Occupy The Throne – Edition #8

In this weeks edition of Occupy The Throne, Samer Kadi and I debate the chances of Rashad Evans against Jon Jones in this Saturday’s main event.

Jeremy Lambert: Prior to UFC 140 and Jon Jones vs. Lyoto Machida, everyone said that Machida would be Jones’s toughest opponent. While few actually picked the former champion to dethrone the current king, most figured that “Bones” would have trouble with the all-around talents of “The Dragon.”

I was not in that camp. Despite Machida’s skill set, I believed that Rashad Evans would pose a bigger threat to Jones when the two finally did battle. My partner went as far as calling me, “crazy” for making this claim. In this week’s column, I’ll tell you why Evans has the best chance to beat Jones and reclaim the 205 title.

Before we begin though, let me go ahead and state that I don’t think Evans will beat Jones on Saturday. In fact, I expect Jones to finish Evans in the 3rd round. The point of this column is to explain how Evans could beat Jones and why he will be his toughest opponent. Once again, I’m picking Jones to win. Here, let me make it clear for you Guest #53525: RASHAD EVANS WILL NOT BEAT JON JONES.

Samer Kadi: With a light heavyweight title reign, a rock solid professional record and wins over some of the sport’s biggest names, Rashad Evans boasts one of the most stellar resumes in MMA. As such, automatically shutting down his chances in any fight is an insult to one of the most criminally underappreciated mixed martial artists of this era. However, to torture a cliché, styles make fights – and in arch nemesis Jon Jones, Evans faces a stylistically nightmare match-up.

Unlike Lyoto Machida, Evans lacks a clear path to victory. In the case of the former, the game plan was straightforward from the moment he was announced as Jones’ next opponent. More importantly, Machida possessed the tools to implement it. For a round, the Brazilian seemed to be on the right track, as he maintained his distance, used his footwork efficiently to stay out of Jones’ range, and utilized his exquisite timing and ability to leap in to land a couple of solid shots on the champion’s chin. Of course, this was never going to last, as Jones’ skill set was simply too diverse for “The Dragon” to emulate his first round showing for an additional twenty minutes, and shortly thereafter, the Karate master’s unconscious body was lying face-first on the mat.

Machida’s first round success has been overstated – at the end of the day, the difference was simply a single flurry in which he landed one or two solid shots – but he remains the only fighter to show the merest hint of vulnerability in Jones’ game, and after Saturday night, that will likely remain the case. Simply put, Evans does not possess the skills to recreate some of what the man responsible for his sole loss was able to accomplish against Jones. His timing, quickness, accuracy and ability to move forward and land clean shots is not on par with that of Machida, and while the former Greg Jackson standout has areas of his own in which he excels, the nature of the match-up means they are going to be nullified by Jones’ skill set.

Jeremy Lambert: If I had to design the perfect fighter to give Jones trouble, it would be Rashad Evans.

The biggest flaw in the game of Jones is how he reacts when he’s pressed. He moves back in a straight line and doesn’t counter. Machida was able to take advantage of that with his one flurry, but that’s not typically his style, thus I never felt like he had a chance in a 25 minute fight. While Evans usually prefers to counter strike, people sleep on just how quick Evans can get in and out with an offensive flurry. Machida was never going to change his game plan to take advantage of Jones’s flaw. He was always going to sit back, wait for his opportunities, and try to capitalize. Evans is much more likely to change up his style, press the fight, and make Jones fight defensively.

Rashad also has more than one offensive weapon. Even though it’s going to be a very difficult task for him to get Jones to the ground, there’s at least that threat that Jones has to respect. Evans is great at mixing up his striking with his takedowns and using feints to open up holes. “Rampage” bit on Rashad’s opening takedown so bad that he ended up eating a right hand for his trouble, which immediately put him off balance.

Despite what Jones says, he doesn’t know what Rashad is going to do, and if he thinks he does, then he’s being naive. Now Jones is so good that he may stifle everything Rashad tries, but he doesn’t know when Evans will go for a takedown or when he’ll decide to turn up this aggression or when he’ll sit back and look to counter.

Samer Kadi: Striking wise, Evans usually employs one of two approaches: he either sits back and counter-strikes, or moves forward, throws feints, puts together combinations, and switches levels. The latter tactic has been the more effective of the two, and it has been instrumental in his wins over the likes of Thiago Silva, Quinton Jackson, and most recently, Phil Davis. it allows Evans to use his striking to set up takedowns with remarkable effortlessness, and makes him that much more unpredictable inside the cage.

Against someone with Jones’ reach however, one has to question just how feasible this strategy is. What made Machida such a tricky test for Jones was the Brazilian’s ability to cover distance incredibly well, which, at least momentarily, gave him a way around the champion’s gigantic reach. Evans, quick as he is, lacks that ability. His footwork is much more conventional, and while that isn’t necessarily a flaw, it will hurt him in this particular match-up, as closing the distance is most certainly going to prove problematic.

While Jones’ tendency to backpedal in a straight line instead of circling away is worrisome, Evans is going to have a hard time exploiting it when he can’t find an opening to initiate the action. Jones will be keeping at him bay the entire time with kicks to the legs and body, and “Sugar” will constantly find himself on the defensive. Being forced to be proactive will render Evans’ openings few and far in between.

Evans’ power double has improved tremendously throughout the years, as he’s gone from exclusively relying on pushing opponents against the fence in order to take them down, to someone who can seamlessly mix in his strikes with his wrestling and finish clean takedowns in the middle of the cage. And yet, due to Jones’ reach, Evans will have to shoot from well outside the proper range, making the already-complicated task of putting Jones on his back all the more arduous.

Naturally, the chance for Evans to land that fight-ending shot is always there. However, Rashad’s power is most evident when he is counter-striking. When moving forward, Evans’ punches lack the necessary pop, and while they serve their purpose in terms of setting up the takedown, the knockout threat is greatly reduced. Moreover, given that Jones rarely commits to any punches with reckless abandon — his attacks from distance remain kick-oriented — counter-punching opportunities for Evans will be infrequent.

Jeremy Lambert: Of course Jones will throw plenty of kicks, but lets give Evans some credit for his striking defense. Phil Davis tried to employ a kicking strategy against Rashad and yet almost every leg kick was checked and every body kick was caught. Obviously Jones and Davis are on different levels with their striking, but it’s not like Rashad will stand there and be target practice for “Bones” like Quinton Jackson did.

While Jones is the more skilled fighter, MMA is also a mental sport. Even though it’s been well over a year since they trained together and they’re both different and improved fighters, their training isn’t something that can be overlooked. Rashad knows what it’s like to go against Jones, even if it was just sparring, so he won’t be baffled or amazed by the psychical tools of Jones.

I don’t know who got the better of their sparring sessions, but I’ll spin it in Rashad’s favor either way. If he got the better of Jones in training, then maybe he’s in the head of Jones a bit. If Jones got the better of the training, then maybe Jones will be a little too cocky. Either way, Evans will benefit from having been in the cage with Jones prior to Saturday night.

It’s possible that Rashad is already in the head of Jones as it stands due to their fractured friendship and trash talking. Jones said he wouldn’t do any talking leading up to the fight, but we’ve all seen that that hasn’t been the case during the build up to this fight. Like he’ll try to do at UFC 145, Rashad has forced great human being Jonathan Jones to play his game in the media.

Samer Kadi: While the mental aspect can never be downplayed, this fight will ultimately come down to skill, game-planning, and execution. Regardless of who got the better of the other in training – spoiler: it likely wasn’t Rashad – many things have changed since the last time the former friends touched gloves and went at it behind the doors of Greg Jackson’s gym in Albuquerque. Most notably, Jon Jones went on to become the UFC light heavyweight champion, and proceeded to twice defend his title in spectacular fashion. That alone should provide him with the required confidence to overcome any potential mental demons he might have had against Evans. As long as Jones’ nerves don’t get the better of him and he is able to keep his emotions in check – and history suggests he’ll succeed on both accounts – he should be able to perform to the best of his abilities; and that is a scary prospect if you’re Rashad Evans.

In addition to possessing all the tools to negate Evans’ strengths, Jones’ own strengths will give his adversary all sorts of headaches – perhaps literally. Thus far, when Jones clinched up with his opponents, it spelled a death sentence upon them. Even if Evans is able to stay vertical in the clinch – a tall order by itself – he would still have a barrage of elbows and knees to deal with. Furthermore, Jones’ submission of Machida showed just how unpredictable and versatile he is in that position, as while clinched up against the fence, Jones sneaked in a gnarly guillotine on his unsuspected foe.

More worrying for Evans is what happens if he finds himself on his back with Jones on top. Rashad is excellent in the scrambles, and knows how to maneuver his way from the bottom and get back to his feet, but he has yet to come up against anyone with Jones’ top game. In fact, in his fights with Jackson and Machida, Jones showed that he doesn’t need to spend too much time on top to inflict serious damage. Therefore, even a few seconds on the bottom could mean a deep cut on Evans’ forehead courtesy of a trademark “Bones” elbow. Jones’ combination of punishing ground and pound from full guard, guard-passing ability, and submissions from the top makes his ground game the most devastating in MMA. That, coupled with the distinct size advantage he will have over Evans means Rashad could be in for a painful night if he gets stuck on the bottom.

The five-round nature of the fight favors the more dynamic fighter, and that is undoubtedly Jones. Evans will have a hard time securing a single takedown on Jones, let alone do it consistently for five rounds. The champion’s cardio has improved tremendously since his days of gassing out against Stephan Bonnar, and the fact that he will be the one dictating the pace certainly helps. Evans has improved his cardio as well, as he has limited the pointless and energy-wasting excessive movement on the feet, and no longer tires himself by persistently pushing his opponent against the cage. However, all of that is thrown out of the window if Jones gets on top and starts landing the sort of punishment he did on his previous opponents.

Both fighters may have taken turns in getting the better of each other in the seemingly never ending war of words in the build-up to this bout, but the fight itself will tell a different story, as Evans is on the receiving end of yet another brilliant Jon Jones performance.

Jeremy Lambert: Almost everything came easy for Jones in 2012. Save for the one flurry against Machida, the current champ was never in trouble in any of his four fights. Not only was he never in trouble, but everything he did worked with some type of success. It’s no secret that Jones is a cocky individual, and I’d be cocky too if I was just like Alexander Gustafsson, but cockiness can sometimes lead to complacency.

It’s possible that Evans could make Jones overcome some adversity, even if he doesn’t do much offensively. Again, if Evans can check leg kicks or catch body kicks or scramble up without taking damage, it could put some doubt into the head of Jones and that little bit of doubt could go a long way for Rashad.

Once again, I don’t think Evans will beat Jones, the point I’m arguing is that he’s a tougher match up than the champs most recent challenger. There are a lot of factors working in Rashad’s favor that Machida didn’t have, both with his skill set and mental game. All Rashad has to do is put Jones in a little bit of trouble to prove me right. After what he did to me the last time he was in Atlanta, he could at least repay me this time around.

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