UFC real or not: Jones' heavyweight debut will be for title; Ferguson's days as a contender are over

The best of Jon Jones (1:26)

From starting in the UFC at age 21 to becoming the youngest champion at age 23, revisit all of the best moments for Jon Jones in the Octagon. (1:26)

MMA fans who have seen recent social media posts by Jon Jones know that he's nearly ready to compete at heavyweight.

He has stated he weighs around the 240-pound mark, and at 6-foot-4, the former UFC light heavyweight champ is looking to pack more muscle onto his frame. He should be ready to compete in a few months from now in his desired shape, but will he?

While a heavyweight championship fight for Jones, who is arguably the greatest mixed martial artist ever, makes sense, the division's title picture is somewhat cloudy.

Champion Stipe Miocic is expected to defend against top contender Francis Ngannou, possibly in March, but that fight has not been made official. Would Jones be willing to take another fight in the meantime as he enters a new division?

Meanwhile, Tony Ferguson is another veteran great whose future is a bit unclear.

Ferguson saw his 12-fight win streak end against Justin Gaethje in May, and he was waxed by Charles Oliveira at UFC 256 on Dec. 12. Suddenly the guy who couldn't lose had trouble even winning a round in 2020.

No longer is Ferguson in the title picture. He's simply a fighter looking to get back on track. But at 36, is it too late for Ferguson to become a dominant force again?

ESPN's expert panel of Ariel Helwani, Brett Okamoto, Marc Raimondi and Jeff Wagenheim discuss these topics and more, breaking down what's real and what's not real.

Real or not: Jon Jones won't wait for the Stipe Miocic-Francis Ngannou winner to make his heavyweight debut.

Helwani: He most certainly should, and the UFC would prefer he would, as well. It also doesn't seem like Jones is campaigning or itching for a fight before he fights for the heavyweight title.

Here's the deal: The UFC wants Stipe Miocic to defend the heavyweight title against Francis Ngannou in March. In fact, UFC representatives met with Miocic recently in hopes of finalizing the title fight. The title fight isn't a done deal just yet, but that is definitely what the promotion wants, I'm told.

In a perfect world, the UFC would like for the winner of that fight to defend the belt against Jones in the summer, sources said. Now, when you consider Miocic has averaged one fight per year for the past three years and Ngannou -- through no fault of his own -- seems to fight for about 30 seconds a year, this should be a welcome plan for everyone. I can see Ngannou making that quick turnaround, but historically, Miocic hasn't liked doing so.

Nevertheless, that's what the UFC wants. And that's what it should want. It would be a huge mistake to book Jones against a non-champion at this point. If he loses, the big money fight of Jones going for a second title is lost. Why risk that now, especially because Jones has looked human as of late and we don't know how he will fare with the big boys? It's not worth it. Jones vs. the winner of Miocic-Ngannou is a massive fight. It's the fight to make.

Jones vs. a heavyweight contender is fun, no doubt, but without a belt attached it doesn't feel as big.

Book Miocic-Ngannou in March, hope the winner isn't too banged up, and then give us Jones fighting for the heavyweight belt this summer. Just don't tell Israel Adesanya about this plan ...

Real or not: Tony Ferguson's days as a lightweight contender are over.


Khabib Nurmagomedov's best UFC fights

Look back at Khabib Nurmagomedov's biggest wins inside the Octagon during his undefeated UFC career.

Okamoto: It breaks my heart to say it, but I have to go with real here. Prior to his fight last week against Charles Oliveira, I, like many others, said it was a crossroads fight for Ferguson at age 36. I said everything was on the line for him at UFC 256. And he got dominated in the fight. How can I come back this week and still call him a lightweight contender? Now, if Ferguson does have a comeback year in 2021, will I be shocked? No. It's not as if his skill set has cratered, or his ability to take a punch is gone.

I'm not completely counting him out moving forward. But he has now been dominated in back-to-back fights, and he was dominated in two very different ways. He was badly outstruck by Justin Gaethje in May, and badly outgrappled by Oliveira in December. And there are so many hungry lightweights waiting in the wings to take a spot in the top 5 that has belonged to Ferguson for years.

At this point, I think it's reasonable to say Ferguson is going to have a hard time holding those guys off and maintaining his spot in the pecking order. He has been one of the best lightweights in the world for some time now, and nothing that happened this year has changed my mind about how good he was during that time, but as far as talking about him at the championship level, those days very well might be over.

Real or not: If Khabib Nurmagomedov fights in 2021, he's more likely to face GSP than Conor McGregor.


Namajunas, Andrade go toe-to-toe in Round 3

Rose Namajunas and Jessica Andrade trade vicious blows in the third and final round of their strawweight bout.

Raimondi: Extremely real. Nurmagomedov has been pretty clear on this. He doesn't see any competitive reason for a McGregor rematch. Nurmagomedov stopped McGregor in the fourth round via submission in their UFC title fight at UFC 229 on Oct. 6, 2018. In his mind, the UFC lightweight champion doesn't think he has anything more to prove from a sporting standpoint against the UFC's biggest star. Nurmagomedov has said the only thing the UFC could offer him to fight McGregor again is a boatload of money, but Nurmagomedov has shown time and time again he puts his personal principles above the almighty dollar. In many cases, this could be chalked up as lip service, but not with Khabib.

I think the only fight that would get Nurmagomedov back into the Octagon would be a legacy one against Georges St-Pierre. This has been said numerous times, but it's true. Go back and listen to and read old interviews -- from years ago -- with Nurmagomedov and his late father Abdulmanap. The Nurmagomedovs put St-Pierre on a pedestal. Khabib believes GSP is the best fighter in MMA history. With Nurmagomedov sitting now at 29-0, what better way to finish a career than taking on St-Pierre, the former UFC middleweight and welterweight champion, with a chance to make it a perfect 30?

The only other fight that might have made sense for a Nurmagomedov return was the ill-fated Tony Ferguson bout. But Ferguson went 0-2 in 2020 and doesn't look like the man people wanted to fight Nurmagomedov in the first place. I really believe that, at least for right now, Nurmagomedov will stay retired unless the UFC can lure St-Pierre out of retirement for what would be an absolute megafight. The weight wouldn't even matter.

Real or not: Rose Namajunas will challenge for the strawweight title in 2021, and she'll win it back.

Wagenheim: The first part of this should be real. Namajunas is the No. 1 contender at strawweight, the division in which she used to reign. She is in the top 5 of the ESPN women's pound-for-pound rankings, one spot below the 115-pound champion, Zhang Weili. Namajunas has won four of her past five fights and is coming off a July victory over Jessica Andrade, the woman who took the belt from her last year. Namajunas has earned her title shot, and according to what her fiancé/coach, Pat Barry, told ESPN last week, she wants that shot.

Why did Barry have to come out and state the obvious? Because UFC president Dana White had earlier told BT Sport, "Rose does not want to fight for the title."

Maybe it was just a mix-up of communication. Then again, just a few months ago White said Jon Jones didn't want to fight Francis Ngannou after Jones asked for more money to take on the heavyweight KO artist. Flipping the script to put the onus on the athlete is a clever way to unleash social media scorn on someone who doesn't fall in line. Who knows whether the UFC boss was trying that with Namajunas? Suffice to say that a lot of scorn would come bouncing back at White if he opted to book the alternate 115-pound title fight he suggested: Zhang vs. Carla Esparza.

Like Namajunas, Esparza is a former champ. In fact, she won the belt with a submission win over none other than "Thug Rose." But that was back in 2014. In 2021, even with Esparza on a four-fight winning streak, she does not belong in a championship fight while Namajunas is walking the planet, waiting for hers.

So I'm going to go out on what I feel is a fairly sturdy limb and predict that Zhang vs. Namajunas will navigate through some choppy communication waters and be a real thing.

And it'll turn out to be a great title bout, maybe even a classic like everybody's 2020 fight of the year, Zhang vs. Joanna Jedrzejczyk. It wouldn't shock me to see Namajunas step out of the Octagon that night with the belt, but I have to pick Zhang. She's so solid in every aspect of the game, from skills to grit, and with just five UFC bouts on her resume, it feels like she is just scratching the surface of what she can become.