Pre-Fight Thoughts: Jon Jones -vs- Dominick Reyes
It is the eve of UFC 247, and I would be lying if I said there was a palpable feeling of hype or anticipation in the air. Both the main and co-main event are, at least on paper, borderline perfunctory match-ups for a pair of dominant champions. In the case of the main event, Jon Jones defends his light heavyweight title against a talented but also unheralded Dominick Reyes.
Perhaps a victim of his own success, Jones is heavily favoured to win this fight and, consequently, there is very little tension heading into the pay-per-view. The best Reyes could do, in terms of talking up his chances of victory, was to make the questionable statement that Jones has never faced an athlete before. I don't even know what that means exactly, but a quick look at Jones' resumé makes it clear that he has dispatched a litany of talented fighters. And, if you don't consider Daniel Cormier — a national wrestling champion 5 years in a row, and Olympic team captain in 2008 — to be an athlete then I simply cannot take you seriously.
Now, does Dominick Reyes have a chance to hand Jones his first legitimate loss? Sure; everyone who steps in the cage with Jon Jones has a chance to beat him — it's just been a chance measured somewhere between highly unlikely and nearly impossible. I would rate Reyes' chances much closer to "highly unlikely." This is a difficult fight for him, for a number of reasons.
First, and most obvious, is that Jones is a demonstrably elite — and incredibly unique — talent. Jones is not some sort of super-athlete, but is phenomenally good at fighting. If combat sports did not exist, Jon Jones would just be some unremarkable tall guy, toiling away in obscurity. But when he steps in the cage, all of his physical and mental gifts coalesce into a thus far unstoppable force. You can question Jones' judgement a lot of the time: when he's got a live mic on, he's tweeting, or deciding he's okay to drive after getting blood in his alcohol stream, but when he's fighting in a cage his ability to adapt to whatever situation he's in and alter his tactics accordingly is unparalleled.
While Jones' past few performances have been underwhelming, I don't know how much meaningful information you can glean from them. Yes, he did get outstruck by a Thiago Santos working with a pair of compromised knees, and he fought way too conservatively against a visibly overmatched Anthony Smith. There was also the conservative performance Jones turned in against Ovince Saint-Preux — but that really felt like someone playing with their food and ensuring they didn't bungle a comeback fight. In between those underwhelming wins, Jones has also knocked out Daniel Cormier and stopped Alexander Gustafsson with ground-and-pound — underscoring the validity of his initial wins over both of his toughest challengers to date. Sure, you can criticise Jones, but only because no one is pefect; the fact remains that he just keeps on winning and some of the skepticism feels like a reach.
At some point, Jon Jones will begin to show his age. He will decline and he will lose. That is almost a certainty, barring an early retirement. But the question of whether or not we are at the point where the decline begins, I do not know. I wouldn't classify his difficulty with Thiago Santos as a sign he's falling off, but rather a combination of Jones' late-career minimalism and the specific challenges of Santos' own style. On its own, Jon's striking is hardly elite — even if it is very effective — and he was largely nullified by a man with torn knee ligaments who opted to fight southpaw.
This is where Dominick Reyes does have a shot, though — he's a natural southpaw with good accuracy and speed. If Jones doesn't take this fight seriously — which is always a concern when dealing with exceptional talents who have successfully managed to coast on their abilities at times — then a dangerous, young striker like Reyes is exactly the type to play spoiler. Reyes needs to avoid wrestling, kicks targetting his knee, and eye pokes. He needs to disrupt Jon and not let him get into a groove where he feels he can just freewheel, he needs to pressure and exploit openings his opposite stance can provide.
I can't pick against Jones here, personally, although I won't be floored if Reyes manages to win. Everyone loses eventually. I thought Alexander Volkanovski, while very talented in his own right, wasn't ready to usurp Max Holloway for the featherweight title. I didn't expect Conor McGregor to annihilate Jose Aldo. I didn't expect Amanda Nunes to walk through Cris Cyborg. It is exceedingly difficult to spot a changing of the guard coming from very far out. There is nothing unique to Dominick Reyes where I can say he's a surefire spoiler for Jon Jones. He's a good fighter, a strong prospect, but Jon Jones has beaten the very best in the game for a decade.
I would love to see Dominick Reyes successfully topple Jon Jones. It would shake up a stagnant and barren light heavyweight division and would add a lot of tension to future Jon Jones fights — knowing he can really be beaten. I think that regardless of the outcome, Dominick Reyes will prove to have been underrated by everyone. Provided he has done his due dilligence, I am expecting a vintage Jon Jones performance and likely a stoppage. Jon is not without his flaws, but thus far no one has been able to thoroughly exploit them. I don't have enough confidence that Reyes is the guy to do it either.
Published: February 8th, 2020.