Esther Lin, MMA Fighting
TORONTO -- Since the UFC announced Vitor Belfort as Jon Jones' UFC 152 opponent, opinion has been split. There are those who are turned off by the decision to elevate a middleweight into a light heavyweight title match, and there are those who are attracted to the old-school randomness of the pairing. For the latter group, one of the few remaining questions about Jones centers around his ability to take a big punch, and whatever your criticisms about Belfort's career, his adeptness at smashing other dudes for fun and profit isn't one of them.
That's one of the reasons that the originally proposed September matchup of Jones vs. Dan Henderson had some intrigue, and Belfort brings the same effect. The big difference, of course, is that Henderson would have been competing on a full camp and with a full tank of gas, while Belfort was faced with limited prep time, so is basically showing up and winging it.
That's an important distinction because of how both men prefer to fight. While Belfort favors the early blitzkrieg (his last five fights have all ended in less than one round), Jones prefers to fight a patient opening five minutes, gather information, and then open up his offense.
Belfort is likely to take that preference away from Jones. Plenty of fighters will tell you that you can lie to yourself about your preparation in camp, but on the long walk to the cage, the truth comes out. Belfort knows that he has limited time to take Jones out, and if he can't get it done in that window, things will probably not end well for him. He'll simply be out of gas, and won't be able to summon his strength when he needs it. Even one of his coaches, Mario Sperry, told me this week that he doesn't think the fight will go more than two rounds.
I agree. Someone's getting finished, and pretty quickly.
Jones opened as a massive favorite of over 9-to-1, and bettors have actually taken the gamble on Belfort, hoping to collect a nice payday in case of an upset. That's understandable, but he's a long shot for a reason.
Belfort's power goes hand-in-hand with his speed, and there is some question about whether that will be compromised by his extra size. As of Wednesday, Belfort was about 217 pounds, according to Sperry, and so that's about what he'll be as he walks into the cage. Coming off a fight against Rashad Evans, Jones probably won't see Belfort as too much faster.
It may not end up mattering all too much. The thing about facing Jones is that you have to find a way to reach your target. Jones's incredible reach gives him a 10.5-inch advantage against Belfort, a long distance to navigate. Add in his frequent kicks, and realistically, it's even more terrain to cover. Belfort will no doubt try to navigate it with his multi-punch barrages, which are designed to send the opponent on the defensive. But Jones is one of the most well-schooled fighters in MMA. He rarely gets credit for his fight IQ, but preparation is his hallmark, which is precisely the reason he turned down the Sonnen fight.
With four weeks to prepare for Belfort, he likely feels fairly comfortable with Belfort's preferred methods of attack, and unless he gets caught in an indecisive moment, he should be able to avoid the power strikes.
Jones simply has more weapons, more ways to win, and is better conditioned for this fight. If Belfort wades inside and doesn't land anything, Jones is more than capable of initiating a clinch, where he has the option for elbows or a takedown. Belfort has decent takedown defense (a 50 percent defense rate, according to FightMetric), but that's usually against fighters who prefer to shoot. Jones likes takedowns from the clinch, and when he's determined to put the fight on the ground, he usually does (63 percent success rate).
The energy required to get back to your feet after a Jones takedown might be too much to ask of Belfort. At 35 years old, on short notice, at a weight he hasn't competed at in five years, he may find himself stuck on the bottom, and as we've seen from Jones' history, that's no place good to be.
The most telling stat about Belfort is that historically, he gets hit more than he lands. Perhaps that's because he trusts enough in his power and chin to take one in order to give one, but that's not a tactic that works well against the one-percenters. At this stage of his career, Jones is an offensive machine, and if you let him get his offense in gear, it's going to be a long night.
Expect an early barrage or two from Belfort, expect Jones to sidestep those rushes and figure out his timing. As Belfort's energy meter depletes, Jones rises. As Belfort begins to slow down just a tick, Jones capitalizes, gets the clinch, takes him down and elbows his way to a stoppage in the late first or early second.
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