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Jon Jones

Tony Tran / Courtesy

UFC champ Jon Jones

The UFC has traditionally relied on historic matchups or megastars to headline the pay-per-view card that caps its annual International Fight Week during Fourth of July weekend. The promotion isn’t doing either this time around. Instead, the UFC is featuring its most dominant male and female fighters in a pair of title defenses at T-Mobile Arena for UFC 239. Jon Jones and Amanda Nunes, both heavy favorites, have reached points in their careers where every outing is a can’t-miss for fight fans. Here’s how they’ve gotten to this point and what to watch from each one going forward.

Jon Jones

Greatest moment

• Light heavyweight champion

• Tale of the tape: 31 years old, 6-foot-4 inches, 205 pounds

• Nickname: Bones

• Fighting out of: Albuquerque, N.M.

• Record: 24-1 MMA, 18-1 UFC

• Successful title defenses: Nine

Defeating Daniel Cormier by unanimous decision at UFC 182 on January 3, 2015, at MGM Grand Garden Arena. Jones has technically beaten Cormier, his archrival and the current heavyweight champion, twice, but the second victory was ruled a no contest after Jones failed a post-fight drug test. Because of Jones’ checkered past, Cormier still ranks as the top pound-for-pound fighter in the world, but anyone who wants to make a case for Jones could cite their first fight. Jones picked apart and wore down Cormier during five rounds in one of the biggest bouts in UFC history.

Lowest point

Serving a 15-month suspension from July 2017

to December 2018 for a failed drug test. There’s no shortage of options, as Jones’ career has been full of controversy, but a second failed drug test after he beat Cormier might have caused the most long-term damage to his legacy. Not only did it keep him from fighting for more than a year during his prime, but it officially branded him as a cheater in the minds of many. Jones has railed against the accusation, and an independent arbiter in the case did conclude that Jones “was not intentionally cheating.”

Biggest strengths

At 84.5 inches, Jones has the longest reach in UFC history. More importantly, he knows how to use it. A fighter can’t lose if he doesn’t get hit, and Jones practically never gets hit. He’s a master at keeping his distance and frustrating opponents, employing a freakish athletic ability to attack them from all angles while staying virtually untouched himself.

Most likely path to defeat

Overconfidence. Citing any route to a Jones loss is a stretch—his only career defeat came by disqualification for illegal elbows in a fight he was dominating—but he does like to challenge himself by beating opponents at their own specialty. That strategy hasn’t backfired yet but might be increasingly risky as he gets older. Jones could eventually be best served by embracing the fighter cliché of “focusing on my game,” which he has typically bucked.

UFC 239 opponent

Thiago Santos (21-6 MMA, 13-5 UFC). The Rio de Janeiro native’s “Sledgehammer” nickname says it all. He hits hard. Santos has the strike-first fighting style most fans love to see. He earned the title shot against Jones by embracing slugfests and going on a vicious run of knockouts. Seven of his past eight wins, including his last three in a row, have come by knockout.

Click to enlarge photo

UFC213 women’s bantamweight champion Amanda Nunes holds her belt as fighters meet with the media at the T-Mobile Arena on Thursday, July 6, 2017.

Amanda Nunes

Greatest moment

• Women’s bantamweight and women’s featherweight champion

• Tale of the tape: 31 years old, 5-foot-8 inches, 135 pounds

• Nickname: The Lioness

• Fighting out of: Salvador, Brazil

• Record: 17-4 MMA, 10-1 UFC

• Successful title defenses: Four

Knocking out Cris Cyborg in the first round at UFC 232 on December 18, 2018, at the Forum in Inglewood, California. Most thought Nunes would forever be best known for retiring Ronda Rousey with a quick knockout on the annual New Year’s Eve weekend card in 2016, but Nunes somehow topped that two years later, in her most recent bout. Sure, it took Nunes three seconds longer in her second banner performance—stopping Cyborg in 51 seconds as opposed to Rousey in 48 seconds—but Cyborg had a longer track record and unanimous reputation as the best female fighter of all-time, having not lost for 13-plus years. Cyborg also fought at a heavier weight, meaning the victory made Nunes the first woman in UFC history to win belts in two different weight classes.

Lowest point

Missing a scheduled title defense at UFC 213 in July 2017 after being hospitalized the morning of the fight. Nunes was set to headline International Fight Week two years ago and capitalize on the notoriety she gained post-Rousey but fell ill after complications from her weight cut. Scheduled opponent Valentia Shevchenko and UFC President Dana White both lambasted Nunes for the cancellation, with White saying Nunes had been cleared to fight and calling the ailment “90% mental.” It seemed like the type of episode that could permanently derail Nunes’ career, but she came back to edge Shevchenko, currently the flyweight champion, via split decision two months later.

What makes her dominant

She’s one of the sport’s best finishers, and she can do it in a number of ways. Not only is Nunes a black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, but her kickboxing has arguably eclipsed her grappling. Both have sunk opponents during her title reign. While vicious boxing combinations doomed Cyborg and Rousey, it was a rear-naked choke that started it all when Nunes forced Miesha Tate to tap out to win the title at UFC 200 in July 2016.

Most likely path to defeat

Leaving herself open and getting caught with strikes. There’s a path to beating Nunes; all three of her losses in a major promotion—to Cat Zingano in the UFC, Sarah D’Alelio in Invicta and Alexis Davis in Strikeforce—have followed a similar script in which she’s gotten dazed with punches. She has shored up her defense in the five years since her last defeat, however, so it’s no longer as easy as it may sound.

UFC 239 opponent

Holly Holm (12-4 MMA, 5-4 UFC). Known as the original Rousey slayer, Holm might be the most technically sound striker on the UFC roster despite enduring several ups and downs since her big win four years ago. She was a world-champion boxer before crossing into MMA and can counterpunch opponents into oblivion.

This story originally appeared in the Las Vegas Weekly.

Article written by #LasVegasSun