Jon Jones’s latest victory didn’t leave a lot of room for questions, outside of one: Who’s next?
At UFC 235, Jones authored the first successful defense of his second light heavyweight title reign and ninth championship defense overall, rarely being threatened as he cruised to a unanimous decision win over challenger Anthony Smith. With “Bones” appearing to exit the fight relatively unscathed — though he was given a conditional six-month medical suspension that can be cleared by a doctor — it seems likely that the champion will be back in action sooner rather than later.
Jones’ schedule will depend on how his team decides to manage the fighter’s rest and recovery, and what matchup makes the most sense. Currently, there are several names in Jones’s orbit, including a pair of fresh names at 205 pounds, former middleweight standout Thiago Santos and rising star Johnny Walker.
It’s Santos who appears poised to get the next shot at Jones based on his recent success at light heavyweight. “Marreta” is 3-0 in his new division and he just beat Jan Blachowicz via third-round TKO at UFC Prague, putting an end to Blachowicz’s four-fight winning streak. Santos, 35, has been fighting professionally since 2010 and has won eight of his last nine fights in total, seven by knockout.
UFC president Dana White has endorsed Santos as the No. 1 contender, which put the Brazilian firmly on team Jones’ radar. Jones’ coach Brandon Gibson appeared on The MMA Hour to talk about Santos and answer questions about several other suggested opponents.
“That’s what Dana was alluding to at the press conference,” Gibson said, when asked if he thought Santos would be Jones’ next challenger. “He’s been looking great. He’s a powerful, very powerful 205-pounder. I’m sure that’s something that intrigues a lot of fans and I like that there’s some fresh blood in the light heavyweight division.
“When Jon started it was kind of like the older reign of some of the Pride legends. The Shoguns, the Rampage Jacksons, the Vitors, there were so many of these legends for us to chase after. And now Jon’s the legend and these young guys are coming up like Johnny Walker, like Thiago Santos, so it’s cool to be in this position now.”
Like most of Jones’ opponents, Santos would likely enter a matchup with Jones as a heavy underdog; however, his exciting standup style at least creates the possibility that he can force the champion into a high-paced fight.
Gibson isn’t too worried about JacksonWink MMA’s biggest star getting dragged into a dogfight.
“I think [Jones has] fought a lot of brawlers,” Gibson said. “I would consider Anthony Smith a brawler. I think we’ve finished some very polished MMA boxers with explosive hooks like Rampage Jackson, like Shogun, and then we’ve fought a lot of really polished technical MMA strikers like Gustafsson, like Machida.
“And Thiago brings a different kind of power. I don’t think he’s as polished or refined as a Shogun or a Rampage, I think he’s probably a little closer to Anthony Smith’s style.”
As for Walker, it might be too soon to be talking about him as UFC title challenger, but his three Octagon appearances have been extraordinarily promising: A 1:57 knockout of Khalil Rountree, a 15-second knockout of Justin Ledet, and a 36-second knockout of ranked contender Misha Cirkunov.
Walker is about as fresh as fresh blood can get — and Gibson sees him being on the right path to someday fight Jones.
“That kid’s impressive, he’s explosive,” Gibson said. “I saw a really impressive stat that he’s only thrown 30 strikes or something in his combined UFC career, so his knockout-to-strike ratio is like, 1-to-9. That’s impressive. We’ve definitely got our eye on him. He’s charismatic, he’s fun, he has a swagger to him, he’s creative. That’s a fight that is definitely on the horizon, I’m sure.”
Looking up a division, there are two more names that have a long connection with Jones: Current UFC heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier and former champion Brock Lesnar.
Cormier and Jones have fought twice, with Jones getting the better of “DC” on both occasions; their second encounter was overturned to a no-contest after Jones tested positive for banned substances. Since their last meeting, Cormier has been on an absolute tear and talk of a third meeting has persisted.
Anyone expecting Cormier to chime in on social media during UFC 236 was left disappointed, but Gibson was glad that there was no online bickering at least for one night, even if he knows the rivalry will never disappear.
“I think that will always be looming, everybody will always want to see a trilogy there and DC’s had so much success since Jon’s fighting, and he’s double champ and heavyweight champ, but I think for right now there’s a lot of intriguing matchups in each of their respective weight classes, so I just like having fun with that idea,” Gibson said.
Jones hasn’t shown much interest in moving up to heavyweight and Gibson expects him to stay at 205 pounds for the rest of 2019.
That said, there is still interest in an oft-teased bout with Lesnar, a professional wrestling superstar who was one of the UFC’s biggest draws during his time with the promotion. Gibson agrees that there are a lot of good reasons to have Jones fight Lesnar, even if it isn’t the most compelling fight from a strategic standpoint.
“I think, for the casuals that a guy like Brock brings to the sport, it will be super high numbers and a high payday,” Gibson said. “I think for the challenge, just the size of the man that Brock is, I think that’s something that intrigues Jon. Brock will bring something different.
“It would be fun, it would be intriguing, but as far as, is Brock the most polished mixed martial artist that we’ve ever competed against and what is our gameplan gonna have to be and all these things we’re going to have to watch out for and train for — no, I don’t think it’s that.”
Whoever Jones fights next, Gibson is excited about the prospect of Jones defending his title a few more times this year or making that highly-anticipated move to heavyweight even if it’s only temporary. What matters most is getting Jones back in the cage as soon as he’s ready to go again.
“I know Thiago Santos is looking very strong. Jon always gets hyped for the idea of a superfight. He said he wants to fight three or four times this year. We want to give him a little break though,” Gibson said. “We want to make sure that that fire is always well lit under him and back-to-back training camps is definitely a grind. It was exciting to get in there though and have this quick turnaround and make sure there was no ring rust, and I think as a fan of the sport, we’re lucky to have the greatest of all-time actively competing once again.
“He wants to stay busy. Maybe it’s the big international fight week in July, maybe it’s something big in the fall. We’ll see.”