"Same crown, same reign, new faces, more pain." That is what Jon Jones promised in an Instagram post (h/t Peter Carroll of MMAFighting.com) a couple days after recapturing the title he never lost. At UFC 232, Jones dismantled Alexander Gustafsson to once again become the UFC light heavyweight king.
The comments are clear: Jones wants to fight three times in 2019 and all at light heavyweight.
It makes things just a little less interesting. If he were more flexible, potential fights with Daniel Cormier, Brock Lesnar, and any other top heavyweight could have filled in nicely among his plans. But there are still exciting opportunities and new challenges awaiting him in the 205-pound division.
So, how should Jones, and the UFC, navigate the upcoming calendar year?
Here is the master-plan for Jones’ three-fight title defense for 2019.
Fight No. 1: Anthony Smith
"Lionheart" Anthony Smith has already called for the fight on his Twitter, and it is the right choice. Fans only want to see the Cormier-Jones trilogy at heavyweight, and Jones is intent on fighting at 205. With Gustafsson out of the way, Smith is the next in line.
Is Smith the big-splash name? No, but he is an exciting fighter who will bring the fight to Jones. That could turn out to be disastrous for him, but it would be a big score for the UFC and Jones. If Jones starts off 2019 with a quick destruction, it paves the way for a much larger finish to the year.
The division needs new faces, and the bout is a win-win for Smith. He gets a shot at gold and suffers little to no fall if he loses. If anything, he can take it as a learning experience.
As Jones is still somewhat unreliable given how even UFC 232 was not without controversy, it is the right play to start with something a little lower and build up to the big fights Jones could have.
Fight No. 2: Winner of Dominick Reyes vs. Volkan Oezdemir
Reyes vs. Oezdemir is not official just yet, but MMAJunkie.com’s Mike Bohn and Steve Marrocco report that the fight is nearing completion for UFC on ESPN+ 5 in London. The winner would be the highest-ranked opponent available for Jones.
The event is scheduled for March. This helps fall in line with Jones’ 2019 schedule to fight three times.
Additionally, for the UFC, they could build the fight as a title eliminator for Jones to add much-needed heat to the fight. It would be a marketing bonus.
The real win would be if Reyes comes out on top. Oezdemir is a fine fighter, but after Cormier dispatched of him with relative ease he isn’t the right guy to elicit excitement from fight fans. Reyes, however, could do just that. He is an up-and-comer who has shown dynamite in his hands and legs. He could be sold as a potential threat to Jones.
A Reyes vs. Jones matchup is a better version of the Smith vs. Jones fight. It is a great matchup for a summer card.
Fight No. 3: The UFC Heavyweight Champion
While Jones says he is defending his title, the real ideal scenario is for him to battle for the UFC heavyweight crown at the end of the year.
The Cormier vs. Brock Lesnar superfight has cooled since Lesnar entered the cage, but that fight should still happen at all costs. Even if it goes beyond Cormier’s retirement cutoff point in March. The winner of that fight vs. Jones is the fight everyone would be clamoring to see.
If Jones beats Smith and the winner of Reyes vs. Oezdemir, there is nobody left at light heavyweight. He will have cleared the division.
Should Cormier beat Lesnar, a trilogy and final money fight to close his career may be too much to turn down. If Lesnar wins, Jones gets to be one of the two men in the cage for one of the biggest fights in MMA history. The UFC has all the pieces in place for Jones to close the year in the biggest bout possible.
If Lesnar doesn’t return and Cormier does remain retired, who would complain about Jones vs. Stipe Miocic or Francis Ngannou? After running through the light heavyweight division, Jones should have no choice but to test himself among the big boys. He has nothing left to prove at 205 and would be doing nothing more than picking the lowest-hanging, almost spoiled, fruit off the tree.
He needs to reach higher.