Their first fight was widely acclaimed as the best light heavyweight fight ever, and yet the stakes weren’t as high for Jon Jones nor for Alexander Gustafsson at UFC 165 as they will be at UFC 232.
At the time, Jon Jones was a dominant champion on the cusp of being the greatest of all time, whose legacy was cemented, and yet now the legacy of Jones is very much in question amid legal trouble and issues with USADA. He needs this win, or the overriding narrative of his career will be his failings.
For Gustafsson, the stakes may still be higher; at UFC 165, he was expected to lose, overperformed massively, and yet his career has stagnated since. A second loss to Jones would be devastating, as it may cement him as the distant fourth among the four kings of light heavyweight (Jones, Gustafsson, Cormier, and Anthony Johnson). The king could return to his throne, or be dethroned by the eternal contender, on December 29.
The first fight was the first to show the weaknesses of then-champion Jones, but the exposure of those weaknesses also allowed Jones to show his greatest strength. Gustafsson cleanly boxed Jones up, landing body shots and hooking off jabs, and denying the favored kicking game of Jones; where Jones was able to jack the knee of Daniel Cormier again and again as Cormier plodded towards him, Gustafsson’s more elusive outfighting complicated the first layer of Jones’ attack at range. Gustafsson’s length made boxing range more extended than Jones was used to, and the far more classically-trained Gustafsson was able to mark Jones up with his hands where most weren’t even able to get close enough to the rangy champion to box without getting framed away or forced into the clinch (where Jones is one of the best in the UFC).
Gustafsson’s clean boxing in the open shined a light on just how rudimentary Jones’ boxing was, but the fight also showed the prodigious adaptability of the champion. The fight turned with a spinning elbow counter to the challenger’s signature dipping jab, severely hurting Gustafsson and allowing Jones to dominate round 5 with head kicks. Where Gustafsson mostly looked sharper through the fight, Jones took the decision with opportunism and fight IQ that is unmatched.
Gustafsson has since been troubled on the feet by the blitzes of Jan Blachowicz, got knocked out by Anthony Johnson (better known as “Rumble”), and was walked down by Daniel Cormier. Combined with the issues he showed with Glover Teixeira (even amidst a dominant performance, Gustafsson found himself running along the fence in response to Teixeira’s blind forward movement), Gustafsson’s issues with pressure of any kind are clearly enough to unravel his beautiful boxing. Cormier didn’t have to do much to force Gustafsson to break stance, he just had to walk forward and be durable, even with one of the worse pressure games in the UFC.
Jones is absurdly smart and durable, it’s unlikely that he ditched the findings of the first fight or failed to take in the obvious issues Gustafsson has had with pressure since. Jones generally is happy to float around in the open, but he isn’t categorically incapable of pressuring. He isn’t nearly as weak on a dedicated front-foot attack as Gustafsson is on the back-foot. Add that to the counters he found to Gustafsson’s front-foot boxing (spinning elbow to the dipping jab and the head kicks that Gustafsson leaned into time and time again), and it’s going to take real adaptation for Gustafsson to win this one.
The necessary adaptation is of a scale that Gustafsson has never exhibited before, so there isn’t a good reason to believe it will happen. The public seems to agree, and it looks like Jones is listed as a betting favorite among sites.
Expect Jones to pressure Gustafsson and beat him up, find the counters he found in the first fight, and probably get a late finish as Gustafsson can’t find a way to get another one past the smartest fighter in MMA history.
Prediction: Jones via fourth-round submission. This writer caps it: -250 Jones.