The UFC light heavyweight title is on the line for the third time this year tomorrow night (Dec. 10, 2011) as champion Jon Jones looks to defend his strap against former division deity Lyoto Machida in the main event of UFC 140.
From humble beginnings, Jon Jones has exploded to the top of the MMA world in 2011. He's already handed Ryan Bader his first loss, dethroned Mauricio "Shogun" Rua and knocked off "Rampage" Jackson. If "Bones" can put a stop to Lyoto Machida tomorrow night, it will cap off perhaps the most impressive one year run in MMA history.
Lyoto Machida wants to make the most of his opportunity. Coming off one of the most exciting knockouts of the year against UFC Hall of Famer Randy Couture, he's had plenty of time to prepare for Jon Jones. Many analysts have speculated that Machida's defensive karate style could be the perfect counter to "Bones." We'll find out the answer to that question on Saturday.
Will the 24-year-old Jones continue his torrid run through the gauntlet of light heavyweight champions? Will Machida's unique fighting style pose problems, or has Jones figured him out just like everyone else? What's the path to victory for each man come tomorrow night?
Let's find out:
Record: 14-1 overall, 8-1 in the UFC
Key Wins: Quinton Jackson (UFC 135), Mauricio Rua (UFC 128), Ryan Bader (UFC 126)
Key Losses: none
How he got here: Jon Jones' path from can't-miss prospect to world champion has been very fast. Just five months into his professional MMA career, he was already 6-0 and making his UFC debut in place of an injured Tomasz Drwal at UFC 87. He defeated his opponent, Andre Gusmao via decision but his star turn didn't truly take place until his next fight against Stephan Bonnar at UFC 94 in which he showcased a diverse array of attacks and all kinds of slams and throws.
"Bones'" star continued to brighten as he began finishing his opponents in increasingly impressive fashion, smashing tough light heavyweights Brandon Vera and Vladimir Matyushenko in the first round. After handing Ryan Bader the first loss of his career in another two round destruction, Jones was offered a title shot in place of his injured teammate Rashad Evans.
The young gun took it to the champ, smashing "Shogun" over the course of three rounds and stopping him to become the youngest titleholder in UFC history.
If there were any doubts at all about his ability to be a long-reigning champion, Jones answered them in September with a four round thrashing of former champion "Rampage" Jackson which resulted in a rear naked choke submission victory.
When Rashad Evans' shot was delayed for a third time, Jones was offered Lyoto Machida and accepted the challenge.
How he gets it done: Jones has a plethora of weapons and he's capable of finishing a fight by multiple means. The best plan of attack, at least at first, will be to keep his distance to a point where he can still snap his jab while Machida hits nothing but air. He's got a 10 inch reach advantage and that should account for something.
Jones is capable of utilizing all kinds of tricky attacks like spinning elbows, push kicks to the knee and more, but those tricks are more than likely something that could get him countered by the spry Machida.
If "Bones" really wants to hurt him, the best plan of attack is to wear him down, frustrate him with his reach and attack his legs with repeated kicks. With the way Machida leans back to avoid punches, he leaves his legs very vulnerable to punishment. Jones can slow him down with some kicks over time and once he's lost a step, it will be time to pounce with a clinch attack.
Jones has a lethal clinch, with his long limbs, his knees and elbows are especially dangerous. If he can get his hands on Machida, he could hurt him with strikes or perhaps throw him to the canvas with his expert use of leverage. If he can put Machida on his back, watch out for his elbows. He didn't get much opportunity to showcase them against Jackson in his last fight but they were vital to his success in many of his stoppages.
Record: 17-2 overall, 9-2 in the UFC
Key Wins: Rashad Evans (UFC 98), Thiago Silva (UFC 94), Randy Couture (UFC 129)
Key Losses: Mauricio Rua (UFC 113)
How he got here: At one point in his career, Machida looked unbeatable. His unorthodox fighting style, mixing Shotokan karate with Brazilian jiu-jitsu, wrestling and even some Sumo, baffled his opposition and fight experts alike. "The Dragon" rode an impeccable 16-fight win streak all the way to the UFC title, crushing everyone in his way including former UFC champions BJ Penn, Rich Franklin, Tito Ortiz and eventually Rashad Evans.
It only took one perfectly timed right hook to the temple to bring the hype crashing down. Machida's aura of invincibility was left in Montreal at the hands of "Shogun" and he wants it back badly. The now ex-champ came out of the gate gun-shy against "Rampage" Jackson in his last bout at UFC 123 and finally exploded forward with a burst of harnessed energy in the third round to nearly finish the fight but it wasn't enough to sway the judges.
Machida got back on track in a big way this past April, scoring one of the most shocking knockouts in UFC history with a jumping front kick to Randy Couture's face. He was sidelined for quite a while waiting for the right fight and his patience paid off when he was offered a shot to reclaim his light heavyweight title.
How he gets it done: Machida needs to be patient, poised and ready to strike with a hard counter at any moment. Jones is youthful, full of energy and if Machida plays the waiting game, he may force him to make a mistake. Machida has a very powerful straight left hand but perhaps his sneakiest attack is his counter knee to the body, which he throws as his opponent comes in towards him before side-stepping to safety.
"The Dragon" also needs to avoid the clinch and the ground game. He might have better Brazilian-jiu-jitsu credentials than Jones, but Jones is a significantly better wrestler and he's capable of manhandling him if he can get both hands on him.
Machida must counter if he wants to win, and that requires him to keep his distance and wait for something to happen first. It may not be pretty and it may force some boos from the crowd, but I guarantee Jones would blink first, perhaps get frustrated which would play directly into his counter-striking style.
If Machida sees an opening, he can't let it slip away because Jon Jones does not leave many. He will need to explode forward with everything he's got and not stop until the ref pulls him off.
Fight X-Factor: The biggest X-Factor for this fight has to be the reach advantage/disadvantage. Jon Jones has the longest reach in the UFC and with all the time he's spent with Mike Winklejohn, he's learning to utilize it better and better each time out. He not only used his jab against Jackson, but he also mixed in push kicks to the knee. It may look dirty, but it made "Rampage" was kept guessing and he even admitted afterwards that the strikes messed with his head a bit.
Machida is a fighter that loves to be on the outside and wait for the proper moment to come in aggressively, but what happens when he feels he's at an adequate distance and all of a sudden, Jones is snapping his jab in his face? It could force Machida to have to adjust his gameplan mid-fight. How Machida responds to Jones' improving use of reach and how Jones continues to evolve his ability to keep his opponents at bay will be perhaps the key battle in this fight.
Bottom Line: This is perhaps one of the most unique style match-ups of the year, if not longer. Jon Jones is adept at just about every aspect of MMA and is continuing to improve and evolve his game. Lyoto Machida has a style which has perplexed just about everyone he's ever fought. This has the makings of a very entertaining showdown, although there is a possibility it turns into a staring contest. The reward though, is worth the risk. Jones likely has enough tricks up his sleeve to handle any situation so expect something incredible to happen at some point.
Who will come out on top at UFC 140? Tell us your predictions in the comments below!