What a strange trip it's been.
Tonight's UFC 152 pay-per-view will transpire in the wake of chaos. UFC 151 was initially slated to take place on September 1st with Dan Henderson -- accompanied by his soul-stealing "H-bomb" right hand, and who also happens to be the most appealing and viable contender at 205-pounds -- contesting champion Jon Jones for all the marbles. On paper, this marquee title fight was competitive, intriguing, appealing to casual fans and hardcores alike and, most importantly, it was highly relevant. Those are the makings of a great contest in any sport.
But alas ... woeful, Shakespearean tragedy would erupt: Henderson tweaked his knee and pulled out on short notice, a heroic swashbuckler in Chael Sonnen entered stage left and agreed to step up and save the day, but the polarizing Jones opted to poo-poo the replacement and the whole party was cancelled.
Pandemonium ensued. Fingers were pointed. If it's even remembered at all, UFC 151 will go down as the first show the UFC has outright scratched and the apocalypse of Jones' good guy persona. Folks were downright upset, and still are, so the young champ's been perma-stamped with the bad guy rap. Tonight portends his debut as a full-on villain.
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The Jones-loathing and general inhumanity of it all was not appeased when old-school pioneer Vitor "The Phenom" Belfort, a heralded legend with an unbelievable 16-year tenure in the sport, was selected as the challenger to co-headline UFC 152. #2 ranked Henderson or Sonnen, the boisterous 3rd-ranked middleweightlike Walter's "ringer" in The Big Lebowski.
Half-emptiers cite Belfort's glaring absence of consistency and relevant wins, in this division or any other, and the fact that he hasn't even competed as a light-heavyweight since 2007. Half-fullers are embracing the Cinderella story and "anything can happen" cliches while fondly recalling the almighty devastation of the classic "Vitor flurry" that cemented the charismatic Brazilian as MMA's initiatory phenom. Belfort was the sport's first handsome young buck to come out of nowhere and blow the doors off the grown ups. Thus the handle.
Every fighter has a puncher's chance and every random underdog has his day, but Belfort's entire legacy was built around his once mystifying ability to unwind his hands and paddle-ball his opponent's head with an absolute blur of devastating punches. Plus, Vitor is a likeable guy who's been through some hard times so, even though I have no problem with Jones, I'd be happy for Vitor if he pulled it off.
Continued in the full entry.
Let's be real -- all signs point to Jones coasting his way to victory. I'll take my typically exhausting approach of digging up specific scenarios or strategies that could enhance Belfort's chances but, from a big-picture standpoint, it seems to boil down to Vitor's timely ability to summon up the vicious, awe inspiring flurries that put him on the map.
The reference above is resident analyst Jack Slack's recent synopsis on Jones' potential weaknesses, much of which centers around the champ's propensity to stand heavy on his front leg. As with all of Jack Slack's work, this one is worth a read. Before we launch into details, allow me to present my take on Jones' strengths and style.
Jon Jones is amorphous. When you think Junior dos Santos, you think traditional boxing. When you think Anderson Silva, you think devastating Muay Thai backed up with Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. When you think Dominick Cruz, you think unorthodox footwork and punching. What martial art comes to mind when you think Jon Jones? Ehhh ... kinda Greco-ish, with bone-splitting elbows and weird kickboxing techniques?
Since no conventional molds or styles do him justice, Jones deserves to be categorized as an exceptionally creative innovator. He's an inspiring reminder of the "art" in mixed martial arts, as he studies the canvas with a divergent eye and paints like no others before him have. The best example, which is one of my favorite expressions of creativity in MMA, is the fake low single to spinning back elbow he executed on Jake O'Brien. It's a simple but brilliant mixture of techniques that quite simply has never been done before. We know offense is maximized when it's set up but, whereas that usually translates to launching a 1-2 before dropping levels or faking a takedown before coming high with punches, Jones puts an ingenious twist on it.
First, he knifes low for the single leg, which causes O'Brien to jerk his hips back and dip his exposed head down into the dead-center of the pocket. Of course, your melon should be protected at all times, but Jones is low to the ground and extending his left hand diagonally across the pocket toward O'Brien's left leg, which is hardly an ideal position from which to transition into effective striking. That's where the creativity comes in, as Jones plants on his left foot after lunging forward and spins like an uncoiling spring with the cleaving back elbow.
In addition to creativity, another aspect we take for granted is being 3-dimensional. Even now, in MMA's most advanced state, 3D fighters are rare. Anderson Silva, for as amazing as he is, is only a 2-dimensional stylist, which is why Sonnen's wrestling sucked the venom out of his electric striking and submission game. Being an adept striker, wrestler and submissionist endows Jones with a stock-piled repository of weapons to choose from and blend together.
Reviewing Jones' ascension through the 205-pound roster yields some interesting notes on his gradual metamorphosis: his integrated creativity is what shined first, then it was his unruly Greco Roman wrestling acumen when he rag-dolled Bonnar and Matt Hamill with clinch throws, then more traditional wrestling came to light with single- and double-leg takedowns on Brandon Vera and Vladimir Matyushenko (followed by the wickedness of his elbows); next his submission prowess actualized against Ryan Bader and Lyoto Machida -- though by that point Jones was tying everything together into one solid package.
Now, back to Jack Slack's analysis and the point of this digression -- you never know what to expect from Jones. He does adopt that front-leg-heavy stance, which carries some technical risks, but that's just one snapshot of the many looks he shows. He'll switch from traditional to southpaw regularly and also back and forth from his crouched stance to a more upright posture to capitalize on his range. He rarely leads with the same combinations and alternates between threatening to scoop up the closest leg and wreak top-side havoc with elbows, to plunging the chambered, linear kick to the knee or the straight front kick from range, to chipping away with long punches or horizontal forearms, to darting into the clinch for takedowns or to slice with wood-chipper elbows, to going airborne with flying knees or to attacking with Superman punches with either hand from either stance. He'll also hang back and counter patiently or switch gears and pounce ferociously.
You just have no idea what to expect from the guy and the sky's the limit. On top of all that, his frame and length are utterly unfathomable. An 84.5" reach is akin to having telescopic arms and his stretchy build allows him to cover an absurd amount of ground with his gazelle-like gait. Further to Jack's take on Jones as it applies here, 80% of Belfort's striking is straight left and right hands and he's just not the type of dynamic kickboxer with the flexibility to tailor his arsenal to exploit potential flaws.
There is hope, however. Opposites are crucial in MMA; it's why we say things like "box the brawler and brawl the boxer." The best approach for a laudably diverse and unpredictable opponent like Jones is pure basics and fundamentals. At the very core of elementary striking is the jab, cross and both in sequence with the 1-2. Tim Sylvia, who's noticeably lacking in natural athleticism and agility, became the UFC heavyweight champion by relying on nothing more than a long and crisp 1-2, and the most impressive example of the destruction that can result from mastering simple and straight punches is Vitor Belfort.
In terms of waiting for an opening, pouncing on it like a ravenous predator and committing to a fast and powerful series of laser-straight punches, Belfort is MMA's archetype. When he squeezes the trigger and stays on it, Belfort has the uncanny trademark of achieving maximum speed and power, a surprisingly unique teaming even by contemporary standards, and does so with frightening accuracy.
Belfort's also a longtime BJJ black belt and is no slouch in the clinch either, but the reason he's a legend -- and the reason he got this fight -- is because of his inimitable outbursts of rapid-fire rights and lefts. That's his bread and butter and best chance to win, as evidence of a dominant performance off his back or in the clinch doesn't really exist, especially against relevant or recent opposition. Plus, Jones has strangled more proven grapplers and dummy-tossed superior wrestlers, and Vitor's a marksman at heart. Therefore, his focus should be re-enacting his specialty.
The obvious challenge Belfort is facing is range. The perils of Jones' condor-like wingspan are pretty straight-forward -- he can hit Belfort from a location where Belfort can't hit him back. Never the less, Jones does all his damage within Vitor's punching range and has never finished an opponent from out on the fringe (like Silva finished Belfort with the mile-long front kick KO). In fact, one downfall of Jones' creativity is that he doesn't exploit his immense length conventionally with stiff and rangy punches. The sole exception is the Rashad Evans fight, where Jones dueled on the bubble and abstained from close-quarters combat, probably on account of his respect for Rashad's wrestling.
Another noteworthy correlation is the success that Lyoto Machida had against Jones with lightning-fast barrages from the southpaw stance, which is Belfort's core competency. Jones fought at a curiously hittable range after the first few minutes, which I believe is because he wasn't digging the open-space exchanges and was looking to clinch up -- which he did eventually and it won him the fight. While Machida has more elaborate footwork and was setting up his punches by leading with kicks, the general concept that Jones has to be within mutual striking range to mount offense still applies.
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My conclusion is that, when facing a seemingly immortal superstar with no apparent weaknesses to exploit, Belfort, who has nothing to lose, should do precisely what he does best. A human being's creativity, skill, reputation and size become meaningless when leather-encased pistons start bouncing off their chin. In order for Jones to punish or damage him, he'll likely be within the cross-hairs of MMA's most feared fusillade of punches and Belfort has a legit chance to time him and connect.
Yes, I said legit chance -- it could happen, realistically. It sure as hell isn't likely though. Belfort's tangible opportunity lies in one small and focused area whereas Jones could out-gun him on the feet and will probably maul him in the clinch or on the ground, and I expect the latter.
Jones will test the waters with his striking panache from a distance and then, based on the initial results, proceed with the same or change gears and swoop low for a takedown or maneuver his way into the clinch for a more intimate entanglement. The 1st-round will be pivotal, as 15 of Belfort's 17 career finishes came in the opening frame and he's known for dwindling as the fight progresses, so the christening 5-minutes should be tense.
My Prediction: Jon Jones by submission.