What are the keys to victory in Saturday's UFC 128 main event between Shogun Rua and Jon Jones? Michael DiSanto breaks it down...
Mauricio “Shogun” Rua, a man long viewed by fight cognoscenti as the standard bearer for the 205-pound division, will make his first defense of the UFC light heavyweight championship. The challenger is one of the sport’s most talented young stars, Jon Jones.
Shogun is looking to rebound from his third knee surgery in as many years, a medical reality that would end the career of lesser athletes. The last time he stepped into the Octagon following surgery, the all-action brawler had such a severely limited gas tank that it nearly cost him the fight against an aging, offensively limited Mark Coleman.
Jones is looking to become the youngest champion in UFC history at 23 years old. Josh Barnett currently holds that distinction after defeating Randy Couture at UFC 36 as a baby-faced 24 year old. Vitor Belfort won a UFC tournament when he was only 19 years old, but he did not win an actual UFC championship on that night.
Jones is also looking to set a new standard for the shortest duration between two UFC bouts leading up to a successful title challenge. Fight night will be the 42-day anniversary of his win over Ryan Bader. Rich Franklin currently holds the record. He beat Evan Tanner to win the 185-pound title 56 days after bludgeoning Ken Shamrock. Frank Shamrock rested only 22 days before becoming the inaugural holder of what became the UFC light heavyweight championship, though his predecessor bout was in Japan Vale Tudo, an organization that was not affiliated with the UFC.
The fact that Jones is probably entering his first title challenge with as much hype behind him as a first-timer in the history of the promotion adds additional spice to the fight. Cain Velasquez might have a legitimate beef with that statement, at least among “those in the know.” But it is my impression that casual fans believe Jones to be virtually unbeatable at this point in his career, whereas a much larger segment of the population was less than sure how Velasquez would fare against Brock Lesnar.
Let’s not forget that Jones received the championship opportunity due to the injury suffered by former champ Rashad Evans. Jones and Evans are teammates. If “Bones” wins the title, the first question will be whether he is going to face Evans in his first defense of the crown. That takes the intrigue meter through the roof.
Needless to say, Shogun-Jones is an interesting fight from a number of angles. Oh yes, it also promises to firework-friendly for as long as it lasts. You read that correctly. I don’t see any way this bout reaches the 25-minute mark.
Shogun is one of the great finishers in the sport, winning nearly 85 percent of his fights inside the distance. Only Velasquez has a better finishing percentage among reigning champions, though he has less than half as many career bouts. Speaking of heavyweights, Shogun owns two first-round knockouts over reigning Strikeforce heavyweight champion Alistair Overeem. He is the only man in the sport who can make that claim.
Jones is no slouch in the finishing department, with a stoppage ratio that is just a hair behind that of his opponent. His stoppage ratio would actually surpass Shogun’s if he hadn’t fired a series of illegal elbows on Matt Hamill, changing what should have been a second round knockout to a disqualification loss.
Mix in the fact that Shogun could very well be limited in his conditioning due to his long, injury-imposed layoff and Jones is taking the fight on an absurdly short turnaround time, which could also wreak havoc on his own ability to fight five hard rounds, and I just don’t see any way that this thing goes the distance.
The million-dollar question, of course, is who will win any why? Conventional wisdom suggests that Jones will struggle on such short notice. He did not take sufficient time (again, according to conventional wisdom) to recover from the arduous training camp spent preparing for Bader in order to maximize his preparation and performance for a five-round title fight. And he definitely did not have sufficient time to fully prepare specifically for fighting a world-class, well-rounded fighter like Shogun, who is an opponent unlike any other he has ever faced, both in terms of skills and aggression.
That latter part is the big key to victory for Shogun. The Brazilian is a pressure-first fighter. Jones is used to being the stalker, not the stalked. He hasn’t been forced to stand his ground and fight against a savage attacker, and he certainly has never been in a true firefight.
Shogun, on the other hand, thrives during apparent chaos. It is like second nature to him, after growing up as a fighter in the vaunted Chute Boxe Academy’s full-speed sparring sessions. The world slows down to Shogun during those moments. He is never out of control, calmly attacking and defending during what seem to be frenzied moments to everyone else. For a young fighter like Jones, it is more likely that the world will speed up during those moments, not slow down, and that will lead to mistakes.
Moreover, Jones has shown the tendency to move straight back with his hands raised, almost like a referee signaling for a touchdown, before circling out to his left, when faced with extreme forward pressure. He gets away with it because he typically stands well outside of striking distance due to his insanely long 84.5-inch reach and his extremely quick feet.
Jones won’t get away with that sort of a response for long against Shogun. Moving straight back keeps him in the line of fire, rather than escaping it. Expect Shogun to move forward aggressively when Jones retreats straight back and look for a right high kick on the end of his fistic combinations. Again, with Jones’ tendency to move straight back and then circle to his left, he could walk right into a goodnight kick.
Pressure is also a surefire way to test Jones’ cardiovascular conditioning after such a quick turnaround. Fighters often spend anywhere from six to 12 weeks getting their body to peak for a fight. Jones trained his body to peak for a 15-minute fight against Bader less than two months ago. Was there enough time, even for a youthfully energetic fighter like Jones, to recover and recondition his body for a 25-minute fight on Saturday night?
I really doubt it. I think that Jones will find himself in some seriously deep waters if the fight makes it into the third round and beyond, particularly if Shogun pushes the pace early on. As Jones tires, his only real weapon will be takedowns, though they will become less and less effective as his gas tank drains below typical levels.
Honestly, if the fight lasts into the third, I like Shogun in a big way. And I like him to end the fight in that round—again, if it lasts that long. Let’s face reality. If fighters were able to effectively compete at the highest level every 42 days, more guys would do it because it would mean additional paydays. I really respect Jones for taking this fight, but I think that the short turnaround will be the single biggest factor in the outcome, if the fight lasts beyond two rounds. In fact, I think it will guarantee the outcome.
Of course, turnaround time will have nothing to do with the outcome in the first round. Jones is a killer in his own right, a super predator who doesn’t take a backseat to anyone, at least nobody that we know of yet. I would expect a veteran fighter in his late 20s or 30s to be flat early in a fight on such short notice. I think Jones be highly motivated and full of energy at the beginning of the fight thanks to the benefits of youth.
He must take advantage of those moments by making Shogun pay for his aggressiveness by putting him on his back. I’m going to go out on a limb and state that Shogun is the single best standup fighter in the light heavyweight division. He stalks foes from a traditional Muay Thai stance, with his hands held very high and his weight behind center. It is a position that is designed to effectively unleash brutal offensive assaults and also defend incoming standup fire. It is not a stance that lends itself to stopping takedowns.
Machida was able to take Shogun down with relative ease in their two bouts. The former champion is one heck of a fighter, but takedowns are the weakest part of his game. Jones’ takedowns are one of his biggest strengths. They probably equal the takedown skills of anyone in the division, possibly even setting the standard.
Jones must be careful, however, not to get too comfortable with those skills. If the challenger doesn’t set up his double-leg attempts, he may very well eat a fight-ending knee. That is Shogun’s version of takedown defense. Jones should also be wary of moving into the clinch with a Thai expert like Shogun. He has enjoyed tremendous success executing Greco- and Judo-style throws in his UFC career, but none of those came against a guy with the in-fighting ability that Shogun possesses.
The champion is the single best clinch fighter in the division. Actually, I’ll take that a step farther. He is the single best standup fighter in the division. Jones doesn’t want to unnecessarily engage him on the feet in any scenario.
Unnecessarily engaging doesn’t mean avoiding fighting on the feet. It means avoiding getting into needless exchanges. Jones’ 84-inch reach and amazing hand speed means he can give anyone, including Shogun, fits on the feet, if he uses a lot of lateral movement and a quick, jackhammer jab.
The unique thing about Jones’ standup is that he is equally effective with the jab from either stance. This guy switches seamlessly between orthodox and southpaw stances, and he can control the distance of the fight from either position.
That is the good part about Jones’ standup game. The bad part is Jones rarely relies on the jab when fighting as a southpaw. He instead prefers to lead with straight left hands, and that is a big mistake against Shogun. Why? It is his single worst strike.
Jones lunges when he throws a lead left, so it doesn’t carry much in the way of destructive power or speed. He also pulls it back low. Shogun will counter a sloppy punch like that with his straight right hand or a right kick thrown to the head or body, and that could very well spell the beginning of the end because it will create an opening for a trademark Shogun blitzkrieg.
If I were in Jones’ corner for the fight, I would implore him to remain in the orthodox stance because I don’t think he can resist leading with a lazy left. The only time he should switch to southpaw is when he is committed to the jab and is going to quickly transition into a double-leg takedown attempt.
Remember, a conventional wrestling stance for a right-handed wrestler is with his right leg forward. Unlike kickboxers and boxers, who typically keep their dominant hand back, wrestlers want their dominant hand forward to assist with takedowns.
Once the fight hits the ground, and it really does need to hit the ground, if Jones wants to win, he should remain calm and secure his position in Shogun’s guard. Don’t worry about passing, unless the transition leaves him in side mount. Jones is long enough to do damage from inside his foe’s guard, something fellow tall light heavy Tito Ortiz made a career out of during his heyday.
If I’m Jones, I actually sell out with a vicious attack, once the fight hits the ground. Forget saving his gas for later in the fight. I don’t think it will be there no matter how conservatively he fights. That means he must aggressively push for a stoppage at every opportunity.
Shogun may be a black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, but Brandon Vera is no slouch on the ground, either. What did Jones do to him from inside the guard? He broke Vera’s orbital bone and a couple other bones in his face with a single elbow. Jones has that kind of power in his ground-and-pound strikes, and he needs to do whatever it takes to put him in a position to use those strikes on Saturday night.
Who is going to win? This one is tough to call. There are so many variables, as mentioned. Will the short turnaround be too much to overcome? Possibly. Will Shogun be in top form after surgery? Maybe not.
Will this be a great fight? Definitely.
Mauricio “Shogun” Rua
• 29 years old
• 6’1, 205 lbs
• 76-inch reach
• 19-4 professional record (12-1 PRIDE, 3-2 UFC)
• 3-2 in last 5 fights
• 7-3 in last 10 fights
• 1-1 in championship fights (4-0 in Grand Prix fights)
• 5-3 against current or former UFC champions
• 84.2% of wins by KO/TKO (16 out of 19)
• 10.5% of wins by decision (2 out of 19)
• 5.3% of wins by submission (1 out of 19)
• Knockout of the Night twice (KO1 over Lyoto Machida on May 8, 2010; KO1 over Chuck Liddell on April 18, 2009)
• Fight of the Night (TKO3 over Mark Coleman on January 17, 2009)
• Current layoff is 315 days (KO1 over Lyoto Machida on May 8, 2010)
• Longest UFC or PRIDE layoff is 483 days (SUB3 loss to Forrest Griffin on September 22, 2007; until TKO3 over Mark Coleman on January 17, 2009)
• 23 years old
• 6’4, 205 lbs
• 84.5-inch reach
• 12-1 overall (6-1 UFC)
• Lone UFC loss was a DQ for illegal elbow strikes to Matt Hamill in a fight Jones was dominating
• 4 of last 5 fights have ended inside the distance
• 3 of last 4 ended inside the first round
• 58.3% of wins by KO/TKO (7 out of 12)
• 25.0% of wins by submission (3 out of 12)
• 16.7% of wins by decision (2 out of 12)
• Current layoff is 42 days is the shortest of his professional career
• Longest layoff of UFC career is 188 days (TKO1 over Vladimir Matyushenko on August 1, 2010; until SUB2 over Ryan Bader on February 5, 2011)
• Knockout of the Night (TKO1 over Brandon Vera on March 21, 2010)
• Submission of the Night (SUB2 by modified guillotine choke over Bader on February 5, 2011)