How do you do something no one else has been able to do? If you're Chael Sonnen, that is the championship question. There is as of yet no blueprint for beating Jon Jones, unless you count letting him take you down and hit you in the face so many times that he gives into frustration and elbows you illegally, causing himself a disqualification, and yourself some stitches. But beating him in any meaningful, sporting way? It's never been done. He's never been out-struck in a bout, never been taken down, faced only a few fleeting moments of true adversity.
He's proven his ability to take a punch, he's seemed to master fighting at distance and within the clinch, and he's simply overwhelmed opponents on the ground. What else is there?
To answer this, I enlisted a member of Sonnen's training team, as well as one of his longtime friends, the health, conditioning and dieting guru Mike Dolce.
Dolce has worked with Sonnen since 2004, when he was hired as the strength coach at Team Quest. He's been with Sonnen through the highs and lows, and has as good a read on the UFC 159 title challenger as anyone.
"Chael wins the fight with pressure," he said. "Chael's going to be in better shape. He's going to have more pressure, more intensity. He’s a move-forward guy. Jon's not. Jon likes to counter. Chael doesn't counter. It's going to be a lot of moving forward. It’s going to be an ugly fistfight in a phone booth. That’s the way he beats Jon Jones."
It's a theory, but whether it has any practical application remains to be seen. Jones, after all, has only been to a decision once in title bouts, when he went the distance with Rashad Evans. In that fight, stamina seemed to be no issue for him. While it's true that Evans does not use the same relenting pressure that Sonnen is known for, Jones still had his highest-output round in the fifth and final round, when he pumped out 53 strike attempts. In addition, he's also finished Quinton Jackson and Vitor Belfort in the fourth, illustrating that he still holds on to his firepower as the fight progresses.
The biggest problem with the Sonnen theory is that there are not many variables in it. As Dolce acknowledges, Sonnen (27-12-1) has a straight-forward style. He comes at you, gets in your face, tries to take you down. There is not much variation to this theme. He lives and dies by it.
That is duly noted by Jones, as he explained when I asked him why he thought Sonnen had never been able to get over the hump to win a championship.
"He hasn't evolved much," he said, before launching into a lengthy answer about Sonnen's predictability. Jones, you see, is a committed tape-watcher. He's an observer who likes to pick up habits and preferences. In that way, his mind is as big a weapon as his much-discussed 84.5-inch reach. And he certainly believes he has Sonnen figured out.
"He’s been fighting that same exact style for so long, same way," he said. "When he shoots his head goes to the same side, when he grounds and pounds, he usually likes passing guard to the same side. He’s susceptible to the same submissions. He jabs the same way, he crosses the same way, he hooks the same. It’s all been the same for years. I don’t understand how he’s so successful with it. I’m not going to allow that to happen to me, to know what he has and still allow it to work on me."
It is Jones' blend of athleticism and intelligence that has the fight considered to be lopsided in the first place. Jones (17-1) is a 10-to-1 favorite. Statistically speaking, he does nearly everything better than Sonnen. He lands more strikes per minute (3.92 vs. 3.24), lands at a higher percentage (52 percent to 44 percent), has a slight edge in offensive takedown percentage (64 percent to 60) and while Jones has never been taken down in his career, Sonnen has a 71 percent takedown defense percentage.
The big problem when it comes to forecasting a Sonnen win, past everything we've mentioned, is that he'll have to do it in a systematic way, racking up rounds. For all of his bluster, Sonnen is not a big finisher. In his last seven wins, he has only one stoppage, by way of submission. He has been able to take rounds off Anderson Silva and Michael Bisping and Yushin Okami and others by controlling them on the ground. That does not seem like a good bet against Jones, who in his UFC career has only lost two rounds total, one to Evans and one to Stephan Bonnar in his second pro fight.
In essence, Sonnen, the biggest underdog Jones has yet to face, is being asked to do something 12 previous opponents over 31 rounds of action have been unable to do. He is being asked to win three rounds out of five.
Unlike Jones' last opponent Vitor Belfort, who like Sonnen, was a sizable underdog, Sonnen does not have knockout power. He'll have to do it one strike at a time (against a more accurate striker), one takedown at a time (against a fighter who has never had his back to the mat). It all seems so inconceivable.
Saturday night, we either get exactly what we're expecting or the shock of the year. I know which one I'm predicting. Jones is too young, too strong, too well-prepared for Sonnen's upset formula. He'll finish in either the second or third round, likely by submission.