Jon Jones vs. Quinton Jackson: UFC 135, Sept. 24
Nearly 18 years into its history, the UFC will host its first-ever championship match featuring two African-American fighters. The color of their skin and their profession are among the few things the UFC 135 main-event combatants have in common. Just 24 years old, Jon Jones is a polished speaker who dresses in suits, wields a charismatic smile, and looks the part of a 21st-century athlete. Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, nearly a decade older at 33 years old, is more raw and grizzled. He’s a t-shirt and jeans guy who is equally prone to scowls or levity, wears his emotions on his sleeve, and has little patience for corporate behavior or political correctness.
In the cage though, the two fighters share some similar attributes. Both come from wrestling backgrounds, excelled at a young age, and are known for their fighting ferocity. Given their styles, it’s an intriguing matchup that could finish in any number of ways. Each man has his own likely path to victory, and here are the gameplans to leave Denver with UFC gold.
Jones’ championship victory over Mauricio “Shogun” Rua last March was so complete that it bordered on the absurd. Facing a fighter who excels in all facets, Jones dominated Rua, out-landing him 102-11, according to FightMetric. The fact that Jones (13-1) crushed a complex striker like Rua cannot be considered a great sign for Jackson, who is considered a more basic kickboxer.
One of Jones’ biggest strengths is his cartoon-like reach. With his 84.5-inch wingspan, he’ll have a huge edge on Jackson (73 inches). Despite his relative youth in the game, he has quickly learned how to use that advantage, keeping opponents in constant guessing mode at the end of jabs and kicks. Because Jackson likes throwing his hands above all else, its imperative that Jones mix up his offense the way he did against Rua.
Jones is still so young that he has the element of surprise on his side. Because he’s still developing, opponents are never quite sure what new weapons he might use. That’s further compounded by his willingness to take risks with unorthodox offense. Rua looked surprised to see so many kicks from Jones, who threw punches and kicks in nearly a 1:1 ratio while the two were standing. Those work in perfect sync with Jones’ height, because his legs are so long that he’s often out of punching range.
Jones also has excellent takedowns—his 72% accuracy rate is third-best all-time among UFC fighters. Though Jackson historically has strong defense, stuffing 80% of attempts, Jones can further disrupt Jackson’s offensive timing with well-placed takedown tries. Jones has shown tremendous power and effectiveness in the clinch, a place where Jackson has been rattled in the past. If that leads to a takedown, Jackson has struggled mightily off his back, and it’s where Jones does his best work, making it the place where the fight is most likely to be finished.
There was a time when Jackson’s skills looked like they were stagnating. Surprisingly, it was in the midst of his UFC title run. Working with Juanito Ibarra, a trainer who was primarily a boxing coach, Jackson became one-dimensional. Even though that one dimension was excellent, it made him predictable, a cardinal sin in MMA. However, after parting ways with Ibarra, Jackson (32-8) began training with Lance Gibson, a Muay Thai coach who has worked on adding variety to his stand-up game. In his last fight against Matt Hamill, Jackson showed his most well-rounded striking performance in several fights.
Jackson will need to bring that type of offense to beat Jones. If Jones only has to watch out for a right cross and left hook, his job becomes much more manageable. Adding extra elements is never a bad idea. Given that, Jackson should think about peppering a takedown attempt or two into the fight. It is the most underrated and underused part of his game. Remember, at UFC 123, he took down Lyoto Machida, who is top five all-time in takedown defense. He is capable of it, but rarely willing. Part of that is because Jackson has talked himself into a corner by frequently badmouthing wrestlers who fight unexciting styles, all while extolling the virtues of strikers. However, if he wants to win a belt, he has to put pride aside for 25 minutes and use all of his tools.
That said, Rampage has more raw power than any fighter Jones has ever faced. When all else fails, throwing those fisticuffs is never a bad idea. Jones has looked dominant in his career, but if there’s one remaining question about him, it’s his ability to take a huge punch. Somewhere in the course of five rounds, Jackson is likely to land one. Either it drops Jones and we finally see evidence of vulnerability, or he takes it and walks forward. In the case of the former, we may see the old king re-crowned. In the case of the latter, we can assume it’s going to be a long reign for the golden child.