Jon Jones vs. Alexander Gustafsson headlines UFC 232 this December 29, 2018 at the The Forum in Inglewood, California.
One sentence summary
David: A picogram of class in a pool of crass.
Phil: In a Christmas miracle, the Turinabol was inside little Johnny all along!
Record: Jon Jones 22-1-1 NC | Alexander Gustafsson 18-4
Odds: Jon Jones -280 | Alexander Gustafsson +255
History / Introduction to both fighters
David: It’s funny to consider: there was actually a time when the idea that Jon Jones was this wholesome, choir boy type kind of-almost sold to casual fans. Remember the Kirstie Alley picture he took for Jay Leno? Now it’s impossible to talk about Jones without discussing his insidious flaws. Steroids, slamming into a pregnant woman while skiing the alps, running from the police, threatening to kill Daniel Cormier — the list feels endless. Somewhere along the way, he embraced his inner demons as something explicit. That he treats journalists like sh-t feels like an afterthought. He’s also one of the greatest fighters the sport has ever seen, which means his moral performance matters a lot less than his performative one.
Phil: Jon Jones is the UFC’s premier screw-up. In the same way that Conor McGregor is its greatest star, and unlikely to be eclipsed any time soon, it seems unlikely that we get someone who combines Jones’ transcendent talent for violence with his colossal ability to mess things up. This time it seems like there’s some kind of argument that he didn’t do anything wrong(?) but we’re multiple loops into the “Boy Who Cried Wolf” scenario here. No-one believes Jones, and why should they? He is a terrible person, a cheater in almost every sense of the word, who just happens to be one of the few remaining profit centers for the UFC, and someone that they need to help meet their year-end revenue targets. Huzzah. Still, the fight should be good...?
David: Gustafsson is an underappreciated fighter with an overinflated record. I know that sounds weird, but he’s never really had the kind of traction you’d expect out a fighter who has fought for the light heavyweight championship twice. He quietly does his job. He wins when you expect, and loses when you expect, but he does both at the highest levels, which makes this fight interesting for its history, but not much else. Credit to the fighter, scuba diver, and the man: he’s endured various personal tragedies at critical junctures in his career, yet remains a perennial contender. He may not “deserve” this fight, but he’s earned good fortune.
Phil: That one close fight with Jones has been a pretty good meal ticket for Gustafsson, all things considered. It got him a title shot against DC coming off a KO loss, and has kept him as a perennial contender despite the fact that... his list of wins isn’t actually that impressive and his schedule has been ravaged by injuries? I dunno, perhaps the whole thing has made me a bit cynical. Their first bout was still the best title fight we’ve ever seen at this weight class, and it’s hard not to be jazzed to see them go at it again.
What’s at stake?
David: I guess the UFC is banking on two things: Jon Jones setting up another fight with Cormier (losses be damned), and Jon Jones not either a) getting popped for more steroids or b) avoiding jailtime. So what’s a stake? A lot.
Phil: Man, should Jones lose (or get finished, no less) the collective weight of schadenfreude will be like nothing we’ve ever seen in the sport. In the rather more likely event that he wins, the UFC has to put aside its beloved short-term spectacles and look into the future to figure out what it does with someone who holds their marquee belt while remaining near-guaranteed to implode in one way or another.
Where do they want it?
David: Jones is like one of those MIT bots, awkwardly lumbering around to display his own consciousness with a meat-tenderizing efficiency you don’t notice until he’s suddenly self-aware and you’ve been bodied. There isn’t a common thread to what he does because it’s all done so effectively, nothing else matters. He casts a web of oblique kicks, spinning back elbows, and sporadic overhands to snatch the comfort right out of you. He never commits to any one technique (straight boxing, strong wrestling, etc), but he commits to inescapable pressure. It’s telling that when he hurts his opponents, it’s typically from a move that feels random: the elbow against Gustafsson, the clinchwork against Teixeira, or the head kick versus Cormier. There’s a science to his unpredictability spotlighted by his ridiculous reach, and sinister persistence. Through it all, he’s also incredibly tough. Not enough credit ever goes to his chin, but it might as well be unbreakable. He’s improved his head movement over the years, but he’s philosophically malevolent: he wants to win with the dance you brought, and so far no one has beaten him at their own game.
Phil: Jones is a clear example of someone evolving into a more technical game while simultaneously closing off avenues which were open to them when they were younger. Remember the silky smooth double leg he hit on Bader, or his throws from the clinch? They’ve largely rotted away in favour of a man whose primary weapon is increasingly his kickboxing. And that kickboxing is... fine! Decent, even. In particular we’ve seen his jab, hook and body shot begin to interplay nicely, he’s become more comfortable with seeing shots coming without having to stiff-arm them or turn and run, and his footwork and pivots have improved. He’s still not much of a defensive fighter, with his main tactic being to hide behind his shoulder and raise his other hand in a high guard, or the aforementioned stiff-arm (lit: eye poke). While his ability to set up his takedowns from distance has disappeared, he remains an absolutely murderous clinch fighter, seeking out his opponents power hand and neutralizing it with wrist control while delivering a diet of knees, elbows and the Teixeira shoulder crank. He’s always been a decent kicker, and judiciously mixes his targets (head, body, legs) and delivery mechanisms (push or round kick) to keep the opponent guessing. His best traits remain his insane durability, his endless cardio, and his ability to figure out strategic approaches within the context of his own toolset whilst keeping an eye out for opportunities.
David: Gustafsson is basically just a meat and potatoes range fighter. That sounds bad, but it’s not. With a focus on offense from the feet, Alex pings with the jab, and sifts a ton of backup punches for support: lead uppercut, overhand right, body job, front kick, etc. While this all sounds boringly standard, the difference between Gustafsson and others like him is that he keeps up an incredible workrate, smooth movement, and never overcommits while seamlessly resetting the next punch entry. Gustafsson is good example of how going wide (a variety of attacks) is sometimes better than going straight (spamming your best weapon ala Lineker).
Phil: It’s hard not to think that Alexander Gustafsson is pretty much the same person as he was when he fought Jones. Like a lighter weight (and correspondingly more deep and variegated) Junior dos Santos, Gustafsson’s mid-range power and offensive threats hid some serious flaws with the Swede. Primarily, his defense is horrible. He has few reliable defensive tools in any way aside from telegraphed and energy-intensive lateral movement, and has leaned heavily on his excellent chin. With that being said, his sheer offensive capabilities make him an incredibly tough matchup for almost anyone. He has a lovely jab, and threads a nice (if overused) rear hand uppercut to catch people who slip under it. He’s offensively almost as dangerous as Jones and Cormier in the clinch, with both dirty boxing and the Thai plum. His movement is often looked at from the perspective of his striking, but as with his sometimes-gym mate Dominick Cruz, it helps with the wrestling more than his kickboxing, where overeager opponents get pulled into knee-taps and Mezger crotch lift takedowns as they rush into him.
Insight from past fights
David: The first fight is a fascinating look into how a competitive fight hyperbolically called can make a fight seem closer than it really is. Our comrade did a good job of breaking the first fight down, so rather than pretend to be an expert on the technical details, I’ll say this. Gustafsson didn’t do much other than land more significantly than Jones’ previous opponents. That’s a positive onto itself, but it doesn’t make Gustafsson the better striker. However, I felt like Gustafsson was at his best when he was throwing kicks. Jones was already having a difficult time with Alex’s reach, but that reach was much more pronounced when he’d focus on kicks up the middle, and down low. I believe if Gustafsson has a chance, it’s accepting the risk of getting taken down, and doubling down on his range attacks.
Phil: Apart from the fact that their first fight wasn’t all that close, it did show how profoundly uncomfortable Jones can be with someone who can match his reach, and while Jones has shown far more tangible improvements than Gustafsson, he still isn’t a defensive marvel and Gustafsson remains the harder shot-for-shot puncher, by some margin. It’s a fight which I think will always be tough for Jones, even if it’s not one which I’d favour the Swede to win all that often.
David: This steroid talk bores me. We live in the age of mitochondrial replacement therapy: also known as “holy shit, you mean a baby with three parents?!” Wake me up when Jones is busted for doping his genes that the commissions found through a muscle biopsy.
Phil: Boy I’ve never felt like I needed a PhD in biochemistry for this particular section. What do picograms of Turinabol actually mean? I guess whatever the result, we can’t expect Jones to look that much worse, right?
David: Who knows if Jones is experiencing a quiet decline. I don’t think he is. I don’t even think he’s been uniquely stressed given his desire to be the bad guy. Even if some of that were true, Jones has gotten better while Gustafsson has stayed the same. Jon Jones by Decision (only to be overturned next week).
Phil: Jones won the first fight with more economical and varied striking. In the time since, his striking has become more efficient, and his most tangible improvement has been in his body punching. Gustafsson seems to be essentially the same guy that he was back then, and while he remains an incredibly dangerous offensive threat (let’s not forget how close he was to sparking out DC) it’s just too hard to see him winning 3 out of 5 rounds. In general I think we get a similar dynamic to the last fight, with the difference being that Gustafsson’s success is curtailed after about a round. Chalk up another one for MMA’s most loathed heel. Jon Jones by unanimous decision.