UFC 232 was a blast. It absolutely delivered the promise it held on paper, crowning the first women’s double champion, the likable and happy Amanda Nunes; giving at least two future contenders their breakout performances (Petr Yan and Alexander Volkanovski); granting us a plethora of weird finishes (Megan Anderson toe-poking Cat Zingano’s eye, Michael Chiesa twisting Condit’s arm nearly off with one hand, Ryan Hall hitting the fastest heel hook in recent memory); and last but not least, affirming Jon Jones as the best light heavyweight ever.
Afterwards, Jones called out Daniel Cormier, but seemed oddly unwilling to go to heavyweight. He doesn’t seem interested in fighting a fatter Cormier, perhaps because with the added weight Cormier hits harder, and Jones doesn’t think the risk of a knockout is worth it. However, at 205 pounds, he established himself tonight as the GOAT.
Before the fight, Andrew Richardson and I wrote a list of anyone from middleweight to heavyweight who had a realistic shot at beating Jon Jones, knowing that he was likely to defeat Gustafsson. Given that he showed improvements over the only challenger to ever really come close to beating him, how does that list hold up?
First, what Richardson wrote about Gustafsson himself seems pretty spot on:
If Gustafsson commits to kicking the hell out of Jones’ legs, he stands a fair chance at dethroning the king. That’s not his game though, and as Pearson mentioned, he does a lot of his best work with the lead hand. Sadly for the Swede, nothing interrupts the jab and left hook like a low kick.
Indeed, Gustafsson opted to try to pressure instead of running laps around the cage, but conceded kicking range entirely to Jones. He just didn’t return the leg kicks Jones was throwing, for whatever reason. Perhaps his groin injury played a role. Whatever it was, Jones was able to sit back and interrupt his attack very effectively, and Gustafsson didn’t have the footwork to get in range to use his boxing. It was frustrating to watch, especially on a night where we had seen Alexander Volkanovski use intelligent pressure to break the elusive Chad Mendes. Volkanovski understood that to corral an opponent to the fence, one had to go deeper than two strikes, but Gustafsson seemed unable to string together cohesive combinations that put him in range. For a second, Gus’ double jab into a right hand reminded me of Max Holloway, and I had a glimmer of hope, but unlike Holloway, Gustafsson never played with the timing enough to figure out the entry.
In the post-fight interview, Jones said that the difference had been his own understanding of range; in the first fight, Gustafsson had been able to keep the fight in the narrow bandwith that suited him long enough to pile up damage. In the rematch, he just wasn’t able to, with Jones able to kick him, elbow him when he got too close, clinch him when he over-committed, then finally get his decisive takedown in the third. It was the same fight Jones always wants: avoiding the middle distance, except accomplished with even greater skill.
Is there, then, anyone who can beat Jones? Two finishes over his closest rivals- steroids or not- make that seem unlikely, and his refusal to entertain heavyweight means we won’t get to see Stipe Miocic or Francis Ngannou try their hand at it. That leaves middleweight and light heavyweight. Yoel Romero is still an intriguing fight, and if he ever wanted to jump up, this would be the perfect opportunity. Now that Jones has also developed a knack for finishing people in the third, their third-round forms would be fascinating to see matched against each other. Richardson was not optimistic about his chances, though, and he would need a finish to win. Robert Whittaker is focused on beating Kelvin Gastelum, and that’s really the only other middleweight who could possible get the job done. Rockhold is headed for 205, but Richardson was dismissive of his chances.
The only native 205-lb. contender with a realistic hope of success isn’t quite ready yet. Dominick Reyes has the frame, the takedown defense, the power, and the skills at range- particularly the kicking- to give Jones real problems. He hasn’t shown that he can keep up a five-round pace yet, though, and his one top ten win over Ovince St. Preux isn’t enough to pick him to beat Jones yet. If the 205 lb. king avoids getting stripped for more nonsense, he will probably roll through a couple contenders- Thiago Santos being the most interesting- while Reyes builds experience. A bout against Corey Anderson, or Gustafsson himself would be a good test to see where Reyes is at.
Until then, Picogram Jones is the king. All hail the king.