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UFC 232: Beyond the scandal, Jones and Gustafsson's rematch is the fight we have all been waiting for

UFC 232: Beyond the scandal, Jones and Gustafsson's rematch is the fight we have all been waiting for

Jones edged a controversial fight back in 2013 - can he put the doubts to bed on his equally controversial return?

JON Jones versus Alexander Gustafsson II is a rematch we have all wanted to see since the moment the first bout ended in September 2013. It is also a match up which has been undermined at every stage with complications and scandal.

The two meet for the vacated UFC light heavyweight title on Saturday but both Jones and Gustafsson have fought only twice since 2016. Gustafsson’s tardiness is down to his proneness to injury, where Jones has been repeatedly being caught with banned substances in his lab work.

This entire event was moved across state lines at a week’s notice because Jones failed yet another drug test. The UFC contend this failure results from a remnant of his previous violation, but tellingly no one from USADA or the California State Athletic Commission (keen to accept the lucrative fight when Nevada withdrew approval) has stated this most recent failure couldn’t have come from a new ingestion of turinabol.

Frankly, the entire thing is a circus but despite it all, against the fight fan’s better judgement, Jones versus Gustafsson II remains a terrific match-up.

Gustafsson is known as the boxer of the light heavyweight division but in spite of his lofty height and lengthy reach, the Swede has seldom stood back behind his jab. The most commonly seen weapon from Gustafsson’s arsenal is a long right uppercut, a strike that breaks every rule in the boxing book. Typically an uppercut is at its best when thrown short, from beneath the opponent’s vision, close to the body where it can be better connected to the hips and the drive of the legs. Instead Gustafsson throws it looping and far away from his body.

If you intend to throw an uppercut long, it is always best to try to hide it, yet Gustafsson fires his uppercut more often as a lead or with a lazy, unconvincing jab in front of it. Yet the hunched Glover Teixeira—still a top name when Gustafsson last made it into the cage—couldn’t get away from this underhand pitch.

The long right uppercut was a favourite of Willie Pep’s - he used it precisely because it is such a taboo in boxing. Every uppercut was followed by a duck out to the side. The problems come if the opponent crowds in and throws his left hook because the uppercutting fighter’s right side is open for so much longer than on a short, tight uppercut.

When the first match up came around, Gustafsson hadn’t done a lot to convince fans he had anything for Jones. The best advertising the UFC could muster was to point to him being similar in stature to the gangly light heavyweight champion, in an agonisingly bad promo spot. And yet Jones’s height brought out the best in Gustafsson who demonstrated his entire boxing arsenal—changing levels and slipping punches as is made much more difficult against opponents who are four to six inches shorter.

His lateral movement made Jones’ usual low line straight kicks (the oblique kick and the side kick) ineffective and Jones was forced to put a lead on Gustafsson with back kicks or try to intercept him with round kicks, which Gustafsson often stepped up the centre of. Gustafsson even got Jones to the mat for the first time in the latter’s UFC career. There is no doubt that Gustafsson’s mobility and boxing chops were a gamechanger against Jones, the question is how much of Jones’ inability to adapt was down to a lack of training and taking the fight seriously.

Hypothetical Gameplans

Something many fans don’t seem to appreciate about Jones is that his boxing is actually pretty great. Well, not his hands. Those flappy hands have become almost an afterthought for Jones now, who prioritizes kicks, knees and elbows all above throwing his fists. But Jones’ footwork and ring control have gone from strength to strength. Against Glover Teixeira and Daniel Cormier, Jones was either drawing them out and playing the matador, or stepping in to push them onto the fence and banging the body like a 1930s infighter.

Where those stifling, jamming kicks came into effect against everyone else who tried to step in on him Jones, Gustafsson’s lateral movement and coming in off a mobile platform prevented Jones from timing the Swede’s advances so easily. For Gustafsson it seems that the best option is to mount his attack of this mobile base once more. Offset Jones’ linear kicks with lateral movement, and step in on his round kicks with combinations.

The low-high principle is a basic one in striking but Gustafsson made use of it marvellously in the first fight. The body jab is a weapon no one feels they need to prepare for, until they meet a good one, then suddenly they are reaching down for it and opening themselves up to jabs, left hooks and right hands to the head.

Gustafsson’s head movement was terrifically successful in the first fight, doing exactly what head movement should—providing defence without committing the hands and while keeping the fighter in range to capitalize. The problem was that Jones timed his dips to the outside with spinning elbows and high kicks. The high kick was a matter of distance and undoing it would simply rely on Gustafsson recognising Jones is, first and foremost, a kicker and that it just isn’t necessary to perform deep dips out at kicking range.

The back elbow is a little trickier but it is a threat Gustafsson should keep in mind in this bout as it was something of a Hail Mary technique that Jones nonetheless attempted several times and ultimately used to change the fight.

Simply keeping the right hand high when he hits his outside slip should suffice, but being aware of the danger will make ducking in and achieving the bodylock on Jones’ back after the elbow a distinct possibility. Though as soon as Jones landed his elbow in the first fight his muscle memory took him through searching for Gustafsson’s hands before he quickly turned out. At least stepping in and threatening Jones’ back would allow Gustafsson to come up with punches as Jones turns to face.

A couple of big moments won Jones the first fight, but the overall flow seemed to favour Gustafsson who very clearly presented a style for which Jones had limited answers. We have seen Jones play the matador against Jackson, Belfort and Cormier, but in this fight it would likely help him to be the bully from the start. In the first fight there was a lot of following Gustafsson and then trying to connect a strike or two at a time.

In the rematch it would be good to see Jones cut the ring, enter behind a nice round kick to the body or legs as Gustafsson is along the cage perimeter, and then drive into a clinch along the fence. Good boxers are not good boxers when their feet are level and straight underneath them. That infighting position—with his head below his opponent’s and his feet behind his centre of gravity—is where Jones does his best work.

From here Jones can dig short body shots with no fear of a return. If his head gets away from his opponent’s chest he can throw elbows and roll down behind them to win punching exchanges and drop back into the clinch. The spinning elbow is always an option too. But most importantly he can, at any point, drop on his opponent’s hips and threaten a short, ugly double leg.

Simply pulling out his opponent’s knees and sitting them to their rump. Jones is the best ‘dirty boxer’ in MMA history, and does a disproportionate amount of his damage from these clinches, yet he wastes so long picking out at range on the feet that it seems like he isn’t aware of just how effective he is on the inside. A final note is that much of Gustafsson’s success in the first fight, and against Daniel Cormier, and against Teixiera came from turning and jogging away from his opponent when they got too close for comfort.

This can be punished by a well timed high kick but it is a risky game with a low chance of success. Much better against any opponent who likes to overuse his legs with no thought for economy of motion is to kick the trailing leg. One leg will always be left behind and by punting that a fighter can very quickly slow a mobile opponent down.

Round kicks to the legs aren’t really a Jones favourite but you don’t even need to be a good low kicker to benefit from well timed low kicking. Getting to the legs early would make exchanges and allow Jones to fall into clinches, or it would slow Gustafsson down for later in the fight if he is able to escape the clinches, wrestling and the infight. If Jones goes forward, bullies Gustafsson, and attempts to maul him from the first bell, it is hard to see him losing this one unless he has fallen behind about five steps since his last appearance.

If Jones lingers at range or tries to prove himself the better striker anyway, things get riskier. The more he punches the more openings he gives Gustafsson to pick at, and the more he kicks without pressure the more he gives the mobile Swede the chance to step up the inside. The intrigue here is not so much Gustafsson’s one-punch power—that is something almost everyone at 205 pounds has—but rather Gustafsson’s hypnotic movement and pitter-patter set up punches that can draw even grizzled vets into reaching out when they shouldn’t.




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Jack Slack
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