The matchup between current UFC light heavyweight champion Mauricio "Shogun" Rua and the presumed star of the future, Jon "Bones" Jones, is perhaps the most intriguing fight to think about since Rua's last fight with Lyoto Machida.
After the first fight between Shogun and Machida, most observers felt that Shogun had revealed his hand, and that Machida would simply be able to make the necessary adjustments to win. Instead, Rua was the one who had made the most important adjustments in his strategy, and because of that, he won in devastating fashion.
Fast forward to the present day and the fact that Rua has opened as a sizable underdog to Jones seems bizarre.
The experience gap is overwhelming. Shogun has defeated the likes of Chuck Liddell, Alistair Overeem, Antonio Rogerio Nogueira, Quinton Jackson, and the previously undefeated enigma, Machida. The best fighter Jones has beaten is Ryan Bader, a fighter who was an extremely good stylistic matchup for Jones.
Yet, although Shogun has the experience advantage, he hasn't faced a fighter quite like Jon Jones.
Overeem had the approximate physical dimensions of Jones, but not the same wrestling and grappling ability of Jones, and at the time, Overeem's endurance was not the greatest.
Kevin Randleman and Mark Coleman are better credentialed wrestlers than Jones, but both have shown a lack of submission defense, and are walking targets on the feet. Even then, Coleman proved to be a difficult matchup for Rua, who struggled to deal with Coleman's strength.
Surprisingly, the closest comparision to Jones that Shogun has seen before is Forrest Griffin, due to Griffin's size and top position grappling ability, which proved to be too much for Shogun to handle. Although Jones may not have the same cardio or submission savvy as Griffin, the comparison is still a relevant one.
Yet much of what people take out Shogun's fights with Coleman and Griffin is up for debate depending on what you think of Shogun's injuries and strategies.
Rua's fans will be quick to point out that when Shogun fought Griffin and Coleman in the UFC, he was recovering from crippling knee injuries on both occasions. People like myself will argue the opposite—that the top-position grinding attacks of Coleman and Griffin were the biggest factors that tired Shogun out. If Shogun goes through that same kind of test, he's likely to tire out again.
But can Jones do the same thing that Griffin did?
At the present time there is still so much that we don't know about Jones.
We know that he's a great wrestler, and that he can dominate from top position, but the truth is that he's never faced an opponent even close to the same skill set as Shogun.
Shogun may have porous takedown defense, but he's far better at submission grappling than anybody Jones has fought thus far into his very young career.
Shogun is also by far the most dangerous striker Jones has fought.
Stylistically, the closest matchup to Shogun who Jones has faced is probably Brandon Vera, but Vera isn't nearly as good off his back as Shogun is, doesn't attempt wrist-control as Vera did, and Vera has struggled with pulling the trigger while the fight remains on the feet.
Shogun's respect for Jones's takedowns could result in Rua being extremely cautious on the feet, but he may also gain confidence knowing that he's by far the more polished striker.
For all the raving about Jones's flashy striking techniques, Jones has yet to prove that he can use those weapons on an elite striker.
Jones hasn't stood around very much in recent fights, and when he's been forced to stand, his results may be more questionable than some might imagine.
Jones was getting out-boxed by Jake O'Brien for stretches before Jones landed a spinning back elbow.
And during Jones's fight with Stephan Bonnar, Jones was hit plenty of times in the face, but Bonnar doesn't have the kind of power behind his strikes that could really be a fight-ending threat.
Shogun does have that power, and he could also be a threat on the ground.
While Jones's wrestling base will help keep him out of trouble, some observers have seen weaknesses in his grappling ability, including his tendency to leave his arms open for armbar attempts. Jones usually keeps his legs far out of reach, but leglocks could also be a factor in this fight in certain situations.
All of that said, Jones does seem to have a clear route to victory, if he can consistently get takedowns and force Rua to spend energy in self-defense.
But Rua has been counted out before, and has recently surprised people with his new-found appreciation for strategy.
Rua still doesn't get enough credit for solving the Machida riddle, where Tito Ortiz, Thiago Silva, Rameau Sokodjou, Rich Franklin, Bonnar, BJ Penn, and others had failed.
Jon Jones's coach, Greg Jackson had a crack at the Machida puzzle with Rashad Evans, but failed miserably.
Instead of looking for specific techniques and positions that could be exploited, the Jackson camp seemed to focus on the vague concept of "elusiveness" and reportedly didn't even bring in any karate fighters to emulate Machida's style.
Greg Jackson still doesn't get enough credit for how bad a strategic blunder this was.
Which brings us to the question of strategy. Most people assume that Jones has a possibly decisive edge with Greg Jackson, but I don't think that's the case.
Shogun's team did a brilliant job in coming up with solutions to Machida, whereas Jones's coach, Greg Jackson had no answer for him.
The comparison isn't entirely fair because of the different styles at play and the fact that Shogun had much more time to prepare for Machida than Evans did.
But I wouldn't discount the strategic question entirely.
While listening to interviews, I see that Jones has already keyed in on uppercuts and overhand rights as a few weapons that Shogun is likely to employ, and that's good that he's identified those things.
He's probably planning on ducking in for a takedown whenever Shogun rushes in like a bull.
It's conceivable that they've even broken down how Shogun likes to roll for omoplatas and kneebars.
But they've made mistakes before in fight preparation, and Shogun's own team might some surprises in store.
Because of the clear method to victory and the fact that Jones will probably be able to get takedowns, I'll take Jones to win the fight by dominating from top position.
That said, Shogun is no stranger to solving the unsolvable. Don't be surprised if he does it again.
UFC 128: Shogun Rua vs. Jon Jones: Results, News and More
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