It will be a familiar setting for Jon Jones, who returns to Toronto, Ontario, Canada, this weekend (Sept. 21, 2013) for the third time, looking to break the Light Heavyweight title defense record against Swedish standout Alexander Gustafsson in the UFC 165 main event.
Just one year ago at UFC 152 in the exact same arena, Jones survived a first-round scare courtesy of Vitor Belfort, who was closer than anyone has been before to defeating the champion, locking in an armbar that the 26-year old phenom ultimately survived to later submit Belfort in round four.
Almost two years ago, Jones got tagged with the best shot he has had to overcome in his short -- yet incredibly successful -- mixed martial arts (MMA) career when Lyoto Machida appeared to making "Bones" uncomfortable, only to end up unconscious one round later.
Jones must now overcome "The Mauler" if he wants to beat the 205-pound title defense record, in which he is tied with Tito Ortiz (five). Gustafsson is on an impressive six-fight win streak, and although those wins have not been against the upper echelon of opponents in the division, he is still a tough task for the champion to overcome.
These fights, Maniacs, are "The Top Two" to watch on the under- and main-cards this weekend. Here's why:
It is a no-brainer that the most important fight on the card is the championship showdown between the nearly untouchable Jones and Gustafsson. Even though the pair are remotely close to being evenly matched -- at least physically -- is this going to be another lopsided win for the champion?
Jones, the youngest fighter ever to win a championship in the organization at the tender age of 23, has compiled an impressive hit list that comprises former champions and legends of the sport such as Mauricio Rua, Quinton Jackson, Machida, Rashad Evans, Vitor Belfort and Chael Sonnen.
And that is just in 2.5 years.
"The Mauler" earned the title shot after his impressive win over the courageous "Shogun" at UFC on Fox 5. Gustafsson is deserving of the shot, defeating all but one opponent in the UFC thus far out of a possible eight. And that man was Phil Davis, who now trains with him at Alliance MMA.
Gustafsson is 15-1 in his MMA career, with that loss being three years old.
He showed the world how talented and better of a fighter he was when he beat Matt Hamill badly at UFC 133 (forcing "The Hammer" into retirement) and then went on to win his next three fights, including a main event scrap in his homeland of Sweden against Thiago Silva.
However, it must be stressed that the level of competition "The Mauler" has faced to date does not compare to "Bones" in the least bit.
Don't look too much into the size factor or promotional videos hyping up this fight that emphasize reach and that Gustafsson is virtually identical in height with the champion. It is factual, yet there is no significant advantage -- Jones has dominated men who have been bulkier than him, including Sonnen, Machida and Belfort. We can even say Brandon Vera was almost as tall as Jones ... and we all know how that turned out.
There is a notion that Jones cannot be hit, and Gustafsson will no doubt want to prove to the critics that he can tag him and get on the inside. Gustafsson uses angles properly (as does his opponent) and his flashy stand up comes with unorthodox hip movement of which the champion must be wary. He also strings together combinations impressively, getting the best of his opposition with his trademark uppercuts and the constant circling of his hands. Both men also have a good kicking pedigree, and that could turn the fight into a kickboxing war if we are lucky, although it may be an overzealous thought.
Can Gustafsson take a hit?
We have seen him get clocked a few times in the "Shogun" fight. And although he has a good chin, being hit by someone with the devastating power and accuracy of Jones can end anyone's night. Since it seems that the MMA sphere is writing off Gustafsson and names like Glover Teixeira and Daniel Cormier are already entering the fold, "The Mauler" should use that as an advantage, perhaps to build a fire inside and catch the champion off guard. Building off of that, it seems unlikely for Gustafsson to finish Jones, and since the Swede is entering the championship rounds for the first time, he will need to keep his composure while trying to wear out his accomplished adversary.
Jones' gameplan may be similar to the one Davis implemented on Gustafsson -- take him down, wear him out, look for a mistake or a chance to capitalize and get the submission. That is exactly what Jones does when he is not elbowing opponents into oblivion. Jones definitely has the upper advantage in that department, so Davis should be working hard with Gustafsson on his wrestling defense (or at least one would hope so). Gustafsson is not a bad wrestler at all, as we saw him toss both "Shogun" and Silva at ease; however, this is Jones we are talking about, a man who took down Sonnen at will and made him look like anything but a wrestler.
And that is exactly what the gangster from West Linn, Oregon is known for.
Most observers predict another easy win for Jones, yet Gustafsson should not be overlooked, especially on the tear he is in right now in the division. If Jones wants fresh opponents instead of rematches, all of his focus should be on "The Mauler."
Mike Ricci will have the home crowd advantage, as the Montreal native fights on Canadian turf against the dangerous Myles Jury, who has not tasted defeat thus far in his 12-fight career.
In a career that dates back to 2008, Ricci has already faced a crop of dangerous fighters in his 11-fight career, competing against the likes of Jordan Mein, Daron Cruickshank and Pat Curran early on in his career.
Ricci was billed as Canada's next big thing, a top prospect out of Firas Zahabi's TriStar Gym in his hometown. His coach, Zahabi, went so far to say Ricci emulates his far more successful training partner well, and he was going to be the next Georges St. Pierre. Ricci was dazzling in the now-defunct TKO organization and boasted a promotional record of 4-1 in Ringside MMA -- two big promotions in Montreal. He was invited to participate in Bellator's Season 2 Lightweight tournament, but hit in a fork in the road, meeting Pat Curran and getting brutally knocked out in just three minutes of the first round.
He did not return for a year, getting a win back at Ringside MMA; however, since his loss in Bellator, he has not been able to string together two consecutive wins. Being even (3-3) in his last six fights should not damage his status as a young prospect, though, if "The Martian" wants to fit the billing and work his way back to the main card, he needs to overcome Jury on Saturday night.
The King of The Cage veteran and another Alliance MMA stud, Jury, has gone to decision once in his career and that was against Michael Johnson at UFC 155 almost a full year ago. Fresh off a second-round knockout over Ramsey Nijem at UFC on Fox 7, affairs have been going much better since his stints on TUF 13 (where he was forced to leave early because of injury) and TUF 15 (when he was eliminated courtesy of Al Iaquinta). Not only is he equipped with devastating power; he can pull off the slickest of chokes as well. Jury has six submission wins and five by knockout -- all of those did not exceed the first round.
Jury has been largely untested in the early stages of his career, whereas Ricci has had his fair share of tough fights at a young age. Not to say that Jury's previous opponents, Ramsey Nijem and Michael Johnson were not the best level of competition, since Jury has shined against those former foes. Ricci may have the advantage in the experience department, having had tougher fights earlier on and has had that grand stage experience that Jury has not yet been a part of.
As for the fight itself, "The Martian" may want to keep it standing -- perhaps with a stick-and-move gameplan that would frustrated his opponents and that his teammates, St. Pierre and Rory MacDonald, have had success with. Jury may want to exploit Ricci's ground game, where the TUF 16 finalist had trouble with grappling as he came up short against Colton Smith in his latest defeat. Both men are good with their standup and though Jury has significantly more power judging from his victories and past performances, Ricci is a little better well-rounded than his opponent, mixing it up with kicks to keep his opponent at bay, as we saw in his last outing at UFC 158 against Colin Fletcher.
Hopefully we get to see these two prominent lightweights trade for three rounds until a decisive conclusion.
For more on the upcoming UFC 165 be sure to check out our complete event archive right here.