There was a time when Jon Jones was one of the most active champions in the sport.
Over a near four-year reign from early 2011 to early 2015, Jones fought 10 times while establishing a new record for consecutive defenses of the UFC light heavyweight title with eight straight. It’s a run unlike any other in the history of the sport — with respected names like Daniel Cormier, Alexander Gustafsson, and Mauricio Rua lining his résumé, Jones ruled over the 205-pound division with an iron fist and seemed to be on a path destined for all-time greatness before his troubles out-of-the-cage derailed him in a major way.
Things have not been the same since.
Between a pair of drug-testing suspensions and the bizarre hit-and-run accident that initially cost him his UFC title, “Bones” has only competed twice over the past three years, most recently in a July 2017 rematch against Cormier that stands today as a no-contest because of Jones’ aforementioned problems with USADA. But now Jones is back once more, slated to make his long-awaited return to the Octagon on Dec. 29 in a rematch against Gustafsson for the vacant light heavyweight title. And although UFC 232 will mark the third consecutive outing where Jones will be forced to overcome a long layoff, striking coach Brandon Gibson sees a positive side to his student’s lengthy absences away from the cage, and thinks there’s a way they could end up benefiting the 31-year-old moving forward.
“He’s not getting his brains battered in [during his time off],” Gibson explained Monday on The MMA Hour. “He’s not getting concussions. He’s taking care of his body and his mind, and this is such a — at this top one percent, these guys are tough. That’s not an aspect that comes with sparring or anything like that. The time off where we’re not having impact, where his body’s not getting beaten up and broken down, where we’re just continuing to evolve the skill and the technique and the strategy and develop Jon that much more as a martial artist is key. And you said he’s 31, he has a long fight career ahead of him still, and he really feels like this time off has prolonged his career that much more.
“If he was still fighting three to five times a year like he was when he was younger, I think that will burn guys out early. I think that’s where you start seeing the guys in their mid-thirties that are slow, that are not reacting, that can’t pull the trigger, that just aren’t recognizing things like they used to, and I think a lot of that comes with just the toll of the training camps in addition to the fights. So just having these kind of pre-camps where it’s just all technical-based, I think has been really good for him. I think it’s going to show in the fight. We had a long layoff before Ovince Saint Preux, and we had a long layoff before the second DC fight, and he came out sharp and focused, and new in a lot of ways.”
The rematch between Jones and Gustafsson is one long in the making.
Before they were slated to meet at UFC 232, the two light heavyweight rivals collided back in 2013 in an all-time great contest at UFC 165. Even today, that first fight stands as the toughest challenge Jones has ever faced. Gustafsson pushed Jones to the brink, but ultimately fell short — the American titleholder rallied in the championship rounds to win a unanimous decision and defend his 205-pound strap.
Gustafsson has only competed five times in the five-plus years since UFC 165, amassing a 3-2 record over that span, however Team Jones isn’t overlooking the formidable Swede.
“I think Gustafsson has improved and grown tremendously as a fighter,” Gibson said. “I think he’s become that much more fluid. I think he’s become that much more of a precision striker. I think his wrestling’s gotten better. He’s had these five-round bouts since. I think Gustafsson’s really matured. I think we look at Jon at that [first] fight and think [about] how many more tools we have now, how many more setups, how much more strategy, and how better we are at all the little transitional elements now.
“I think it’s going to be a very different fight. We find ourselves always kinda falling into that fight to study as a baseline like we did with the first Cormier fight, but I find myself watching Gus’ fight with DC or [Jan Blachowicz] or Glover (Teixeira) that much more, to try to pick up trends of his newer style as much as we can.”
Gustafsson may have fought to mixed results since his loss to Jones, but his two most recent outings may be the most predictive as to the type of foe that awaits on Dec. 29.
Gustafsson rides into UFC 232 having won two straight fights. He looked sensational in both, outpointing Blachowicz before brutalizing Teixeira via fifth-round knockout.
“I think his confidence has grown,” Gibson said of Gustafsson. “I think his confidence with his wrestling has grown. I think his endurance and his cardio and his stamina has grown. We’d be foolish to think that Gus isn’t going to come ready for anything but a five-round battle this time, where, the first fight, I feel like Gus in some ways, he just didn’t have it in the championship rounds, and that’s when Jon was really able to take the lead and do the damage and show why he’s a champion.
“So I think Gus is going to be well prepared cardio-wise, I think his boxing technique and his setups have grown, and his wrestling defense continues to be outstanding. In fights like the [Blachowicz] fight, he had brilliant ground-and-pound and brilliant position and timing on his shots, so Gustafsson’s an all-around dangerous guy.”
Back in 2013, the first Jones vs. Gustafsson matchup flew under the radar in the minds of many in the MMA community before exceeding all expectations as an all-time great fight.
Safe to say, the same cannot be said about the rematch. UFC 232 stands as one of the most anticipated fight nights of 2018, and the main event serves as a pivotal crossroads for the careers of both light heavyweight competitors.
“This second one is so much more than that,” Gibson said. “Everybody knows what an amazing championship fight that first bout was, and this has been a long time coming. Both of these guys have been matched up before and things didn’t work out, so I know they’ve both always had their eyes on each other and we knew that this day would come.”