December's top MMA storylines: The return of Jon Jones looms over the sport

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Jon Jones and Alexander Gustafsson face off during the UFC 232 press conference inside Hulu Theater at Madison Square Garden on Nov. 2, 2018 in New York. (Getty Images)
Jon Jones and Alexander Gustafsson face off during the UFC 232 press conference inside Hulu Theater at Madison Square Garden on Nov. 2, 2018 in New York. (Getty Images)

He’s baaaaaaaack!

This isn’t the first time Jon Jones has made a big comeback in the world of mixed martial arts.

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The former longtime UFC light heavyweight champion has been sidelined on multiple occasions over the course of his career. They’ve been due to a series of self-inflicted wounds, from legal trouble to running afoul of the UFC’s United States Anti-Doping Agency policy. We’re not going to rehash them item-by-item, because anyone who has paid even casual attention to the sport knows the picture by now.

But every time Jones returns, it’s a big deal. For good reason: For all his foibles outside the Octagon, Jones is still regarded by many as the singular most talented fighter ever to compete in MMA.

In a pro career which dates back to 2008, Jones has never been legitimately defeated in a fight with the only loss on his record a disqualification to Matt Hamill in what is universally regarded as a terrible call in a bout Jones was seconds away from winning. In 2011-12, he scored six consecutive wins over former or future world champions. He’s handed Daniel Cormier, a future no-brainer UFC Hall of Famer, his only career loss.

He’d have two victories over Cormier, had he not failed a test for banned substances before their UFC 214 matchup (the pre-fight test results were revealed after the fight), a Jones knockout which was overturned.

Jones ultimately received a 15-month suspension from USADA through an arbitrator when he could have been punished as long as four years, a decision which certainly raised eyebrows, given other fighters who weren’t repeat offenders have gotten the book thrown at them.

But what’s done is done, and now Jones is set for his return. And not just any old return, but a rematch of his most memorable battle.

Jones and Alexander Gustafsson threw down for five rounds at UFC 165 in 2012 in Toronto in one of the greatest fights in MMA history. In that meeting, Jones dropped the first two rounds before rallying to claim the last three in a stirring battle.

Now, Jones and Gustafsson will clash again, in the main event of UFC 232 on Dec. 29 at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas. The light heavyweight title, which Cormier will relinquish once Jones and Gustafsson step into the cage, is on the line.

Believe it or not, Jones is still just 31. On paper, he has plenty of time to go on another long run at the top and cement his status as the greatest fighter in the history of the sport. That leaves plenty of time, too, for the upstate New York native to screw up again outside the cage, which would cement his status as the biggest waste of talent in the sport’s history.

Until that time? We know what he can do in the cage. And he has a chance to show it, against a dance partner who’s already proven he can tango.

Love Jones or hate him, you know you’ll watch him.

Men’s match of the month: Lee vs. Iaquinta

Kevin Lee vs. Al Iaquinta, UFC on Fox 31, Milwaukee, Dec. 15.

Realistically, Jones-Gustafsson is the match of the month, but Lee-Iaquinta is the most interesting fight. The network TV headliner between Lee and Iaquinta is a standout fight even in the UFC’s highly talented lightweight division. Lee (17-3) has won six of his past seven fights, with five of those wins coming via finish. Iaquinta (13-4-1), an entertaining slugger, lost a fight with Khabib Nurmagomedov at UFC 223 booked on 24-hours’ notice. Prior to that, though, he won five in a row, four via finish. The winner of this bout announces to the world he’s still in the top level of the 155-pound mix. It also ends an era: UFC on Fox 31 is the final card in the UFC’s seven-year relationship with Fox, before a new deal with ESPN kicks in next month.

Women’s match of the month

Cris Cyborg vs. Amanda Nunes, UFC 232, Las Vegas, Dec. 29.

Cris Cyborg and Amanda Nunes pose for the media during the UFC 232 press conference inside Hulu Theater at Madison Square Garden on Nov. 2, 2018 in New York. (Getty Images)
Cris Cyborg and Amanda Nunes pose for the media during the UFC 232 press conference inside Hulu Theater at Madison Square Garden on Nov. 2, 2018 in New York. (Getty Images)

The past two UFC champion vs. champion fights have ended with the lighter-weight champion finishing their bigger foe and capturing the championship: Then-featherweight champ Conor McGregor knocked out Eddie Alvarez to win the lightweight title at UFC 205; and light heavyweight kingpin Daniel Cormier knocked out heavyweight counterpart Stipe Miocic at UFC 226. Is Amanda Nunes (16-4) next in line? The women’s bantamweight champion has won seven straight fights. She’s already defeated Ronda Rousey and Miesha Tate, and with a win over featherweight titleholder Cris Cyborg (17-1, 1 NC), she could claim the title of best women’s fighter of all-time away from Cyborg, as well as her belt. But that’s easier said than done: Cyborg hasn’t lost since her professional MMA debut in 2005.

Keep an eye on: Bellator’s Hawaii debut

Hawaii’s long been a hotbed of mixed martial arts, but the major companies have long balked at the expense of putting on a show in the islands. Until now. Bellator 213 on Dec. 15 will be held at Honolulu’s Blaisdell Center, and will feature one of Oahu’s own in the main event: women’s flyweight champion Ilima-Lei Macfarlane (8-0), who puts her title on the line against former UFC title challenger Valerie Letourneau (10-6). The event also features the Bellator debut UFC legend Lyoto Machida, who meets Raphael Carvalho in the co-feature bout.

Under the radar: PFL championship finals

The jury is still out on whether the Professional Fighters League (the rebranded World Series of Fighting) will be a financial or ratings success in the long run. But there’s no doubt the promotion’s inaugural season has been an artistic success and one of the most interesting storylines to unfold over the course of the year. Fighters in six weight classes competed in a two-fight regular season over the first half of the year, with a point system which favored victories via finishes over decisions. Quarterfinal and semifinal playoff fights were held in the fall, leading to the New Year’s Eve card at The Theater at Madison Square Garden in New York, which will air on NBC Sports Network. There’s an advertised $1 million prize for the winner of each weight class. Featherweight: Steven Siler vs. Lance Palmer; Lightweight: Natan Schulte vs. Rashid Magomedov; Welterweight: Ray Cooper III vs. Magomed Magomedkerimov; Middleweight: Abus Magomedov vs. Louis Taylor; Light Heavyweight: Vinny Magalhaes vs. Sean O’Connell; Heavyweight: Philipe Lins vs. Josh Copeland.

This month in MMA history

Dec. 8, 2007: While Floyd Mayweather and Ricky Hatton drew more attention down the road at the MGM Grand, Roger Huerta and Clay Guida put on the best actual fight in Las Vegas on this night at “The Ultimate Fighter 6 Finale” at the Palms Casino. The lightweights scrapped in a bloody and violent battle for two rounds before Huerta got a second wind and finished Guida with a rear-naked choke at the 51-second mark of the third in what was a consensus choice for MMA Fight of the Year. That put Huerta, who earlier in the year had become the first UFC fighter ever featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated, at 5-0 in the UFC in 2007. It also marked the high point of his career: The victory put him at 20-1-1, but he’s 4-10 since.

Dec. 29, 2007: A hardcore fans’ dream match six years in the making went down at UFC 79 when former UFC light heavyweight champion Chuck Liddell met former PRIDE counterpart Wanderlei Silva at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas. The bout delivered in a memorably raucous atmosphere, as the duo threw down for 15 minutes before Liddell emerged a unanimous decision victor. What few would have predicted at the time was that this marked the final win of Liddell’s career, as he’s been knocked out in four fights since.

Dec. 31, 2005: Long before the UFC’s International Fight Week turned into the sport’s unofficial Super Bowl Week, New Year’s Eve in Japan marked the biggest night of the year on the MMA calendar. PRIDE Shockwave 2005 was one memorable such event, as a crowd of 49,801 showed up at the Tokyo suburb of Saitama to see a pair of tournament final bouts: Dan Henderson earned a split decision over former UFC middleweight champ Murilo Bustamante to claim the 183-pound tournament, while Takanori Gomi earned a first-round TKO over Hayato Sakurai to claim the lightweight version. The bout also featured Wanderlei Silva’s successful 205-pound title defense over Ricardo Arona and Mark Hunt earning an upset win over Mirko Cro Cop via split decision.

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