I'm a believer.
Jon Jones will be the most decorated combat sports athlete in history before his career is up. The amount that he has already achieved against the former champions of a division with the most entrenched and inviolable upper echelons in MMA is enough to warrant a completely serious discussion of his place in history already. And at age 24, he can only add to that resume. However, he had better hope that nobody ever thinks he should try to put Anderson Silva's name on it.
The nascent LHW champion has carved a path of destruction to the top through the unbreakable men of PRIDE who had turned away every young prospect trying to crack the bulwark that had been the top 5 of the LHW division. He left unbreakable men broken.
People thought that Shogun would derail Jon Jones.
We all remember how that went.
Shogun's unbreakable chin lead him to recklessly charge forward through oncoming fists and kicks left him squarely at the end of Jon Jones 84.5 inch reach without mentioning his even longer reach. While Shogun's ability to eat shots and explode forward served him well against Liddell and Machida, who used retreating steps to avoid counters, Jones used fists and feet to make sure Shogun's forward explosion never reached ignition. Once Shogun was tired, the young lion took him down and wore him out with his brutal top game. Ultimately, an exhausted Shogun gave in and was saved the embarrassment of tapping to strikes only by the timely intervention of Herb Dean, who recognized that Shogun had quit before his hand ever touched the mat.
In the wake of his destruction of Shogun, people realized that it was going to take more than explosive striking and a tough beard (come at me bros.) to beat Jones. The person who would beat him was going to have to have great defensive wrestling and the ability to avoid shots as well. Rampage Jackson had all of that, and his ability to counter would mean he could put his fist on Jon Jones' chin, right?
This pattern continued, each fighter being the one who had what it took to beat Jon Jones. But with each passing fight, "having what it took" devolved into "Machida is at least an interesting matchup," and "Rashad is at least an interesting storyline." At this point, nobody gives Hendo anything more than a distant puncher's chance against him (for those who even give him that). Hendo is too small, too old, and too slow to be able to put his weapon of choice on Jones, and he's shown an inability to continue his effectiveness into the later rounds. While he might have the chin (ala Shogun and Rampage) to keep taking punishment indefinitely, eventually he'll succumb either to the punitive body blows of the champ (as Shogun) or the rangy submission game (as Rampage). Basically no one is picking Hendo to win at this point: the bold choice is that he limps his way to a decision.
But there's one old man who just might have what it takes to beat this seemingly invincible young lion, and that man is Anderson "The Spider" Silva. I'll explain why the critics who say Anderson isn't the man for the job are wrong after the jump.
There have been many reasons that people have doubted Anderson Silva in the past. His jiu-jitsu was too untested. Vitor's hands were too fast for him. Nobody had ever walked across the cage and put Anderson Silva in a real fight. Chael Sonnen had layed out the formula to beat him (and to be fair, both times Anderson beat him it was because of Chael's mistake, not Anderson's dominance). But the real strength of Anderson Silva is that one can never make a mistake or do anything sloppy around him without being not only punished, but destroyed for it. Vitor left a hole in his defense straight to his chin, and Anderson gave us the foot fetish joke of a lifetime. Forrest's entire striking game was a mistake against Anderson, and Anderson made it the most embarrassing 3:23 in the history of the UFC. Chael pulled his second hand out of the triangle to throw a punch, and ended up strangled after dominating 23 minutes of fighting. Then he threw a sloppy spinning backfist and found himself cowering against the cage and eating a brutal knee to the sternum.
All this got me thinking. Why do people say Anderson Silva has no chance against Jon Jones? I'd like to address the most common arguments.
1. Anderson Silva has relied on his length and size his whole middleweight career to defeat his opponents. Jon Jones will have the definitive reach advantage against him, and will put him at the end of a jab instead of the other way around.
This grows from the seed of truth but bears the flower of falsehood. Anderson Silva is certainly a rangey middleweight, and the closest anyone has ever come to him in frame is Forrest Griffin (or Thales Leites, although he has such a complete lack of striking acumen that it'a almost a joke to mention it). Although Anderson typically owns a reach advantage, he has never relied on this fact to defeat his opponents. Anderson is not a man who puts his opponent on the end of his jab and then moves away to avoid engagement like Georges St. Pierre or Jon Jones.
There are two general strategies for tackling a reach disadvantage. The first involves footspeed and range management. Think of Frankie Edgar or Lyoto Machida (particularly in their fights with BJ Penn and Thiago Silva respectively). They dance in and out of range, employing hit and run tactics that allow them to land strikes while their opponent is rechambering his fist and leave before you can mount any kind of counteroffensive. We've seen Lyoto fail against Jones with this tactic already. But Anderson Silva falls into the second category. This category involves utilizing head movement to slip punches and then dip in and land with pinpoint accuracy. His fight with Forrest Griffin is a perfect example of this.
I was reminded of just how important this element of Anderson Silva's game can be by the way he made Chael's spinning backfist look so embarrassingly awful (to be fair, Chael did some of that on his own). In recent times, mediocre undercard fighters have helped us forget just how devastating it can be to miss a spinning strike because they've knocked out tepid fighters with little or no striking game. Here's what a spinning backfist looks like on the undercard:
Here are a couple of examples of what spinning strikes look like against a competent striker:
The way Anderson was nowhere to be found long before Chael had half-finished his rotation hearkens back to a part of his game that he was never really able to employ against Sonnen before this moment in the fight: his striking game. Jon Jones is known for throwing spinning strikes, and among all fighters, Anderson Silva is the one who could capitalize on this tendency. His head movement means he's never long in harm's way and once you pass the fists and elbows of a rangy fighter like Jones, even fighters like Evans and Machida were able to put the hurt on him. Make no mistake: Anderson Silva is a better striker than Evans or Machida.
Anderson's striking style, which has been dissected ad nauseum, involves having low hands and lots of head movement. The style of striking that has thus far been employed against Jones is one that involves hard heads, footwork, and blocked strikes. I would love to see what a hard-to-find target would look like at long range for a sniper like Jones.
2. Jon Jones' wrestling is too good for Anderson Silva. If Chael Sonnen can take him down, just imagine what Jones would do to him!
But again, this is based on a kernel of truth, but it's the burned kernel at the bottom of the popcorn bag that just never pops into delicious fruition.
Anderson Silva has shown weakness against Chael Sonnen for two reasons. The first, as dissected by BE's own Jack Slack, is that Sonnen fights in southpaw, utilizing a ducking straight left that is difficult to counter even for a switch hitter like Silva. The second is that he has the constant threat of the takedown, and the willingness to walk straight up to Anderson and force the issue with a power double that forces Anderson to abandon his striking to try to sprawl his way out of danger.
That said, Jon Jones' wrestling doesn't look anything like Chael's. Chael relies almost exclusively on his ability to explode in and force the engagement. Jon Jones, on the other hand, has shown a more finesse-oriented clinch game, and shown it primarily against fighters who allowed him to walk up to them and take the clinch (something I doubt very much Anderson would do, much less anyone would want to try to do against Anderson).
Certainly, Jon Jones showed that he is capable of performing a double-leg takedown against Ryan Bader, but that was also primarily effective because Bader never expected it after the masterwork clinch game Jones had utilized against other fighters. If Jon Jones wants to engage Anderson Silva from range (something he has shown great propensity for in his recent career), he's going to have a very hard time getting inside on Silva with the merely passable double leg he has showed thus far in his career. I think being recently stuffed in the takedown by a man like Silva is an unenviable position to find yourself in. Just ask Chael how it feels to have a killer standing over you:
3. Anderson Silva is too old. His cardio/speed/strength/chin won't hold up against a young lion like Jon Jones.
This is a complete copout. Silva has shown the ability to finish a fight all the way into the fifth round, even when taking a beating while on his back. There's no reason or evidence to support the fact that he has slowed down even a little bit in his age. Just look at a fighter like Hendo, and then consider that Anderson Silva, who has an equivalently strong chin, has a game that focuses on avoiding punishment from strikes. I suspect that Anderson has several more years of fights in him barring unfortunate injury.
4. Silva says he wants no part of Jones. He doesn't think he can win.
Silva is notoriously capricious and childlike, alternating between threatening to punch Chael's teeth down his neck to inviting him over for the much-solicited medium rare Brazilian BBQ. He was sullen and unrepentant even in the face of losing his job after he clowned Maia in the cage in Abu Dhabi, but he was all business against Forrest Griffin.
I think that the right amount of money could certainly make this fight happen.
I'm not by any stretch saying Jon Jones doesn't stand a chance. I'm saying that, assuming this fight happens (and yes, I recognize that this is a big assumption), Anderson Silva ought to be the favorite. He has the tools to give a young fighter like Jon Jones fits. Assuming Jones continues his winning streak against Hendo, this might be the last challenge left for him outside of the risky move up to heavyweight. And it's a hell of a challenge.
This fight needs to happen after Silva beats whoever comes out of Belcher/Belfort/Bisping/Stann (and maybe Lombard) looking viable. That will remove all excuses of the credibility of middleweight challengers, and by then, Jones will have scraped the barrel at light heavyweight. At that point, nothing will stand between these titans of the sport except a piece of paper with a dotted line. Here's hoping Dana can get them to sign on it.