Pre-Fight Thoughts: Jon Jones -vs- Anthony Smith
In what is a very rare occurrence these days, a UFC champion is competing very quickly after their last fight. Jon Jones reclaimed his light heavyweight title on December 29th, 2018, at UFC 232, and now defends that title against Anthony Smith on March 2nd — 63 days later. That being said, the bout itself appears to be a very lopsided match-up in favour of Jones. Anthony Smith is cast in the role of mandatory challenger, but the general consensus is that his chances of winning are almost impossibly small.
It's unfortunate that Jon Jones has proven to be such a dominant mixed martial artist, whose biggest test — the first encounter with Alexander Gustafsson — was still a clear win in his favour. Having exhausted all of the marquee match-ups possible at light heavyweight, Jones seems poised to either move up to heavyweight or simply pad out his resumé by knocking off hopeless challengers indefinitely. The biggest fight for Jones at light heavyweight is Daniel Cormier, and there is little reason to have them fight for a third time when Jones dominated each fight — even knocking him out cold the last time.
Enter: Anthony Smith. A little over 9 years ago, Smith was a sub-.500 fighter competing on the regional circuit. Since that time, Smith has compiled a record of 31-13 over the course of his 11-year career, and now stands on the prescipice of winning a UFC title. The odds are hugely stacked against Smith, due almost as much to the sheer dominance of the champion, Jon Jones, as anything to do with Smith's own fighting abilities. Smith is a tough fighter who can box fairly well, and has cut a swath through what remains of the light heavyweight division in this current era of the UFC.
You can never entirely count a fighter out, as there are always the outliers — the fleeting few moments such as when Matt Serra improbably TKO'ed Georges St-Pierre at UFC 69. There is, of course, always a chance — no matter how miniscule — that some sequence of events leads to Smith earning an upset win over potentially the greatest MMA fighter of all time. Such chances are so small that they merit only cursory acknowlegment, however; the odds are heavily in Jones' favour for very good reasons. While Smith may be a large light heavyweight who has developed a good enough mix of stand-up and grappling skills to ascend to the upper tier of the division, the gulf between the top and Jones himself is massive. When your route to victory hinges largely on your opponent either fighting injured, not showing up in shape, or not taking the fight seriously, that speaks volumes.
There will always be small groups of people who insist that their 'gut' gives them a feeling that this fight, this particular fight with a huge betting favourite is going to be the one that ends in an upset. Such predictions don't mean anything, cannot be analysed and their success rate is extremely prone to selection bias. If you make a habit of picking huge underdogs, you're going to eventually be right a few times, and remember that while eliding the other dozen times the odds were demonstrably correct and a dominant favourite steamrolled their opposition as expected. There are bad betting odds at times, but this is absolutely not one of them — no one is undervaluing the potential for Smith winning.
Don't get me wrong; I like Anthony Smith as a fighter, but this is Jon Jones we're talking about here. As much as the current light heavyweight champion is mired in controversy regarding his ongoing issues with recurring positives tests for Turinabol metabolites (story), personal life transgressions, and seeming distaste for anyone in the MMA media who questions him in the slightest, Jones is an incredible fighting talent. It's lamentable that such a controversial character is possessed of such athletic skill, but he'd hardly be the first savant to only face defeat at their own hands. Jones is an ostensibly undefeated champion who is in his third light heavyweight title reign...
Now, with all I've said to dismiss the chances of Smith doing anything but get styled on, this doesn't mean the fight itself isn't interesting. It's one thing to prognosticate over how Jones would buzzsaw through this fighter or that fighter, it's a whole other thing to see the man in action. That's one of the main draws of Jon Jones, is that he almost always lives up to expectations; the worst fight we've seen from him was a tentative dismantling of Ovince Saint-Preux at UFC 197. I want to see Jones continue to live up to the lofty expectations we all have of him, and Anthony Smith is still the toughest fight available. Again he's being dismissed because of how good Jones is, not because the champ is ducking better challengers.
I expect Jones to wrap this up within 2 rounds, most likely via some form of submission. Jones may decide to test his boxing against Smith, as he's been known to have a tendency of wanting to beat his opponents in their own area of expertise, but I think that's a really bad move. Smith's only chance is the clichéd "puncher's chance," and he's big enough to compete with Jones in terms of reach. Jones did show an ability to adapt to opponents with similar reach, in the rematch with Gustafsson, but Smith has a much more complete boxing skillset than the Swede that I wouldn't take that as licence to brawl with Smith. Smith's also got a good chin, whereas I would expect Jones to ragdoll him if the fight got to the clinch or the ground.
Sometimes you get an epic, marquee match-up, other times you get to see the GOAT go to work. In this case, it's the latter; the main event for UFC 235 may not be the biggest needle-mover, but for fans of actual fighting — and those able to appreciate getting to see a talent like Jones in action — this is a very good fight. If Smith manages to pull off what would be an upset for the history books, that would be truly amazing. I can't say I have any expectation of that happening, but it would be an incredible moment to witness. Regardless, I'm expecting Jones to do his thing here and not let this thing go too long.
Published: March 2nd, 2019.