Fighters with best chance vs. Jones
Jon Jones' dominance at UFC 128 left many wondering: Who could beat this guy?
There's no mystery how to beat Jones, but knowing and doing are very different
If Jones becomes a heavyweight, Cain Velasquez could await in a great matchup
If you haven't seen it by now, you ought to make it a high priority to do so: Jon Jones made Mauricio "Shogun" Rua look like a relic on Saturday. There were a great many unknowns going into the title fight at UFC 128. No one really knew how mentally tough Jones was; no one knew how he would handle leg kicks or serious submission attempts, and no one knew how he would deal with an opponent he couldn't break. We still don't know. Shogun broke, and the one fighter who should have been able to never did crack Jones' legs, or tie them up. It was a mauling.
This being the light heavyweight division, where the only successful title defense in the last four years, Lyoto Machida's victory against Shogun in May 2009, was the result of outrageously silly judging, of course everyone is talking about who has it in them to beat Jones. A lot of the candidates I've heard, such as a 23-year-old Shogun and Chuck Liddell in his prime, aren't actually fighting anymore. That's telling.
It's especially telling because Jones is, as you'd expect of a 23-year-old who's been training as a fighter for just three years, flawed. A less athletic fighter who let himself get off balance while standing as often as he does, or who opened himself up to submissions from top control the way he does, would have been beaten out of UFC by now. There's no mystery as to what might work against him: Stay out of the clinch, hammer at his legs, see how he likes getting hit in the face and trap him when he opens up on the ground. Knowing and doing, though, are very different.
That said, there are fighters one can imagine beating Jones. These are the ones whose odds I like best, listed alphabetically just because I wouldn't even know how to think about whose chances are better.
Phil Davis: It's early to put Davis on this level. He hasn't faced a truly high-level striker yet, though we'll probably know a lot more about how he deals with getting hit after this weekend's bout with Antonio Rogerio Nogueira. He's a physical freak in his own right, though, and as a Division I champion out of the storied Penn State program, he is, in theory, a better wrestler than Jones. But I can show you a couple of fights between Georges St-Pierre and Josh Koscheck that will tell you a bit about how credentials sometimes translate in the cage. More than that, Davis showed some real prowess with submissions, which might allow him to get after what we suspect to be Jones' vulnerability. The unknown is Davis' striking game, which isn't where it could be, but he's smart, well coached, tough and hugely ambitious. Eighteen months from now, this could be a fantastic matchup.
Muhammed Lawal: Speaking of wrestling credentials, UFC's habit of blurring the distinction between levels of achievement in the amateur game can blind fans to the fact that while Jones was a junior college national champion, someone like Lawal is exponentially more accomplished. An outright favorite for an Olympic medal who was upset in trials, Lawal is one fighter you can imagine negating Jones' wrestling. And while his standup is, like Davis', still a work in progress, Lawal is also the kind of fighter with enough common sense to go to the Netherlands to train his kickboxing, knowing he needs to improve. He's big, strong and a fight nerd with a sharp, analytical mind and an eye for percentages. King Mo isn't ready yet. When he is, he could make things interesting.
Lyoto Machida: A lot of the shine is off Machida, who's lost two straight, to Rua and Rampage Jackson. The short-lived hype about "the Machida era" seems silly in retrospect, but he's still an extremely dangerous fighter who presents a problem for anyone at light heavyweight. If Jones showed one truly exploitable weakness in his title victory, it was his wind; he was visibly gassed going into the third round. Machida could make that work for him. His game is about establishing distance, which means that Jones' way of keeping opponents at bay with his long arms and flying knees isn't going to put him out as much as it might another fighter, and Machida isn't going to gas. One can imagine Machida dancing for three rounds, wearing Jones down, and then moving for the knockout in the championship rounds. I wouldn't say that's likely, but he does have a clear path to victory, more than you can say for most other contenders.
Anderson Silva: About 30 seconds into the main event Saturday, when it was utterly clear, as if it hadn't been already, that Jones is the real deal, you could hear the sounds of millions of people becoming bored by the prospect of a Silva-GSP fight and very excited about the prospect of one between Silva and Jones. I don't like the fight at all for Silva, for obvious reasons: He has problems with elite wrestlers and Jones is even larger than Dan Henderson and Chael Sonnen, who, even if they weren't able to finish the job, showed how one would go about beating the best fighter in UFC history.
Still, Silva has the frame to carry enough weight to credibly fight Jones without sacrificing speed, he's not going to break and, if nothing else, he would make absolutely sure that we know how Jones responds to getting hit and having to fend off serious submissions. Plus, at this point, are you ever going to pick against the man? I don't know what kind of money it would take to get Silva to take this fight, but I know that the Fertitta brothers have it and they ought to spend it.
Cain Velasquez: If I had to bet right now on who will be the first man to beat Jones, this would be it. The heavyweight champion doesn't have Jones' personality and he hasn't been hyped as well -- a lot of casual fans had basically never heard of him before he destroyed Brock Lesnar -- but he's arguably even more impressive. It was pretty scary when Jones hit more than nine significant strikes for every one Shogun did; it was, in its own way, just as scary when Velasquez landed 116 significant strikes on Lesnar, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira and Ben Rothwell while taking just 15.
This fight is probably going to happen eventually, because Jones is going to be a heavyweight. Before his fight with Ryan Bader, Jones' coach, Mike Winkeljohn, told me that he took it more or less as a given that Jones was going to run through the light heavyweights and then move up. His frame can definitely carry a lot more weight without costing him in speed or reflex, and he's still growing. When he settles, in fact, he'll likely be about the same size as Velasquez, a technically stronger fighter with better wrestling credentials and much better jiu-jitsu who comes out of a camp just as good.
I don't have any idea who would win this fight, and by the time it happens both will probably have evolved well past where they are now. For that matter, Junior dos Santos may have become the man at 265 pounds. As of right now, though, the smart money might be on Jones' first really significant challenge coming from a weight class he's too small for right now. That says a lot about just how unreal what he's done is.
Tim Marchman can be reached at email@example.com.
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