Each week, ESPN.com writer and MMA Live Extra analyst Brett Okamoto provides his take on the hottest topics in the world of mixed martial arts.
This week, Okamoto squares off with UFC middleweight champion Chris Weidman to debate the latest news and trends. Weidman (13-0), who in his last four fights defeated Vitor Belfort, Lyoto Machida and Anderson Silva (twice), will face Luke Rockhold in his next UFC title defense.
1. Now that Jon Jones has pleaded guilty (and avoided jail time) for a hit-and-run charge, when would it be appropriate for the UFC to bring him back?
Weidman: This stuff isn't really in my wheelhouse, but I guess whatever the UFC decides -- and when Jon Jones says he's ready to fight again. Right now, his head is kind of not in the game. Whenever he's on the right track and the UFC feels like he's ready to compete and not get himself in trouble again -- I guess that would be a good time to get him in there. As a UFC champion, you have the responsibility to be a good role model. I think he's made a lot of mistakes and failed a lot in that regard. He has a lot of making up to do, but I think it's time for him to move on, mature, make the right decisions. It could add to his ability to help other people. When people can be honest about the mistakes they've made, it makes them very relatable -- and his mistakes are out in the open. Hopefully this changed him.
Okamoto: I actually don't think Weidman could have put it any better: Whenever the UFC feels like Jones is ready to "not get himself in trouble again." UFC president Dana White was in Albuquerque, New Mexico, for Jones' court appearance. This can be viewed as a show of support -- to me, it's also evidence that White wanted to see Jones in person and evaluate him. If Jones, behind the scenes, appears to be the same guy he was at the start of 2015, I would suggest the UFC tread carefully. Once it brings Jones back and promotes him in a championship fight, it's indirectly stating, "We believe in this guy. He's the kind of guy we want leading the way for us." God forbid Jones were to mess up again, the UFC could very much regret that show of support. End of the day, though, this is the reality: The New Mexico court system says Jones is good to go. The UFC isn't going to be the one to shut him down.
2. Which of the four light heavyweights competing at UFC 192 -- Daniel Cormier, Alexander Gustafsson, Rashad Evans or Ryan Bader -- would you be most excited to see welcome Jones back to the division?
Weidman: Well, Cormier is the champion right now, so you have to give him the respect and say him. But if it's not him, Gustafsson. Gustafsson, I feel, deserved that fight a long time in a rematch. I'm really looking forward to that. Gustafsson was the first time Jon fought somebody his height and his length and it was a crazy, amazing fight. I was there for that fight (in September 2013). That's the fight I want to see again. So, I have to say Cormier, but Gustafsson is an amazing matchup. He could have won that first fight.
Okamoto: The best storyline involves Cormier. Cormier was Jones' fiercest rival. He claimed that No. 1 spot in his absence and he even called Jones out, from inside the Octagon, immediately after winning the belt. That's the most sellable fight. If I, as a fight fan, could see Jones fight only one of these four, though? It's actually Gustafsson. Although it might feel like it was forever ago in many ways, Jones and Cormier really just fought. That fight was in January. What has really changed? Obviously, there is some unknown about how Jones will look after all that's happened, but at the same time -- the fight between he and Cormier didn't really warrant an immediate rematch. Stylistically, I actually prefer Jones vs. Gustafsson.
3. The UFC has announced an event at Madison Square Garden on April 23, contingent upon a judge's injunction on state officials. Gut reaction: Will this event happen or not?
Weidman: My gut reaction is to not get super-excited, because I've been let down with this so many times, to be honest with you. I've had my hopes up so high -- for the December card (the UFC targeted this year). That one didn't happen, and I was so pumped for it. I thought (legalization of professional MMA in New York) was 100 percent happening this year. I was on the inside this time. I was on the phone with the governor. I spoke to (New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo). I was inside all of this stuff, and there was no question in my mind it was happening. Then there were some people who didn't want it to happen and they won. I'm fully supportive of it happening and it's going to be a dream come true, but my focus is on Luke Rockhold, not at Madison Square Garden but the MGM.
Okamoto: Gut reaction is that it will not, although I spoke to resident ESPN legal analyst Lester Munson about the UFC's filing for an injunction. His initial thoughts were that although the UFC faces a major undertaking, he doesn't rule out the possibility of an injunction being granted and this event taking place. Like Weidman, my tendency when it comes to New York is to keep expectations low. Seems like even when professional MMA in New York is essentially a done deal, it ends up being not. If nothing else, though, this is just another example of the lengths the UFC is willing to go to see this thing through. If it doesn't happen on April 23, it's still inevitable to happen at some point.
Weidman: You know, it depends on who he's fighting. He brings a certain fear, I think, because he's radical with his movements and he can hit you with crazy things, so it's a stressful fight. If guys aren't polished, that's a tough fight for them. I definitely think he brings enough to be a contender. Look at Anderson Silva. He was taken down in all of his fights, beaten up on the floor, but he stayed relaxed and eventually got back to his feet -- whether it was the next round or he got up, usually the next round -- he stayed relaxed and tore people apart. So, even though Uriah Hall's jiu-jitsu and wrestling didn't look great in that fight, there's been a great fighter -- like, the greatest fighter of all time -- who made it work.
Okamoto: I thought Hall's performance against Mousasi in Japan was A-plus-plus, but if I'm being honest, I don't quite see him as a legitimate title contender yet. I like Weidman's point on Silva, but I guess my immediate response would be, "But Chris, you knocked out Anderson Silva and took his belt." The UFC middleweight division is not the same as it was during Silva's reign. That's not to take anything away from Silva. Anyone familiar with my work knows I think Silva is the greatest of all time. But you look at the top of that division now, it's filled with versatile, athletic contenders with rock-solid grappling bases. Weidman, Luke Rockhold, Ronaldo Souza, Yoel Romero -- these are all nightmare matchups for someone like Uriah Hall. I think Hall is extremely talented and certainly worth tracking, but if I'm naming the real middleweight title contenders of 2016 -- he's probably not on that short list, no.
5. In light of Rich Franklin's retirement, what is your favorite 'Ace' moment?
Weidman: His fights against Wanderlei Silva and his Matt Hamill knockout. Can I say all three of them? I was a big Rich Franklin fan. He was a match teacher, unassuming guy, who didn't carry himself like an egomaniac or Mr. Tough Guy. He would go out as a humble champion, warrior. So, he was a guy to root for.
Okamoto: Believe it or not, one of the first things I think about when it comes to Rich Franklin's career is this appearance he made (along with UFC president Dana White) in an interview with Bill O'Reilly. And if you read Franklin's statements on retirement and consider his role as vice president for Asia-based fight promotion ONE Championship, instances like that interview are a major part of his legacy. Franklin was a charismatic, intelligent, every-day, normal-looking guy the UFC needed during the dark days when it was trying to change negative public perceptions of mixed martial arts. Franklin will always represent one of those guys to me. As far as his fighting conquests, of course, the Nate Quarry knockout on Nov. 19, 2005, stands out.