On Saturday, Jon Jones finally makes the move to heavyweight when he faces Ciryl Gane for the vacant title at UFC 285. It’s Jones first fight in three years, and his first in this new division, and questions abound. How will he look at heavyweight? Will the layoff hurt him? Can Gane capture gold in his second attempt?
The stakes are enormous, so let’s take a look at what each man needs to do to win this marquee matchup and ultimately what will happen on Saturday night.
Paths to Victory for Jon Jones
If I was constructing a game plan for Jones, it would consist of three primary pillars: clinch work, takedowns and kicks.
On the first one: Jones is probably the greatest clinch fighter in MMA history. The variety of attacks he can unload from there, and the leverage he can create, make him a nightmare for anyone in close. Elbows and chokes inside, spinning elbows on the break, and takedowns off of tie-ups are a hallmark of Jones’ best years, and he will be well-served to get back to that against Gane, who invited the clinch against Ngannou to his detriment.
Second, and perhaps more importantly, as Jones has said many times in the leadup to this fight, Gane has shown a weakness in the wrestling and grappling. Ngannou, while hulking and athletic, is not known for his takedowns, and he was able to consistently plant Gane on the mat, despite having a blown-out knee. Jones is not as good of an offensive wrestler as many believe he is, but he’s still much better than Ngannou in that realm, and more importantly, he’s a substantially more dangerous top-position grappler. If Jones can score takedowns, Gane is going to struggle to get out from under him, and the elbows Jones can create from that space are game changers.
Also, as mentioned above, Jones’ best shot at scoring takedowns come from creating clinches. But he should also be ready to catch kicks and drive on them. Gane kicks frequently, and Jones has shown an ability to catch the kicks of opponents, even if he hasn’t often committed to takedowns in response.
Lastly, kicks. Given the way both men tend to want to fight, a lot of this bout will likely be contested at long range. Gane has that karate-esque style, where he keeps his hands low and bounces around, chipping away with kicks and counters as they become available. Jones, in turn, should rely on his favorite striking weapon, the oblique kick, to stymie Gane’s movement and keep pace at range.
Paths to victory for Ciryl Gane
In the simplest terms, the more Gane can make this fight look like his bout with Alexander Volkov, the better off he will be.
At a fundamental level, Gane cannot compete with Jones in the grappling phases. Though he has some tricks there, Jones is far more dangerous, and Gane is at best looking to survive if this goes to the ground. So, Gane needs to make sure it doesn’t do that. Fortunately, that’s mostly what his fighting style is built for.
While there is an idea that Jones may be the quicker man given that he’s coming up from light heavyweight, that seems unlikely based on what we’ve seen. It’s trite to say, but Gane “moves like a middleweight,” and that movement will be key to keeping Jones from backing him to the fence and creating clinches.
Coupled with that movement, Gane needs to lean on his kicking game. Thiago Santos has great success with low kicks on Jones until he tore both of knees to shreds, and Gane is a much better kicker than Santos. Attacking low, particularly the calf kick, will slow Jones’ movement and serves as a reliable way to score points while avoiding danger.
Most important for Gane, though, is to throw boxing combinations, and throw a lot of them. For all of his many skills, Jones is not a great defensive boxer. He rarely looks to counter inside, instead trying to separate and create space again, where he can rely on his reach. Dominick Reyes’ ability to get inside and work in multiples gave Jones major problems for much of the fight, until Reyes started to slow down in the championship rounds.
Lastly, I’d like to see Gane really sit down and fire some hard shots of his own early. Gane isn’t a knockout artist, in large part because he isn’t trying to be one. Gane is content to score on opponents and allow opportunities to present themselves. Against Jones, those opportunities will be few and far between, as he places a premium on not exposing himself. As a result, Gane needs to throw with more authority when the time does come, both as a way to stand out for the judges and as a way to keep the fear in Jones. Jones nearly lost his title to a no-kneed Thiago Santos because he was entirely unwilling to open up for fear that Santos might land a big shot on him. Gane needs to introduce that same fear or run the risk of Jones running over him.
Everything. The entire fight is an X-factor.
The absolute truth of the matter is that no one has any idea what the (Mike) Heck we’re about to see. Jones has not fought in three years, and he hasn’t looked good in almost five. Now, Jones has put those poor performances down to a lack of motivation, but can we believe that? Or maybe it’s that the division – and Father Time – simply caught up to him. That’s what happens when you’re at the top for nearly a decade, after all.
The layoff arguably isn’t even the biggest question mark for this fight. If this was Jones returning at 205 to fight Jamahal Hill, we could feel a little more confident in what we’re about to see. But instead, he’s moving up a weight class and, truth be told, his physique is not knocking anyone’s socks off. How will Jones carry this added weight in the cage? Will he gain power? Will he lose speed (this one seems very likely to be true based on some training footage)? How important will that be to his success against Gane? We simply do not know, and we won’t until Saturday. It’s part of what makes this fight so intriguing.
Like I said in the X-Factors section, it’s impossible to know what this fight will look like. Jones could approach this in any number of ways, and Gane, for as good as he is, makes questionable decisions in the cage. If I’m being honest, I think we’re probably in for a tough fight to watch, where both guys are staring at each other from five feet away for long stretches, and in that fight, I think I favor Jones. He is the one who will have the more noticeable moments of offense (i.e. ground and pound, spinning elbows, etc...) and so that should be enough to get the nod on the judges’ cards.
Jon Jones def. Ciryl Gane by Split Decision (48-47, 47-48, 48-47)