UFC 152 was recently thrown into further confusion with the news that Lyoto Machida had turned down a rematch with Jon Jones. While many saw this as the second "duck" by a major fighter in 24 hours, Lyoto Machida's choice not to fight Jon Jones makes a lot more sense than Jones' decision not to fight Chael Sonnen. News has also emerged that Vitor Belfort will be stepping in to face Jones at UFC 152 - a very brave call for a middleweight - and it is certainly worth considering how the two fighters match up.
A great deal of speculation has been made around these fights and fighters and around who is ducking whom but I hope that I can bring some of the technical information about what happens in camps and in the cage to light where other writers would stick to gossip.
Why Machida was Right to Turn Down Jones
The news that Lyoto Machida was scheduled to fight Jon Jones at UFC 152 on September 22 was puzzling to me. It bewildered me that Lyoto Machida would take a rematch with so much to work on in his game at such short notice. Lyoto Machida was stopped pretty emphatically by Jon Jones in their last meeting due to Jones' better wrestling and, more importantly, due to Jones exploiting holes that have always existed in Lyoto Machida's striking game. The error that Jones exploited in Machida's striking is not something that can be changed overnight, it is something that Machida has had trained into him since infancy under the karate tutelage of his father.
The sport of MMA is a bizarre one in that a single quality victory will make everyone forget how you lost your last fight and leads to demands for an immediate rematch of the lost fight. Cain Velasquez showed no inkling of improved striking defence in taking down and pounding out the wrestling averse Antonio Silva, yet it was somehow enough to convince UFC brass and fans that a rematch with Junior Dos Santos was in order. The exact same thing happened with Lyoto Machida when he knocked out Ryan Bader as the latter gave up trying his hand at strategy and rushed Machida with his right hand cocked behind his head and his chin leading the charge. Ryan Bader was not trying to exploit the hole in Machida's counter-punching that the Jackson's MMA camp have already demonstrated and Ryan Bader is a far, far cry from Jon Jones.
For those who haven't read my Judo Chop columns I will briefly reiterate just how Jon Jones beat Lyoto Machida in their first bout. Machida comes from a karate background, and that is what gives him the confidence to back up for a round and a half and then dive in with a counter as soon as the opponent over commits. Machida uses the same counter every time - a straight with whichever hand is his rear hand (he switches stance often).The difference is that Machida's karate technique is not good boxing technique:
- When the reverse punch is thrown in karate, the non-punching hand is drawn back to the hip in what is called hiki-te. This represents the act of grabbing an assailant's clothing and serves no functional purpose in MMA.
- In boxing the non-punching hand is drawn back to the chin or to above the eyebrow, to deflect an opponent's punches should he fire back.
Machida can get away with pulling his passive hand back to his hip when he is southpaw and his opponent is orthodox due to his head moving outside of their lead hand and being safe from the left hook. What Jones did was to switch to the same stance as Machida, fake a kick to cause Machida to counter, and then connect a rear hook on the side that Machida drops his hand. (G) This was also not a one off event in the fight - Jones hit Machida with a hard rear hook on the jaw in the first part of the second round - showing not just how open Machida is to this punch.
Clearly Lyoto has been working consciously on making sure his non-punching hand is in position to block Jones' attempts to counter, but this was just a month ago and he still got clipped by Ryan Bader who is an inaccurate striker for the most part. To take a fight next month with Jon Jones would simply be lunacy when Machida has so much specific work to do on his style and gameplan. Lyoto has the tools to defeat Jon Jones, he demonstrated that in the much referred to first round of their bout, but to rush a title shot would be throwing away what could be his last chance at the light heavyweight crown.
Why Jon Jones Was Wrong To Turn Down Chael Sonnen
This should be obvious to almost everyone: Chael Sonnen is not a light heavyweight, not a striker, and not likely to be able to give Jon Jones any trouble on the feet. This is clearly a hilarious mismatch and it's actually understandable that Jones would not want anything to do with this fight when it could lower his credibility immediately after signing with Nike. No-one wants to fight enormous mismatches when they are supposed to be proving that they are the best fighter in the world.
On the other hand, this match was an absolute gift in terms of publicity. Chael Sonnen has proven one thing over the last three years; that he can talk up a fight which on paper is an enormous mismatch. No-one rated him as having a chance at Anderson Silva in their first bout, in fact many were disappointed at yet another mediocre middleweight title match being put together, but the amount of smack talking Sonnen did made people pay attention. It was the same with the rematch - Sonnen had lost the first bout with Silva the exact same way he had lost almost every other bout in his career but he still managed to make people pay to see the rematch.
It is interesting that Sonnen began his smack talk campaign against Jon Jones just days before his former team mate and friend, Dan Henderson dropped out of UFC 151. It is certainly worth considering that at least Sonnen knew about Henderson's inability to compete long before Jones did. In that respect I can understand where Jones is coming from, he could feel like he has been set up to have his opponent switched at the last minute.
What it all comes down to, however, is that almost two dozen fighters on this card have made huge sacrifices, many of them living fight to fight on tight cash, for a card that is now cancelled. Jon Jones directly affected their livelihood and the lives of their families and children by refusing to fight a 185lbs wrestler. It's understandable that Jones wouldn't want to risk losing to a middleweight, but that's exactly what he was risking against Dan Henderson. Jon Jones trained a full camp for a 185lbs wrestler with a huge right hand, and he was asked to fight a 185lbs wrestler with little striking skill or punching power to speak of. When you boil it down to those facts, it's hard to side with Jon Jones.
How Vitor Belfort Matches Up with Jones
Vitor Belfort is a fighter for whom I have mixed feelings; he clearly has some of the most dangerous striking in MMA, but he's continually given mismatches. Yoshihiro Akiyama had absolutely no business fighting Belfort, and neither did Anthony Johnson. The middleweight division has several decent striker / grappler hybrids - Alan Belcher, Chris Weidman, Michael Bisping - and somehow Vitor has ended up for the most part fighting men who won't try to take him down and have grossly misplaced confidence in their striking. The notable exception being Anthony 'Rumble' Johnson who came in grossly overweight, took Vitor down twice and was immediately stood up by the referee until he was exhausted enough for Vitor to take his back and choke him.
On the other hand this is the second time Vitor himself has offered to step up and fight one of the most frightening fighters in the world on short notice. Last time it was Fedor Emelianenko when Josh Barnett's positive drug test destroyed Afflictions hotly anticipated third card. Clearly Vitor wants to fight the best, yet he only occasionally ends up doing so.
Vitor's striking will obviously be what he wants to use against Jones in September and that is an area that I am keen to analyse in depth. For now it is worth considering the noticeably improvement Vitor has made to his distance striking through his work with Ray Sefo and with his karate coaches.
Obviously close range striking exchanges such as these are where Vitor made his mark in his early career, but they are also a terrible place to be with Jon Jones. Jones' passion for elbows has always been clear, but in the Rashad Evans fight he began using them as a direct counter when Rashad stepped into punching range. If Belfort intended to get to the kind of range where he can flurry on Jones through the methods he did against Franklin and Lindland, he would get brutalized by elbows on the way in.
In recent fights, however, Belfort has shown a more cerebral approach - albeit against weaker competition. In his bout with Yoshihiro Akiyama, Belfort used a calf kick to enter with his punch salvo - checking Akiyama's movement and distracting his focus while Belfort came in with a long left punch. This is almost identical to the karate style combination that Lyoto Machida uses so often.
If fighters want to have a hope of beating Jon Jones on the feet they cannot attempt to crowd him as Rampage and Rashad Evans failed in doing - he is too good at throwing kicks at his opponents as they shamble forward. Jones opponents must fight evasively - from a distance exceeding his reach - and find ways to move in as fast as possible with explosive salvos before disengaging. While Lyoto Machida, the best distance fighter in MMA, is out of Jon Jones' sights for now, the new Vitor Belfort who sets up his punching flurries with footwork and kicks is certainly an intriguing alternative.