The somewhat meteoric rise of Jon Jones from prospect, to contender, to the youngest champion in UFC history, has been well documented. Jones brings to the table a wide range of top level skills. One of the big reasons for his enormous amounts of success is that his skill-set is among the most unorthodox in MMA. He also has an advantage in the fact that he holds the longest reach in promotion at 84.5 inches. This allows him to showcase his wide range of kicks and more-flamboyant strikes. He also holds an excellent Greco-Roman wrestling game along with very high level submission skills. Looking at the numbers, since joining the UFC he has had ten fights, dropping only one to Matt Hamill due to disqualification after using illegal 12-to-6 elbows from the mount in what was an otherwise dominant performance.
Since successfully defending his title for the second time on Saturday against Lyoto Machida, speculation has been high about which top contender would get next crack at the champ. Over the past few months several top contenders have tried to lay claim to the coveted #1 contender spot. However, regardless of who emerges, will he fare any better than Machida did?
Rashad Evans has been the heir apparent since going on a three-fight run since losing the title back in May of 2009, but “Sugar” ‘Shad has been hampered by a sequence of injuries that have stopped his title fight chances in their tracks. Since the Ultimate Fighter winner has been on the sidelines, veteran and future Hall of Fame fighter Dan Henderson defected from Strikeforce to face former champ Mauricio Rua in a fight that many expected to earn the victor a title shot. Their clash happened last month and is now widely known as one of the best fights in the promotions history, a back and forth fracas earning ‘Hendo’ a Unanimous Decision and a improving his streak to four straight impressive victories.
The third big contender is the perpetual underdog Phil Davis. Whilst Davis has flown under the radar for much of his UFC career, not necessarily providing fireworks despite his success, he’s still coming off a series of solid and tough performances. “Mr. Wonderful” has an excellent wrestling pedigree, good submission skills, the ability to box, and knockout power in his hands. Davis is now scheduled to face Evans at UFC on FOX 2 with the man emerging with his hand raised also coming out of things as the top 205-pound contender.
The big question is can any of these contenders beat a consistently improving “Bones” Jones? To answer this we need to think about how Jones beats people. The dynamic 24-year old uses his unorthodox striking to disrupt his opponent’s stance so that his adversary is more worried about getting hit with a spinning back elbow or a flying knee than he is about getting taken down. He uses these strikes to set up the takedown, a strategy proving to me successful a lot more often than not. Once on the ground he can use his superior ground-and-pound skills which have been displayed in the fights against Brandon Vera, Vladymir Matyushenko, and most recently Machida who suffered a deep cut on his forehead with virtually the first elbow Jones landed. Adding to the conundrum, even if he is unable to get strikes in from the top, Jones often uses his long, slim arms to secure a choke.
Jones had a little trouble figuring out Machida’s striking technique and timing and may well have lost the first round, at least in the eyes of armchair officials. Evans may be able to take advantage of this based on having very good wrestling and solid boxing skills. He is known for being an aggressive striker and we have never really seen Jones under pressure in a striking situation. As for Evans’ grappling, though we have never seen Jones off of his back, or even on the wrong side of a clinch, I don’t anticipate it being a big issue in the fight. In fact it may be in Evans’ interest to keep the fight standing and use his speed and technique to get inside and use his hands. I am also frankly amazed that no one has taken the strategy of consistently kicking Jones insanely thin legs, as it could be a massive problem for the champion if anyone decides to go that route. I give Evans a chance as long as he stays standing but if Jones can take it to the ground and start beating on him then I can’t see him coming out with a ‘W’.
Davis is an excellent wrestler with decent stand-up, plus he poses a few problems that Jones hasn’t encountered before. First, Davis is the first fighter Bones would facedthat may well be able to out wrestle him. He has a good reach at 79 inches but doesn’t have the stand-up skills that Jones possesses so that’s a moot point. Jones would need to keep the fight standing or risks losing points from the scorecard. As I said we haven’t seen Jones on his back yet and can’t assume wrestling skills from the bottom, but if Davis can take Jones down and hold him there he would stand a very good chance. That level of ground-control, in my opinion, would be the key to this fight and beating Jones in general.
Finally, Henderson has fought a “Who’s Who” of the MMA world over the last 10-15 years. He has been a champion in every promotion he has fought for with one belt eluding him so far – a UFC title. He had an impressive performance against ‘Shogun’ and vaulted himself towards the upper echelons of the division with the gutsy, glorious performance. Henderson’s highlight reel is one of the best in MMA. His skill set includes excellent wrestling, good boxing, and put-you-to-sleep power in both hands. That being said, the question is can Henderson keep up with the speed of the 24 year-old Jones? If ‘Hendo’ can catch Jones with a decent shot there’s no question he could put him on his back in an instant. However, I don’t see him taking Jones down and keeping him there, nor do I think keeping the fight standing would be an effective strategy for Jones. The key to this fight would involve whether or not Jones could close the distance on ‘Hendo’ without taking shots, then take him down and be effective on top.
Jones brings a skill set that is completely unique and therefore very difficult to train for. He is the future, and very much the present, of the divisio, and I don’t see him being beaten any time soon. Expect to see “Bones at the peak of his weight class for many years to come.
PHOTO CREDIT – UFC