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All the reasons UFC heavyweight champ Jon Jones should fight Tom Aspinall next (and why he probably won’t)

All the reasons UFC heavyweight champ Jon Jones should fight Tom Aspinall next (and why he probably won't)

Jon Jones has oddly created more problems than he’s solved as the UFC’s heavyweight belt-holder. (Photo by Denise Truscello/Getty Images for Carver Road Hospitality)

Don’t look now, but there’s a slow-moving crisis at heavyweight for the UFC. I know, it sounds strange. Counterintuitive, even. Here we have a division that’s arguably better and richer in talent than it has been in years, and somehow the title picture at the top is murkier than ever.

In case you’re joining this story already in progress, here’s the current situation:

Jon Jones is technically the UFC heavyweight champ. This would probably feel like a bigger deal if he hadn’t, a) won the title by beating someone who was not the champ and, b) spent the following year inactive due to various injuries.

Tom Aspinall is the interim champ with Jones out. This would also feel like a bigger and more exciting deal if the plan was for him to face Jones in order to unify the title once Jones is healthy enough to return.

Stipe Miocic is the former champ. In terms of consecutive title defenses, he’s the most successful heavyweight champ in UFC history. He’s the one who (so we’re told) has dibs on the next shot at Jones’ title. This would feel like a bigger deal if his last win weren’t in August 2020. As it is, you’ve got newish fans who’ve been following this sport for nearly the length of a presidential term of office yet have never seen Miocic win a fight.

Then there are all the other heavyweights. You could sort them into two classes: guys who might suddenly matter if they win one or two of the right fights in the next year (Sergei Pavlovich, Ciryl Gane, maybe Curtis Blaydes) and guys who are mostly looked at as UFC Fight Night fodder (Shamil Gaziev versus Jairzinho Rozenstruik in this Saturday’s main event from the UFC Apex, for example).

Looming over all of this is the ghost of Francis Ngannou, who still haunts the UFC’s heavyweight division even from afar. He was, in many ways, the first domino to fall. Ngannou is how we got here. He knocked out Miocic to claim the UFC heavyweight title, then decisioned Gane to keep it. But after the UFC failed to cough up the money to make an actual mega-fight between Ngannou and Jones, he opted to wait out his contract and then bolt for boxing, where he’s already on pace to make many more millions than he would have if he’d stayed.

When Ngannou left, it created a vacuum. No longer could someone become the UFC heavyweight champ by beating the UFC heavyweight champ. It simply wasn’t an option. The next best thing was having Jones, the greatest light heavyweight in MMA history, go up to fight for the vacant belt.

Tom Aspinall of England knocks out Sergei Pavlovich of Russia in their UFC interim heavyweight championship fight during UFC 295 at Madison Square Garden on Nov. 11, 2023, in New York. (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images)

But see, here’s where it gets weird. Jones seems to have it in his head that he absolutely must fight Miocic next. UFC president Dana White also continues to act like this is the only sensible option. There may only be three people in the entire world who want Jones versus Miocic for the UFC heavyweight title next. It’s just too bad those three people are Jones, Miocic and White.

Trouble is, no matter who wins that fight, we might very well end up without a UFC heavyweight champion. Miocic will be 42 this summer and already has one foot out the door. Jones has hinted in a series of unsubtle ways that he plans to retire after this fight, especially if he wins. White can see that trouble coming and is already working to head it off by suggesting that it would sure be really super nice if the heavyweight champ would stick around long enough to fight the interim heavyweight champ.

“I think there’s almost like a courtesy, if you will,” White told Las Vegas Raiders defensive end Maxx Crosby recently during Crosby’s endless podcast tour. “If you’re looked at as one of the GOATs, whoever wins this [Jones versus Miocic] fight, it’s almost like a courtesy thing to give [Aspinall] the shot, give him an opportunity to win. Or you win and it just absolutely cements, nobody can poke holes in it. Nobody can say anything about it.”

White is not wrong that it would cement either man’s heavyweight-great status to hang around and beat someone like Aspinall, who currently appears to be the best of the next generation. It’s just that the reason why it would cement that status is because it would also be very hard to do and very dangerous to attempt.

As for courtesy? This is professional fighting. It is not a place where courtesy reigns. Promoters like White don’t let themselves get too weighed down by all the courtesies they extend. The fighters whose bodies and brains are at risk shouldn’t either.

The simple fix here is the obvious one. Jones should fight Aspinall next. That’s the whole reason (theoretically) you even have an interim heavyweight title. It’s a physical reminder of who’s next in line once the champ returns. Apologies to Miocic, who’s had a great a career and is deserving of a courtesy or two himself, but it makes no sense for him to get a heavyweight title shot now when his last fight saw him get put to sleep by Ngannou three years ago.

This is a heavyweight crisis that can be avoided. If this sport worked like other sports — winning the contests is what propels you to the next stage of the contests and so forth — this is how it would go. But the fight business is not like other sports. It has the internal logic of a carnival funhouse. In a sport like this, you can’t rely on courtesy to keep the heavyweight lineage intact. Not unless courtesy is a euphemism for money.

Make no mistake, that’s what would do it. That’s how the UFC lost the chance to do Ngannou versus Jones in the first place. It’s also how it could persuade Jones to do the obvious thing and fight Aspinall now. The upside is that Jones-Aspinall would almost certainly bring in more money than Jones-Miocic. Everybody gets paid and, one way or another, the division gets some clarity. Plus, it would be one way to atone for the colossal missed opportunities of the Ngannou era in the UFC.

Money succeeds where courtesy fails. It’s just a question of caring enough about the literal biggest division in the sport to open up the checkbook and do the thing that makes sense — as well as dollars.

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