Alexander Gustafsson has his arms folded and is staring slightly into space trying to think of what Thiago Santos would need to do in order to defeat Jon Jones at UFC 239.
“He just needs to do his thing and be ready for whatever Jon has. He comes with weird things, weird angles, and throws a lot. Throws hard.”
Gus knows what he’s talking about. He was locked in the Octagon twice with Jones, and while he came out on the wrong end both times, he’s arguably the only fighter to make Jones look human.
“He’s very creative. It’s hard to train for a guy like that. You have to go in there and be open-minded and take it as it comes.”
Asked the same question, Jones’ most recent opponent, Anthony Smith, is more succinct.
“Thiago has to be perfect.”
It’s blunt, but Smith might be right. To date, the light heavyweight champion has given no one a reason to bet against him.
“[Santos is] clearly athletic, powerful and explosive,” Smith continues. “But he’s got to be able to hold that for five rounds. So his conditioning has to be the best it’s ever been. He’s got to be able to get in Jon’s face and stay there, which isn’t an easy thing to do. It’s hard to get in, it’s even harder to stay in…if he gets taken down, he’s got problems. And that’s not so much Jon, that’s Thiago. He’s historically had problems with grapplers and wrestlers, and Jon Jones is not the guy you want to fight if you’ve got problems on the ground.”
With that in mind, what chance is anyone giving Santos at this point?
“I think everyone has a chance,” Jones himself offers. “I know my job is to train extremely hard and to do all the right things to make their chances extremely slim.”
Based on his résumé, a slim chance is all any fighter can hope to get against Jones. His lone professional loss was to Matt Hamill back in 2009. After dominating Hamill the entire fight, Jones was handed the loss by the referee for using an illegal 12-6 elbow in a possible fight-ending sequence. In other words, if you accept the outcome, Jones beat himself. And if voices as prominent as Dana White and Joe Rogan are successful in having the result overturned to a no contest, there would be nothing approaching a loss on Jones’ record.
With little to point to as a weakness, some opponents are left to swipe at his out-of-Octagon woes as a way to hype their fights. Jones is quick to point out this is a way to make excuses in advance, should they lose.
“I feel like a lot of opponents insult my personal life, because there’s not much to say about my martial arts game. I work really, really hard not to show any glaring holes in my game. I definitely have some glaring holes in my personal life, and I think that’s something I’ll have to deal with a little while longer moving forward. Eventually, that will be over, too.”
So why is he a puzzle that has never been solved? Anthony Smith continues:
“Jon Jones is difficult to beat because he’s well-trained. He trusts his team and you can tell that in his performance. He does exactly as they say when they say to do it. Physically, he’s a gifted athlete. He’s long. He’s tall. He’s athletic. He’s fast. He’s strong. He’s heavy for the weight class, but doesn’t seem to have too hard of a time making weight. He’s just built to fight, physically. And mentally, as much as people pretend that he’s not, Jon has a little bit of dog in him. He can dig deep when he has to; we’ve seen him have to do it a few times. There’s a lot of reasons Jon is good, but those are some of them.”
Jones is visibly touched by the appraisals from his old foes, but stops short of accepting the compliments.
“I don’t feel like I’m unbeatable. I just work really hard and I try to make my chances of losing really slim. Just sickening hard work and faith and just trying to surround myself with a lot of good people.”
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If Jones retired today, he would undeniably do so as one of the best in history, if not the best. If it comes to pass that Jones has no defeats on his record, and he dominates yet again Saturday night, what’s left for “Bones” to prove?
“One of the goals that’s come to my mind recently is to be a 20-time world champion,” he says. “I feel like if I can reach that goal, that means I’m defeating a lot of tough future competition. This should be my 14th world title, and to get to 20, I think will be extremely impressive. That’s one of my short-term goals.”
And as he looks around an increasingly crowded light heavyweight division, who are the biggest obstacles to obtaining that goal?
“Who do I see giving me the biggest bang for my buck? I don’t know, it’s hard to say. Thus far, I’ve done great against a lot of really tough guys, and I’m not going to expect any differently out of myself now.”
Steve Latrell is a writer and producer for UFC.com. Follow him on Twitter @TheUFSteve