The UFC has the next great superfight on its hands and this one finally has nothing to do with Conor McGregor or whether or not a retired Khabib Nurmagomedov will ever return.
Francis Ngannou's violent destruction of Stipe Miocic, the greatest heavyweight champion in promotional history, in their rematch headlining UFC 260 in Las Vegas felt like it might have kickstarted a new era within the division. The fact that former light heavyweight king Jon Jones is expected to be next in line means the UFC couldn't be in a better position.
Veteran commentator Joe Rogan closed the pay-per-view broadcast on Saturday calling Ngannou-Jones one of the biggest fights that could be made in the history of the sport. He wasn't wrong.
UFC has an opportunity to pair the sport's G.O.A.T. against the scariest champion it has ever promoted and can do so in the same year its parent company Endeavor plans to go public in the stock market. This is nothing short of a matchup made in heaven for fans and UFC brass alike.
But there's little question this fight wouldn't have the potential to be nearly as big or as sexy if Ngannou hadn't showcased his improvement by leaps and bounds at UFC 260, just three years after his decision loss to Miocic at UFC 220 left him with the reputation as nothing more than a limited slugger with remedial foundational qualities to his game.
That was before. At UFC 260, the evolution of what Ngannou, aptly nicknamed "The Predator," came to be by rounding out his game with everything from takedown defense and high kicks to stamina, poise and game-planning. It was as scary a leap as any fighter has ever made in such a short period.
Yes, Ngannou was nothing short of savage in recording a four-pack of first-round knockout victories over the past two years to put him into position to challenge for Miocic's title a second time. But what we learned about his improvement from under four minutes of combined Octagon time during that stretch couldn't have possibly prepared us for the beast who patiently stuffed Miocic's takedowns and repeatedly drilled him until the two-time champion's legendary chin could finally take no more.
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"The guy we saw tonight is scarier than the guy we were afraid of yesterday," UFC president Dana White said during the post-fight press conference. "The guy is a physical freak. He's a problem, he's a scary dude."
It's what White said after this comment following Ngannou-Miocic II, however, that could play a key role in whether Jones ends up putting his signature on paper and attempts to become a two-division champion by agreeing to challenge Ngannou.
White was told of Jones' tweets immediately after Ngannou's win -- some of which were deleted -- which included Jones plea to get paid for taking on such a dangerous fight.
Show me the money— BONY (@JonnyBones) March 28, 2021
"If I'm Jon Jones and I'm home watching this fight, I start moving to 185," White said. "Listen, I can sit here all day and tell you, 'What's show me the money mean?' I tell you guys this all the time, you can say you want to fight somebody but do you really want to?"
It's clear White was purposely taking a harsh stance against Jones and publicly challenging his manhood in hopes that it motivates him to take the fight. That became clear as White, just moments later, began making a case that Derrick Lewis "was the fight to make" for Ngannou's first title defense.
Judging by Jones' initial response to the comments, it might have worked.
I’ve been working my butt off, gained all this weight. Have never lost a fight before. Now all of a sudden I am scared. What bullshit— BONY (@JonnyBones) March 28, 2021
why does a fighter have to be afraid the second he mentions he wants to get paid his worth. What an insult.— BONY (@JonnyBones) March 28, 2021
But what can't be forgotten is the 2020 spat that played out publicly, mostly over social media, between White and the 33-year-old Jones, where the oft-embattled fighter announced his retirement in response to UFC reportedly offering him the same money for a potential move up to heavyweight that he would get for a regular 205-pound title defense.
Jones began flexing his resume publicly by leaning on everything he had accomplished for the promotion as the reason he deserved big money, referencing massive purses made during the year prior by former boxing heavyweight champion Deontay Wilder. White largely countered by leaning on the realities of the pandemic and the lack of live crowds preventing the promotion from overpaying anyone.
One year later, the UFC is less than one month away from becoming the first sports promotion in the U.S. to return to a full crowd when UFC 261, which sold out Friday in just minutes, is scheduled for April 24 in Jacksonville, Florida, in front of a crowd of 15,000. The UFC will likely also be looking soon to schedule its first megafight inside the newly finished Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas, the new home of the NFL's Raiders franchise.
If anyone is wondering if I really want to fight, the answer is yes. I also really want to get paid.— BONY (@JonnyBones) March 28, 2021
Conor McGregor wants big money, it’s expected. Jon Jones wants money, now he’s scare.— BONY (@JonnyBones) March 28, 2021
I quit the light heavyweight division, literally gained a massive amount of weight. And now people are saying I’m afraid? Everyone but me claiming that I’m afraid. All I asked was to get paid.— BONY (@JonnyBones) March 28, 2021
The fact is that if anyone deserves to be overpaid in an effort to book one of the most important and casual-friendly fights in company history, that fighter is Jones. Yes, he has had a number of issues outside the cage including failed drug tests and arrests, but no one has been more dominant, consistent or great inside of it.
Overpaying Jones to take such a dangerous fight puts the promotion in a no-lose situation. If Ngannou beats him, the UFC might have the kind of star on its hands comparable to numbers only previously seen by Conor McGregor, Brock Lesnar and Ronda Rousey. And should Jones win, the G.O.A.T. only gets greater, with huge potential for monster fights to make immediately after that including a rematch with Ngannou and a showdown with Miocic.
Jones tweeted, then deleted, again early Sunday morning, "Talked to the UFC about giving me a proposal next week, I'll let you know how it goes. I'll be 100% upfront with you guys. I'll let you guys tell me if I'm asking for ridiculous numbers or not." It's also not the first time Jones has led the public on about making his negotiations with White public.
For a division that has historically been one of UFC's weakest from the standpoint of depth, heavyweight is overloaded at the moment with star power and a solid group of viable contenders below that including Derrick Lewis, Curtis Blaydes, Cyril Gane, Alexander Volkov and Jairzinho Rozenstruik.
It's fitting that both the UFC offices and the physical arena in which Ngannou's breakthrough victory took place are in Las Vegas. The promotion hit the jackpot at UFC 260 in the one division that has the most power to lure the mainstream public hook, line and sinker to a crossover fight given Ngannou's surreal power and the combination of Jones' accomplishments and star value.
There's no reason to wait around any longer and potentially screw this up.
Khabib Nurmagomedov isn't walking through that door to face McGregor a second time. It's time for Ngannou-Jones.