A pair of championships are on the line at UFC 285 in Las Vegas on Saturday night, and both title fights offer a study in contrasts. In the main event, former lightweight champion Jon Jones will compete for the first time in more than three years — and for the first time always at heavyweight – when he takes on former interim heavyweight champion Cyril Gane. And women’s flyweight champion Valentina Shevchenko will look to defend her title and continue her run as one of the most dominant pound-for-pound fighters in the sport against challenger Alexa Grasso. Let’s dive into the numbers and look at the keys to each matchup.
Jones left the lightweight ranks without much to prove, ranking as the winningest fighter in that weight class, including winning title fights by a nearly 3-1 ratio over the next best name on the list. However, he will have to tweak his fighting style to continue to be a big striker at the heavyweight level – his 4.30 significant strikes per minute was good for a light heavyweight, but that’s lower than Gane’s career rate (5.11) and far from the top rates for heavyweights. However, the more frequent striking environment of the heavyweight division aside, Jones should be able to match Gaine when it comes to connecting on strikes: Jones’ 58 percent striking accuracy ranked third all-time among light heavyweights weights and is comparable to Gain’s heavyweight accuracy. of 60 percent.
A few past seasons may offer clues as to how Jones will approach Gaine. Against former (and future) heavyweight Daniel Cormier, Jones landed plenty of strikes, but also used his game skills to dominate the time controls by a 6:50 to 1:34 margin, winning a unanimous decision over his hated opponent . While Jones may indeed be able to match Gane as a striker, he is also a judo black belt and could instead opt for a similar fighting tactic in this title fight, particularly considering Gane lost almost exactly the same way about a year ago. At UFC 270, Gane faced Francis Ngannou, who – despite not even being known for his wrestling – held a control time of 8:29 to 2:51 en route to a unanimous decision in Gane’s only career loss.
Given that he could beat Gane either conventionally or unconventionally, it makes sense that Jones is a -165 favorite to win at UFC 285. The biggest sources of uncertainty in the fight might just be the incredibly long layoff from Jones’ last time in octagon — 1,121 days ago, to be exact — as well as the inherent unknowns surrounding a fighter switching weight classes. According to ESPN’s Stats & Information Group, UFC fighters who had at least two fights at both heavyweight and light heavyweight won slightly more often in the latter (52.4 percent) than the former (49.4 percent) , which speaks somewhat to the general learning curve Jones will face.
But at the same time, it’s not unreasonable to think that Jones, one of the best pound-for-pound fighters ever, will be able to translate his skills across weight classes better than the average fighter. And in fact, we see that when UFC champions move up a weight class, they tend to hold their own. According to ESPN Stats & Info, of the 26 times a former champion moved up a weight class, he won his first fight in the new weight class 14 times, compared to just 12 losses.
Shevchenko is a much bigger favorite to win Saturday (-720) than Jones, which matches the all-time UFC women’s flyweight title fight wins leader. On paper, all signs point to a mismatch here. Although Grasso does land more significant strikes per minute than Shevchenko (5.14 to 3.19), Shevchenko is far more accurate (52 percent vs. 44 percent) — and Grasso’s defense isn’t as strong as her opponent. Shevchenko absorbs the fewest strikes per minute of any female flyweight fighter in history (1.49 or 33 percent less than the second best on the list), while Grasso allows 4.02 strikes per minute. As a result, their impressive differences from recent fights tell very different stories: Shevchenko has averaged a plus-39.3 over four games over the past three years, while Grasso is only plus-6.8 over the same span.
The one area where Grasso could to be able to hold her own is if she can keep the fight standing. While Shevchenko lands 34 percent of her significant strikes either in the clinch or on the ground (versus 66 percent while standing), Grasso lands only 18 percent of her strikes in the clinch or on the ground (and 82 percent while standing). Combined with Grasso’s 65 percent save percentage — well above the UFC average of 55 percent — the numbers suggest that Grasso’s best strategy is to have Shevchenko face her as a stand-up fighter, not as a grappler.
But many tried (and failed) to defeat Shevchenko this way. With a 70.5 percent success rate, she’s the UFC women’s flyweight all-time leader in takedown accuracy — and once Shevchenko takes you to the ground, it’s nearly impossible to regain the upper hand. No flyweight has accumulated more total control time than Shevchenko (55:28) and while fighting she has spent 30.4 percent of her time on top compared to just 6.4 percent on bottom. In other words, if Grasso gets knocked down, she’ll be in huge trouble against her formidable foe.
But all this represents only the theory of each correspondence. now the fighters must step into the Octagon and make it play out for real. And you can watch it all unfold on ESPN+ at 10 p.m. ET on Saturday night.
Andres Waters contributed research.
Watch UFC 285, exclusively on ESPN+, here.