Jon Jones was the most dominant fighter of the past decade. During that time, he was unbeaten, an exceptional achievement considering 13 matches were UFC championship bouts, and six came against men who at one time wore UFC gold. So it’s not surprising that heading into Saturday’s UFC 247, Jones is a heavy favorite to retain his belt.
Most observers cite his experience, poise and diverse skill set as major advantages over his opponent Dominick Reyes, and point to Reyes’s power as the lone strength in his favor.
It’s fair to be skeptical of a Jones loss; after all, no one’s ever truly found a way to out-fight him. However, every time Jones fights now, it should bring to mind the disclaimer heard on nearly every financial commercial: “past performance is not indicative of future results.”
Nothing good lasts forever. Stars flame out. Beaches erode. Champions lose. Deterioration through time is guaranteed.
Jones is hardly ancient, but at 32 years old, he is soon to be starting his 13th year as a professional. With it, the effect of so many five-round fights against top opponents is a factor we can no longer ignore, one that supersedes physical age. For Anderson Silva, it caught up to him in his 15th pro year; for Chuck Liddell and B.J. Penn, their ninth.
He may not show effects of that wear-and-tear on Saturday night, but it’s fair to wonder. For now though, as big a danger for Jones may be his perceived overconfidence against Reyes. You may have noticed through either his recent interviews or social media posts that Jones has spent some time demeaning Reyes’s claim that he is the best athlete that Jones has ever faced.
Jones has called him delusional, characterized his wins as “beating up on cans,” and ridiculed his past competition level as “the greatest athlete in Apple Valley history.”
He’s expended a fair bit of energy attempting to convince the fight world that no, Reyes is not nearly as good as he thinks he is. While that might not be a great way to sell a fight, it can serve an alternative purpose as a psychological tactic.
Jones may be redirecting some of this from his own past. Remember, when Jones burst on to the UFC scene in 2008, no one really knew quite what they were looking at. The major accolade on his resume was a New York State high school wrestling championship, commendable but hardly a rarity in the fight game. He, too, was a long and wiry, small-town prospect who’d arrived in the UFC after six pro fights. He was intriguing but not a sure thing.
And maybe that’s why Jones is quick to devalue Reyes. He represents an earlier version of Jones, not the strategic champion we see today.
If it is Jones’ natural feeling to dismiss Reyes as a potential rival, it is worth wondering if he can bring a true intensity to this bout. When you look at Jones’s past opponents, nearly every single one of them was convincingly established by the time they met. Still, his best work has come against arguably the most dangerous men nearest to their primes. He stomped out Maurcio Rua and choked out Lyoto Machida. He shut down Rashad Evans and Glover Teixeira. He crushed Alexander Gustafsson in their rematch.
The times he has not been quite as sharp have come in the matches where the outcome seemed assured from the get-go.
Statistically, the championship fights in which Jones has been the biggest favorite in his career were the following:
- vs. Chael Sonnen at UFC 159 (-1100 favorite)
- vs. Vitor Belfort at UFC 152 (-1000 favorite)
- vs. Alexander Gustafsson at UFC 165 (-1000 favorite)
- vs. Anthony Smith at UFC 235 (-909 favorite)
- vs. Thiago Santos at UFC 239 (-714 favorite)
Why bring these up? As it turns out, three of the five fights in which he was the biggest favorite led to fights where his title reign actually faced the most significant danger. Against Belfort, Jones found himself trapped in an arm bar that was one technical adjustment away from being finished and left him with ligament damage. Gustafsson took him to a grueling and disputed decision. Santos was the first man to put a split-decision next to Jones’ name.
So Jones has not always over-performed expectations in these kinds of matchups. He has always managed to win, but he has had scares. And one of these times, it will be more than a scare. As Matt Serra is to Georges St-Pierre and Chris Weidman is to Anderson Silva, someone will someday be that man to Jones if he follows his vow to continue taking on the top challenges.
It can be Reyes. He has power, he has momentum, he has confidence. He has shown solid leg kicks—a technique that has been perhaps Jones’s most troubling to defend. And perhaps most of all, he may have Jones underestimating him.
As the new decade begins, Jones is still relatively young. He has fellow champions — Israel Adesanya and Stipe Miocic — calling him out from above and below. He has exciting future possibilities. He is still the best in the game. To keep that mantle, the fight, as usual, begins within him.