The first pay-per-view event of July always seems to deliver for UFC. The company tends to stack this event in particular with enough star power that everyone from the casuals to the hardcores gets something they like. UFC 239 on Saturday night from the T-Mobile Arena will be no different.
With two title fights, including two of the company’s biggest stars, as well as some rising prospects, this card has the potential to be UFC’s best of 2019. With so much on the line, it’s time to get to the five most important storylines to follow all week from Las Vegas.
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1. Is this the last time Jon Jones fights at light heavyweight? The reigning 205-pound champion has been nothing short of brilliant in his UFC career. Despite his own self-inflicted wounds outside the cage, Jones has managed to avoid ever suffering the shocking defeat at the hands of an inferior opponent. With talk of legacy and all-time greatness filling the air, will Jones finally dare to be great and move to heavyweight after taking on Thiago Santos? The challenger is no pushover, but his opportunity at fighting for the belt is more the product of a cleaned out division short on steady challengers for Jones rather than an earned shot after grinding his way through stiff competition. If Jones is successful in stopping Santos, it will be the 11th different opponent Jones has beaten with the light heavyweight crown on the line. Despite his own reluctancy to discuss a heavyweight future, the clamoring will only get louder after another title defense.
2. The pursuit of immortality rolls on for the “Lioness.” It will be well-documented throughout the week that Amanda Nunes is one victory away from putting her name down as the greatest women’s MMA fighter of all time, if she isn’t there already. Nunes has scored victories — mostly devastating finishes — over the best women’s fighters of her era. Since losing to Cat Zingano in 2014, Nunes has won eight straight fights over the likes of Sara McMann, Valentina Shevchenko twice, Miesha Tate, Ronda Rousey and Cris Cyborg. A win on Saturday over Holly Holm signifies a victory over the last remaining former UFC champion of her era, even though Holm may not be as deserving a challenger given her 2-4 record over the last three years. But with retirement talk now apparently in the rearview mirror, Nunes could be heading on a Jones-like run of title defenses.
3. Let the bad blood runneth over. Ben Askren and Jorge Masvidal will finally square off in the Octagon after months of trash talk back and forth between the two. While Askren seems to be more from the Chael Sonnen school of fight selling, Masvidal has taken things on a more personal level. No matter which way you slice, both guys are operating near the top of their games late in their careers and have seemingly generated the most interest heading into this weekend. And both could stake their claim to the next shot at the 170-pound title with a win, depending on how long it takes for Kamaru Usman to return from injury. Make no mistake, the welterweight division is booming once again, and in part thanks to Askren’s involvement since being traded from ONE Championship.
4. Can Luke Rockhold reinvent himself at 205 pounds? The former middleweight champion is looking to get back into the mix with his debut bout against Jan Blachowicz at light heavyweight. Despite numerous injuries and weight issues in the past, Rockhold has finally decided to not cut the additional 20 pounds and stay in the bigger weight class. And with plenty of chatter that he will be the one to end Jones’ run as champion, Rockhold needs to look the part on Saturday. The biggest question will be how his chin holds up. Rockhold suffered a pair of devastating knockouts to Michael Bisping (to lose the belt) and Yoel Romero before more injuries delayed his return. Moving up in weight can make fighters feel healthier, but as the saying goes, everyone has a plan till they get hit in the mouth.
5. The “Nightmare” isn’t over just yet. You can go ahead and mark me down as one of the people who wrote off Diego Sanchez about three fights ago. Heading into his bout with Mickey Gall in March, I suspected Sanchez would still hold his ground with his incredible toughness and durability, but would eventually meet his match against the younger, more powerful striker. But Sanchez went out and dominated Gall, thoroughly beating him over two rounds to earn Performance of the Night. Sanchez (29-11) has now won two straight and gets another riser in Michael Chiesa on the main card. He might not be in the title picture or at the peak of his powers anymore, but the 37-year-old is still getting it done and bringing excitement to fans.