Jon Jones' biggest problem is that he has no problems. He's 26, the reigning UFC 205-pound champion, sponsored by Nike and Gatorade, and no one has any idea how to beat him. Alexander Gustafsson will try on Saturday night and he will fail to the same degree most anyone else would. The UFC's fabulously absurdist promo clip for the fight makes that much clear.
The prevailing message is Watch The UFC Because Someone's Head Might Explode From The Awesome Half-Naked Dude-Fighting. Or something. Maybe the UFC is tired of pointing out that Jones ruins dudes -- this dude he's fighting is a dude, ergo he's going to ruin this dude via the transitive property. Maybe the UFC has no idea what to do with a ready-made star. Whatever. The point is Jones ruins dudes. It's awesome.
That much was clear after his fight with former 205-pound champion Lyoto Machida in September of 2011. A uniquely unorthodox fighter, the thinking was that if anyone could befuddle Jones, it was the one fighter whose style is predicated on sowing confusion. It was supposed to be the most interesting test of Jones' career, and it was. We learned what happens when you hit him.
There it is. That's maybe the most significant strike anyone has ever landed on Jones. After taking a handful of bruising leg kicks early on, Machida sits back, resigns himself to taking another leg kick, and lands a counter left cross that catches Jones off-balance. Not one of Machida's follow-ups landed. Still, Machida established an effective counter, one he could keep in his back pocket. The problem was that Jones understood this better than Machida did.
Once again, Machida is sitting back on a counter and Jones is inching into effective kicking range. As soon as Jones lifts his left leg for a kick, Machida springs the trap, hurls himself into a counter left cross, and… goes face first into a hammer-punch that sends him into the canvas. A brief scramble saw Jones secure a palm-on-palm guillotine choke that ended the only way it could, with Machida falling face first into the canvas.
What really matters though, is how Jones recognized his mistakes in the prior exchange and used them to create the sequence that effectively ended the fight. It's one thing when a fighter is hard to hit, it's another altogether when hitting him accomplishes little more than giving him the data he needs to seal your already ill-bound fate. It's a starkly nihilistic thing to fight Jones.
However, MMA is a chaotic sport no matter how good you may be. Matt Serra, a glorified lightweight, smoked demigod slash UFC 170-pound champion Georges St. Pierre. A washed-up and damn near 40-year-old Randy Couture beat Chuck Liddell back when no sane person wanted any part of Liddell. Imagine MMA as being ruled by a petulant creator who enjoys snorting the occasional buffet tray of bath salts and you'll have a sound sense of matters.
Still, no one expected Vitor Belfort, a middleweight, to be anything more than a live body that Jones would bat around for the sake of abating boredom. Which of course means that their match at UFC 152 produced this.
Jones nearly dug his own grave by leaving his right arm on an island and failing to press Belfort into the cage. Belfort almost spread fresh dirt over said grave with a savvy armbar transition assisted by a perfectly timed push off the cage. Armbars don't get any better than that, and it didn't matter. Jones simply picks up all 200-plus pounds of Belfort using little more than raw man-strength and slams out of what was a dead-to-rights armbar. That's not fair. That's not fair at all.
On the heels of the first legit scare of his career, no one would have blamed Jones had he been content to pick apart Belfort from afar -- he did so rather easily whenever he wanted to. However, Jones is nothing if not serious about his craft. He wants to be great and desperately wants his legacy to be without questions, beyond reproach. That's why he never stopped taking Belfort to the mat.
After nearly losing the fight on basic positioning mistakes, Jones goes airtight by using wrist control on Belfort to set up a transition into crucifix position. Rather than figure-fouring the arm with his legs, Jones shifts his body weight onto Belfort's left side, which gives him the space and angle he needs to slip in a trio of jarringly fast elbows. The intent behind those elbows -- at least beyond the obvious -- becomes clear when Belfort goes to guard his face and Jones secures a keylock. Rarely used to any success in MMA, Jones is able to finish the keylock because his control on Belfort's opposite side makes it impossible for him to escape.
So, hitting Jones only makes him hit you back twice as hard and going for submissions gets you slammed on your head. Given that, it makes you wonder what in God's name Chael Sonnen was thinking when he thought to himself, "Hmmm… I think my best bet is to go full-blown race-troll on this insert slur of choice and make him really want to hurt me! Like, really, really bad!" The backstory is essential, as it will make you feel way less bad about watching this brutal GIF.
This is just a freak athlete doing freak athlete stuff. Cleary, there is a world of technique and skill and even beauty to be found in Jones' craft, but this? No. This is a PSA on why, above all, the absolute last thing you should ever do to Jon Jones is make him angry. Seriously. Don't do it.
Gustafsson has opted for the standard issue "Yeah, I can totally beat that guy, sure, yes, I expect you to believe this," routine and everyone capable of processing visual data has offered their grim nod of sympathy. He's going to lose because everyone loses to Jones. That guy ruins dudes. It's awesome.
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Tomas Rios is a freelance NYC-based writer who has covered MMA for The Classical, Deadspin, The Pacific Standard and Slate. You can find him @TheTomasRios.