It’s been odd the past couple weeks as the hype for UFC 159 has gotten closer. The hype hasn’t kicked in and even the pre-fight media presser felt more like Chael Sonnen being Jon Jones’s PR guy instead of his opponent. You can’t mistake Chael’s lack of trash-talking for him conceding defeat to the champion beforehand; Jon Jones is in for a heck of a fight on Saturday night, which also factors in for historical purposes too.
Fight breakdown: This is a fairly easy fight to break down because one fighter will relentlessly try to impose his game plan come hell or high water. This fight comes down to whether or not Chael Sonnen can take Jon Jones down. If he can he can take home a UFC title. If he can’t his evening might be shorter than the allotted 25 minutes.
Sonnen works a grinding top position game he works out of some slick boxing setups. On top Sonnen’s positional game is relentlessly grinding; he’s shown submissions in the past but not all that often. Sonnen works a variant on Randy Couture’s game: get the takedown and top position, work out of guard and slowly get into better position with strikes. His goal is going to be to close the gap, prevent Jones from using his reach advantage and make this an exceptionally boring fight. Chael’s game is based around his ability to use the best wrestling in MMA outside of GSP and take down the guy who has never been taken down in his entire MMA career. It’s a big task but Chael’s good enough to do it; look for him to rush forward early and shoot as soon as Jones starts flashing low kicks.
Sonnen’s takedown game is the key to him winning and it has to work for him to win, pure and simple. He doesn’t have any advantage over Jones besides this and he has to take him down, and keep him down, to win. Chael’s a gritty and durable fighter who’s fought his way up the ladder on more grit and determination than athletic ability. He’s not a great athlete but he works so much harder that it translates over in a much more effective way than those who merely just “work hard.” Sonnen’s the MMA equivalent to Wes Welker; he’s a plucky hard-working guy who maximizes what he’s been given to an absurd degree.
The former U.S Olympic alternate in Greco also brings in something Jones has yet to contend with: unrelenting pressure. There have been points in his title defenses where Jones has broken guys mentally and the finish came shortly thereafter. Sonnen could be down on all the scorecards going into the fifth and he won’t quit against Jones. He’s going to have a fight for all five rounds and has the cardio to push Jones at a harder pace than anyone he’s taken on before. What he lacks in a lot of things he’ll make up for in sheer guts and toughness; never underestimate a man with nothing to lose.
Jones is going to come out and need to do two things: establish his range and stay off his back. The champ uses his jab and his length better than anyone in MMA, you could argue, and he needs to throw compact strikes and keep Chael at distance. Chael is going to want to get inside as quick as possible and Jones needs to make him pay for trying. He needs to work on taking out Chael’s legs with kicks early on, to slow down that takedown assault, and be aggressive. Chael’s takedown game works because guys don’t want to engage with him, to leave that opening, and Jones needs to take the fight to Sonnen.
Jones is prepared to be taken down, as he’s stated he’s worked off his camp much more this time than before, and while his takedown defense is immaculate he has to face the potential scenario that he could be on his back for one to two rounds. We don’t know how good Jones is off his back; plenty of wrestlers struggle in that regard because it’s a foreign concept of being offensive with your shoulders on the mat. Its one thing to train in a gym but working off your back in a fight is another beast altogether.
Much has been made about Sonnen being a smaller fighter and height wise it’s true but on a practical level there isn’t a huge difference between the two. Sonnen was a big light heavyweight who cut to 185, perhaps to his detriment at the end, and now has less of a cut. Physically Jones is taller but Sonnen is a lot thicker. Having met both in person I can say that Sonnen’s size disadvantage won’t be nearly as pronounced; Jones is a massive guy but Sonnen’s going to come into the cage nearly as big. Both men cut from 220-235 or so to get to 205; Jones just doesn’t carry it as pronounced as Sonnen does because he’s longer and taller.
Why it matters: The UFC light heavyweight title is probably the most prestigious title in combat sports; say what you want about the heavyweights but the UFC made their bones for a long time by having the best division in MMA at 205 and under. A who’s who of talented fighters have fought for and held that title; it’s a recent historical anomaly that Jones has held the title and been so dominant. The trend has been for the title to turn over regularly instead of the division’s origins with both Frank Shamrock and Tito Ortiz being dominant champions with multiple defenses.
Jones will actually tie Ortiz’s record for LHW title defenses with a win Saturday night at five and signs that his stay at light heavyweight are coming to a close are there as well. Jones has said a lot of things about moving up, et al, but he also keeps making 205 easy. I think Jones stays at 205 until the cut gets too hard for him, actually, and so far that doesn’t seem to be the case. He loses a lot of his physical gifts at heavyweight that he has and staying here as long as possible isn’t the worst thing in the world.
For Sonnen it’ll prove 99.9999% of the world wrong who thinks he has no chance. Even a close decision loss for him is more of an upset than anything else but a win here and the MMA world shifts on its axis. This would be as big as Werdum choking out Fedor level upset or Serra knocking out GSP.
Tags: Chael Sonnen, jon jones, Mixed Martial Arts, UFC 159