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Will Ring Rust Be a Factor for Jon Jones and Khabib Nurmagomedov?

Patrick Wyman@@Patrick_WymanMMA Senior AnalystApril 14, 2016

Will 15 months away from the sport affect Jon Jones?
Will 15 months away from the sport affect Jon Jones?Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

The long-awaited return of Khabib Nurmagomedov to action this Saturday and the reappearance of prodigal light heavyweight champion Jon Jones at UFC 197 on April 23 marks the end of long stretches of inactivity for both fighters.

Two injury-filled years have passed since Nurmagomedov defeated reigning lightweight champion Rafael Dos Anjos, while problems entirely of his own making have dogged Jones in the 15 months since he clinically dismantled Daniel Cormier.

Will all of this time off make a difference for Nurmagomedov and Jones? Is "ring rust" a real phenomenon? Bleacher Report's Chad Dundas and Patrick Wyman have some thoughts.

Patrick: Now that Nurmagomedov has managed to make it through a full training camp without a run-in with an angry bear and Jones has avoided a closer acquaintance with the New Mexico penal system, we can finally turn to thinking about their upcoming fights.

That raises the question of how their extensive periods away from the cage have affected them physically and mentally and whether we can expect them to perform at full capacity in the coming weeks.

Evans struggled against Bader.
Evans struggled against Bader.Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

If we're looking for analogies here, plenty of fighters have spent a long time away from fighting, and their return performances have been a mixed bag. Dominick Cruz looked great in dynamiting Takeya Mizugaki and in a close fight with TJ Dillashaw following long layoffs, but Rashad Evans couldn't find his timing and rhythm against Ryan Bader after two years away due to injuries.

Chad, are Jones and Nurmagomedov Cruz, or are they Evans? And is it fundamentally different being away from the sport because of repeated injuries and because of legal troubles?

Chad: All interesting questions. I think at this point we can say unequivocally that "ring rust" is real, but that it affects different athletes in different ways. It strikes me that we might actually consider it the opposite of having "the best training camp of your life." Meaning, rust is a thing all fighters deny before they make their returns to the cage but then they all admit it hampered them to some extent after the fact.

Cruz was certainly the exception to the rule. That dude is such a student of the game, it doesn't feel like that big a surprise that he might have just prepared so much and so hard that it chased many of the inactivity butterflies away.

In that regard, Jones fits the same mold. Every indication is that he's returned to the gym with a frenzy since coming off suspension (if indeed he ever left). All the photographic evidence leads me to hazard a guess that he might well return better than ever.

Nurmagomedov is a bit more of a black box. I can't claim to have quite as good a handle on how he prepares or what to expect from him. Again, if I had to guess, I'd say he's probably going to be fine.

Perhaps luckiest of all for both Jones and Nurmy, neither guy might need to be at his best considering their late replacement opponents. They might cruise over Ovince Saint Preux and Darrell Horcher, respectively, even if they're not quite 100 percent. Eh, Patrick?

Patrick: I'm a huge fan of matching up Nurmagomedov with Horcher and Jones with OSP, even if that was patently not what the UFC intended to do here. While I agree that Jones will be fine, with the likely result that he would once again have dismantled a game Cormier, a matchup with the tireless and lethal Tony Ferguson would be less to Nurmagomedov's taste.

Throwing a fighter who hasn't competed in two years against a tough stylistic matchup riding the confidence of a seven-fight winning streak is either the ticket for making Nurmagomedov the uncrowned champion or a recipe for an enormous letdown.

Ferguson is a great defensive wrestler, a dangerous grappler, a high-energy and technically sound striker and one of the few fighters who could potentially match the Dagestani Cowboy's pace. 

Horcher is closer to the right speed for him in this context. If you think Nurmagomedov can be a long-reigning champion and potentially a marketable draw on the basis of his ice-cold trash talk, overpowering style and the touch of the Russian exotic, you want him to be successful. A loss to Ferguson, even with all of that time off working against him, hurts that. 

Getting some cage time against a game Horcher before fighting the monsters who populate the lightweight division is a good thing, and I think we need to encourage that attitude. After all, that's more or less what Cruz got against Mizugaki: a known quantity with clear strengths and weaknesses. 

What say you, Chad? Should more fighters coming off long layoffs get what amount to tune-up fights? Or is the timeline in MMA so short that we have to make hay while we can?

Chad: As ever, I think you have to take everything on a case-by-case basis. It's taken me a long time to make peace with the more entertainment-focused (read: cash-focused) matchmaking style the UFC has gradually moved toward during the last few years. One thing I've always appreciated about MMA is its more competition-based approach.

It's a sport where the best routinely fight the best, without the more fractured pitfalls of boxing.

But when it comes to star fighters coming in off long layoffs, I'm generally cool with a tune-up fight. Especially for a guy like Nurmagomedov, who doesn't have the same sort of pressing championship business as Jones does, and whose current marketability can be based largely on his insane 22-0 record.

What I want to avoid seeing, however, is the UFC ever turn to the long-term record massaging that so often goes down in boxing. Nurmagomedov's record is impressive exactly because he's defeated six straight opponents of increasing difficulty in the Octagon, including one victory over current champ Rafael Dos Anjos.

I'm OK with him getting a gimme in his return, but I don't want to see too many more Darrell Horchers show up on his win/loss sheet. Know what I mean?

I'd think one tune-up and then it's back to business. Though, really, I have no idea. This whole "ring rust" idea seems like a fairly inexact science. How long can or should it take, Patrick, before we expect a top guy to be back to his old self again?

Patrick: I'm 100 percent with you in that we don't want the UFC to become boxing, where far too often we see talented fighters taking on no-name, no-chance opponents in an existentially meaningless succession of nonsense.

Developing prospects is a different matter, and the UFC might be well-served to draw some lessons from boxing in not overwhelming promising and potentially marketable young fighters with too much, too soon. Neither Jones nor even Nurmagomedov fits that profile at this point, though. Khabib is 27 and has 22 fights and eight years of professional experience. Jones was the champion and never lost his belt.

One fight is all it should take. Let them get some cage time under their belts and get through a camp without injury or problems, and then it's back into the fire where they belong.

It's entirely possible that injuries and time away might fundamentally ruin some fighters, but no number of tune-up fights will fix those kinds of issues. Mauricio "Shogun" Rua could have fought the Fabio Maldonados and Igor Pokrajacs of the world forever, and it wouldn't have magically repaired his knees.

One fight seems perfectly reasonable. What do you expect to see from Jones and Nurmagomedov? Given the nature of these fights, will it be a disappointment if they don't dominate, or should we scale back our expectations?

Chad: I guess I expect complete, unadulterated destruction. Maybe I'm just a jerk like that, but I don't really expect either Jones or Nurmagomedov to have lost a step or look particularly rusty. I suppose I can attribute that half to the level of competition and half to what I know/suspect to be the temperament of these particular athletes.

Jones especially has something to prove here. I think it is very bad luck for OSP—or any other light heavyweight—to wind up being the person standing across the cage from him after being stripped of the title and subjected to so much personal turmoil.

All that trouble was of Jones' own making, but you know the competitive, athletic side of his brain has turned it into a me-against-the-world situation.

He's going to come out guns blazing, looking to show he is still the dominant force in that division, still the rightful champion and still the best pound-for-pound fighter on the planet. Against an overmatched but powerful striker like OSP, I honestly worry more about Jones doing something overly aggressive or overly flashy to put himself in trouble more than I worry about ring rust here.

So long as he doesn't suffer a slip-and-fall accident a la Chael Sonnen at UFC 148, Jones takes this in a cakewalk.

Khabib probably does the same, but the time he's been out and the penchant for injury are both more pronounced for him. Horcher has some power in his hands and is currently riding a five-fight win streak. If he doesn't shrink from the moment, I suppose it's possible he could catch Nurmagomedov with something.  But I honestly fear sheer bad luck or bad decision-making here more than I fear any kind of rust.

Patrick: I couldn't agree more. We know at this point how Jones is wired, and it's hard to see a layoff getting in his head. After several years of exposure to Nurmagomedov, it seems hard to believe that a lack of focus or even rust could be a real problem for him.

MMA is more interesting with these two around. Even if they're not fighting the best, it's worth the price of admission to watch them do their thing, and it's better both for them and the UFC in the long run to give them winnable fights in their returns.

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