Jon “Bones” Jones has won nine straight fights, finishing eight of them. | Photo: Dave Mandel/Sherdog.com
For the first time since he became the youngest champion in Ultimate Fighting Championship history, Jon Jones will be defending the belt against an opponent who can look him directly in the eye. Yes, Alexander Gustafsson is tall, but he will have to be more than that if he is to dethrone the reigning light heavyweight king in the UFC 165 headliner on Saturday at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto. Thus far, Jones has outclassed a laundry list of high-profile opposition, causing some to call for “Bones” to pick on someone his own size in the weight class above him.
For now, there is no need to ponder Jones’ viability as a heavyweight, as Gustafsson and Glover Teixeira -- if Jones wins -- await. Those who have been watching closely know Jones’ championship tenure has been more about skill than sheer size. Meanwhile, another title holder, interim bantamweight champion Renan Barao, looks to extend his unbeaten streak to 31 fights against the power-punching Eddie Wineland in the co-main event.
Here is a closer look at UFC 165, with analysis and picks:
Sherdog Fantasy MMA: UFC 165 Free Fan Pick’Em
UFC Light Heavyweight ChampionshipJon Jones (18-1, 12-1 UFC) vs. Alexander Gustafsson (15-1, 7-1 UFC)
The Matchup: Once upon a time, UFC commentator Mike Goldberg said Jared Hamman and Gustafsson were similar fighters, reasoning that both were tall and liked to strike prior to the Swede’s Octagon debut. While “The Mauler” has become a much more proven commodity in the three-plus years since he knocked out Hamman at UFC 105, his height remains the dominant theme as he prepares to challenge for the light heavyweight title.
Like a dog on a rawhide chew toy, the promotion is clinging to the notion that Gustafsson’s 6-foot-5 inch frame makes him the most even matchup of the 6-foot-4 Jones’ Octagon tenure; witness the UFC 165 advertisements with an unyielding emphasis on height. Of course, the measureable that has gone unmentioned during this Gustafsson-is-the-most-dangerous-opponent-for-Jones campaign is reach, an area where, depending on whether you believe Gustafsson or the UFC’s figures, the champion will own either a very significant eight-inch advantage or, at the very least, a three-inch edge.
Still, popular opinion is easily swayed, and Jones comparisons, however inaccurate they may be, have been gaining momentum since Gustafsson toppled Thiago Silva in the UFC on Fuel TV 2 headliner in April 2012. It is because of that perception that Jones targeted “The Mauler” after defeating Chael Sonnen at UFC 159.
In reality, Gustafsson’s best chance to dethrone the sport’s most dominant talent resides in his intelligent footwork and lateral movement, not his length. Thus far, only Lyoto Machida has been able to confound Jones on the feet, and even that lasted only a round before “Bones” was able to impose his will. No one is going to confuse Gustafsson for Machida, but his timing, lateral movement and ability to land a varied striking arsenal in combination are valuable assets, provided he can find the range to land anything of significance.
Gustafsson has overwhelmed wrestling-minded foes such as Matt Hamill and Vladimir Matyushenko with his speed and striking, but neither of those men resembles Jones in terms of physical tools and athleticism. In fact, Gustafsson has probably been the superior athlete in the majority of his fights since losing to Phil Davis via submission at UFC 112 in a bout in which he mounted virtually no offense before tapping out in round one.
One major issue for Gustafsson will be his lanky frame. Thus far, only Davis has been able to bully the Swede, but Jones, with his Greco-Roman background, should be able to overpower his adversary in all close-quarters encounters. While Gustafsson’s takedown defense is above average, Jones is simply too strong and proficient in the clinch to be denied. Time and time again, “Bones” finds creative ways to get his opponents to the mat, and once there, he begins the process of breaking their spirit with overwhelming ground-and-pound, most notably his notorious elbows. Gustafsson is decent in scrambles, but he will find it difficult to create openings for submissions or sweeps against Jones, who uses his long frame and limbs well in dictating action from top position.
Gustafsson has displayed some solid power to go with his versatile standup repertoire. In addition to jabs, uppercuts and straight left hands, he can land kicks to the legs and body and knees in the clinch. Jones has not yet displayed true one-shot finishing ability on the feet, but his creativity in mixing punches, elbows and kicks is more than enough to keep Gustafsson occupied.
The Pick: To pull the upset, Gustafsson will have to keep Jones off-balance with his striking -- a tall task to carry out for 25 minutes, especially considering that the champion has plenty of firepower himself. Eventually, Jones will have his way in the clinch and on the ground against the Swede, and a barrage of his patented elbows will either lead to a TKO stoppage or set up a submission. A venture into the championship frames is possible but unlikely. Jones gets it done by round three.
Next Fight » Renan Barao vs. Eddie Wineland