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UFC 232 main event breakdown: Jon Jones vs. Alexander Gustafsson

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When it comes to Jon Jones’ recent history, there has been more doubt surrounding his eligibility to fight than his abilities once in the cage. Counting 2018, in each of the last five years, he has made it to the Octagon only a single time, yet despite this relative inactivity, no one has been able to meaningfully threaten him.

The last time Jones found himself in adversity was against his UFC 232 opponent, Alexander Gustafsson. Trailing two rounds to one in September 2013, Jones remained poised enough to crack Gustafsson with a spinning back elbow late in the fourth round, a shot that changed the complexion of the fight, and helped Jones to rally to a come-from-behind victory. It remains the only significant in-fight danger Jones has faced in his storied career, fueling the interest in a rematch between them.

With 17 months between fights, Jones is facing the longest layoff of his career; however, that number is trumped by Gustafsson, who has not fought since May 2017, a period of 19 months. Sharpness may be an issue for both, with the fighter who jumps into the speed of the fight faster at a distinct advantage.

A review of the first match between them is instructive. Throughout Jones’ career, he had mostly faced stocky grapplers or knockout artists intent on loading up. When he stepped in against Gustafsson, it marked a rare point in his career where he faced someone that matched his key physical attributes of height and distance. Gustafsson not only erased that advantage from Jones, he swung the pendulum completely in his own direction, getting the best of the exchanges from distance. His busy footwork kept him mostly out of Jones’ range for much of the fight, and he scored with a disciplined boxing game as Jones stepped into his plane. He moved, stuck the jab to both the body and head, then went around the guard with hooks when Jones got tired of the short and pointed shots.

For a huge chunk of the fight, he was quite masterful in flummoxing Jones, but his style found its limitations as the fight went on. Gustafsson’s constant moving had him covering wide swathes of the cage and led to fatigue as the fight hit the championship rounds. As his legs tired, his movement slowed and it was during a stationary moment following a body jab that Jones rung his bell with the back elbow.

Still, Gustafsson found pay dirt getting inside of Jones’ reach, exploiting a hole no one knew was there.

The trick for Gustafsson going into the rematch is coming up with a new plan. While Jones has not been actively competing, his performances since then against Daniel Cormier and Glover Teixeira both addressed this shortcoming. In those fights, Jones (perhaps purposely) spent a lot of time infighting, working his way inside to throw short elbows and body shots from short range. While he may not have been specifically doing it to prepare for a Gustafsson rematch, it still benefits him all the same.

Gustafsson’s success is mostly buoyed by his footwork and pace. The former creates constant motion and often puts him in the position of being chased, while the latter maximizes offensive opportunities. He will need to put forward a similar kind of effort here, because even if Jones battered Cormier and Teixeira in tight quarters, Gustafsson’s physical traits and execution ability make it worthwhile to try again.

The first time around, Gustafsson shocked Jones with his wrestling ability. These days, his skills are a known commodity. He’s taken Jones down, he’s taken Daniel Cormier down, he has a career 85% takedown rate; the man can wrestle.

To me, Gustafsson is the known property here. He has shown a propensity to raise his performance level to meet opponent level, and his game plans show a through line from one fight to the next. He’s also full of confidence knowing that he brought Jones to the brink last time around.

It is Jones who is the wild card, if only because he often comes out looking like a different fighter from one match to the next. Sometimes he wants to stress fighting from distance, sometimes he wants to work inside, sometimes it’s an instant takedown into ground work. He is a fun mystery to predict.

The story goes that Jones barely prepared for the first Gustafsson fight and still won, so what then would he look like with full preparation? The answer is, who knows? He’s 31 years old now, no longer the wunderkind. Sometimes, fighters seemingly age in a blink. Perhaps his inactivity will help stave off premature aging, but on the other hand, the rust can help contribute to it. If he lacks the timing or his chin begins to go, Jones will be quite different.

Still though, when you look at the totality of his offensive weapons, it remains difficult (impossible?) to pick against him. His reach (84.5 inches) is off the charts; he’s creative and improvisational; he has brilliant fight instincts and IQ, he can smash people from both the clinch and on the ground, and he has a champion’s heart.

My expectation here is that he will alternate positions from the outside to all the way in the clinch, with little to no energy expended on takedown opportunities. Jones has a brazen and sadistic side to his fight game in which he likes to beat opponents at their strengths. He’s done it to Chael Sonnen, Rashad Evans and Cormier, and in a rematch against the opponent that most challenged him, I expect him to try the same thing here, with some of Gustafsson’s own repertoire used against him.

But the thing is this: that’s no sure thing. Jones will walk forward, and Gustafsson will want him to, and there will be more 50/50 exchanges than is necessary. Jones will be best served by moving all the way into the clinch and spending the bulk of his time inside rather than trying to match footwork with the Swede. If Jones’ ego gets the best of him and he chooses to fight Gustafsson’s fight, upset probabilities jump. If he rationally assesses the situation and follows the path of least resistance, the -280 odds of Jones regaining the UFC light-heavyweight belt should be on the money.

It’s difficult to pick against Jones until he loses, and while Gustafsson represents a stylistic challenge, Jones has already experienced the challenger’s unorthodox footwork, taking away one potential advantage. In the rematch, they go five rounds again, and Jones wins a slightly more convincing unanimous decision.

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