The Complete Guide to UFC 197: Jones vs. Saint Preux
After 15 months on the sidelines due to his legal troubles, former light heavyweight champion Jon Jones finally returns to action Saturday night at UFC 197 at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada.
In his absence, Daniel Cormier won the vacated 205-pound title against Anthony Johnson and defended it against Alexander Gustafsson. Despite Jones' competitive but clear victory over Cormier last January, the former Olympian now holds the belt that Jones defended eight times. UFC 197 was to be Jones' chance to reclaim what he never actually lost.
An injury to Cormier shelved that plan, and into the breach steps Ovince Saint Preux. The Strikeforce veteran and nine-time UFC contestant has hung around the division's top 10 for a while now, and this is his chance to break through in a big way against the dominant champion.
The rest of the pay-per-view portion of the card is exceptional. In the co-main event, longtime flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson takes on Olympic gold medalist Henry Cejudo in an intriguing title fight. Cejudo is the last real challenger to Johnson's throne; the champion has defended his title seven times, and there is little left for him to do at 125 pounds if he can dispose of Cejudo.
Former lightweight champion Anthony Pettis meets explosive striker Edson Barboza in the main card's third fight. This is a dream matchup of two of the division's best strikers, and a shot for Pettis to get back on track following losses to Rafael Dos Anjos and Eddie Alvarez.
The spotlight shines on talented prospects in the first two bouts on the main card. The Ultimate Fighter: Latin America winner Yair Rodriguez takes on Andre Fili in the opener, while New Zealand's talented Robert Whittaker gets a soft step up against the tough and skilled Rafael Natal.
The undercard is less promising. Inaugural strawweight champion Carla Esparza makes her return against Juliana Lima, while Pettis' younger brother, Sergio, headlines the Fox Sports 1 broadcast against Chris Kelades.
An excellent lightweight fight between The Ultimate Fighter Brazil 4 winner Glaico Franca Moreira and James Vick opens the Fox Sports 1 portion of the card, while a light heavyweight banger featuring Clint Hester and Marcos Rogerio de Lima will grace the Fight Pass prelims.
Let's take a look at each individual fight.
The Fight Pass Prelims
Efrain Escudero (24-10; 5-6 UFC) vs. Kevin Lee (11-2; 4-2 UFC)
Talented prospect Lee returns to action against The Ultimate Fighter 8 winner Escudero, a longtime journeyman. Lee, a native of Detroit, was on the fast track with four consecutive wins before running into Leonardo Santos in December. Escudero won two in a row, but then dropped a decision to Leandro Silva. This is essentially a chance for Lee to get back on track against a well-rounded but limited opponent.
Lee was a Division II All-American wrestler, and that shows in his active takedown game. Getting to the back is his specialty on the mat. He's also an improving striker with a meat-and-potatoes combination punching repertoire. Escudero can do a little bit of everything, though he likes to box on the feet and has a nice submission arsenal in transition. He's durable, skilled and not to be taken lightly.
Prediction: This is Lee's fight to lose. He's a much better athlete, hits harder, throws more volume on the feet and has the more dangerous ground game. Lee takes a decision.
Marcos Rogerio de Lima (13-3-1; 2-1 UFC) vs. Clint Hester (11-5; 4-2 UFC)
Hard-hitting light heavyweights meet in one of the evening's safe bets to receive a Performance of the Night bonus. De Lima, a veteran of The Ultimate Fighter Brazil 3, won his first two fights in the UFC but tapped to Nikita Krylov last August. Hester fought six times at middleweight and now moves up to 205 pounds after a pair of knockout losses.
The Brazilian is a knockout artist with huge power in both hands, a quick trigger on his counters and a nasty clinch game. He's lacking as a grappler and wrestler, though, and doesn't offer much past the opening minutes. Hester too is mostly a striker, and fires off a nice jab and left hook with real power in his punches. The occasional double-leg takedown adds some variety.
Prediction: Either fighter could end this at any time. De Lima is bigger, more powerful and better in the clinch, while Hester is a bit more polished at range, wrestles more effectively and has marginally better cardio. It's a coin flip, but the pick is de Lima by knockout in the first round.
Cody East (12-1; 0-0 UFC) vs. Walt Harris (7-4; 0-3 UFC)
The latest signing from Dana White's Looking for a Fight Web series, New Mexico's East debuts against Harris, who has come up short in three UFC outings. East has been a top prospect for a while, and the New Mexico state wrestling champion's talent has never been in doubt, but his extensive and well-documented legal troubles have thus far kept him out of major promotions.
East is well-rounded and dangerous. Despite his wrestling background, he prefers to strike, and has a slick counterpunching game to go along with good combination flow. Harris too likes to strike, and the rangy southpaw has good speed and solid power backed up by strong takedown defense.
Prediction: This is supposed to be a showcase for East, and that's probably how it will end up. He's the more polished striker and could probably hit a takedown or two for good measure, but either way he knocks out Harris in the first or second round.
The Fox Sports 1 Prelims
Glaico Franca (13-3; 1-0 UFC) vs. James Vick (8-0; 4-0 UFC)
Talented lightweights open the Fox Sports 1 portion of the event. Franca defeated Fernando Bruno at UFC 190 to take The Ultimate Fighter Brazil 4 crown at lightweight. Texas native Vick is a veteran of The Ultimate Fighter 15 and has been on a great run since. Jake Matthews tapped to Vick last May, and before that he defeated Nick Hein.
If Vick wins, he'll set himself up for a top-15 opponent. If Franca wins, he will cement his status as a blue-chip prospect deserving of a push.
Vick is extremely tall and rangy for the division at 6'3", and he puts his height to good use on the feet with a crisp jab. Long front and round kicks help to keep his opponent at range, where he piles up volume. He doesn't have great takedown defense, but his guillotine in transition is lethal and his use of uppercuts and knees helps discourage opponents from changing levels and shooting.
Franca is highly athletic and huge for the division himself at a thickly built 6'0". He has big power in his strikes at range, but mostly uses them to cover his level changes and clinch entries. Once he gets his hands on his opponent, he's brutally strong and excels at working to the back and finding submissions in transition.
Prediction: This is a close fight. Vick can stick Franca on the outside with his long strikes, but if Franca gets inside it's his fight to lose. The latter seems more likely, so Franca takes a decision.
Carla Esparza (10-3; 1-1 UFC) vs. Juliana Lima (8-2; 2-1 UFC)
Former strawweight champion Esparza returns to action for the first time since losing her title to Joanna Jedrzejczyk in March 2015. She draws Brazil's Lima, who has won two in a row since her own loss to Jedrzejczyk. Lima could crack the elite with a win here, while Esparza needs a victory to cement herself at the top of a rapidly evolving division.
Esparza is at her best when she mixes her strikes, level changes and clinch entries. Her transitions are the best part of her game, as punches open up takedowns and scrambles lead to strikes. At her worst, she gets stuck in a single phase and shoots telegraphed takedowns from too far away.
Lima has a reputation as a striker and throws with real power on the feet, but a wrestling game that builds on her size, strength and athleticism is her bread and butter. She has great takedown defense and a strong top game; she doesn't throw enough volume at range, though, and isn't a terribly technical wrestler.
Prediction: The one-sided loss to Jedrzejczyk shouldn't distract from how talented Esparza is. She's undersized, but when she can get the various pieces of her game working in unison, she's a monster. Lima can't stuff takedowns the way Jedrzejczyk did, and Esparza will wrestle her to a decision.
Danny Roberts (12-1; 1-0 UFC) vs. Dominique Steele (14-6; 1-1 UFC)
English prospect Roberts meets American journeyman Steele in a decent welterweight matchup. Roberts debuted in December with a submission win over the veteran Nathan Coy. Steele has split a pair of outings, losing by knockout to Zak Cummings last July and then notching a victory over Dong Hyun Kim (not the perennial contender) in November.
Roberts is an exciting talent. The rangy southpaw has a boxing background, and it shows in his crisp jab and sharp straight left. Takedown defense has been an issue, but he's improving and dangerous off his back. Steele can do a bit of everything, and while he isn't a great athlete, he has surprising power in his hands and solid wrestling skills to go along with a nasty clinch game.
Prediction: Roberts can be hit and doesn't have sterling defensive wrestling skills, but he's a much more imposing physical specimen and more technically sound on the feet. The Englishman knocks out Steele in the first round.
Sergio Pettis (13-2; 4-2 UFC) vs. Chris Kelades (9-2; 2-1 UFC)
The younger brother of former lightweight champion Anthony, Sergio Pettis returns to action against Canada's Kelades in a solid flyweight bout. Pettis is 1-1 since returning to flyweight and defeated former title challenger Chris Cariaso last October. Kelades won a tight decision over Chris Beal in August after a submission loss to blue-chip prospect Ray Borg.
Pettis fights much differently than his brother, with a more meat-and-potatoes approach. Sharp jabs and smooth punch-kick combinations are the basis of his game, and he mixes in the occasional takedown and top control for variety. Kelades is solid at everything but great at nothing. He moves well from striking to takedowns and does good work from the top.
Prediction: This is Pettis' fight to lose. He'll pick Kelades apart on the feet and hit takedowns as he pleases on the way to a one-sided decision with a strong chance of a finish.
Yair Rodriguez vs. Andre Fili
Yair Rodriguez (6-1; 3-0 UFC) vs. Andre Fili (15-3; 3-2 UFC)
The Ultimate Fighter: Latin America 1 winner Rodriguez takes on Team Alpha Male product Fili in an outstanding featherweight scrap to open the main card. Rodriguez has blossomed into one of MMA's brightest prospects in the last 18 months and defeated Charles Rosa and Daniel Hooker in 2015 to cement his status as a budding star.
Fili was once a top prospect himself but has alternated wins and losses in the UFC. He knocked out Gabriel Benitez last November after tapping to a Godofredo Castro triangle choke the previous March.
Rodriguez, a native of Mexico, is as blue as blue-chip prospects get. He combines off-the-charts athleticism with a slick, dynamic striking game, surprisingly strong wrestling and venomous grappling. Most importantly, he's making clear improvements from fight to fight, though he's still raw and inexperienced.
Striking is Rodriguez's wheelhouse. He likes to circle and move at distance and puts his 5'11" frame to good use with a crisp jab from both stances, front kicks, side kicks, round kicks and all manner of more exotic techniques. Spinning back kicks, wheel kicks, spinning back fists and spinning elbows can come at any time, and all of them are finishers.
Crisp counters make it dangerous to pressure Rodriguez, and he's generally solid at angling off after he throws to stay away from the fence. Aggressive opponents can force him backward, though, and he needs to improve at keeping his back off the cage with precise, technical movements.
Classic outside fighters like Rodriguez struggle if they have no backup plan aside from range striking, and the Mexican has a strong secondary skill set in the form of his nasty clinch game. Rodriguez has a slick arsenal of trips, throws, hip tosses and foot sweeps that he chains together brilliantly and mixes with knees and elbows.
His aggressiveness and willingness to try wild techniques get him in trouble on occasion, particularly with his takedown defense. Rodriguez is lethal from his back, however, and chains together nasty sequences of armbars, triangles, sweeps and leg locks.
Fili is an offensively focused fighter who has tremendous speed and power in his own right. A crisp jab, hard punching combinations and potent kicks are his bread and butter on the feet. He likes to move forward aggressively, pushing his opponent toward the cage.
That pathological aggression is the hallmark of Fili's game. He shoots an explosive and technical double-leg takedown with great timing, especially as his opponent comes forward, and he looks for the kill on the mat with his ground strikes.
The problem with all of this offensive firepower is defense. Fili doesn't move his head much and spends a lot of time in his opponent's range, which makes him easy to hit. His takedown defense suffers as he moves forward in leaps and bounds, and on the mat he has a habit of leaving his neck exposed. These are the trade-offs for being a dynamic and dangerous finisher.
Rodriguez -150, Fili +130
This is a great matchup. Fili will test Rodriguez in his weakest areas—his response to pressure and his somewhat suspect takedown defense—while being hittable enough to allow Rodriguez to unleash some fireworks on the feet.
Fili's path to victory involves staying in Rodriguez's face, avoiding long range and transitioning between hard punching combinations in the pocket and explosive doubles. It's a tightrope walk between Rodriguez's nasty clinch game and his creative kicks, so Fili has a task ahead of him.
The more likely scenario involves Fili putting in some good work as he pressures but Rodriguez succeeding in maintaining long range while hitting a few takedown attempts. The pick is Rodriguez by decision.
Robert Whittaker vs. Rafael Natal
Robert Whittaker (15-4; 6-2 UFC) vs. Rafael Natal (21-6-1; 9-4-1 UFC)
The Ultimate Fighter: The Smashes winner Whittaker has reinvented himself since moving up to 185 pounds, finishing two of his three opponents to run his overall winning streak to four. He faces Brazilian veteran Natal, who is also riding a four-fight winning streak. Kevin Casey was Natal's latest victim in January, while Uriah Hall, whom Whittaker beat in November, fell to Natal last May.
The winner will have an inside track at a top-five opponent. The 25-year-old Whittaker in particular represents new blood in a division that has aged badly over the last several years and desperately needs new talent.
Whittaker is an exceptional striker with an unorthodox and diverse bag of tricks. Crisp, efficient footwork keeps him moving around the cage as he cuts angles and looks for his opportunities to explode into a blitzing combination. Sharp low kicks, a steady barrage of front kicks and a piercing jab help to establish the preferred distance from which he likes to leap in.
Slick counters make it dangerous to pressure Whittaker, and his use of clean pivots keeps him in space and his back away from the cage. Good head movement and that efficiency of movement make it hard to hit him.
When he finds his rhythm, Whittaker maintains a punishing pace. Every strike carries fight-ending power, particularly his preferred left hook. That combination of volume, power and smooth technical skill is what makes Whittaker special.
None of that striking acumen would matter if Whittaker couldn't keep himself standing. His understanding of range and angles makes it difficult to get a clean shot at his hips in the first place, and he backs that up with strong defensive wrestling.
When the mood strikes, Whittaker has an explosive double that he times beautifully. He's competent on top with a solid knowledge of guard passing and potent ground strikes. His move to the back is particularly crisp.
Natal is a well-rounded grinder. He's more than competent on the feet, with a nice selection of punching combinations that he likes to punctuate with hard low kicks. Those strikes mostly serve to set up his level changes and clinch entries, however, and he has great instincts for connecting his striking and wrestling.
The Brazilian is a surprisingly skillful wrestler. He shows clean technique in the way he turns the corner to finish his doubles and puts together nice chains, and his tendency to set up his shots with strikes means that he excels at getting cleanly onto his opponents' hips. If he can't work takedowns, Natal is happy to grind away in the clinch against the fence.
Top-control grappling is the best part of Natal's game. He has a heavy base, passes smoothly and packs real power in his ground strikes. Arm triangles are his specialty, but he's more focused on control than finishing the fight.
Natal's best characteristics are intangible. He's durable, mean, confident and shows real in-fight intelligence.
Whittaker -345, Natal +285
Whittaker should blow Natal out of the water. He's a vastly superior athlete, a much more skilled and dangerous striker and has the takedown defense to keep this on the feet, where he wants it. Whittaker finds a knockout blow in the second round.
Anthony Pettis vs. Edson Barboza
Anthony Pettis (18-4; 5-3 UFC) vs. Edson Barboza (16-4; 10-4 UFC)
Former champion Pettis attempts to get back on track against Barboza in a dream matchup of lightweight strikers.
A five-round beating at the hands of Rafael Dos Anjos resulted in Pettis losing his belt, and he lost a controversial decision to Eddie Alvarez in January in his return to action. Losing again to Barboza would effectively knock a fighter once considered a rising star out of the 155-pound elite.
This is undoubtedly the biggest fight of Barboza's career. Time and again, he has brutalized the lower echelons of the division but fallen short against the cream of the crop. Losses to Tony Ferguson, Michael Johnson and Donald Cerrone bookend a streak that includes wins over Paul Felder, Bobby Green and Evan Dunham. A win here would catapult Barboza to the top of a stacked division.
Pettis is a sniper. Striking at long range is the former champion's wheelhouse, where he can pick off his opponent with one vicious head or body kick at a time. He operates from both stances, taking small movements to open up his preferred angles while feinting to draw his opponent's hands out of position. When the moment comes, he commits to a single fight-ending kick.
That's the meat of Pettis' game. Decent counterpunching gives opponents something to think about as they come in, but he mostly relies on the power in his kicks to gain his opponent's respect and set his preferred range. He doesn't have great footwork or a sense of where he is in the cage, and he gives away rounds he doesn't have to based purely on a lack of activity.
Aggressive opponents can force him back to the fence without too much trouble, and once there Pettis' relative lack of size and strength is a real problem. It's not difficult to hold him against the cage, and while he's a competent defender of takedowns, he's not outstanding.
A lethal guard partially makes up for Pettis' mediocre takedown defense, but with his hips smashed against the fence he offers little. Even in open space, technically sound top-control grapplers can control him.
Opponents always have to watch themselves on the mat, though. Triangle-armbar chains come out of nowhere, and Pettis excels at finding the back in transition.
Barboza is a pure striker, and his combination of speed, power and explosive athleticism with exceptional skill makes for a dangerous package.
Range striking is Barboza's bread and butter. He works behind a sharp, consistent jab, sticking his opponent on the end of his reach and then moving to find advantageous angles. Vicious, blazing-fast head-body punching combinations often follow. Barboza excels at planting his feet, staying in the pocket and using them as counters against aggressive opponents who try to pressure him.
Barboza does all of that to keep himself at long range, where he can use his kicks without fear of takedowns or counterpunches. The Brazilian is one of the most vicious kickers in the sport, and his low kicks in particular can finish fights on their own. His head and body kicks are no less dangerous, and he throws the occasional wheel or spinning back kick for variety.
As good as he is at range, that's essentially the extent of Barboza's game. He excels at defending takedowns and it's difficult to pin him in the clinch, but aggressive, durable opponents can force him to the fence. With his back against the cage, he's far less effective.
There is no real plan B if Barboza is losing the range striking battle. He can hit the occasional takedown, but he's not particularly comfortable in the pocket or the clinch. It's long range or bust, and even there he's a bit hittable and not the most durable of fighters.
Pettis -175, Barboza +155
This is a tough fight to call. Barboza is a tough matchup for Pettis; they're both range strikers, but Barboza works at a faster pace, is a better puncher, is probably more explosive and packs more power on a strike-for-strike basis. Pettis is unlikely to pressure Barboza and he probably won't mix in takedowns: It's the combination of those two things that have been Barboza's kryptonite in the past.
This will likely play out as a range striking battle between Pettis' taekwondo-based approach and Barboza's muay thai. Unless Pettis can land the fight-changing shot, he's going to get outworked, as Barboza piles up damage with his jab and chops away at Pettis' legs. Barboza takes a decision.
Demetrious Johnson vs. Henry Cejudo
Demetrious Johnson (23-2-1; 11-1-1 UFC) vs. Henry Cejudo (10-0; 4-0 UFC)
Longtime flyweight champion Johnson attempts to make the eighth defense of his belt against 2008 Olympic gold medalist Cejudo. The freestyle wrestling champion has won all four of his UFC outings by decision and defeated Chico Camus and Jussier da Silva to get his shot at the throne.
For his part, Johnson has defeated every potential opponent in the division, many of them twice. John Dodson fared worse in their rematch last September than in their first meeting, and before that Johnson dominated Kyoji Horiguchi, Chris Cariaso and Ali Bagautinov. After Cejudo, there will be nobody left for Johnson to fight at 125 pounds, at least as things in the division currently sit.
Blazing speed, slick technical skill in every phase and the off-the-charts fight IQ necessary to meld them into more than the sum of their parts define Johnson's game. In the cage, he's one of the two or three smartest fighters in MMA.
He doesn't make mistakes, or at least enough of them for his opponent to have a shot.
Those tendencies manifest themselves in several concrete ways. Johnson is one of the best in the game in transitions. Strikes lead into double-leg takedowns and clinch entries, takedowns and clinch breaks create openings for strikes, scrambles open up positional advances on the mat and an opponent looking to get back to his feet is begging to eat a few punches and knees for his trouble as he stands up.
Fighting Johnson is like slowly drowning. Stuff a takedown, and he'll fake the shot to pull your hands down and open up a punch or elbow. Keep your hands high, and he'll shoot the double. Defend both and he'll grab a double-collar tie to land a few knees to the body.
The worst part for his opponents is how quickly Johnson processes information.
His mind is like a lightning-quick flow chart: Show him you can defend the single-leg takedown and he immediately recognizes that he can grab the leg, push you to the fence and then unload punches and elbows while you're trying to stay standing.
Every individual movement builds into the next thing. He's more dangerous as the fight goes on. Fatigue never catches up to him. His constant barrage of shots to the legs and body wear his opponents down, and they can't hope to match his pace. When they're exhausted, he finishes with submissions on the mat.
As good as Johnson is, he does have a few points that might be exploited. First, he depends so heavily on transitions that he might struggle if forced to just strike, wrestle or grapple for an extended period. Second, he does his best work when his opponent backs into the fence, so someone who can stay circling and keep it in open space improves his odds. Finally, Johnson can be countered hard as he explodes forward.
Takedown defense was formerly a weakness, but Johnson has stuffed 46 of 57 shots since moving down to flyweight, and nobody since Ian McCall has gotten anything meaningful done against him on the mat.
Cejudo's talent as a wrestler and a powerful, well-coordinated athlete is obvious and undeniable. The question is whether his 10 professional fights and three years as a professional fighter have provided him with enough experience and technical polish to compete with one of the greatest fighters in history.
The Olympian's game is built on explosive forward movement. He likes to stick and move at range, measuring and probing with a sharp jab and the occasional kick before leaping in with a hard two- or three-punch sequence. He's a natural combination puncher with active feints and a surprisingly advanced understanding of rhythm.
If he can't land punches or his opponent tries to counter, Cejudo is happy to dive into the clinch, where he excels at quickly grabbing an underhook and using that to open up knees, punches and elbows. He's outstanding at punching his way into and out of the tie-ups.
Wrestling, obviously, is the strongest piece of Cejudo's game. That has mostly shown up in the clinch thus far, but he also has a potent arsenal of slams and suplexes along with the usual repertoire of singles, doubles, trips and everything else you would expect from a gold medalist. His takedown defense has been rock-solid as well.
As good a wrestler as he is, Cejudo mostly uses his time on the mat as a breather and to land a couple of shots. He isn't big on control and offers almost nothing as a submission artist.
The Olympian's inexperience shows up in several ways. While he has solid footwork and circles consistently, Cejudo isn't a fully developed striker. He doesn't move his head as he comes in, and most of his attacks come on straight lines, which makes him hittable. He offers little as a counterpuncher or with reactive takedowns when pressured.
Johnson -440, Cejudo +350
Despite the wide odds, this is an intriguing matchup. Johnson has never fought a wrestler of Cejudo's caliber; if the challenger can nullify the threat of Johnson's takedowns, this becomes a surprisingly close matchup on the feet and in the tie-ups, at least in the early going. It would be even closer if Cejudo were a better counterpuncher or had more to offer off his back foot.
This fight will probably be decided in the clinch. Cejudo can and probably will stuff the champion's early takedowns, which means Johnson will go to his plan B, trying to force Cejudo into the clinch against the fence. Whoever wins that battle will have a massive edge when it comes to wearing down his opponent. As good as the Olympian has been in that phase, Johnson probably has a slight edge there.
Johnson's real advantages are his experience and his fight IQ. Cejudo will probably have some success early, stuffing takedowns and landing hard shots on the feet, but maintaining that success against a fighter who thrives on adjustments is another story. Eventually, Johnson will start to pull ahead and impose his pace, and Cejudo's inexperience will begin to show.
After dropping an early round, Johnson will rebound as the fight goes on to take a 49-46 decision.
Jon Jones vs. Ovince Saint Preux
Interim Light Heavyweight Championship
Jon Jones (21-1; 15-1 UFC) vs. Ovince Saint Preux (19-7; 7-2 UFC)
Uncrowned light heavyweight king Jones returns to action against Saint Preux in a battle for the interim championship. Prior to being stripped of his title a year ago, Jones had defended his 205-pound title a stunning eight times, a streak he capped with a dominating decision win over Daniel Cormier.
In Jones' absence, Cormier flourished. He defeated Anthony Johnson last May, and then began his own streak of defenses by taking a thrilling decision from Alexander Gustafsson in October. The stage was set for a massive rematch, one of the biggest in the division's history, at UFC 197.
It was not to be. Cormier suffered a knee injury, and top-10 mainstay Saint Preux stepped into the breach. He won a decision over the faded Rafael Cavalcante in February, and before that tapped to a Glover Teixeira rear-naked choke in August. This is by far the biggest fight of Saint Preux's career: He has his hands full with the greatest light heavyweight, and perhaps the greatest fighter, of all time.
Jones is a freakish physical specimen with a 6'4" frame, an 84" reach and surprising speed and explosiveness for such a lanky, rangy fighter. He combines those physical gifts with exceptional endurance and some of the best in-fight adjustments and decision-making in the history of the sport.
The former champion's game is all about dominance in two particular ranges: long distance and the clinch. He's competent elsewhere, but those two spaces are where he really shines, and his game is all about establishing himself at one of them and then transitioning quickly to the other as necessary.
Increasingly slick footwork, tight pivots and outstanding awareness of where he is in the cage keep him at long striking range, and he picks his spots to sit down on a long cross or snap off a sharp jab from either stance. Stopping on a dime and then slamming home a vicious round kick to the head or body is another specialty, and opponents always have to worry about his side and oblique kicks to the thigh.
Jones' long frame and his skill at establishing that extreme range means that most opponents simply can't touch him there, and he works at such a steady pace that he never provides periods of inactivity for opponents to put in work.
The only shot at beating Jones lies in sticking to him like glue and never letting him establish his preferred range. The former champ is weakest in the pocket, where his lack of punching combinations and unimpressive power give opponents little to worry about aside from the occasional standing elbow.
The problem with pressuring Jones is staying in the pocket without walking into the clinch, which is Jones' best area. His long limbs give him incredible leverage, and he's exceptionally technical in his use of underhooks, overhooks, collar ties and head pressure to control his opponent.
A steady diet of elbows, uppercuts and knees cause serious damage. Monstrous trips, throws and suplexes, some of the best clinch takedowns in the sport, add an entirely different dimension to worry about.
On top, Jones is somehow even more dangerous. He has some of the most vicious ground striking in the history of MMA, and his heavy base makes him impossible to shake off. Chokes in transition add another threat to opponents who try to scramble out. Conversely, he's almost impossible to take down.
Jones doesn't have anything you might consider a weakness. He's hittable in the pocket, though his awkward head movement makes him surprisingly hard to hit cleanly. It's impossible to wear him down and he doesn't seem to get tired, while his viciousness and commitment to working the legs and body progressively damage and exhaust his opponents over five rounds.
He's nearly perfect.
Does Saint Preux stand a chance against perfection? Yes, he does, but not a great one. The Florida native has great size at 6'3" and is surprisingly quick for such a big man. He carries enormous power in his punches and kicks and has sharp timing on his counters, along with a strong understanding of rhythm.
The southpaw likes to set an extremely long range, probing distance with his lead hand and then dropping powerful front and round kicks from the left side. With his opponents too far away to land with ease, Saint Preux plays a two-pronged game: He either leaps into range with a straight left or right hook, or uses that space to land his preferred counter shots when his opponent tries to cover the extreme distance he prefers.
Saint Preux doesn't throw much volume and doesn't have a plan B on the feet, but his length, speed, power and timing make him dangerous. He has a gift for sneaking in shots from strange angles and shouldn't be underestimated.
The other facet of the former Tennessee football player's game is his wrestling. He shoots a quick double-leg, defends takedowns fairly well and is a strong mat wrestler who uses the ride nicely to land strikes and control. He relies far too much on his ability to scramble, though, and doesn't do a great job of stopping takedowns before his opponent hits his hips.
That reliance on getting back up when taken down speaks to the single overwhelming issue with Saint Preux's game: endurance.
Everything he does requires large expenditures of energy, from leaping into range to exploding back to his feet on the mat. It's not efficient and Saint Preux can't reliably maintain his preferred style for more than 10 minutes.
Jones -550, Saint Preux +425
Frankly, it's surprising the odds in this fight aren't much wider. Saint Preux has essentially one path to victory: running Jones into a counter or landing a fluke shot in a blitzing combination. That's it.
He's not going to out-wrestle Jones or beat him in the clinch. In an extended striking matchup at long distance, Jones throws more volume and works the legs and body in such a way that it will tax Saint Preux's already limited gas tank. The former champion is more technically sound at exactly the ranges Saint Preux prefers.
Unless Saint Preux lands that one big shot, Jones will grind him into dust. The former champion claims the interim title via vicious ground strikes in the third round.
All betting odds via Odds Shark.