With all the fits and starts and card revisions and bus attacks that went on in 2018, you just knew the UFC wasn’t going to let the year finish without one last party trick, especially with Jon Jones on the card. UFC 232 was supposed to take place on Saturday night in Las Vegas, but—get this—only six days before the event was to take place it was abruptly moved to Los Angeles. Why? Because of Jones, of course.
Or more specifically, because of some old drugs that have apparently taken up permanent lodging in Jones’s system. The Nevada Athletic Commission discovered trace amounts of the same drug that he was busted for after his victory against Daniel Cormier in 2017 (the anabolic steroid turinabol), and refused to license him for the fight. The UFC, finding this preposterous, got in touch with the California State Athletic Commission—the very same that suspended Jones in 2017—and immediately began the protocols to get their pay-per-view headliner licensed out there instead.
Upon further inspection—and here I like to imagine somebody in a lab coat swirling a flask of urine and holding it up to the light—California decided that the drugs in Jones’s system were the same old drugs that he’d already served time for and saw no reason to shut him out. What, over a few “picograms” of supplement taint?
Now his light heavyweight title fight is suddenly set to take place at the Forum in Inglewood, and it’s a fantastic mess. The other 25 fighters and their factions reported to Las Vegas for fight week, and then boarded a chartered flight for Los Angeles on Thursday. Because Thursday is typically when fighters are in the meanest throes of their weight cuts, some of them drove. One of those was Jones’s opponent, Alexander Gustafsson, who is the only one in a position to actually take his frustration out on Jones.
How much of a domino effect will the late shift in venues have on the fighters? That remains to be seen. But fans and media who had booked travel to Las Vegas have been forced to scramble. The ticket situation is a mess. The MMA mobs are coming after Jones, who at this point transports his red flags with him in his carry-on bag (see UFC 151, UFC 182, UFC 197, UFC 200, and UFC 214). And the UFC, which went to such extreme measures to protect the bottom line—its pay-per-view dollars—is going with the old “Hey, shit happens” approach.
If there’s a silver lining in all of this, it’s that the rematch between Jones and Gustafsson just becomes that much more of an embittered affair. Gustafsson already hates Jones with a passion, and Jones is just as aloof toward Gustafsson as he’s ever been. It’s a style clash, all right, between frustration and smugness.
Regardless of where the fight card takes place, it’s a dandy in terms of depth. Let’s run down what’s on tap Saturday night.
Round 1: The Rematch of the Best Light Heavyweight Fight in UFC History
The first time Jones fought Gustafsson in 2013, the UFC caught a lot of flak for its promotional efforts in which it sized up Jones and Gustafsson very literally. At that time, Jones’s 84-inch wingspan was a big topic of conversation especially because he expertly knew how to use it. So what was different about the Swedish challenger Gustafsson, whom many thought had little to no shot against Jones? He was 6-foot-5, as gangly as Jones, and, according to Joe Rogan, could “hit fighters from where they can’t hit him.”
This was laughable up until the first round started in Toronto. It became very clear right away that Gustafsson actually was a kind of Jones doppelganger, and that he could strafe Jones from other dimensions in the Octagon. Not only that, but he had different leverage on Jones. He thwarted early takedowns and scored a takedown of his own, a feat that had never been witnessed before against the great champion. In a Rocky IV kind of revelation, he made Jones bleed with a hard shot early on—the first indication we’d ever had that Jones was human.
With all that improbable drama playing out in real time, the fight had already took on the sheen of a classic by the second round. Gustafsson gave Jones everything he could handle and forced Jones to show his depths. If there was a developing narrative to the fight, it was that Jones would have to find it in him to come back, because it seemed to most that he was losing the fight deep into the fourth round. He did just that. He landed a spinning elbow late in the fourth that hurt Gustafsson and swung the fight back in his favor. Jones then took the fight over in the fifth round and ultimately got the decision.
It was such a manic fight and full of so many plot twists and momentum shifts and stymied game plans that it ended up proving the UFC’s clumsy attempt to sell the fight. Gustafsson’s height and reach seemed to bedevil Jon Jones.
In the subsequent five years, Jones has iterated and reiterated the fact that he overlooked Gustafsson the first time and that he didn’t take the Swede seriously. Even though Jones’s word isn’t exactly gold, there are reasons to believe him.
Heading into the first encounter, Jones became the first UFC fighter to sport endorsements from Nike and Gatorade in the Octagon. Most of the questions before the fight centered on his sublime greatness—on him achieving status as the Michael Jordan of MMA— and Jones lapped it up. I can remember his agent, Malki Kawa, holding court about Gatorade and Nike as if Gustafsson were merely incidental—a perfunctory matter that would be handled in due time. The memorable picture of Jones and Gustafsson in the hospital afterwards told you everything you needed to know about such presumptions.
The UFC isn’t selling the height and reach equivalence for the rematch; it’s simply selling a continuation of the first fight—and a return to normalcy, despite the venue change. Will Jon Jones make lighter work of Gustafsson the second time through, now that he’s (theoretically) taking him seriously? The truth is, for as knuckleheaded as Jones is outside of the cage, he is equally brilliant inside of it. He makes adjustments on the fly and shows up for rematches ready to exploit little tells he gleaned from the first fight. He did this against Cormier at UFC 214, landing a beautiful high kick in the third round that he knew would be there.
It’s easy to believe Jones has some new tricks up his sleeve for the rematch with Gustafsson, but the fight sells itself on the idea that so does Gustafsson.
Round 2: The First True Women’s Superfight
Cristiane Cyborg hasn’t lost in MMA since 2005 when she was just 20 years old and starting out. Since then she’s been a terror for anybody she has faced. She has ripped through, plundered and rag-dolled professional fighters with ritual cold. She has collected titles in Strikeforce, Invicta FC, and the UFC. She retired Gina Carano and turned Jan Finney into a chew toy. Only one fighter has lasted an entire fight with her in the last decade: Holly Holm at UFC 219. Holm looked like she’d fought a cheetah afterwards.
If you think about it like that, the idea of women’s bantamweight champion Amanda Nunes coming up to face Cyborg for the featherweight title carries perhaps the one essential component that has been missing from all previous fights: Doubt.
Nunes has won seven bouts in a row, and fights with a kind of vicious urgency—like she’s haunted by the idea of the later rounds. That kind of aggression can’t help but feel dangerous, even for a crusher like Cyborg. Given the clash of violent tendencies, this fight could be decided early. What’s fun about it is that it doesn’t feel inevitable that Cyborg will be offensive juggernaut here. Nunes is not only unafraid to knuckle up, she tees off. She tries to destroy whoever is in front of her. And sometimes she does. If part of Cyborg’s legacy was sending Carano to Hollywood, Nunes’s legacy is even more impressive.
She retired Miesha Tate and Ronda Rousey. An encounter with Nunes was all the convincing either needed that it was time for a career change. Nunes’s fight with Cyborg becomes not just a legacy fight, but a chance to distinguish herself among the very best to have ever done it. To win a second title—and become the very first woman to hold belts in two different weight classes simultaneously—is a feat that would speak for itself. But to do so against the great Cyborg, who is the only fighter on the UFC’s roster still carrying that legitimate shine of invincibility?
That would be a game changer.
When the UFC throws around the word “superfight,” this is what is meant—two champions, each with a head of steam, fighting in the prime of their careers. This match won’t get the hype of a Rousey fight (the greatest women’s title fight in UFC history). The math is all you need: MMA never got the Rousey-Cyborg fight when it was most desired, so it’s getting instead the woman who thumped Rousey against Cyborg … and in the competitive sense, that’s even better.
Round 3: Carlos Condit checking in on himself
Carlos Condit’s fight with Michael Chiesa is an old “bike rack at 3 p.m.” showdown, the kind of fight that looms and distracts you throughout the day. Condit is one of the UFC’s great gunners, a guy who ratchets up the intensity for a fight and — through scowls and intent — makes it visceral for a viewer. The problem is that he has lost his way over the past few years. He’s found himself, on multiple occasions, contemplating retirement. After his loss against Demian Maia in 2016, he publicly questioned his own ability to compete — and his resolve.
That all adds up to a “do or die” situation for Condit, who enters UFC 232 with his identity crisis in full swing. He has lost four straight fights, but it was only after his last one against Alex Oliveira that his resolve seemed to return. Condit’s tailspin began through heartbreak. His welterweight fight with Robbie Lawler at UFC 195 — considered the best fight of 2016 — was a flip-a-coin, razor-thin split-decision loss. Had he won, as plenty thought he did, who knows where Condit’s place in MMA history would be right now?
Instead, he lost. And not only that, but he left a piece of himself in the cage that night in Vegas. That fight was an all-out war, and it changed both men forever. Lawler hasn’t been the same since, and neither has Condit.
Does Condit have it in him to put it all together in a fight against Chiesa, a lanky submission artist who himself has lost back-to-back fights? If he doesn’t, this will likely be the last time we see “The Natural Born Killer” in the UFC. In all likelihood, it could be the last time he competes in MMA. If Condit is anything like his old self, it’s a guarantee that he’ll go down swinging.
Round 4: B.J. Penn vs. Ryan Hall
Speaking of legends who need a win in the worst kind of way, perhaps no fighter in UFC history could use a win as badly as B.J. Penn. In the last eight years, Penn has won just a single fight, against a beyond-his-prime Matt Hughes at UFC 123. Since then it’s been sad. Really sad. Borderline tragic.
During his five-fight losing streak, the cries for Penn to retire have gone from a throat-clearing mumble to a full-fledged plea. It started in 2014. The way that Frankie Edgar took Penn out in what was his featherweight debut didn’t just look like the writing on the wall, it was like subway graffiti in 1980s New York. Penn returned somewhat quietly two and a half years later — long enough of a remove for people to forget — to fight Yair Rodriguez. If the Edgar fight was bad, Rodriguez made Penn look like an old man. The fight — which ended early in the second round — was so one-sided that it crossed over to negligent on the UFC’s behalf.
And surely that was it for the great B.J. Penn.
But no! Penn took another fight six months later against the journeyman Dennis Siver, himself 38 and fading. This time he was smuggled onto a card in Oklahoma City as just another pedestrian fight among many. Siver, a plug of a featherweight built like a circus strongman, was a “get well” gift from the UFC — a beatable fighter to give Penn a better swan song. So what did Penn do? He lost a majority decision.
And surely that was it for the great B.J. Penn.
But no! To the shock of MMA fans, the UFC booked Penn into yet another fight against Ryan Hall. Normally this would be perceived as a cry for help from the UFC (which needs stars), or Penn himself (who calls MMA his “wife”), but this matchmaking is kissed with Cupid’s arrow. Hall, who won The Ultimate Fighter 22 in 2015, is a jiu-jitsu player with an almost abhorrent attitude toward striking. Given that Penn doesn’t need to take any more damage by way of punches to the face, Hall is perfect since he can’t be bothered to throw any.
A barnburner this will not be, but it has the potential to be the most esoteric fight since Jason “Mayhem” Miller gave C.B. Dolloway the noogie at UFC 146. Bad? Intriguing? Desperate? Tragic?
Maybe! Yes! Definitely! Probably.
Round 5: Best of the Rest
Chad Mendes vs. Alexander Volkanovski: The recent boom of deadly fighters from Australia or New Zealand — Robert Whittaker, Tai Tuivasa, Israel Adesanya — is quietly being anchored by Volkanovski, the former pro rugby player who has gone 5-0 in the UFC since debuting in 2016. This particular fight is fascinating on many levels. For starters, Mendes is a perennial featherweight contender who — it can be reasoned — benefited from a two-year suspension, given that he now feels refreshed. But also because it’s unclear who is the gauge for who here. Is Volkanovski the litmus test to prove that Mendes is back and ready for contention? Or is he just a springboard for the younger Australian fighter, who needs only that one famous scalp to announce it’s his time?
Cat Zingano vs. Megan Anderson: This fight is novel in that it’s being contested at women’s featherweight, a veritable ghost town of a division that needs … you know … people in it. Zingano was the last person to defeat current bantamweight champion Amanda Nunes, and therefore might have the inside track to a rematch — at either 135 or 145 pounds — if she gets the win. Anderson, yet another upsurging Australian commodity, is kind of like what Gustafsson has been for Jones — a tall, rangy equivalent for Cyborg, who is physically closer to her in size. The winner of this fight is the forerunner for the winner of Nunes-Cyborg, which aligns the stakes fairly neatly.
Andrei Arlovski vs. Walt Harris: The heavyweight Arlovski is 39 years old, and has lost two straight fights. For all intents and purposes, his career is winding down. Yet it seemed to be completely over for him in 2011 when he’d lost four in a row (three by KO), and he bounced back to go 10-1-1 over his next dozen fights. It felt like we’d seen the last of him when he’d lost five in a row between 2016 and 2017 (three by KO), and he bounced back to beat Junior Albini and Stefan Struve. He is the streakiest, most unpredictable heavyweight to ever take off his shoes, and this fight with Harris is a straight up 50-50 proposition. One of their mandibles could end up in the fifth row at the Forum, but there’s no telling whose.