The UFC has moved Saturday’s event on six days notice and inconvenienced over 20 fighters just to accommodate Jon Jones, putting a whole world of pressure on him to deliver against Alexander Gustafsson.
USADA, Nevada, California, and the UFC have all made it clear that Jon Jones has not failed another test. The UFC is the one that ultimately chose to move the event from Las Vegas to Los Angeles on six days notice all so that he can compete, but it has not changed the fact that the greater public has put brunt of the blame on him. Alexander Gustafsson will be figuratively representing those who have been frustrated with the former champion over the last several years as he looks to finally get his hands on gold. But when it is all said and done, even the world championship will take a back-seat to the redemption and validation both men seek in the night’s main event.
I’m focused on achieving my ultimate goal of reclaiming my Light Heavyweight title. I have willingly submitted to every USADA test in the lead up to this fight and USADA has confirmed what I've been saying all along, that I'm a clean athlete. I sincerely thank the California
— Jon Bones Jones (@JonnyBones) December 24, 2018
State Athletic Commission and Andy Foster for doing the right thing and supporting me through this process. I cannot wait to fight Alex Gustafsson this Saturday December 29th at the Los Angeles Forum in Inglewood.
— Jon Bones Jones (@JonnyBones) December 24, 2018
The reason Saturday’s event was moved, and the reason the UFC is taking the risk of further hurting their reputation, is because of how great many believe Jon Jones can still be. Before he entered controversy, before he ever entered the trouble that is now inextricably linked to him, he was the most brilliant fighter to ever grace the UFC Octagon. His 2011 campaign, where he went 4-0 and became the youngest champion in company history remains arguably the best year ever had by a fighter in MMA. He’s the longest reigning light-heavyweight champion of all-time, and it is unanimously believed he would have added to his run had he not been absent.
That individual is the one the UFC has invested in. They chose to uproot an entire event and caused hardship to countless fans because they feel Jones will move the needle enough to make up for it. They believe there will still be fans at the end of the day who not only fill The Forum in Inglewood but also tune in to the pay-per-view in huge numbers to see him perform.
Regardless of what USADA or the UFC will continue to say publicly, the fact remains that there is as much trepidation as there is excitement about Jones’ return. Fans have invested in his comeback twice already only to be disappointed. Quite bluntly, people will believe that Jones is back for good when he finally has been back for good.
He tested positive again!
— Daniel Cormier (@dc_mma) December 23, 2018
This opens the door for the ultimate redemption of Alexander Gustafsson. There is no shortage of storylines: The redemption for the first fight, where many had him winning until Jones rallied late in the contest. There’s his own reputation as an underachiever, which he can shatter by finally claiming gold after being bested twice in fights for the belt. Finally, there are the hopes of those cheering for perceived justice after watching Jones receive preferential treatment this week.
For different reasons, Gustafsson has been less active than Jones going into Saturday. Injuries have kept him out of the cage since his last win back in May of 2017. At 31 years old, Gustafsson is in the sweet spot of experience and athleticism, perhaps more so than he was in the first fight. That said, he will have to prove that he has made strides in his game despite having not been inside the cage for over a year and a half.
U r a damn clown!!! Of course we all know u r used to taking shots 💉 nothing new bro!!
The only ones u r blessed by is @danawhite and Jeff.
Ur luck runs out Saturday night!
— Alexander Gustafsson (@AlexTheMauler) December 24, 2018
The first fight was largely dictated by Gustafsson out-pointing Jones throughout the match, with Jones making up the deficit by delivering damage in key moments. Jones is largely successful due to having a seismic reach advantage over most opponents and relying on spins and other unorthodox attacks that are hard to anticipate. The first meeting showed that Gustafsson is well equipped to counter his style as he can get in-and-out of Jones’ range and is by far the more technically sound striker.
In the rematch, Jones must set-up his arsenal with more care than in their first encounter. Rather than looking to exclusively use his unusual arsenal, he should look to set-up shots behind the jab. Forcing Gustafsson to stop to parry or even move away ensures that he is not coming forward to counter a Jones spinning attack or head kick. A technical battle favors the Swede, so Jones should not abandon his unorthodox approach. Instead, he should threaten with his full arsenal of strikes and takedowns to throw off Gustafsson.
For Gustafsson, he has plenty to build on from the first fight. Gustafsson stopped nine of ten takedown attempts and Jones was not successful in getting him to the mat until the final round. Furthermore, he was largely successful on the feet until Jones landed a shot that stole momentum late in the fourth.
“The Mauler” should look to be more aggressive on the feet. Jones is not as effective when he is unable to set up his arsenal so Gustafsson should look to stay in his face with high volume. At mid-range, he can both out-box Jones and is more effective with his kicks. The key will be to maintain forward pressure so that Jones does not have the space to go for oblique kicks or spinning attacks.
A Jones victory looks to set-up several options in 2019. A third fight with Cormier is uncertain, but a move up in weight is not out of the question. Should DC retire, a Jones vs Stipe Miocic bout for the vacant heavyweight title is a no-brainer that would be a blockbuster pay-per-view. For Gustafsson, a trilogy fight with Jones would make the most sense but the schedule could also see Anthony Smith receive a title shot first.
The rematch of one of the best fights in MMA history has been five years in the making. But more than their first meeting, reputations are on the line. A loss for Jones will have many wondering if he has squandered away the prime of what could have been the greatest career of all time. A loss for Gustafsson could leave him dogged with questions about always coming up short when it mattered most. One man seeks validation. Both men seek redemption. Only one will have the world title to show they achieved their goal when all is said and done.