Roundtable: Conor McGregor vs Jon Jones — Who’s more under pressure to return UFC?

UFC 247 Jones v Reyes

Conor McGregor or Jon Jones? Two of the biggest names in MMA are finally back in 2023, as both former champs gear up for their upcoming UFC returns. McGregor meets Michael Chandler on a yet-to-be-determined date after filming The Ultimate Fighter 31, while Jones makes his long-awaited move to heavyweight to challenge Ciryl Gane for the vacant title at UFC 285. They both have long layoffs but which one is most under pressure?

MMA Fighting’s Shaun Al-Shatti and Alexander K. Lee join Jed Meshew at the roundtable for a discussion about McGregor’s and Jones’ eagerly awaited UFC return.

UFC 247 Jones v Reyes

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Al-Shatti: Is this even a debate? Jon Jones is the answer.

Conor McGregor’s win and loss are irrelevant. He will still be the greatest MMA star, regardless of how Michael Chandler does. How do I know? We’ve seen the story many times. The man hasn’t had a single relevant win since 2016. That’s seven years of mediocrity and inactivity, yet the game still screeches to a halt to hear his every whisper. McGregor is the man he has always been, so no one should have any doubts about McGregor’s legacy. McGregor is the cash cow. Money Mac. Money Mac. Chandler could roll thunder his face and the inevitable rematch would lead to yet another huge pay-per view payday.

But Jones?

If you want to talk about a legacy that is very much tied to wins and losses, well, you’ve found it, buddy. Nearly every aspect of how MMA considers Jones from a historical context is framed around the fact that he’s never truly been defeated — or at least not by anybody other than himself. To put it simply: In 2023, McGregor just wants to make money and compete; Jones wants to retire with an unassailable case as the greatest of all-time.

He can’t do that unless he wins at UFC 285. And considering the factors already working against him — the failed drug tests, the new weight class, how mortal he looked three years ago against lesser competition, and the very valid question of whether 2018 sneakily marked the end of his fighting prime — Jones is under absurd pressure to prove there’s more to his GOAT case than what we’ve already seen. Hell, he’s been promising to test himself at heavyweight as far back as 2012! That’s 11 years! This isn’t possible now.

One man’s return could have a lasting impact on the MMA world. The other’s is a fun (if meaningless) diversion between two dudes with a combined 2-6 record over their last eight.

This is an obvious pick.

UFC 264: Poirier v McGregor 3

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Lee: I don’t know which of these two has the most to gain in their upcoming fights, but I can tell you who has the most to lose: Conor McGregor.

McGregor’s reputation has changed in the other direction, despite the wealth and fame he has amassed over the years. Once a fair pick to include on a list of the top 20 best UFC fighters of all-time, we’re at the point now where including him in the top 30 might be a stretch. McGregor has done an awful job cementing his legacy for a man who used to be a great at grabbing the historic moments presented to him. McGregor is no longer a UFC relevant fighter. He doesn’t have an advantage over Jose Aldo or Alexander Volkanovski nor Max Holloway in terms of deciding who the No. 1 featherweight of all-time. And he’s beaten two of them!

Even his “champ-champ” triumph feels like a long time ago, the memory of the Eddie Alvarez knockout getting lost in a fog of inactivity, plus lackluster losses to Khabib Nurmagomedov and Dustin Poirier. He has become an old, irritable man who shouts about his accomplishments and shows little for his current efforts.

This is why Michael Chandler’s fight with McGregor is important. But it doesn’t just have to be about the fight. The Ultimate Fighter 31 could be a showcase for a different side of McGregor, a side that’s still brash and supremely confident, but also self-aware and possibly even — dare I say it — likeable. What better way for McGregor to show that he’s turning over a new leaf than by playing the humble coach (though if rumors are true that the cast was shaken up to include McGregor associates, this narrative could already be out the window).

Most importantly, people just want to see the man fight again. And win. McGregor’s fight against “Notorious” is a lot of fun, but McGregor and UFC were at their best when McGregor was supporting his garbage talk with substance in the cage. MMA has a terrible habit of forgetting its history and McGregor isn’t immune to this phenomenon. Another devastating loss — especially to Chandler, who has been constantly calling for his shot at McGregor to anyone who will listen — could have McGregor facing a question that all fighters dread: Was he actually ever that good?

Jon Jones’ place in history as a top 5 pound-for-pound fighter is locked in for at least another couple of decades, so while this move up to heavyweight can make his GOAT case even more airtight, even if he never becomes a two-division champion, I doubt that failure will erase the success he had at light heavyweight.

If McGregor can’t muster up a convincing third act, it’s likely that a man who actually succeeded in winning belts in two divisions won’t be considered anywhere near the best in either of them.

Conor McGregor

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Martin: After three years away, Jon Jones has a lot of expectations riding on his return, especially now that he’s finally moving to heavyweight.

Conor McGregor is the clear answer.

Unlike Jones, who is already considered one of the greatest fighters of all-time based on his current resume, McGregor is returning after another two-year absence and this time he’s trying to bounce back from a devastating broken leg. It’s really difficult to come back from a severe injury like that, and McGregor will turn 35 before his next fight against Michael Chandler, which means he’s likely cruising towards the final years of his career.

With a 1-3 record in his past four fights, it’s been a long time since McGregor looked like the beast who became the first ever simultaneous two-division UFC champion in 2016. In the six years since, McGregor lost to Floyd Mayweather in a boxing match — a fight that reportedly earned him a nine-figure payday — and his only win came over an aging Donald Cerrone, who never again tasted victory before calling it a career in 2022.

McGregor is by far the most popular fighter in UFC, and has a winnable bout in his sights. However, as much as McGregor’s star power allows him, future demand for his services could be heavily influenced by the result of this fight. McGregor’s win would propel him back to title contention. However, McGregor is currently on a losing streak of three fights, and many of his peers, including Islam Makhachev, the UFC lightweight champion, believe that one more defeat could mean McGregor’s retirement.

It doesn’t get any bigger than this.

UFC 247 Jones v Reyes

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Meshew: To peel back the curtain here, I was prepared to answer for either of these men. That’s the job of a great take-artist — he spins. Fortunately, I don’t have to spin anything because the very obvious answer to this is Jon Jones.

Damon & AK have the right to say that Jones’ legacy remains secure. But, you also know how to ruin a legacy. Losses. This topic has been discussed a lot on the DAMN podcast! They Were Good podcast recently, but had Fedor Emelianenko retired in 2009, he would universally be considered the heavyweight GOAT (and maybe just the overall GOAT). There would be no real opposition to it. But instead, he fought until he lost, and then he lost some more, and now there is a vocal group of opposition to his status as an all-timer. Although it isn’t fair, it’s also true. Just look at B.J. Penn! For most of his career, Penn would have been considered an all-time great. And then he lost nine of his final 11 career bouts, and there goes that.

Fandom can be fickle, but fighters can’t resist, so when these two elements meet, it is easy for legacy to get in its teeth.

It is undeniable that Jon Jones is the most successful light heavyweight ever. But his myriad issues outside of the cage, both personal and USADA related, already cast a pall on his resume, as do his most recent performances in the cage. Jones would have been beaten by Dominick Reyes, lost the final to Thiago Santos who was unable to work due his knees. Reyes and Santos are a combined 1-7 since their title shots. This is a terrible look, but they’re wins. But if Jones comes back now, after all this time off and with all the things he’s said, and lays an egg? The narrative is going to flip at warp speed.

“Jon Jones was never that good, he just had a huge physical advantage over everyone, particularly because he mostly fought middleweights and old guys!” Those takes are coming, and truth be told, they aren’t all the way wrong. Jones’ resume is less impressive if you have a critical eye. But if he beats Gane? Different story.

This one win would immediately shut down almost all of the criticism that can be lobbied at Jones and makes the greatest of all-time argument pretty perfunctory at that point. Jones could be the sport’s top performer with just one win. He has to win it.