A pair of championships are on the line at UFC 285 in Las Vegas Saturday night, and both title bouts offer a study in contrasts. In the main event, former light heavyweight champion Jon Jones will be fighting for the first time in more than three years — and for the first time ever at heavyweight — when he takes on former interim heavyweight champion Ciryl Gane. And women’s flyweight champion Valentina Shevchenko will look to defend her title, and continue her run as one of the sport’s most dominant pound-for-pound fighters, against challenger Alexa Grasso. Let’s dive into the numbers and look at the keys to each fight.
Jones left the light heavyweight ranks with little remaining to prove, ranking as that weight class’s winningest fighter ever, including its winningest in title bouts by nearly a 3-1 ratio over the next-best name on the list.1 However, he’ll have to modify his fighting style some to continue to be a big-time 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 is far from the top rates for heavyweights. Putting aside the more frequent striking environment of the heavyweight class, though, Jones should be able to match Gane in terms of connecting on strikes: Jones’ 58 percent striking accuracy ranked third all-time among light heavyweights, and is comparable to Gane’s heavyweight accuracy of 60 percent.
A few past bouts might offer clues about how Jones will approach Gane. Against former (and future) heavyweight Daniel Cormier, Jones landed plenty of strikes but also made use of his grappling skills to dominate control time2 by a margin of 6:50 to 1:34, winning by unanimous decision over his hated rival. Although 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 grappling tactic in this title fight, particularly considering that Gane lost almost exactly the same way roughly a year ago. At UFC 270, Gane faced Francis Ngannou, who — despite not even being known for his wrestling — held a control time edge of 8:29 to 2:51 en route to a unanimous decision in the lone defeat of Gane’s career.
Given that he could defeat 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 simply be the incredibly long layoff since Jones’s last time in the Octagon — 1,121 days ago, to be exact — as well as the inherent unknowns around a fighter changing weight classes. According to ESPN’s Stats & Information Group, UFC fighters who had at least two bouts at both heavyweight and light heavyweight won slightly more often in the latter (52.4 percent) than in 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 Jones, one of the greatest pound-for-pound fighters ever, will be able to translate his skills across weight classes better than the typical fighter. And in fact, we see that when UFC champions move up a weight class, they do tend to hold their own. According to ESPN Stats & Info, of the 26 times that a former champ switched to a higher weight class, they won their first fight in the new class 14 times, versus just 12 losses.3
Shevchenko is a far greater favorite to win Saturday (-720) than Jones, which is fitting for the all-time leader in UFC women’s flyweight title fight victories. On paper, all signs point to a mismatch here. Although Grasso actually lands more significant strikes per minute than Shevchenko (5.14 to 3.19), Shevchenko is far more accurate (52 percent versus 44 percent) — and Grasso’s defense is nowhere near as sound as her opponent’s. Shevchenko absorbs the fewest strikes per minute of any women’s flyweight fighter in history (1.49, or 33 percent fewer than second-best on the list), while Grasso allows a whopping 4.02 strikes per minute.4 As a result, their striking differentials from recent fights tell very different stories: Shevchenko has a plus-39.3 average in four fights over the past three years,5 while Grasso is only plus-6.8 over the same span.6
The one area where Grasso might be able to hold her own is if she can keep the fight standing. Whereas Shevchenko gets 34 percent of her significant strikes either in the clinch or on the ground (versus 66 percent while standing), Grasso gets only 18 percent of her strikes in the clinch or on the ground (and 82 percent while standing). Combined with Grasso’s takedown defense rate of 65 percent — well above the UFC average of 55 percent — the numbers suggest that Grasso’s best strategy is to make Shevchenko take her on as a stand-up fighter, not as a grappler.
But many have tried (and failed) to beat Shevchenko that way. With a success rate of 70.5 percent, she is the all-time UFC women’s flyweight leader in takedown accuracy — and once Shevchenko gets you to the ground, it is nearly impossible to regain the upper hand. No flyweight has racked up more total control time than Shevchenko (55:28), and while grappling she has spent 30.4 percent of her time in top position versus just 6.4 percent in bottom position. In other words, if Grasso gets knocked down, she’s going to have huge problems against her formidable foe.
But all of this just represents the theory of each matchup; now the fighters have to climb into the Octagon and make it play out in reality. And you can watch it all unfold on ESPN+ at 10 p.m. ET on Saturday night.
Andres Waters contributed research.
Check out UFC 285, exclusively on ESPN+, here.
CORRECTION (March 6, 1:38 p.m.): A chart in an earlier version of this story misspelled Jon Jones's name as Jan Jones.