Everyone’s an expert when it comes to picking fights. Few really are though, especially while looking at the upcoming UFC 145 main event between light heavyweight champion Jon Jones and former titleholder Rashad Evans on April 21st in Atlanta. So whose opinion should you trust? How about someone who fought both men like Stephan Bonnar, one of three fighters (Lyoto Machida and Quinton Jackson being the other two) to have gotten a look at “Bones” and “Suga” that few can claim.
“I’m sure like anyone who’s really watched them and knows them well, they can gather the same input that I have,” said Bonnar humbly, “but I definitely know their strengths, and they don’t have too many weaknesses. Yeah, I know them well.”
In 2006, Evans won a three round majority decision over “The American Psycho” in his second bout after winning season two of The Ultimate Fighter. Two and a half years later, Jones scored what was at that point the biggest win of his career as he decisioned Bonnar over three rounds at UFC 94.
Both fighters went on to win the light heavyweight crown, Evans losing it to Machida, Jones still holding the belt he took from Mauricio “Shogun” Rua last year, but the biggest talking point heading into UFC 145 is the former friendship between the two, one built at Greg Jackson’s gym in Albuquerque, New Mexico. This bad blood has taken on a life of its own in recent months, and it may be the only thing Bonnar, a longtime light heavyweight contender, can’t relate to from a career that began in 2001. In fact, when asked if he’s ever been in a fight that had a grudge attached to it, he has to think pretty hard about it.
“Let’s see,” mused Bonnar, running through his 24 pro MMA fights before coming up with “Not really.” (Laughs) It helps not really knowing the guy. I’m sure if it was something like this (Jones-Evans), where there was someone I did train with and we had a falling out, there would be bad blood, but that never was the case.”
And the way he sees it, the less baggage you bring into a fight the better, because once the bell rings, everything that happened before really doesn’t matter.
“Love the guy or hate the guy, once that guy blasts you in the face, you want to beat him up,” said Bonnar. “Even like Forrest (Griffin), we always got along on the show and I always liked him, so it was kinda weird fighting him. I never fought anyone I really knew before or liked or considered a friend, but then that bell rang and he came out and he just started blasting me. And that changes everything. (With Jones and Evans) It’s not in your best interest to get too emotional. That can get in the way of their gameplan. It can be good to be emotional, but it has to be a really focused and disciplined kind of emotion. That kind of reckless emotion is where you leave yourself open for mistakes.”
At the same time, Bonnar admits that in his bout with Evans, not getting that initial punch in the face kept him from getting in gear and into fight mode, causing him to lose the decision and a three fight winning streak in a bout that won’t make either fighter’s highlight reel.
“I knew he (Evans) was really talented,” said Bonnar. “I was more mad at myself, and that was the perfect example of never really getting that blast in the face you needed to light that fire under your ass. I was playing a grappling match with him. But that was a really good strategy. (Greg) Jackson has really good strategies, he’s smart, and I’m sure that was part of it. Try to beat this guy with your wrestling and don’t piss him off too much because you don’t want to get him started.”
Bonnar never got started, and while he obviously moved on, he was reminded of the bout while working as a FUEL TV analyst on the recent UFC card in Australia.
“It’s like Court McGee in his last fight with (Costa) Philippou,” he said of the bout won by the New Yorker via three round decision. “That’s what I was thinking there too, because he reminds me a lot of me. You see that a lot of times, guys hurt him and get him in trouble and they try to get him out of there and that’s like the worst thing you can do. Philippou did his homework and fought a smart fight. He used his superior boxing to outpoint him, he never got too emotional, and never really got to trying to get him out of there, and he was just content with winning a nice, technical battle. And that was the best thing he could have done. That reminds me of the Rashad fight too.”
Fast forward to January of 2009, and Bonnar is riding a two fight winning streak when he’s matched up with up and comer Jon Jones at UFC 94. At that time, Jones was just 1-0 in the Octagon, with a decision win over Andre Gusmao under his belt. And yeah, the kid showed amazing potential, but this was a huge step up for him. Bonnar didn’t listen to the pundits; he knew he was in for a fight.
“Just looking at his frame and his other fights, I knew he’d be a handful,” he said. “He’s got some athletic gifts and good wrestling, so I knew he’d be good, but I thought I could handle him and that my experience would pay off.”
Jones rose to the occasion, winning a three round decision punctuated by plenty of jaw-dropping moves straight out of Hollywood movies. It was the first true step on the New Yorker’s remarkable ascension to the top of the light heavyweight division, and Bonnar wasn’t surprised at the way Jones’ career has progressed since their fight.
“I know talent,” he said. “I had the same feeling when I fought Machida (in 2003). After that fight, I was like this kid’s gonna be good. I know I don’t suck, and I was really impressed with him. Of course I was depressed about my loss and it was on a cut, but then in his next fight he fought Rich Franklin and knocked him out, and then I was like, “See? I knew he was good.” I had the same feeling with Jones. I was like ‘wow, the kid has some skills.’ And everyone was giving me crap, saying Bonnar lost to a newcomer and he sucks, and in the back of my head I was like ‘just wait and see.’”
While Jones and Evans took care of their individual business on the way to Atlanta, Bonnar did the same, snapping a three fight losing streak that began with the defeat against Jones with consecutive victories over Krzysztof Soszynski, Igor Pokrajac, and Kyle Kingsbury. It’s been one of the organization’s feel-good stories to see Bonnar get back on track, especially considering that his first fight with Griffin in the TUF 1 finale helped kick off the MMA explosion in 2005. And if you wanted an example of just what the Munster, Indiana native brings to the table, look no further than the rematch with Soszysnki in 2010, a Pier Six brawl punctuated by a defiant and bloody Bonnar staring at the camera after his second round TKO win while standing in the middle of the Octagon.
“I thought it would look pretty cool,” he laughed. “I was kinda making a statement like ‘yeah, you can hit me all you want, but I’m not going anywhere.’”
It was a defining moment to be sure, but as Bonnar waits for the call to resume his three fight winning streak, he’s been enjoying a break of sorts, doing well-received commentary work on FUEL TV while also getting his “Punch Buddies” t-shirt line out to the masses. So while the work hasn’t stopped, it’s a different kind of work, and he’s embracing it. He’s also looking forward to seeing Jones and Evans do their thing on April 21st, and finding out whether “Suga” can stop the “Bones” freight train.
“What makes this interesting is that Rashad is the guy who could threaten Jones with takedowns,” said Bonnar. “I really didn’t understand Rampage having a wrestling background and Jones kicking like that and him (Jackson) not even trying a takedown. He let the guy get way too comfortable and in his rhythm. At least Rashad will be threatening the takedown. He’ll take away those kicks from Jones because he’ll eat one to take him down. That makes a big difference. Even if you don’t plan on taking him down, at least make the guy think about it. At least shoot in and get back up and throw punches, and then next time tap a leg and throw an overhand. Finally someone will be able to do something like that to Jones and threaten him with a takedown and maybe put him on his back. And Rashad’s the guy who could do that.”
That mental part of the game may be the most intriguing for a number of reasons. Jones has yet to show cracks in his foundation, despite a strong first round effort from Machida in their UFC 140 bout last December. Will that make Evans doubt himself? Or will Evans look to positive days in sparring with Jones back when the two were teammates as the one thing that will gain him that all important mental edge on fight night? Bonnar doesn’t believe those sparring sessions will haunt Jones in the coming month.
“I don’t think that will really be a factor,” he said. “Those old gym stories really mean nothing. I don’t know how many times I’ve been in there early in training camp and having fresh guys rotate in on me and I’m just gassed and complete garbage and I’m out of shape. And I know guys go ‘oh yeah, I was whuppin’ on Bonnar today; he ain’t s**t,’ and it’s always gonna happen. It happens to all of us those first couple weeks of training camp. So I don’t think that will play into Jones’ head, especially now after he’s had all these matches and all these victories since he and Rashad stopped training together.”
So what is the key to victory for the 24-year old champion? It may come down to using what’s worked in the past, but with a little tweak here and there.
“He’s so much longer,” said Bonnar of Jones, who, at 6-foot-4, is five inches taller than Evans, and who also owns a ten inch reach advantage. “He was pretty much using that length against Rampage with his feet, more than his hands, keeping him at bay with his kicks. With Rashad he can use that same strategy, but using his hands a little more. You don’t want to kick as much because Rashad’s pretty good at catching kicks and taking you down. If you saw in the Phil Davis fight, he did that a couple times, and if I’m Rashad, that’s what I’m gonna want to do. So with Jones, use the hands more and be more conservative with the kicks. He uses the jab, he switches stances well, which keeps you guessing, and he can throw from both sides. So he needs to keep him at bay and stuff the takedowns, and I think that’s Jones’ best strategy.”
With a little over a month away from fight night, a lot can change, and no one knows this better than Bonnar. But he does believe that his fellow light heavyweights will deliver a fight to remember.
“I think it will be a good fight,” he said. “I think Jones will have a really good gameplan for Rashad because he was one of their guys. Greg Jackson will put a really good gameplan together, and another thing too is that Jones has outstanding wrestling. Look how he’s taken down (Vladimir) Matyushenko and threw Matt Hamill, so there’s a chance we could see Rashad on his back, and when’s the last time you saw that? So I’m sure that’s in the gameplan of both guys to put the other guy on his back, where they’re most out of water.”
And when all the plans go out the window and you still have to find a way to win, that’s when you see who the true champions are.
No One Knows 'Em Better - Bonnar on Jones vs. Evans
By Thomas Gerbasi March 15, 2012