Jon Jones and the State of the Light-Heavyweight Division

3 Feb , 2020,
oleg

UFC is kicking off 2020 with back-to-back Pay-Per-View events showcasing two of their biggest stars: while UFC 246 featured the long-awaited return of Conor McGregor, this coming Saturday UFC 247 will take us to Houston, Texas – where the reigning light-heavyweight champion and top ranked Jon Jones will put his title on the line against the undefeated [#9] Dominick Reyes.

Besides the big stars in the main event, these cards have something else in common. For one, a relatively weak undercard – something to be expected these days with a big-name main event. UFC 247 does have another title fight, with Valentina Schevchenko defending the women’s flyweight belt against Katlyn Chookagian in the co-main, but the quality of match-ups drops off drastically after that. The quality of the undercard aside, even the main event seems like a foregone conclusion. This was true for McGregor vs Cerrone, and the fight played out much like most fans and pundits envisioned.  The same seems to be the case for Jones vs Reyes. Some MMA sportsbooks are offering great odds for this fight, if you want to drop a few bucks on the champion, or try to win big betting on the underdog challenger. But I am not a gambler, so I will instead examine this fight from the sporting perspective – as well as the overall state of the UFC’s light-heavyweight division, which was once the showcase of the promotion.

At a glance, Dominick “The Devastator” Reyes seems to have the tools necessary to beat Jones. However since Jones sole loss came by the way of a disqualification, we don’t know for sure what those tools are. Reyes has the height to match Jon’s, the power to stop him in his tracks, and possibly superior physicality and athleticism. What Dominick is lacking is the reach (despite being the same height, Jones has a 7.5″ reach advantage), and more importantly the experience: while 30-year-old Reyes is two years younger than Jones, Jon has over twice the number of bouts under his belt. The experience advantage could play out in Reyes’ favor – we’ve seen fighters get old overnight before, and the amount of damage absorbed over the course of one’s career can be more significant than a fighter’s physical age. On the other hand, Jones has taken very little damage in most of his 27 fights. And while he has not looked great in his two most recent bouts with Thiago Santos and Anthony Smith, I am more apt to believe that Jon fought down to the level of his opponents: Smith was tentative and didn’t offer much offense, and while some fans argued that Santos should have won the decision in his battle with Jones, it was Santos who went home with both his knees destroyed while Jones walked out of the fight virtually unscathed.

With all that in mind, I am not going to spend much time to analyze the  stylistic match-up.  We already know that Jones can pretty much do it all… and Reyes so far is mostly a head-hunting striker. The only area where Reyes holds an obvious advantage over Jones is striking power. And I just can’t bet against Jones on what is basically a puncher’s chance. Instead, I want to take deeper look at the light-heavyweight division, and what the outcome of this fight could mean for it’s future.

When I first started watching MMA in the early 2000’s, the 205 lbs division (light-heavyweight as we know it today, but was then known as middleweight in Pride FC) was usually the top billed division in MMA. UFC had Randy Couture, Vitor Belfort, Chuck Liddell and Tito Ortiz as the big stars at LHW, with Liddell eventually becoming a dominant champion. These fighters overshadowed the anemic heavyweight division. While Pride had more marquee heavyweights at the time, they still showcased the 205 division – with Wanderlei Silva as the long reigning champ, and a supporting cast of fighters like Quinton ‘Rampage’ Jackson, Mauricio ‘Shogun’ Rua, Alistair Overeem, and Antonio Rogerio Nogueira among others.

When Pride was purchased by UFC’s parent company Zuffa in 2007, UFC picked up most of Pride’s 205-lbs fighters to bolster the light-heavyweight weight class, which resulted in a truly star-studded group of fighters. The merger also caused some turmoil in the title picture: after Liddell lost to Rampage, the LHW title was for a while passed around like a hot potato – until then 23-year-old Jon Jones defeated Shogun to become the youngest champion in the promotion’s history. Once Jones got a hold of the title, he held on to it with an iron grip. Jones has lost his title before due to legal troubles and failed drug tests, but he has never lost it in the Octagon – and after being stripped of the title, he regained it as soon as he was ready to fight again.

While Jones dominated, the division stagnated around him. The UFC and Pride stars of the prior generation aged out of their prime, and new stars failed to materialize. Jones’ title reign was defined by feuds with Alexander Gustaffson, Rashad Evans, and Daniel Cormier. Bones settled all these in a decisive manner, and his two most recent fights were against middleweights with multiple losses, moving up in weight to fill the talent gap at 205. As every other opponent, both failed to dethrone Jones. At this point, it just feels like Jones will defeat every light-heavyweight or middleweight in front of him.

So what does the future hold? If Reyes can win the title, we will almost certainly see an immediate rematch – which will be far more interesting the second time around. If Jones wins as expected, the UFC will have a hard time finding another challenger. Johnny Walker was being hyped as the next contender, until his first round KO loss to [#8] Corey Anderson – and Anderson vs Jones is not a fight that most fans will get excited about. Beyond that, there is maybe Volkan Oedzimir, or the rematch circuit. Even if we look outside of the UFC, [#2] Ryan Bader who holds both the HW and LHW belts in Bellator has already lost to Jones in an embarrassing fashion. While Bader has improved since then, he is not likely to return to the UFC – and if he did I still don’t like his chances against Bones in a rematch.

Moving up in weight seems like the most likely scenario for Jones, should he come out victorious. There we could see some interesting match-ups with heavy hitters like Stipe Miocic, Francis Ngannou,  ‘Bigi Boy’ Rozenstruik – perhaps even a trilogy with Daniel Cormier. Meanwhile, the light-heavyweight title picture will become wide open, allowing for a new champion to arise and potentially for new contenders to develop. All in all, Jon Jones defeating Reyes and moving up to heavyweight would be the best thing for both divisions, as well as the UFC fans, by allowing for a number of fun new matches,