The UFC heavyweight mess – Here’s how we get out of it

The UFC heavyweight mess and here's how we get out of it

Who is the best fighter at heavyweight? Depends on who you ask.

If we’re going by the books? Jon Jones is the best in the world. He’s the division’s top champ, which by definition puts him above everyone else. But when logic sets in, things get more confusing. Jones hasn’t fought in more than a year. Tom Aspinall, the interim champ at heavyweight, earned his title last year and is already on track to defend in just a couple of months. Does that make him the best?

The issue with this “best” question is a simple way to describe the issues at heavyweight currently. Due to delays in fights and a promoter who hasn’t stepped in to end a reign, heavyweight has found itself in a usual position with two champions who have gotten comfortable sharing the throne.

A slow-moving division isn’t new for heavyweights in the UFC. With the undisputed title being put on the line on average less than once a year since 2019, it’s been a weight class dragging its feet title fight-wise for a while. But the current two-title dilemma that it finds itself in lasts much longer than many delays we have seen recently. It’s an issue with no clear end in sight, and with unavoidably bad optics.

How the UFC Heavyweight mess Got Here

When Jones captured the UFC heavyweight championship in early 2023, an optimist might have thought that the class would finally receive a consistent champion. After UFC iced out Francis Ngannou for a year, making his run with the belt uneventful, the division could have used a more workhorse fighter on top.

Sure, Jones had no shortage of controversies while reigning over the light heavyweight division, but he was a face that defined an era and cleaned out a roster. Maybe he could have done that for heavyweight. And for a moment, it looked like he could be an active fighter: Eight months after winning his title with a first-round finish of Ciryl Gane, Jones was expected to face former champ Stipe Miocic at Madison Square Garden.

Jon Jones weighs up Alex Pereira and Tom Aspinall fights after UFC return decisions decisions
Mandatory Credit: Zuffa LLC

The fight would have been a passing of the torch. Miocic is 41 and hasn’t fought in more than three years, but is remembered for the three title defences that made him a more successful heavyweight champ than any other in UFC history. A victory for Jones would further cement that it was officially his era, and shut down any complaints that Miocic was deserving of a title opportunity after Francis Ngannou ended his second title run with a scary knockout in 2021.

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But a torn pec put a massive road bump in Jones’ title reign and took him out of the fight. The injury not only prevented the champ from fighting in New York, but also meant that he would be benched for a significant period of time, cutting into a serious chunk of 2024 as well.

With Jones on the bench, UFC tried to keep the division moving. No, they didn’t strip the champion who was set to go more than a year without defending his belt, they introduced an interim title. England’s Aspinall earned the gold with a swift finish against Sergei Pavlovich.

An interim is, by definition, a placeholder. As the Cambridge Dictionary defines it: “temporary and intended to be used or accepted until something permanent exists.” However, this title soon became more regular than, well, the regular title.

It was announced this week that Aspinall will defend his belt at UFC 304 against Curtis Blaydes. A fine matchup, but one that keeps the division in a puzzling position. The person who is supposed to be the true champion sits on the sidelines, while the man with a supposed temporary belt goes out and faces legitimate contenders.

At least once the fight between Blaydes and Aspinall is done with, we can finally unify the titles and have a singular true best fighter in the class, right? Well, if you ask Dana White, no. He’s still hoping to make the bout between Jones and Miocic, and Jones is hinting that his next appearance will be around November. This means we could see an interim title exist for more than a year before even getting to discussions about unification. That is not ideal.

What Can Be Done?

Tom Aspinall accuses Jon Jones of playing games I don't know what's going on
Mandatory Credit: Chris Unger – Zuffa LLC

This is an ugly mess. With all of the obligations and complications, UFC’s heavyweight division has become a disorganized room that needs a full makeover. From an inactive champ to owing a fight to someone who isn’t even involved in the current title picture, to a pair of belts that need to be unified sometime before things start to look absurd, the promotion has a complicated puzzle to solve.

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There’s a world where UFC can fix all of these problems by simply handling them when the right opportunity comes. But the truth is, that would likely take a long time. It’s hard to imagine a reality where a year from now we will have an undisputed heavyweight champion that has faced Miocic and unified the titles through a fight. And even with that generous estimation, that’s still a year and a half of an interim champion, which feels bizarre.

Realistically, it doesn’t make sense for Jones to be the champion at the moment. If someone asks who is the best active heavyweight in the world, it feels dishonest to say it is Jones. Why? He’s simply not active. It’s no knock on his fighting abilities or accomplishments to say that he isn’t fighting at the moment, which should realistically take him out of the equation so the class can keep moving.

Would stripping Jones of his title due to injury kill his momentum? Absolutely not. When he would return and inevitably get another title fight, the crowd that had come out to support him in the past would show up once again.

He was stripped for wrongdoing in three different instances during his light heavyweight title years and remained a star nonetheless. Why would freeing up a title for injury—instead of an issue where he can take the blame—hurt him? Jones is absolutely deserving of a title shot and should receive an opportunity once he is ready to fully return, whether it be in November or on a later date. But there’s no reason for him to sit with the belt when he can’t contribute anything to the division.

It feels tough to decide what’s right for Miocic. While on paper it’s hard incredibly to justify him getting a title fight since he hasn’t fought in years, is 41 and coming off a nasty knockout defeat, it also feels like he has been a victim of circumstance. He should have received a shot at the title way sooner, instead of just quietly waiting for all of this time.

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After the UFC kept him waiting for too long, it feels easy to consider him a contender who isn’t worthy. Miocic was likely guaranteed a shot after the end of his title reign and has been waiting for ages for it. Because of that, it would be somewhat cruel if UFC changed course now.

If UFC really owes Miocic a title shot, they should get it over with quickly. UFC probably wants to make a fight between Jones and Miocic specifically because its two guys from a specific era and it can be marketed as a super-fight. But hat fight is becoming not only less realistic but less attractive as each day passes by. In a perfect world, Miocic would return in a non-title fight first to show the type of shape he’s in, which it seems like many are questioning. If that can be done, great, do it.

What Will Actually Happen, If Anything?

Stipe Miocic warns Jon Jones true power at UFC 295 anything can happen
Mandatory Credit: Josh Hedges – Zuffa LLC

With those changes, you have a weight class full of active fighters who are keeping the title picture moving. Of course, these are combative changes that won’t please everyone. It’s easy for a columnist to say: “Okay and take this from that guy, and tell the other guy he shouldn’t get the title fight.” It’s another thing to actually make those moves and then deal with the potential blowback from them.

UFC has two options in front of them. They could let their heavyweight class figure itself out over the next year and some change, keeping the division’s title picture awkward and confusing to outsiders for the entire time. Or they could put in some calls and make some changes that could immediately put the division back into shape, although not without some scrutiny from corners of their fanbase and fighters. They could let their division continue to make little sense for a long time, or take control and show that holding the top title in a weight class means something. There’s certainly less shame in one of these options.