Its the biggest fight in recent UFC memory and its been building for a long time, to the point that fans and the two fighters alike are almost sick of talking about Jon Jones vs. Rashad Evans. But it is almost upon us and so once more unto the breach, dear friends, as we analyse the two men’s prospects.
First, the glaringly obvious: Jones is the huge favourite in this fight and rightly so. With a basically perfect professional record - the DQ to Hamill was hardly a ‘lost fight’ seeing as Hamill was close to being sent to the emergency room - Jones has not only dominated his opponents, he has barely shown any sign of being troubled at all.
From his coming out party against Stephan Bonnar - which at the time was thought to be a mismatch in Bonnar’s favour! - to his demolition of Mauricio ‘Shogun’ Rua, shutting out of Quinton ‘Rampage’ Jackson and strangulation of Lyoto Machida, the lanky Jones has been an absolute nightmare for everyone he has faced.
A lengthy recap of Jones’ skills and strengths is hardly necessary given his ubiquity in the MMA news since the win over Bonnar. Suffice to say that his size and reach alone are extremely problematical for opponents not similarly gifted. In some ways he is reminiscent of the long-time K-1 champion Semmy Schilt, except that Schilt never exhibited any of the variety and flair that Jones has.
Unorthodoxy is the new orthodoxy in Jones World. Over the years a lot of MMA fighters have descended into formula with their skillsets - certain jiu-jitsu submissions, certain takedowns, certain striking attacks. But each of the disciplines that makes up MMA can be a lifetimes study in itself and some of the richness is lost in the bog-standard blend that makes up a lot of fighter arsenals.
Where Jones is different is that, in striking terms, he seems to have taken a serious look at Muay Thai and to have made the effort to embrace its variety and understand some of its deeper principles. In MMA, most people seem to consider Thai a destructive attacking art. The subtleties of its defensive style are lost; Jones’ use of such things as the teep to the leg as the attacker comes forward are indicative of a fuller understanding of the art’s possibilities, or at least a working knowledge of them.
His jiu jitsu, I can’t really comment on. We haven’t seen much of his floor work because he has never been put on his back in a fight. From top position we can see that he is highly aggressive, with heavy hip pressure and a fondness for the elbow barrage. He will take the guard pass if it is there but seems more concerned with attempting to destroy his opponent; thus far that’s been a pretty successful route for him.
And so to weaknesses. Does he have any? Of course he does. No professional fighter is perfect. If he was, he could stop training and just make sure he was physically fit for each fight. Of his recent fights, the two that have been most instructive from a challenger’s point of view are the clashes with Rampage and Machida.
Against Rampage, Jones demonstrated - or rather, continued - his tendency to pull back at the same time as he lands strikes, particularly kicks. This seems to be a desire to exit or stay out of the danger zone at the same time as he is entering it to deliver his offense. This robs him of power but Jones’ size and reach make up for that.
However, it leaves him open to being rushed by a waiting opponent who is happy to take say, a kick on the leg, for the opportunity to plant shots on his jaw as a comeback. Rampage could have had far more success in that fight if he had been able to pull the trigger and commit to a forward assault like this. In the event he let himself be frozen up by Jones variety and he was also troubled by the sidekick/push kick to the lead leg. In light of Jackson’s recent decision to undergo knee surgery, it becomes clear why he was so wary.
Machida wasn’t so wary; he committed to the forward counter rush several times and scored big every time. It was the first time in Jones’ UFC career that he looked at all flustered and though Machida ended up in a crumpled heap on the floor, he may well be looked back on as a pioneer on the route to beating Jones. Aside from showing Jones’ vulnerability in that quarter he also showed Jones to be fairly open to the body kick, although that isn’t a route I would expect Evans to go.
Evans could exploit his tendency to move backwards in a different way though. He mixes strikes and takedowns well and it is hard to cover all levels and angles when you are moving backwards at a rate, so a counter-attack forward rush with a power double on the end of it might get Jones to the floor.
Another weakness I see in Jones is that he is predictably unpredictable. His tendency for the exotic means that if an unorthodox shot is an option, he will probably go for it. His spinning back elbow off the single leg, or in the clinch against the cage, has now become very readable for opponents - look how many Rampage was able to duck under and avoid.
Evans has much faster reflexes than Rampage plus he’s more than familiar with Jones’ flair for the unusual. And Jones’ lexicon of such techniques actually isn’t that deep - the spin back kick, the jump knee, the teep to the leg and the spinning back elbow make up most of it. If any of those are an option in any given circumstance, it is likely that Jones will look for them and that makes them easier to see coming.
Jones’ variety does make him dazzling and he has turned opponents into the proverbial ‘rabbit in the headlights’ as they freeze up and fear to come forward, minds awash with calculations about which shot Jones might put on them as they move in. That desire not to get hit with anything at all means they end up stuck on the outside of his range, exactly where he wants them.
It takes a certain amount of mental fortitude to overcome that and force oneself to commit. And judging by Machida’s performance, the chances are that if you do commit you can get results (if you avoid being stunned then throttled). Things like the push- or side-kick to the leg are largely just an annoyance yet they register in the brain as another hit and so the fighter begins to fear them the same as a punch to the head. Resolving to accept it, move past it and deliver a counter seems a viable route to me.
The final weakness might be mental. Jones is so keen on self-talk to boost his confidence that I wonder about the solidity of his confidence’s foundation. His performances have been self-assured no doubt, but I am certain that Jones feels the pressure much more than he lets on. With so much riding on this fight, what effects will that have on him? Or if he gets cocky or wants to try and humiliate Evans will that lead to him taking unnecessary risks, or allow Evans to bait him into close-quarter exchanges that he doesn’t need to be in?
There’s been a lot of talk about all this, and there will continue to be for the next 24 hours. But on Saturday night all these questions and more will be answered in the main event of UFC 145. And if nothing else, the fight will finally free Jones, Evans and the fans from endless discussions of feelings towards Greg Jackson and who beat who in sparring.