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Moving on from Jon Jones: Can Dominick Reyes or Jan Blachowicz create a new light heavyweight era?

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For the first time in nearly a decade, the UFC’s light heavyweight division is about to have a new king. Both Dominick Reyes and Jan Blachowicz have earned this moment — their places at center stage under the spotlight, each poised to launch his era as champion — and yet it is going to be surreal to watch one of them walk out of the Octagon late Saturday night as The Man in one of the UFC’s glamour divisions. That’s because the UFC 253 co-main event will be missing the towering presence that made the 205-pound division a glamour division.

Jon Jones has been the steely-eyed face of the light heavyweight class ever since March 19, 2011, when he won the championship as a 23-year-old MMA wunderkind. Ever since he smashed Mauricio “Shogun” Rua that night to become the youngest ever to wear UFC gold, Jones is unbeaten in 14 bouts, including a record 11 defenses of the title — five of them against one-time champions.

Even when Jones’ misdeeds outside the cage resulted in his being stripped of his title multiple times, the overarching narrative remained that the only person who could stop Jon Jones was Jon Jones. In winning every time he fights, and doing so with panache, Jones has continually fortified the claims of many that he is the greatest ever in all of MMA.

Do you remember the day when the UFC was taken over by a hero?

It happened the day of Jones’ shockingly dominant dethroning of Rua. The Brazilian fighter had a reputation as an intimidating aggressor, coming off knockouts of reigning champion Lyoto Machida and, before him, ex-champ Chuck Liddell. And yet for Jones, stepping into a cage with “Shogun” staring across at him was only the second-scariest task he took on that day.

Early in the morning of UFC 128, as was their custom on fight days, Jones and his coaches had left their hotel in Newark, New Jersey, and gone looking for a place in nature for meditation. They ended up at a park with a waterfall in nearby Paterson, but what they discovered there was not serenity. They stumbled upon a crime in progress, and Jones ended up chasing down a man who had just robbed an elderly couple, tackling him and holding him on the ground until police arrived.

Hours before his historic bid to become a championship fighter, Jones had become a crime fighter.

The “Jonny Bones” legend only grew from there, although many of the stories that followed were considerably less positive. His creativity and calm command amid the hurly-burly of a fight knew no bounds, and we were no less transfixed by his flawed behavior outside the cage than we were what he did inside the Octagon. Through highlight after highlight and the lowest of the lows, Jones has always kept us wide-eyed in wonderment as we tried to keep up with whatever spectacle he would put us through next.

What a tough act to follow.

Reyes and Blachowicz will embrace that challenge when they meet this weekend for the light heavyweight championship that Jones vacated last month to move to heavyweight. It’s tempting to take an Octagon-half-empty view of this title fight, which will help kick off the UFC’s second “Fight Island” run at Flash Forum in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. But it would be shortsighted to allow the absence of Jones to fully overshadow this tantalizing matchup of two fighters on a roll.

Reyes is 12-1, his only loss coming in his most recent fight. That was a challenge of Jones’ in February that went the distance and had many observers — but not the three sitting cageside with scorecards — thinking Reyes won. Undaunted by seeing the belt handed back to Jones that night, the 30-year-old Californian told ESPN, “I’m the uncrowned king right now.”

The coronation comes this weekend, but it might or might not be Reyes’. Blachowicz has had a regal run of late, too, winning his past three fights and seven of his past eight. And yet to characterize the 37-year-old from Poland as a success story would be to spin only half of the tale. As much as anything, Blachowicz is a testament to perseverance. He has had 34 career fights and has been in the UFC since 2014. He lost 4 of 5 inside the Octagon at one point. But that past seems far, far away, and Blachowicz is now right where he belongs.

Saturday night is going to be the end of an era, and perhaps the beginning of a new one. Something lost and something gained.

What is lost with the absence of Jones? Stability. What is gained by his departure? Stability.

The stability lost is the steadying knowledge that there was a North Star in the light heavyweight universe. Everything revolved around Jones. Even when his run-ins with law enforcement and athletic commissions resulted in his championship being stripped away — it happened a record three times — Jones remained The Man.

Of course, the 205-pound division will not miss being weighed down by Jones’ chronic misdeeds. No one knows whether Reyes or Blachowicz will be a good citizen at the top of the mountain, but for now, there’s a clean slate up there. And there is breath-of-fresh-air stability in that.

That will boost the new champion only so far, though, in the eyes of the fans. Over the past nine years, Jones has been a must-see performer, and the UFC has capitalized on this by making him a pay-per-view headliner every time he competes. Reyes and Blachowicz, between them, have been in only one PPV main event — and that was Reyes’ fight with Jones in February, with the challenger the clear B-side. Can either Reyes or Blachowicz evolve into a star around whom the UFC will build its biggest events?

Whichever man wins the championship on Saturday, he will not have the benefit of the traditional head start for a title reign — the big splash that comes with having knocked a high-profile belt holder off his pedestal. Reyes might be fueled by the sentiment among many fans that he got the better of Jones seven months ago, but moral victories do not carry the gravitas of an “And new …!” moment experienced under the bright lights while standing right next to the deposed monarch.

In 2013, Chris Weidman got quite the bump in status when he slayed the unconquerable Anderson Silva. Henry Cejudo became a leading man in the MMA narrative only on the night in 2018 when he ended the everlasting reign of Demetrious Johnson. And would Conor McGregor be the superstar he is if he hadn’t had his moment — his 13-second moment — against Jose Aldo in 2015?

By contrast, consider the career of Johny Hendricks. In 2013, he put Georges St-Pierre through such a brutal title challenge that, even though GSP got his hand raised, the welterweight champ walked away from the sport immediately afterward. Hendricks won the vacant title in his next bout but lost it in his first defense. And from there, Hendricks’ career faded away on a feeble run of five losses in six fights.

That need not be the fate of Reyes or Blachowicz. Both men will step into the Octagon on Saturday night riding hard-won momentum and high hopes. And the man who walks out with the belt will also carry forward an empty canvas on which he can splash his own paint. Maybe he’ll be inspired to create a masterpiece. Maybe he’ll just make a mess of things.

Through it all, though, he will be scrutinized for the simple fact that he never got to disperse the shadow lingering over him: the legacy and artistry of Jon Jones.

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Toronto FC hoping to make MLS Cup run having spent much of 2020 far from home

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On a recent Thursday in Hartford, Conn., Toronto FC goalkeeper Quentin Westberg pondered the dichotomy of wanting to reach MLS Cup on Dec. 12, but also desiring to see his family again. Meanwhile, Jim Liston, the team’s director of sports science, was planning a trip to Lowe’s to buy 15 garbage cans so players could have an ice bath after training. As for manager Greg Vanney, he was fretting about his team’s health and the lack of practice time their schedule was affording.

Such is the life of a team as it attempts to not only navigate its way through the COVID-19 pandemic, but has been forced to do it away from home.

Due to travel restrictions between the U.S. and Canada, TFC — like the league’s other two Canadian teams, Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps — set up a “home” base in the U.S. for the remainder of the season; Toronto were stationed in Hartford. (Vancouver Whitecaps took roost in Portland, ground-sharing with Timbers, while Montreal Impact split use of New York Red Bulls’ facilities in Harrison, N.J.) This was on top of nearly every team spending nearly a month inside a bubble back in July at the MLS is Back Tournament outside Orlando, Florida.

The Reds spent about seven weeks back in Toronto as they played a series of matches against Canadian teams. In mid-September, the remainder of the regular season — and the temporary move to Hartford — beckoned. The vagabond nature of the campaign is what led Liston to joke that he was willing to discuss “whatever five seasons” the team has been through so far. But for Vanney and the players, the campaign has required a special kind of focus.

“A lot of what we’ve done here, and what we try to preach here is just control the controllables, and don’t get too drawn into the things you can’t,” Vanney told ESPN. “Roll with it, and make the best out of whatever the situation is.”

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– 2020 MLS Playoffs: Who’s in, schedule and more
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Toronto has largely succeeded in spite of its odyssey. While there was disappointment at missing out on the Supporters’ Shield to the Philadelphia Union, TFC went 7-3-2 during its Hartford sojourn and finished with the second-best record in the league. But the challenges have still been immense. Simply being out of one’s home environment is difficult enough, but the time spent away from family and loved ones weighs heavy on the psyche, even as Vanney has given players the occasional trip back to Toronto — under quarantine — to reconnect with loved ones.

“It’s just very different, very challenging and emotionally exhausting,” Westberg said of his experience while based in Hartford.

Westberg has arguably had it tougher than most. The TFC goalkeeper is married with four children, including a baby girl who was born in June. For that reason, Westberg and his wife, Ania, made the decision at the end of September that it would be better for her and their kids to head back to his native France so they could be surrounded by family. Westberg called it “the least bad decision,” but there are difficulties nonetheless.

“I’m a very even person, and this year has challenged me a lot,” he said. “I’m still pretty even, but I keep a lot to myself and for sure there’s some difficult days, seeing your family [struggle] from your absence.”

The inability to be home has affected the players and staff in other ways. In Toronto, there are ways of disengaging from the game. Being with friends, loved ones or even in familiar surroundings can be the best medicine in terms of forgetting a bad game or training session. But in Hartford, at the team’s hotel, that escape is nearly impossible even as players try to distract themselves by reading or taking online classes.

“You don’t really unplug,” Westberg said. “You FaceTime family, or this or that, but it’s too short. You’re 100 percent focused on your soccer, and your whole day basically relies on being ready for whatever soccer activity that you have next, whether it’s practice or game. It’s good for your physique, it’s optimal for the way you eat and the way you [train]. But mentally, you’re not as fresh as your body.”

That isn’t to say there are only negatives to the separation. There is also an us-against-the-world mentality that Toronto has adopted, given that their players and personnel are experiencing the season in a way that is vastly different than most other teams. The team staff has done what it can to make their surroundings a home away from home, whether it’s personalizing the locker rooms at Rentschler Field or having hotel staff brand the surroundings in TFC colors. The hotel went so far as to bring in a barista who could consistently give the players their coffee fix. Supporters groups have even sent down banners in a bid to convey the fact that the players are remembered.

The care that TFC takes for players has extended to families back home, with the club supplying meals to loved ones three times a week.

On the logistical side, Liston made sure that one of the gyms used at MLS is Back was brought to TFC’s hotel in Hartford, and he remarked that the food at the hotel is “arguably the best we’ve ever had on the road.”

There have also been efforts to create new routines. Assistant coach Jason Bent, aka DJ Soops, has been in charge of the pregame music selection for the past 18 months — no easy feat for a squad that has a considerable international presence. In Hartford, Bent has set aside Thursday nights to spin music in one area of the hotel. He’ll even go live on Instagram or Twitch for those who prefer to relax in their rooms.

“[We] opened it to players and staff and basically anyone that’s part of our bubble to come relax, listen to music and just enjoy each other’s company,” Bent said. “I enjoy making people happy so if it’s helping everyone even in the slightest, I have no problem arranging the set and spinning.”

For Vanney, the pandemic and operating outside of the team’s home market has meant any number of challenges. He said the team has used three different training facilities in Hartford, with varying field conditions. He recognizes that the trips home are vital for the mental health of his players and staff, but any breaks also mean less time spent on the practice field. The compressed schedule, which at times involved games every three or four days, has had an impact as well. Even the best-laid plans in terms of squad rotation were impacted as minor injuries began popping up.

“We end up with a lot of guys in different positions because they need special kinds of treatment or care to help them get fit and back to health,” Vanney said. “So it ends up being a lot of different things kind of going on all at once, and that’s been the challenge of it.”

Recovery from matches has been complicated by the fact that TFC doesn’t have access to the same level of facilities that it does at home — hence Liston’s emergency trip to Lowe’s to fashion impromptu ice baths for the players. Then there are the different ways the players occupy themselves on the road as compared to home, especially amid the pandemic.

“There’s really no life outside of the hotel,” Liston said. “[At home], you may go walk the dog in the afternoon or go for a walk with your wife or friend or girlfriend or family and you’re out and about. The recommendation [here] is to kind of stay put. So you’ve got a really active population and pro athletes, who we’re asking them to be sedentary the rest of the time, kind of stay in the hotel from a COVID and safety standpoint. That’s not optimal for recovery either.”

There are also the creature comforts of home that are no longer available on the road, which can impact sleep.

“Sleep is the number one tool for recovery, and that’s definitely been a challenge,” Liston said. “We do well-being questionnaires and the scores on quality of sleep, and hours of sleep, just drop.”

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Tom Barlow and Brian White seal Toronto’s fate in a 2-1 win for New York Red Bulls. Watch MLS on ESPN+.

Another change has been same-day travel, which has drawn mixed reactions from the TFC players and staff. Vanney and Westberg are generally in favor, saying it reminds them of when they each played in France. Flying back the same night also means a training day isn’t lost. Liston has a different perspective in that he prefers arriving the day before, and then leaving the same day.

“I think [same-day travel] makes for a really long day,” he said. “And there’s definitely a negative impact on performance, taking three bus rides and a plane ride before your game. You’re getting home — it can be 12:30, but it could also be 1:30 in the morning, and that’s where you know our well-being scores and sleep hours and quality just disappear. When you have so many games in succession, you can’t make up the sleep.”

With the playoffs set to begin for TFC on Nov. 24, the end is in sight, even as it makes for a complex — and even conflicting — set of emotions.

“This is the tricky part. I miss them a lot,” Westberg said of his family. “But in a way I want to see them as [late] as possible in December, because obviously, there’s this idea that we want to do well in the playoffs and we want to keep going. TFC has a history of setting high standards and high expectations. It’s a heavy load to carry but also an exciting one.”

Win or lose, it’s a season they’ll never forget.

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Bettman: NHL is mulling temporary realignment

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The NHL is considering a temporary realignment of its teams for the 2020-21 season due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, according to commissioner Gary Bettman.

Bettman said Tuesday that restrictions on travel across the Canadian border, as well as “limitations in terms of quarantining when you go from certain states to other states” within the United States, could mean the NHL creates a more regionalized alignment for its upcoming season.

“As it relates to the travel issue, which is obviously the great unknown, we may have to temporarily realign to deal with geography, because having some of our teams travel from Florida to California may not make sense. It may be that we’re better off — particularly if we’re playing a reduced schedule, which we’re contemplating — keeping it geographically centric and more divisional-based; and realigning, again on a temporary basis, to deal with the travel issues,” Bettman said during a 2020 Paley International Council Summit panel with fellow commissioners Adam Silver of the NBA and Rob Manfred of MLB.

The NHL board of governors has a meeting scheduled for Thursday which will provide a progress report and possible recommendations for a season format, based on talks between the league and the NHL Players’ Association. The target date for starting next season remains Jan. 1.

Bettman said the league is considering a few scheduling options for the 2020-21 season. Something that’s off the table: playing the entire season in the kind of bubbles the NHL had in Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta, to complete last season. But Bettman said teams opening in their own arenas is a possibility, along with a modified bubble.

“We are exploring the possibility of playing in our own buildings without fans [or] fans where you can, which is going to be an arena-by-arena issue. But we’re also exploring the possibility of a hub. You’ll come in. You’ll play for 10 to 12 days. You’ll play a bunch of games without traveling. You’ll go back, go home for a week, be with your family. We’ll have our testing protocols and all the other things you need,” he said.

Bettman also indicated that the NHL is exploring “a hybrid, where some teams are in a bubble, some teams play at home and you move in and out.”

The NBA’s board of governors unanimously approved a deal with the players’ union that sets the stage for a season that will open on Dec. 22 and with a reduced schedule of 72 games. Silver said that the commissioners are in communication on COVID-19-related issues, especially the NBA and the NHL, since the two leagues’ teams share arenas and, in some cases, team owners.

Silver said he senses that the NBA will have fans in many of its buildings this season.

“We’re probably going to start one way, where we’re maybe a little bit more conservative than many of the jurisdictions allow,” he said. “What we’ve said to our teams is that we’ll continue to work with public health authorities. Arena issues are different than outdoor stadium issues. There will be certain standards for air filtration and air circulation. There may be a different standard for a suite than there will be for fans spaced in seats.”

Silver said there will be standardized protocols that are consistent from arena to arena, such as proximity between players and fans: “In certain cases, for seats near the floor, we’re going to be putting in testing programs, where fans will certify that they’ve been tested — some within 48 hours, some within day of game.” While Silver supported a continued expansion of the NBA postseason through its play-in tournament, Bettman said that he’s not in favor of expanded playoffs or “playing with the fundamentals of the game.” The NHL had 24 teams in its postseason last summer.

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The Battleground States Where We’ve Seen Some Movement In The Polls

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With apologies to The Raconteurs, the presidential race continues to be “steady as she goes,” with little sign of tightening despite a plethora of new polls. FiveThirtyEight’s presidential forecast gives Joe Biden an 89 in 100 shot at winning the election, while President Trump has just an 11 in 100 chance. This makes Biden the favorite, but still leaves open a narrow path to victory for Trump, for whom a reelection win would be surprising — but not utterly shocking.

At the same time, we also have fewer polls from live-caller surveys, which have historically been more accurate and have shown slightly better numbers for Biden, than polls that use other methodologies, such as polls conducted primarily online or through automated telephone calls. Nevertheless, while the overall picture has shifted only a little in recent days, a few battleground states have seen at least some movement in their polls, which has slightly altered the odds Biden or Trump wins in each of those places.

What election stories need to get more coverage | FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast

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