Hype can be a funny thing. Too much of it can kill a career before it truly starts, yet not enough of it can keep a talented individual on the outside looking in. In the fight game we see guys (and gals) hyped up all the type. It’s all part of the cyclical nature of any professional sport; when a legend fades away there’s always going to be the next guy in line pegged to take his place.
The UFC light heavyweight division has long been considered the most important weight class in the company, as many of the sport’s biggest stars have called 205 lbs. their home at one point or another. Guys like Tito Ortiz, Chuck Liddell, and Randy Couture carried the UFC for a number of years, but as of late the light heavyweight division has had trouble finding that next guy. At the moment what was old is new again, as Mauricio “Shogun” Rua has captured UFC gold and reclaimed his position as the definitive #1 fighter at light heavyweight. Rua has held the top spot for almost a year even though he’s yet to make his first title defense, but we won’t have to wait too much longer for that.
Conveniently enough, we also won’t have to wait too much longer to see if Jon Jones is the next big thing at 205 lbs. He was supposed to have the biggest test of his career this past Saturday against the undefeated Ryan Bader, but once again Jones has made a legit fighter look like an amateur at a “smoker.” Before UFC 126 it seemed as though Jones was destined for big things in the company, but I’m not sure if anybody could have predicted how quickly those things would get big. After beating Bader badly, Jones got the proverbial bombshell dropped in his lap; Rashad Evans was out, and he was in against “Shogun” next month.
There’s already been some debate as to whether or not this fight makes sense, but to me it absolutely does. Jones is only 23 and has a long career ahead of him. Even if he loses to Rua it’s not as though this will be the end of his title aspirations. Jones is taking a title fight on short notice, and he’s facing the top fighter in the world at 205 lbs. There’s no shame in losing this fight, and with his unlimited potential there’s no reason to think that he won’t be able to make it back to contention again someday. But just how much of a chance does Jones really have?
In my opinion, he’s got a pretty great chance. Jones is heading into the biggest fight of his life fresh off another training camp, while his opponent is coming off of a 10 month layoff. Rua has had numerous surgeries on his knees and whenever he’s come back from that surgery he’s not been able to perform at his highest level (witness his fights with Forrest Griffin and Mark Coleman for confirmation of that). Jones is already at peak physical condition while Rua is going to have a very real case of cage rust. Some people might claim that at the age of 23 it’s too early in Jones’ career to be fighting at this level, but allow me to remind you that “Shogun” won the PRIDE Middleweight Grand Prix when he was 23 as well.
Rua does have one advantage in that he was already training for a fight on March 19th, and he was already preparing to face a wrestler. While I’m sure “Shogun” and his team are already drilling takedown defense, they face a significant challenge in training for Jones. Specifically, there is no real way to prepare for Jones’ striking abilities. He’s got such a massive reach and he uses those limbs so effectively, and on top of that he’s got an unorthodox style trained in the fine art of YouTube-Fu. There nobody else in the world that I can think of who fights like him, so how in the hell is “Shogun” going to find anybody capable of mimicking that?
On top of that Jones has the wrestling acumen to dictate exactly where this fight takes place, and he presents problems from virtually all positions. If he’s not in the position he wants to be in he’s perfectly capable of leap-frogging his opponent to get there (as we saw on Saturday). He doesn’t have the pure BJJ background that Rua possesses but his innovative submissions could still give “Shogun” plenty of trouble. The only place we haven’t seen Jones work from is off his back, but if a powerhouse wrestler like Bader couldn’t get Jones down what chance does “Shogun” have?
Of course, nobody expects the UFC Light Heavyweight Champion to try and take Jones down. Rua is a far more decorated striker, and in his performances against Lyoto Machida he would repeatedly cutting off the cage while implementing a more measured and technical approach to his attacks. Jones’ style has little in common with Machida (save for the fact that each fighter is pretty unique), but Rua is still going to have similar problems with getting in close enough to attack Jones while avoiding any significant counters. One thing working in Rua’s advantage is that we’ve yet to see Jones demonstrate true one-punch knockout power in the octagon, while “Shogun” has already separated several opponents from consciousness in his UFC run.
I expect Jones will look to maintain distance and use his striking to set up the takedown, but one of the things that makes Jones so much fun to watch is his unpredictability. At this point in his career there’s no way to know for sure how he’ll perform against “Shogun,” as there is too wide of a talent gap between the UFC Light Heavyweight Champion and every other opponent Jones has faced. Rua could outclass the young Jones and dominate in his first title defense, or it could be a closely contested five round war that ends in a narrow decision.
We must also consider the third option; that “Bones” is going to straight-up wreck “Shogun” and any other opponents he faces. Jones has the kind of raw potential that’s rarely seen amongst fighters in any weight class, and I don’t think it’s out of the question to believe he’s going to run right through the UFC light heavyweight champ. There’s no way to know for sure until March 19th, and personally I cannot wait.
PHOTO CREDIT – UFC