Jon Jones, despite his flaws and the headaches he often causes outside of competition, is undeniably a key player in the mixed martial arts world. He’s the reigning Ultimate Fighting Championship heavyweight titleholder and a pound-for-pound ace. However, he’s yet to set a firm return date after suffering a torn pectoral muscle during training in October.
Jones, 36, made his first appearance in 1,120 days at UFC 285. There, he defeated Ciryl Gane with a first-round guillotine choke, claiming the undisputed heavyweight crown on March 4. Unfortunately, his injury dashed any hopes of a relatively quick comeback. Despite this, the Rochester, New York native is still widely regarded as the greatest fighter of all time.
While Jones recovers, potential competitors are lining up. Stipe Miocic, the opponent Jones was preparing to face when he was injured, could still be a contender. However, Miocic turns 42 in August and hasn’t set foot inside the Octagon in nearly three years, making him a less desirable option in many respects.
Tom Aspinall, the newly established young lion of the heavyweight division, doesn’t face such criticisms. The 30-year-old Team Kaobon product captured the interim championship with a 69-second knockout of Sergei Pavlovich at UFC 295 on Nov. 11. Aspinall has a 7-1 record in the UFC, his only setback being a non-contact knee injury suffered just 15 seconds into his July 2022 encounter with Curtis Blaydes.
Jones-Aspinall is just one of the fights we want to see in 2024. Here are nine more:
Conor McGregor vs. Michael Chandler: Four-plus months after their stints as opposing coaches on Season 31 of “The Ultimate Fighter,” it’s still unclear whether their promised match will actually happen. McGregor, now 35 and past his prime, hasn’t fought since he broke his leg in his second straight loss to Dustin Poirier at UFC 264 on July 10, 2021. By the time he steps back into the cage, more than four years will have passed since his most recent win—a pre-pandemic stoppage of Donald Cerrone in January 2020. Chandler, on the other hand, last competed at UFC 281, where he submitted to a third-round rear-naked choke from Poirier on Nov. 12, 2022. The three-time Bellator MMA champion turns 38 in April.
Cristiane Justino vs. Larissa Pacheco: Justino continues to set the standard for women’s mixed martial arts. The former Strikeforce, UFC, and Bellator champion is heading into 2024 with a new frontier on the horizon as she joins the ranks of the Professional Fighters League. The situation couldn’t be better for fresh matchmaking for the Brazilian juggernaut. Two-time Olympic gold medalist and two-time PFL women’s lightweight titlist Kayla Harrison has already publicly called her shot. Even more intriguing is the potential showdown with Pacheco, a two-division PFL champion and one of the few women on the planet who can perhaps match “Cyborg” in the horsepower department. Pacheco, 29, has posted 10 consecutive victories, seven of them first-round finishes.
Islam Makhachev vs. Justin Gaethje: Makhachev has taken the lightweight mantle from longtime mentor Khabib Nurmagomedov and run with it as the undisputed king at 155 pounds. His 2023 campaign, though only featuring two appearances, was historic and cemented the Russian as one of the sport’s pound-for-pound greats. Makhachev endured a hard-fought unanimous decision over reigning featherweight titleholder Alexander Volkanovski at UFC 284 in February, then defeated the Australian dynamo with a head kick and follow-up punches in the first round of their UFC 294 rematch on Oct. 21. On the other side of the equation, Gaethje needs no introduction. An all-time fan favorite, the former World Series of Fighting champion poses a serious threat to anyone he encounters and carries plenty of momentum following his sensational head kick knockout of Poirier at UFC 291 in July.
Leon Edwards vs. Shavkat Rakhmonov: Once overshadowed by more abrasive personalities like Kamaru Usman, Colby Covington, and Nate Diaz, Edwards has turned the 170-pound weight class into his personal hunting ground as the incumbent welterweight champion. The Team Renegade star has a 12-0 record with one no contest over his past 13 outings—an eye poke prematurely ended his 2021 confrontation with Belal Muhammad, who figures to have plenty of say-so in divisional matters moving forward—and hasn’t experienced defeat in more than eight years. With Usman and Covington likely on the backside of their respective careers, the time has come for the next wave of welterweight contenders to make their move. At the front of the line stands the undefeated Rakhmonov. The Kill Cliff Fight Club thoroughbred improved to 17-0 at UFC 295, where a deftly executed rear-naked choke made him the first man to ever submit Stephen Thompson on Dec. 16.
Alexander Volkanovski vs. Ilia Topuria: His two-division aspirations on hold for the foreseeable future, Volkanovski now turns his attention back to the featherweight division. He has still never lost at 145 pounds. Volkanovski heads back to the division he rules after another failed attempt to capture the undisputed lightweight crown from Makhachev. The 35-year-old Aussie last defended his featherweight championship at UFC 290, where he buried “The Ultimate Fighter” Latin America winner Yair Rodriguez with punches in the third round of their pairing in July. Next up: a challenge from the unbeaten Topuria in the UFC 298 main event on Feb. 17. All signs point to a worthy test on paper. Topuria, 26, sports four finishes among his six UFC victories and further strengthened his resume in June, when he improved to 14-0 overall and outpointed Josh Emmett to a unanimous decision in their UFC on ABC 5 headliner.
Sean Strickland vs. Khamzat Chimaev: It seems everyone wants a piece of Strickland at 185 pounds, even after he outclassed Israel Adesanya and emerged as one of the more unlikely middleweight champions in UFC history on Sept. 9. The Xtreme Couture rep leans into 2024 on the strength of a three-fight winning streak, with a number of potential foils nipping at his heels. Strickland draws his first assignment of the new year in the UFC 297 main event on Jan. 20, when he faces South African upstart Dricus Du Plessis; the two men provided a real-time preview of their forthcoming confrontation when they infamously brawled in the stands at UFC 296. Should he clear that formidable hurdle, options for Strickland abound and include a possible rematch with Adesanya. Chimaev, meanwhile, announced his arrival as a primetime player in the middleweight division with a majority decision over Usman at UFC 294 in October. The volatile Allstars Training Center product now sits at 13-0 with 11 finishes.
Alexa Grasso vs. Weili Zhang: While Grasso may have some unfinished business with Valentina Shevchenko after they fought to a split draw in their Sept. 16 rematch at UFC Fight Night 227, the current women’s flyweight champion has no shortage of would-be successors from which to choose—inside her own weight class and elsewhere. Zhang reclaimed her perch atop the women’s strawweight division with a rear-naked choke submission of Carla Esparza in November 2022, then retained her title with a woefully one-sided five-round unanimous decision over Amanda Lemos at UFC 292 nine months later. Countrywoman Xiaonan Yan and the undefeated Tatiana Suarez figure to be next in line at 115 pounds, should the champion look in their direction. However, a superfight with Grasso and the opportunity to become a rare simultaneous two-division champion—the two have already tossed around the idea on social media—would likely be more than enough to lure the 34-year-old Zhang out of her comfort zone.
Sean O’Malley vs. Merab Dvalishvili: O’Malley now bears the weight of the bull’s eye at 135 pounds. The hubris-infused MMA Lab export and the man everyone seems to love to hate quieted his detractors in August, when he wiped out Aljamain Sterling with punches and laid claim to the undisputed bantamweight crown in the UFC 292 main event. A rematch with the last man to defeat him awaits O’Malley, as he risks his title for the first time against Marlon Vera at UFC 299 on March 9. Meanwhile, the indomitable Dvalishvili, having established himself as the division’s resident boogeyman, lurks in the shadows. The Serra-Longo Fight Team powerhouse has pieced together a career-best nine-fight winning streak that spans nearly 2,000 days. Dvalishvili last competed at UFC Fight Night 221, where he completed 11 takedowns on his way to a unanimous decision over former champion Petr Yan in March. He faces Henry Cejudo at UFC 298 on Feb. 17.
Alex Pereira vs. Jamahal Hill: Few martial artists inspire fear quite like the surgical 6-foot-4 Pereira. Freed from the harsh weight cut he was forced to endure at 185 pounds, “Poatan” moved up in the world when he wrecked Jiri Prochazka with a volley of second-round elbows at UFC 295 in November and exited the Octagon with the light heavyweight championship strapped to his waist. That title once belonged to Hill, who had to relinquish his hold on the 205-pound throne after he suffered a ruptured Achilles tendon in July. He should return to the cage sometime in the middle of 2024, at which point he figures to put out an APB on the whereabouts of the undisputed light heavyweight crown.
Honorable Mentions: Islam Makhachev vs. Charles Oliveira, Weili Zhang vs. Xiaonan Yan, Sean O’Malley vs. Marlon Vera, Jon Jones vs. Stipe Miocic, Leon Edwards vs. Belal Muhammad, Alexa Grasso vs. Erin Blanchfield, Cristiane Justino vs. Kayla Harrison, Sean Strickland vs. Dricus Du Plessis, Francis Ngannou vs. Renan Ferreira, Israel Adesanya vs. Khamzat Chimaev, Alexandre Pantoja vs. Muhammad Mokaev, Magomed Magomedkerimov vs. Jason Jackson, Holly Holm vs. Miesha Tate, Impa Kasanganay vs. Vadim Nemkov, Michael Page vs. Michel Pereira, Cody Garbrandt vs. Dominick Cruz, Alex Pereira vs. Magomed Ankalaev, Jamahal Hill vs. Jiri Prochazka.