The two UFC heavyweight champions view their 2024 plans very differently if the past few days are any indication. On one side is Jones, the injured titleholder who won his belt in March 2023 with a walloping of Ciryl Gane and now refuses to budge from his goals of fighting Stipe Miocic for his first — and possibly only — title defense once he has recovered later this year. And on the other side is Aspinall, the interim champ who’s made it his duty to convince anyone who will listen that he deserves a fight with either Jones or Miocic rather than sitting out most — if not all — of 2024 while the old guard finishes their business.
Who’s right and who’s wrong? The MMA Fighting team makes their cases. Let us know where you stand in the comments and check out the podcast version of this debate below.
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Damon Martin: Well, first off, the UFC should be held responsible for part of this debacle, because like it or not, Tom Aspinall only holds an interim title because the promotion had a void to fill after Jon Jones suffered an injury that prevented him from facing Stipe Miocic this past November. Aspinall will tell anybody who will listen that he’s the best heavyweight in the sport while clutching onto the title that he won out of the UFC’s desire to promote a card with two title fights rather than risking refunds for an event at Madison Square Garden.
Jones tearing his pectoral muscle was understandably awful timing, especially given how close he was to the fight with Miocic at UFC 295. When that matchup was first announced, nobody grumbled too much, because truth be told, there wasn’t a tried and true No. 1 contender — and if that person existed, his name was Sergei Pavlovich.
Pavlovich had six straight wins and was the person selected to serve as the backup to UFC 295 rather than Aspinall. Now, all credit to Aspinall for taking a short-notice opportunity and winning the interim title with a knockout of Pavlovich, but he’s certainly not the first fighter to get a belt simply because the UFC had a spot to fill on a pay-per-view. Ciryl Gane did the same thing under similar circumstances when the UFC needed a headliner and then-champ Francis Ngannou wasn’t available, so magically an interim title was introduced.
The same goes for Max Holloway vs. Anthony Pettis, Dustin Poirier vs. Max Holloway, Jose Aldo vs. Frankie Edgar, Justin Gaethje vs. Tony Ferguson and the list goes on and on. Oh, and let’s not forget interim champions who just had those titles taken away without any real reason given — Ferguson and Colby Covington know all about that.
Now let’s get back to Jones.
He won the UFC heavyweight title this past March with a lightning quick win over Gane and immediately his attention shifted towards a legacy fight against Miocic. Given all that Jones has accomplished, he wanted the chance to add arguably the greatest heavyweight in history to his résumé.
The injury happened and now Jones can’t compete again until the summer, but the UFC has made it clear that he’ll still get the matchup with Miocic just as always intended.
The UFC knows that’s a bigger fight than anything involving Aspinall, which is why Dana White has continuously doubled down on that matchmaking regardless of an interim title looming out there. If Aspinall wants to pound his fists and throw a fit of rage, he should aim his ire at the UFC rather than Jones.
Even if you want to just tout Aspinall as the No. 1 contender and forget all about the interim belt, then ask Belal Muhammad how it felt sitting behind Covington at UFC 296 or going back even further when Johny Hendricks had to wait while Nick Diaz got a shot at Georges St-Pierre despite coming off a loss to Carlos Condit. Oh, and then there’s St-Pierre jumping ahead of Robert Whittaker so he could get a shot at Michael Bisping as middleweight champion after four years off and never previously competing at 185 pounds! Let’s not forget Bisping defending that same belt against Dan Henderson, who was 2-3 in his last five fights before getting a title shot.
What’s the common denominator in all of these matchups? The UFC knew those fights would get more people interested in watching and that leads to bigger pay-per-view sales. And say what you will about Miocic after three years away and coming off a loss, but it’s still easier to make a compelling case for him than some of those examples listed above.
That criteria may not sit well with some folks and I’m sure it upsets Aspinall, but that’s the nature of this beast we call MMA. Aspinall can scream to the heavens that he deserves to unify the titles, but “deserves” is a word that should be stricken from your MMA vocabulary because it will only drive you insane.
Jones isn’t doing anything that hasn’t already happened dozens of times before, and ultimately he only maintains so much control because the UFC still has to grant his wish — and that genie is already out of the bottle.
Shaun Al-Shatti: You know the funniest thing about all of this? Jon Jones finally just gave up and said the quiet part out loud on Tuesday.
“I’ve set myself up pretty well in life. I want Stipe for my résumé, outside of that, I need nothing else from this sport.”
And therein lies the rub: That’s what this matchup is about and that’s what it’s always been about. It’s a vanity fight. Simple and plain. One based neither on merit nor star power, but rather on artificially bolstering the résumé of a fading legend so that a decade from now, when little things like nuance and context are lost, new fans will look at Wikipedia and hail Jones’ heavyweight reign with reverence because he demolished one of the most decorated big boys in UFC history. That record won’t note that Miocic was a 41-year-old retiree who hadn’t fought for three years, who was brutally knocked out the last time he competed, and who held no meaningful relevance to the heavyweight division of 2024.
And you know what? That’s totally fine! If Jones wants to fight an old Miocic so he can call scoreboard a decade down the line to impress people who don’t know better, more power to him. He’s invested more than enough time and sweat equity into this game to be able to manicure his career-end experience. Jones-Miocic is a perfectly fine five-round, non-title bout to send two all-timers off into well-deserved retirements. Hell, Tito Ortiz has a win over Chuck Liddell now — the record books don’t care how he got it. But the chemistry of this situation changes once you’re a sitting champion insisting on holding a belt hostage.
Because that’s what this is. Jones’ legacy and what’s most important to him are his own worries to fret about, but when you’re the custodian of a division and stubbornly digging your heels into quicksand to so obviously handpick a less imposing challenger while there’s already an interim champ on the books, well, that’s just not how any of this is supposed to work. The window to pull off this move without holding up an entire weight class was last November. Once Jones lost the ability to call himself an undisputed champion, that window slammed shut — if not for good, at least until these titles are whole again.
But Damon’s also right, there have been plenty of we-just-need-this-date-filled interim belts throughout UFC history. So hey, let’s look at what happened with them, shall we?
From Gane to Holloway to Poirier to Gaethje, virtually every interim champ not caught in the Conor McGregor vortex fought in a unification bout next (except for Covington, who was offered the chance but declined due to injury, thus leading to the stripping of his belt). The Bisping/St-Pierre/Whittaker dilemma of 2017 was the only example that remotely compares to what we’re currently seeing — and I’m sorry, but Stipe Miocic does not possess even a quarter of the drawing power of Georges St-Pierre (the latter of whom remains a top-four draw in MMA history). The gulf between a Bisping-GSP pay-per-view and a Bisping-Whittaker pay-per-view in 2017 is orders of magnitude larger than the gap between a Jones-Miocic and Jones-Aspinall pay-per-view in 2024. These two things are not the same.
Most other points Jones continues to throw out are completely irrelevant to the discussion. Take, for example, this little ditty after a fan argued that Jones can’t blame Aspinall for being frustrated with what is an objectively dumb situation. Let’s quickly go through it line by line.
I mean, it doesn’t really work like that.
I was a champion when I was 23 years old, you can’t show up at age 30 pretending like you’ve been chasing me your whole life.
(Nothing to do with the conversation.)
I have no clue who 90% of his résumé is, meanwhile, I’ve been highlighting UFC events my entire career.
(Jones’ big wins en route to his first title shot: Stephan Bonnar, Jake O’Brien, Brandon Vera, Vladimir Matyushenko, and Ryan Bader, then steps in as an injury replacement against a legend. Now let’s do Aspinall: Andrei Arlovski, Serghei Spivac, Alexander Volkov, Marcin Tybura, and Sergei Pavlovich, stepped in as an injury replacement, now can unify against a legend. Are we really going act like the former is demonstrably better than the latter?)
In the end, none of it matters, because clearly the UFC has made up its mind to waste a year of its interim champion’s prime to satiate other parties. But take one look around at the court of public opinion and it’s clear that if the question here is which side is arguing in bad faith, it’s not the guy who’s simply calling for the opportunity he already earned.