currently filming season 31 of The Ultimate Fighter, with a bout against rival coach and former Bellator champ Michael Chandler expected to come later this year.
Before the return of “The Notorious,” however, another comeback arrives: at UFC 285 this Saturday, Jon Jones competes for the first time in just over three years.
“Bones” has never been a needle-mover on the level of McGregor, Ronda Rousey, or GOAT rival Georges St-Pierre. He’s never headlined a card that topped a million buys. His best numbers, his biggest draws, have featured Jones in heated rivalries, alongside the likes of Rashad Evans, Chael Sonnen, Alexander Gustafsson, and Daniel Cormier.
He doesn’t have that this weekend. Ciryl Gane is very big, very tough, and generally, very polite.
UFC 285 has something different however. Jon Jones will make his heavyweight debut on the night, vying for the vacant heavyweight title against France’s Gane. Absence may make the heart grow fonder, but it’s the curiosity factor that will likely drive fans to tune in. Even the more casual MMA crowd is likely to be interested in the Jon Jones heavyweight experiment, which has been talked about and seemingly in the works for a good five years if not more now.
In a sport that was built on what-ifs at its core — which discipline was the supreme martial art? — the Jones at heavyweight question should certainly appeal.
Jones is also in rarefied air on Saturday— in reality, only Georges St-Pierre has taken the sort of sabbatical that Jones has, then returned to capture a championship in a second weight class. At least in the UFC. But Jones, like GSP, is an athlete so far ahead of the pack in his prime that he is very much the favorite in his fight with Gane — despite all the French fighter’s talents.
Regardless of outcome, UFC 285’s headliner has at the very least helped bring some excitement back to the octagon. It also kicks off six straight weeks on the road, with the Apex being left in the rear-view mirror for the time being — another welcome sight.
If the promotion plays its cards right, and gets three or four fights out of Jones and McGregor combined, 2023 could very well be yet another record year for the UFC.