NEWARK, N.J. -- On Friday, temperatures in the city rose above 70 degrees for the first time since last fall. Spring is breaking in the northeast. There is a feeling of freshness, out with the old, in with the new. If you believe in symbolic value, it's a good sign for Jon Jones
. At 23 years old, the light-heavyweight title challenger could become the youngest champion in UFC history with a win on Saturday night.
Standing in his way is proud champ Mauricio "Shogun" Rua
, not an old lion by any means at the age of just 29, yet considered a battle-hardened veteran in a division he's been at the forefront of since the middle of last decade.
Rua is an underdog in the fight according to linesmakers and bettors, but before we crown Jones, we have to acknowledge that there are questions surrounding the wunderkind.
First, and perhaps most importantly, can Jones take a real power shot? That's something we really can't answer with any certainty. For the most part, no one's been able to really get any clean shots on him. Over his last three fights for example, he's been just nine times with standing strikes.
The level of dominance with which he's won has been astounding to watch, but it seems unlikely he will control a match against Rua that decisively from from opening horn to the reading of the official decision. Rua is just too seasoned, knows too many tricks and is too durable for that to happen.
You'd also be right to wonder how Jones will respond to the enormity of the moment. At some point, it might hit him that he's about to be fighting for a championship. It sounds crazy, but athletes are often so focused on what's directly in front of them that they don't consider the bigger picture. But when they do, it becomes a much larger, harder to reach goal. Think of it this way: If I told you to write a paragraph, you'd shrug and get to work. If I told you to write a book, you might be overwhelmed, even if you'd already written a few chapters.
Is he ready to make the jump? Circumstantial evidence looks favorable.
The parallels between the careers of Jones and Rua are similar. Through 13 bouts, both fighters were 12-1. Jones has 10 finishes, Rua had 11.
Jones is going for the title in his 14th bout, when he'll be 23 years, 243 days old; Rua captured the PRIDE Grand Prix in his 13th fight, when he was 23 years, 276 days old. To say both worked on an accelerated learning curve is an understatement.
Among the incredible facts in Jones' collection is the fact that he began training in MMA just over three years ago. When he was anonymously walking into his first MMA class in upstate New York, Rua was already among the best light-heavyweights in the world, a black belt in jiu-jitsu, and had the reputation of a killer.
Could Jones have possibly narrowed such a cavernous gap in such a short time? No. But in some senses, that doesn't matter. There are plenty of reasons to believe Jones can win. First among them is his wrestling. The ease with which Jones has dominated opponents in close quarters has been stunning. He's literally rag-dolled other top wrestlers with alarming success. According to Compustrike, he's completed 20 of 22 takedown tries
in his short UFC career, meaning when he gets his hands on his opponent, that man is going down.
That could be a real problem for Rua, whose only hole in an otherwise complete game has been his defensive wrestling. In his last five UFC fights, opponents have taken him down on nine of 10 tries, and in the 18 fights that comprise his PRIDE and UFC career, opponents have been successful on 68 percent of their takedown tries
(26 of 38 attempts).
That does not bode well for Rua, who far prefers the standup game and has only one submission in his career. Jones has shown a devastating top game, featuring elbows that have become his signature move. During his UFC career, he's landed 64 percent of his ground strikes, the vast majority of which are classified as power strikes.
Even if he can't finish Rua from the position, fighters will tell you there is nothing more exhausting than trying to work your way up from the bottom. Rua was able to get up from a pair of early takedowns in his title win over Lyoto Machida last May, but Jones has a much more decorated wrestling background, making it a more difficult proposition.
On the flipside, Jones has very long limbs that make an attractive target for an opponent hunting submissions, and Rua likes to look for kneebars and leg locks from the bottom. But it's worth nothing that Jones has never been in any particular trouble on the ground, even though he's fought black belts including Andre Gusmao, Stephan Bonnar and Brandon Vera. Because of Jones' length and experience on the ground, Rua will probably look to create scrambles and get back to his feet. If the fight goes to the ground, Jones has the edge.
On the feet, it's a different match. Jones is still a work in progress, particularly with his punching, which shows improvement each time out but is not yet near Shogun's level. His 84.5-inch reach, however, gives him a built-in buffer. Opponents have to wade into him to strike, giving Jones the chance to counter. Given his quick instincts, that's usually what he's able to do, either landing something of his own or clinching into a takedown. The flashy Jones would do well to consider a more conservative style against the more experienced Rua than he usually employs.
Shogun is likely going to attempt to chop Jones down with leg kicks. He generates tremendous power with his technique, and the effect of slowing Jones down will help him in a fight that drags on. He's also more likely to land punches. But one thing struck me in talking to Jones this week. He was keenly aware of Rua's takedown defense difficulties; it was something he brought up, and he actually recited the statistics. That signals that he plans to put Rua on his back early and often, and it's a plan that should work.
The other thing to remember here is these are two athletes fighting on totally different physical schedules. Jones is fighting six weeks after his last match; Rua hasn't fought in 315 days, the second longest layoff of his career aside from a 483-layoff prior to fighting Mark Coleman. How that will effect either is nearly impossible to guess, but history suggests that lengthy layoffs don't often end well.
Jones has the wrestling to decide where this fight takes place. If he thinks and executes strategically, he'll put Rua on his back several times, tire out the distinguished champion and finish him with elbows somewhere around the fourth. It's springtime, and there are winds of change rolling through.