There's not much either Jon Jones or Rashad Evans aren't good at in mixed martial arts. If the numbers tell us anything, it's that these are superb fighters and their impending bout at UFC 145 is something akin to a MMA all-star match-up.
Jones and Evans are statistically record holders in the stand-up and ground portions of the fight. Both have tasted championship glory. Both only have one loss on their record (though the complexions of their losses differ dramatically). Both have mutual opposition they've defeated. These two may be rivals, but they're more similar than each cares to admit in small part due to what they've accomplished and how they did it.
But neither light heavyweight is without shortcomings and the data demonstrates that quite clearly. The real question is can whatever statistical weakness that exist also offer blueprints for game plans or predict an eventual outcome?
Probably not. It's frankly hard to overstate just how good these bitter enemies really are. It's also had to walk away from these numbers and not consider the uphill climb for Evans may not be insurmountable.
Before we begin enumerating their superlative skills or accomplishments, it should be noted Jones and Evans have three opponents in common: Stephan Bonnar, Lyoto Machida and Quinton Jackson. Jones defeated all three, stopping Machida and Jackson by submission. Evans lost to Machida, but defeated both Bonnar and Jackson by decision.
Typically mutual opposition is the best way to compare to fighters' abilities or tendencies, but that's not necessarily the case here. In short, the Bonnar who fought Evans isn't the same Bonnar who necessarily fought Jones. And the Evans or Jones who fought Bonnar won't be the same Evans or Jones who show up Saturday night. The only commonality is both Evans and Jones landed seven takedowns against Bonnar, but that tells us more about 'The Ultimate Fighter' season one alum's takedown defense than anything else.
We should also resist trying to glean too much from the stats from each of their Machida fights. They lack a sufficient amount of information to make any sort of definitive conclusions. That Machida stopped Evans and yet was stopped by Jones is indicative of something. But what? Without overreaching, we can only safely say Jones was more effective striking in his bout with Machida than Evans. But relative to Evans, it's hard to say much else insofar as drawing conclusions from data is concerned.
The fights with Rampage, however, might be more helpful. For starters, the bouts took place in reasonably close proximity. And from Jackson's perspective, his performance against each was nearly identical. Against Evans, he landed 17 significant strikes, 27 total. Facing Jones, Jackson landed 16 significant strikes, 24 total. Against both Evans and Jones, Rampage attempted one takedown in each fight and was stuffed both times.
The only real differentiator is Rampage's knockdown of Evans. And that fact speaks to some larger trends in Evans' striking. Namely, his opponent's ability to land on him.
Let's keep things in perspective. Evans' striking - offensively and defensively - is very good. He has a 66.7% career striking defense, making it the third best in light heavyweight history and better than Jones' current defensive rate. But his striking differential - the number of strikes he lands relative to those he absorbs per minute - is only .23. Jones' mark, by contrast, is 2.40, the fourth best total in UFC history. In addition, Evans' measured striking accuracy is 39.5% to Jones' 51.9%.
Evans may have only been stopped once by strikes in his MMA career, but that it was by strikes is in concert with what the larger data set says of of Evans' striking ability.
Striking stats also tell us Evans is something of a head hunter. That isn't to suggest he doesn't enjoy body work, but he's gone to the head 84% of the time. As for the body and legs? Just 11.2% and 4.1%, respectively. The UFC light heavyweight champion is the much more diverse in terms of where he throws and subsequently lands strikes: 53% to the head, 25.4% to the body and 21.5% to the legs. When Jones is throwing, there's a lot more confusion about what might be thrown and where it might land.
None of this is to suggest Evans can't land on Jones. Instead, it's that while Evans is statistically speaking hard to hit, he has to throw a lot more to eventually find the mark and also gets hit more often per fight than Jones.
There is less of an advantage, however, for Jones on the ground. Again, that isn't to say he can't or won't win there. Jones is deadly essentially everywhere and my personal hunch is who dominates this space ultimately wins the contest. But Evans' comfort zone is historically on top on the ground after executing a takedown.
In fact, Evans has taken down everyone he's every fought. According to FightMetric, "Evans' average of 4.32 takedowns per 15 minutes of fighting is the 2nd highest average in light heavyweight history. He's managed to takedown every single opponent that he has tried to get to the ground. His takedown accuracy is second only to Jon Jones, with a 53.3% success rate, 2nd best in division history."
But Jones is no slouch himself. FightMetric also notes Jones' "takedown accuracy of 63.6% is the very best in light heavyweight history. He's already scored 21 takedowns, 4th most in division history, and his 3.32 takedowns per 15 minutes average is the 4th highest in division."
Some will suggest even if we were to grant Evans and Jones are basically commensurate as takedown artists, Jones is more grappling and submission savvy. And they could be right.
Both are actually adept guard passers. Jones routinely passes guard: once on Machida, three times on Rampage, twice on Bader and so on; Evans accrued no guard passes against Rampage, Bonnar or Machida, but in the two fights since defeating Rampage - two wins over Tito Ortiz and Phil Davis - he managed 10 guard passes in a little under seven rounds.
Yet, Evans has not attempted a submission in his entire MMA career. He advances position, but only to facilitate ground and pound. Jones, on the other hand, has historically attempted 1.11 submissions per 15-minute fight. The reigning light heavyweight champion has tapped out 3 of last 4 opponents and has 5 submission wins in his MMA career. Submissions as a portion of his finishing arsenal is the clearest demonstration of Jones' superior offense given that Evans doesn't even try in this aspect.
Taking all of this information into account, what can we reasonably conclude about Jones' or Evans' chances on Saturday night? On balance, Jones has the advantages. That's especially true in striking and submissions. Yet it's hard to look at the accumulated data and conclude Evans is somehow doomed. Evans can be taken down, but he's only spent 4.4% of the time in his UFC career on bottom - not a ton of time to do significant damage. Jones is clearly better at submissions, but Evans has never been submitted. Jones has never been taken down, but Evans has taken down everyone he's fought. Jones has the statistical wind at his back, but Evans has a demonstrated ability to rise to the occasion. There's also the x-factor of how much their perceived intimate knowledge of each others game plays a role.
What we have with Evans vs. Jones is a perfectly good case where relying on quantitative information for predictive insight can be tricky. I suspect whoever prevails at UFC 145 will do so by re-writing today's numbers, not fulfilling historical patterns.
The real test for both will be to get takedowns where others couldn't; to score from spaces where others couldn't; to control position and times held in those positions where others couldn't; in short, to make the other fight in ways they haven't.
Jones is the odds-on favorite. He should be. He's got more ways to win and is statistically impressive almost everywhere. But Evans offers challenges in professional competition Jones has not faced. By the time Saturday night is over, the real story on the numbers behind these two fighters may be less how much they foreshadowed the future and more about how drastically they need to be amended.
All quantitative data provided by FightMetric.