After a dominant showing at UFC 232 against his most challenging foe, Jon Jones looks to make a quick turnaround to fight in Las Vegas on March 2; this has come with no shortage of controversy, which is no surprise. The brand of Jon Jones has thrived on being the best fighter in the division by a large margin, but his consistent missteps have become as attached to his legacy as his skill.
Forced into hiatus between his fights against Ovince Saint-Preux, Daniel Cormier, and Alexander Gustafsson, Jones has a rare moment where a very fast turnaround is viable; he can take advantage with a dominant showing at UFC 235, to strengthen his claim as a top-3 fighter ever.
His opponent has a chance to slay a giant of the sport, but whose title shot is largely a product of the shallowness of light heavyweight to start with. Anthony Smith was a middleweight who could generously be regarded as middling; he got a few violent finishes, but he also dropped rounds to Hector Lombard in 2017 (which is a demerit to anyone, knockout win aside). A loss to Thiago Santos drove Smith up to light heavyweight, where he has rattled off three straight wins, all three finishes: Rashad Evans, Mauricio “Shogun” Rua, and Volkan Oezdemir.
The streak was enough to put Smith in position for a shot at the king, but there are still very valid doubts about whether Smith actually stands as a challenge to the elite; looking at the odds, the books and the public have concluded that the answer is a resounding “no,” but Smith has a chance to deliver a Serra-level upset if he can overperform massively at UFC 235.
On paper, this is a mismatch that shouldn’t be happening. There really isn’t much that can be said about Smith that seems to give him a chance in this fight; he’s powerful but isn’t particularly crafty, he really just takes what his opponent gives him in terms of tactics (so he’s unlikely to pressure Jon even if he could do so soundly), he probably isn’t a good enough pocket boxer to effectively attack Jones in his weakest area, he’s defensively liable (Thiago Santos basically hit him at will), and he’s a relatively slow starter, shown by his dropping the first two to Lombard and Oezdemir. Jon should get plenty of time to read him early to take him apart if the fight goes late, and there’s very little that Smith has done in the past to lessen the effectiveness of Jones’ kicking game at range (so Smith can be expected to run onto straight kicks the way Daniel Cormier did).
If there’s one area Smith is decent, it’s in the clinch, but he’s facing the absolute best clinch fighter that MMA has ever seen; Jones is a brutally brilliant operator in close, where Smith hasn’t shown anything but brief moments of violence once he grabs a collar tie. Even if Smith pursues his most likely chance at a win condition, he almost certainly gets beaten up and put on his back (and Jones on top is as efficient and destructive as he is in the clinch, as he effortlessly brutalized Gustafsson in the rematch off a takedown). Even a puncher’s chance is hard to envision here; Jones is frighteningly resilient, and Smith hasn’t shown particularly impressive punching power.
There’s a chance that Smith overperforms, but it would require severe decline from Jones in a very short period or a fight from Smith that’s smarter than anything that has ever been seen from him. Smith’s showing against Oezdemir, where Oezdemir beat him up until he gassed, is very unlikely to be replicated against Jones (who’s so adaptive in the cage that a comeback against him is a virtual impossibility). What’s scariest about Jones is that he’s still showing improvements; his boxing wasn’t revolutionary but looked improved against Gustafsson, and considering that Jones’ boxing has long been the only spot where he could be considered somewhat weak, that’s an uncomfortable possibility for every light heavyweight.
Is it possible that Smith gets this one? Technically. The overwhelming likelihood is that Jones outclasses him, though. The betting line isn’t good, only any use to anyone as a parlay piece (and a fairly good one, possibly enough to justify parlaying all other bets with Jones ML for marginally more profit), but it’s totally deserved.
Prediction: Jones via TKO (Round 2). This writer caps Jones at -1000.
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