While most would agree that Jon Jones’ lengthy absences from the Octagon in recent years are a loss for the former champ’s legacy as well as the sport in general, there is at least one expert observer who sees a silver lining.
In his early years in the Ultimate Fighting Championship, “Bones” was an active fighter and remained so well into his championship run; after winning the light heavyweight title from Mauricio Rua, he defended the belt seven times in the next 37 months. Since that seventh defense, however, a series of legal issues and performance-enhancing drug violations have conspired to keep “Bones” on the shelf, and he has fought only once in each calendar year since 2014.
Jones is now set to make his long-awaited return to the Octagon on Dec. 29 in a rematch against Alexander Gustafsson for the vacant light heavyweight title. The pair previously met back at UFC 165 in September 2013 where Jones was given the biggest test of his career by the Swede. Speaking on “The MMA Hour” this week, Brandon Gibson, Jones’ longtime striking coach at Jackson-Wink MMA, claims that thanks to his layoffs in recent years, Jones has avoided much of the wear and tear that his peers and competitors in the UFC light heavyweight division have accumulated.
“He’s not getting his brains battered in [during his time off],” Gibson said. “He’s not getting concussions. He’s taking care of his body and his mind, and this is such a … at this top one-percent, these guys are tough. That’s not an aspect that comes with sparring or anything like that. The time off where we’re not having impact, where his body’s not getting beaten up and broken down, where we’re just continuing to evolve the skill and the technique and the strategy and develop Jon that much more as a martial artist is key. And you said he’s 31, he has a long fight career ahead of him still, and he really feels like this time off has prolonged his career that much more.
“If he was still fighting three to five times a year like he was when he was younger, I think that will burn guys out early,” Gibson added. “I think that’s where you start seeing the guys in their mid-thirties that are slow, that are not reacting, that can’t pull the trigger, that just aren’t recognizing things like they used to, and I think a lot of that comes with just the toll of the training camps in addition to the fights. So just having these kind of pre-camps where it’s just all technical-based, I think has been really good for him. I think it’s going to show in the fight. We had a long layoff before Ovince St. Preux and we had a long layoff before the second DC fight, and he came out sharp and focused, and new in a lot of ways.”
While Gustafsson has only fought five times since their first meeting -- only one more than Jones -- due to a variety of injuries, Gibson believes the Swede has improved significantly as a fighter.
“I think Gustafsson has improved and grown tremendously as a fighter,” Gibson said. “I think he’s become that much more fluid. I think he’s become that much more of a precision striker. I think his wrestling’s gotten better. He’s had these five-round bouts since. I think Gustafsson’s really matured. I think we look at Jon at that [first] fight and think [about] how many more tools we have now, how many more setups, how much more strategy, and how better we are at all the little transitional elements now.”
Because of that improvement, Gibson claims he does not rely mainly on the first meeting between Jone sand Gustafsson to prepare his fighter for the rematch. “I think it’s going to be a very different fight,” Gibson said. “We find ourselves always kind of falling into that fight to study as a baseline like we did with the first Cormier fight, but I find myself watching Gus’ fight with DC or [Jan Blachowicz] or Glover [Teixeira] that much more, to try to pick up trends of his newer style as much as we can.
“I think his confidence has grown,” Gibson added. “I think his confidence with his wrestling has grown. I think his endurance and his cardio and his stamina has grown. We’d be foolish to think that Gus isn’t going to come ready for anything but a five-round battle this time, where, the first fight, I feel like Gus in some ways, he just didn’t have it in the championship rounds, and that’s when Jon was really able to take the lead and do the damage and show why he’s a champion.
“So I think Gus is going to be well prepared cardio-wise, I think his boxing technique and his setups have grown, and his wrestling defense continues to be outstanding,” Gibson continued. “In fights like the [Blachowicz] fight, he had brilliant ground-and-pound and brilliant position and timing on his shots, so Gustafsson’s an all-around dangerous guy.”
In speaking about the rematch, Gibson sounds as excited as any fan, as the pair put on arguably the greatest light heavyweight championship bout of all-time the first time around.
“This second one is so much more than that,” Gibson said. “Everybody knows what an amazing championship fight that first bout was, and this has been a long time coming. Both of these guys have been matched up before and things didn’t work out, so I know they’ve both always had their eyes on each other and we knew that this day would come.”