LAS VEGAS -- It's time to take the big step for either Jon Jones or Ryan Bader at UFC 126. They both can't make it. One of them will move on and into the title picture, and the other will be left behind to pick up the pieces.
Until now it's been smooth sailing for each. Bader -- a former NCAA wrestling All-American -- is a perfect 12-0 since turning pro in 2007, while Jones -- also a collegiate wrestler -- has only a minor blip on his 11-1 record, the only loss coming via disqualification for illegal elbows in a fight he was otherwise dominating. Each man also has a signature win. For Bader it was a unanimous decision over respected veteran Antonio Rogerio Nogueira at UFC 119; for Jones it was a first-round thrashing of Brandon Vera.
For two fighters who have had fairly parallel careers, it's notable that oddsmakers and bettors have Jones as a more than 3-to-1 favorite. For those who don't follow gambling, that's a significant number that means Jones is an overwhelming pick to win.
It's easy to get caught up in the excitement that surrounds Jones. He's young (just 23 years old), charismatic, exciting and most importantly, he's good. From the moment he made his UFC debut as a late replacement, he turned heads with a flashy style and willingness to take risks. As he's progressed, his improvements have been easy to spot. His standup has matured, with more complex striking combinations. His clinch strikes have sharpened. And his ground game has become hellacious, with his power elbow strikes becoming something of a signature move.
Bader, on the other hand, has gone undefeated, but not without a bit of criticism for a wrestling-heavy style. The concern is that he's too reliant on an admittedly excellent fallback skill, a shortcoming that may be exploited as he moves up the light-heavyweight ladder in the UFC and opponents are more well-rounded.
Jones should be a perfect foil to determine whether that analysis has any teeth. Remember, it nearly sidetracked Bader at UFC 119, when he scored on six of 12 takedowns, but struggled with his attempts in the second and third rounds as Nogueira began to understand what he was up against. Nogueira doesn't have the wrestling background that Jones does, so things will not come quite so easy against Jones, who has never been taken down in his UFC career (opponents are 0-for-7).
In the standup department, Bader is still a work in progress. He does boast a dangerous right hand that has led to knockouts over Keith Jardine and Vinny Magalhaes, but his striking game isn't overly varied. He sticks with basics and tries to do them well. His kicks have some pop behind them, but he uses them sparingly, and rarely goes upstairs with them. It is, however, important to note that during fight week, Bader said he plans to show a more expanded repertoire in this fight.
One thing Bader might do for the first time is check Jones' chin. Jones has been excellent in the early part of his career, but he's never really faced a big striker for an extended period of time. If the fight between the two prospects settles into a standup affair -- something that often happens between two guys coming from wrestling backgrounds -- we may get our first chance to see just what kind of punch he can take.
If there is one stat to key on for this fight, it's the stunning reach differential. Jones has an 84.5 inch reach (the best in the UFC), while Bader has a 74-inch reach. In open space, Jones will be able to dictate the pace, while simple math tells us if the two throw at the same time, Jones will land first.
The tricky part of that equation for Bader is that Jones also excels in the clinch due to his Greco-Roman wrestling background, and power knee and elbow strikes. Still, I expect Bader to try to crowd Jones and take away distance. He may look for takedowns as often as he usually does, but if they are unsuccessful, I think he'll be content to drive Jones into the cage and try to rough him up a bit. If Jones stuffs his first few takedowns and manages to maintain space, it's his fight to lose.
Jones has a more diverse striking game. He may holster his kicks so he doesn't provide Bader with easy takedown opportunities, but his attack is still varied and dangerous. The wrestling game will likely stalemate. Bader has a better pedigree, but Jones is a actually a better functional MMA wrestler, and he won't be outmuscled. On the ground, meanwhile, Bader has progressed well with his submission defense but his ground and pound sometimes gets stuck in neutral against active opponents.
Most facets of the match favor Jones. Bader's always going to have that powerful right hand and his wrestling ability, and he's still young enough that he'll soon sharpen other weapons alongside them, but for now, Jones appears to have an answer for everything he can do.
Jones is a next-level athlete, and the excitement about him is justified. He's likely to one day hold the UFC light-heavyweight championship, and Saturday's performance will move him one step closer to that ultimate goal. Jones via third-round TKO.
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