Jon Jones has history within his grasp on Saturday night. A win against Alexander Gustafsson places him into UFC light heavyweight history with the most title defenses in the company’s history. Tito Ortiz currently holds that spot at five, tied with Jones, and a win Saturday night places the young champion at the top of the division both currently and historically. But his next opponent will be one that is intriguing for those who think Jones only wins because of his size mismatch in the division: 6’5 Swede Alexander “The Mauler” Gustafsson, the first opponent Jones has faced who doesn’t have a significant height and reach disadvantage against the champion.
Fight Breakdown – Jon Jones facing off against someone with his reach proportions is being hyped as the story of the fight. “Alexander Gustafsson is tall” has been hyped but it’s the wrong story. Jon Jones doesn’t win because of sheer physicality alone. It certainly doesn’t hurt … but there’s a reason why he’s the best at 205 by a consistently wide margin.
He maximizes everything he can do and doesn’t do anything he’s bad at.
The one thing we forget about Jones is just how much he keeps improving between fights. Usually guys taper off, or maybe get in better shape than they were before, but fighters don’t consistently improve as much as Jones does between fights on a consistent basis. For a lot of young fighters they might improve a couple of percentage points between fights; Jones has consistently looked at least 10% better every fight against consistently better competition.
It’s a testament to Greg Jackson’s camp for continually helping him improve. You don’t go from being a passable striker to looking like you’ve come from a high level kickboxing background in less than a year if you aren’t putting in the requisite time in the gym to do so. Jones has become fairly known for how hard he works and it’s noticeable in how he fights. He gets better at things during fights you didn’t know he was bad at before; Jon Jones may have been physically gifted to be a world champion but he never rests on his laurels.
It also makes Jones an interesting fighter to guess about, strategy wise, because he finds ways to surprise you. He out struck Shogun Rua, choked out Lyoto Machida and took down Chael Sonnen before finishing him emphatically. He doesn’t have a set pattern to what he does; he’s harder to predict the further along he goes because he adds so much into his game with every fight.
The one thing he doesn’t have this fight will be a significant reach advantage, which he usually has in a fight. That will mean something substantial because Jones has learned to fight tall against smaller opponents. Someone the same size is going to be a different approach for him. The normal inclination would be for Jones to work his kickboxing early, find his distance against the bigger opponent but I wouldn’t be surprised if puts Gustafsson on his back early and keeps him there until he gets the finish.
His wrestling is his biggest advantage and look for him to exploit it early. Gustafsson’s striking and movement has improved to the point where he’s much harder to take down. Phil Davis exposed his poor takedown defense early enough that he changed a large portion of his game around it. He fights much more similarly to Dominick Cruz now than he used to; he uses a lot of footwork and angles to set up his offense.
Unfortunately for Alexander he needs to get in close to Jones based on Jones’ reach alone.
Jones is also too good for Gustafsson’s game of using angles to set up punches, then combinations. He has enough size that on the exit he’s going to eat something big on the exit. This is going to be a fight of adjustments; both fighters have show to be pretty good at adjusting during a fight and that’ll be the key.
Why it matters – This is a history fight for Jones. His streak is already significantly better than Tito’s in every way on a historical basis. He could retire before this fight and he’s easily the greatest light heavyweight in UFC history and can make a claim for that status in all of MMA. He arguably had the best calendar year of any fighter in MMA history in 2011 en route to winning the title … and he’s a prohibitive favorite against nearly any fighter he faces. He has yet to have that moment of trouble that Anderson Silva did against Chael Sonnen the first time; right now the only question is how long he wants to stay at 205 for. He has spoken of specific dates in the past but has also cautioned that it’ll be when 205 becomes a tough cut for him. So far it’s really easy for him and a win here places him ahead of the pack for all time.
Gustafsson winning places him fairly high in the historic upsets list. He has been hyped based on his height and reach but let’s be honest; there’s a reason why Gustafsson’s physical tools, not his wins, are being promoted here. He’s a great fighter, and deservedly ranked, but his last two wins haven’t been as impressive in reality as they are paper. Gustafsson took a fairly clean decision win over Thiago Silva in his native Sweden before blowing the doors off of Shogun Rua in Seattle, of course, but he doesn’t have that signature win over an elite talent. Stopping Te-Huna, Hamill and Jared Hamman are all impressive feats but he has the same problem that Glover Teixiera does: he doesn’t have a win against someone elite. He’s beaten plenty of guys that are very good … but not elite. A win, or a good showing, will do almost as much for him as a win could.
The pick – Jones
Tags: Alexander Gustafsson, jon jones, Mixed Martial Arts, UFC 165