On Saturday night, Jon Jones and Ryan Bader will take their careers to the next level by facing each other. The winner will take another giant step toward title contention.
Managing the career of a burgeoning mixed martial artist is tough. Molding a future champion is even tougher.
It is imperative to bring the athlete along at the proper pace. Matchmaking is critically important. Young fighters must be continually challenged without getting them in over their head, so they can learn the necessary lessons and continue up the developmental curve.
He must learn the fundamentals of the sport, and how to seamlessly transition among the various disciplines during the ever-changing circumstances of an actual MMA contest. He must learn how to keep his emotions under control to avoid unnecessary adrenaline dumps, which crush even the best-conditioned athlete’s cardio. He must learn how to deal with adversity—what happens if he gets cut; what if he is behind on the cards with a round to go; etc. And, most importantly, he must develop unshakable belief (not merely outward hubris) in himself, believing to the depths of his soul that he is the best fighter in the world.
Match a young fighter against an experienced and talented veteran too soon and the resulting beating can crush his psyche, stripping away his sense of invulnerability. A fighter devoid of a strong mind may fight great from time to time, but he will never be a great fighter.
There comes a time, though, when the kid gloves must come off. Jon Jones and Ryan Bader, the two brightest young contenders in the light heavyweight division, reached that point in their respective careers in 2010. It happened for Jones when he faced Brandon Vera on March 21. Bader jumped into the deep end against Antonio Rogerio Nogueira on September 25. Both passed their respective tests with flying colors, transitioning from prospects to legitimate top 10 contenders.
On Saturday night, the pair will take their careers to the next level by facing each other. The winner will take another giant step toward title contention. The other man will face the first true setback of his fighting career.
The two fighters are very similar in terms of skills and style. Both are extremely strong wrestlers who will use those skills if the situation calls for it, although they prefer to stand and strike. Jones and Bader have worked hard on their respective standup games, and love to thrill the crowd with an all-action effort. I expect them to stand and bang it out early, with the man coming up on the short end of the stick looking for the takedown.
Jones will enjoy height and reach advantages when he steps into the Octagon with Bader, to the tune of a couple of inches in height and an absurd 10.5 inches in reach. He is also the more fluid of the two, in terms of striking while using lateral movement, and has a deep arsenal of unorthodox strikes long distance that are very difficult to prepare for because it is nearly impossible to replicate them in the training gym.
Bader, by contrast, is very good at very basic boxing moves. He needs to come forward to be effective. His lateral movement and ability to slip punches by moving like a pendulum are average. And, of course, his fistic arsenal remains very rudimentary and predictable: range-finding jabs, one-twos, lead right hands followed by left hooks, but very few clean up left hooks, lead uppercuts or a really focused, snapping jab.
What does that tell us? Jones will be well served to leverage those advantages by fighting behind an active jab and maintaining enough distance to where he can land good shots but Bader has to lunge to land something of consequence. If he does that, his length and fluidity advantages should allow him to pepper his foe from a distance, landing almost at will on his shorter, stockier foe and forcing Bader into desperation shots from far too far away.
I like Jones to win a straight kickboxing contest, assuming he remains committed to keeping the fight on the outside. Of course, that is easier said than done against an athlete like Bader.
If Bader is able to get past Jones’ jab or the New Yorker becomes overly aggressive with power shots and lets his opponent on the inside, the advantage on the feet shifts dramatically. Bader is the more explosive of the two, in terms of raw horsepower on his punches, and he fires with at least as much speed, though he tends to wind up a bit.
Fighting in a phone booth forces Bader to throw short, compact shots, which is when he will actually generate the most power. Jones’ length, by contrast, will work against him in that scenario because his punches will be smothered. He will fire crazy elbows that can quickly end the fight. Jones should also be the more effective of the two fighting from the Thai plumb. Nonetheless, I like Bader’s chances if the action devolves into an ugly inside slugfest.
The reality, though, is that the fight won’t likely unfold exclusively in either of those areas. Each man will have his chances where he has the advantage.
All that is great. If I’m coaching either fighter, I would be more concerned with my man using his striking in order to take the fight where I believe it will ultimately be decided—on the ground.
Jones and Bader are both well rounded fighters. Yet, both would readily admit that their offensive guard is the weakest part of their game. I don’t think either man has the skills to submit the other from his back, which means the safest route to victory is to take the fight to the ground.
Bader is the more accomplished wrestler of the two on paper, winning division championships and racking up more than 100 career wins at Arizona State. Jones won a national championship at the JUCO level. Ask former heavyweight kingpin Brock Lesnar about the difference.
Still, Jones hasn’t taken a backseat to anyone in the wrestling department in his MMA career. Maybe he would fall prey to Bader on the wrestling mat, but his functional MMA takedowns are probably at least as good because of his ability to mix judo throws with traditional takedowns.
Bader’s key to getting the fight to the ground is to force Jones’ hands up to defend strikes and then shoot for a double leg underneath his guard. The other option is to slip and strike his way onto the inside and force the action to the cage en route to a high crotch, trip or just pulling him down. He must be careful to avoid a clinch, or if a clinch materializes to quickly force Jones’ back to the fence, otherwise he might go for a ride himself.
Either way, I think Bader greatly increases his odds of winning by taking the fight to the ground because he will be able to use his excellent hips, balance and wrestling base to keep Jones down where he can score points for control while he grinds away with ground and pound strikes. He certainly has the power to knock out Jones or any other light heavyweight with a couple of clean punches, but he risks suffering the same fate if he opts to challenge Jones on the feet for very long. He would be better served looking for the knockout on the ground.
I don’t see Jones having as much success shooting for takedowns from the outside. His height works against him in that scenario. Bader should be able to see double-leg attempts coming and successfully sprawl, assuming he is not covering up from punches. Jones would be better off striking until Bader takes a risk to move to the inside, and at that point, he should also come forward, quickly secure the clinch and take Bader for a ride with a judo throw.
Bader is a great freestyle wrestler, not a great Greco guy. Jones is able throw even high level Greco guys, so he should be just fine in the clinch against Bader.
On the ground, Jones should not follow as conservative of a game plan as his foe. Grinding it out on the ground isn’t something that he likes to do, as evidenced by only allowing two of 12 opponents to last the distance. He instead likes to use his length to his advantage. Those long arms enable him to fire very hard elbows, even when his hips are controlled from the guard. Mixing those with punches should allow him to pass Bader’s guard. If this guy gets to the mount, it’s good night in a matter of moments.
Just like with Bader, Jones can knock out just about anyone on the feet from an unseen strike or an accumulation of shots. I also think he is the more likely man to score a judges’ decision if the action unfolds exclusively on the feet and lasts the full 15 minutes.
Yet, he is more adept at ending the action from savage ground and pound. At the end of the day, that is the smarter, safer route to victory against an explosive athlete like Bader.
• 23 years old
• 6’4, 205 lbs
• 84.5-inch reach
• 11-1 overall (5-1 UFC)
• Lone UFC loss was a DQ for illegal elbow strikes to Matt Hamill in a fight Jones was dominating
• 3 of last 4 fights have ended inside the distance
• Last 3 ended inside the first round
• Current layoff of 188 days is the longest of his UFC career (TKO1 over Vladimir Matyushenko on August 1, 2010)
• Knockout of the Night (TKO1 over Brandon Vera on March 21, 2010)
• 27 years old
• 6’2, 205 lbs
• 74-inch reach
• 13-0 overall (5-0 UFC)
• 3 of last 4 fights went the distance; all 4 went to the final round
• Current layoff is 133 days (UD3 over Antonio Rogerio Nogueira on September 25, 2010)
• Longest layoff of UFC career is 216 days (KO3 over Keith Jardine on February 21, 2010, to UD3 over Antonio Rogerio Nogueira on September 25, 2010)