Despite being considered the pound-for-pound king by both the UFC and by the general public, Jon Jones is in a very shaky place as a champion. In fact, his reign is more tenuous than it has been at any other point, and the surprise is that the insecurity was created at the hands of one of the less interesting challenges for Jones on paper. After he came away from UFC 239, almost becoming the nail to an injured hammer, Jones has a chance in Dominick Reyes to retrench himself as a man above the station of the other great 205ers; for most, the Santos fight was an anomaly that’s largely just been ignored, but for the viewers who seemed to find signs of decay in Jones’ last few bouts, UFC 247 is his chance to disappoint them once again.
Dominick Reyes is just one fight removed from a struggle of his own, but his overall body of work at light-heavyweight has established him as the next contender; the Oezdemir fight certainly wasn’t pretty, but Reyes came away with a win, and he followed that with a devastation of the former middleweight king Chris Weidman to earn his crack at “Bones.” Arguably more interesting than what Reyes has done is what he seems to represent; for the first time in a long time at 205, the title-contender isn’t a well-worn veteran but a blue-chip prospect who has passed every test in front of him. A win over Jones would immediately be one of the most important wins that MMA has seen in a long time, and certainly the most important that light-heavyweight has seen since the beginning of Jones’ reign of terror.
The question throughout Jon Jones’ title reign (inclusive to now) hasn’t ever really been whether he’d lose; since his destruction of Mauricio “Shogun” Rua, every bit of resistance he ran into was a surprise to the general public. The question was more what his wins would mean; the UFC has actively propagandized the notion that Jones is the best fighter across weight-classes and the greatest fighter of all time, but the division has always struggled to create pound-for-pound talents aside from Jones. Jones was so highly-esteemed that a respectable performance against Jones was more impressive than any non-Jones win, even in a division with well-known names; in fact, that was what made Alexander Gustafsson’s career. However, the rise of the middleweight-gatekeeper as a 205-contender archetype has more thoroughly defined the division as being shallower than the rest, and Jones’ struggles against a catastrophically-injured Thiago Santos did a good deal to show that Jones was only in a class of his own when the school was that of career light-heavyweights. Right as Jones needs a statement victory more than he’s ever needed one, the most compelling challenger for 205 in many years has risen.
Jon Jones has gone through a curious evolution in terms of where he takes a fight, and that isn’t necessarily a good thing; while he used to rely on his threat as a wrestler/grappler to dictate the action on the feet, and then that morphed into his threat as a clincher, both have gone by the wayside a bit in his recent outings. If he’s given those openings, he’ll take them, as Alexander Gustafsson found; Jones’ top game is still vicious, and he still can eventually find his way into ruling the clinch with his characteristic wrist-control positions and the terrific leverage of his frame in tie-ups (even if Anthony Smith was able to stall him a bit). That said, what’s missing is the initiative he used to have; Jones has become a pure opportunist in enforcing his strongest areas, and his last two fights bore the consequences of his younger and more reckless nature disappearing. The more mature Jones isn’t as willing to take strikes anymore to make contact, and his opponents are no longer giving him the fairly easy clinch entries that the relentlessly forward-moving and clinchy Daniel Cormier did; Jones’ current emphasis on a cautious and controlling performance has necessitated a shift to more ranged-kickboxing.
The bright side of that for him is that he’s a good-enough ranged-kickboxer to flummox almost every light-heavyweight he’s faced to date; aside from the first Alexander Gustafsson fight and the Thiago Santos fight, even the more ancillary part of Jones’ game hasn’t really been bested. Jones plays a tall-man game that’s generally hard to decipher, and (like his clinch) it benefits most from a fighter like Daniel Cormier: someone who has the need and the initiative to push into a closer-range but without the ability to deal with his arsenal on the outside, and who can be led around the cage with relative ease. The Cormier fights were really Jones at his best as a striker, as he could force Cormier to march through his straight-kicks and tear him up in the clinch if he got close; Cormier couldn’t ever cut Jones off to reliably force pocket exchanges, and his efforts just earned him kicks to the body that broke him down as the fight reached the later stages. Jones is a reasonably smart striker who can build on his successes (as the body-head changeup to finish Cormier in the rematch showed), and his inhuman durability and ludicrous length often shield him from his opponents’ returns. He’s a reasonably strong ring-general on the back foot, and he at the very least has a consistently effective response to his opponent just looking to blindside him.
That said, that response is exploitable, and Jones overall is a bit anemic defensively. His length keeps that from being too much of a factor at a division where fighters don’t tend to have the boxing to cover distance well (for example, Alexander Gustafsson could close distance behind his lead hand but was also extremely weak everywhere else as a boxer), as he could just back away and frame to keep the man from following/chasing with straights, but it still isn’t the best way to do things. Jones’ fight against the aggressive kicker Thiago Santos showed another flaw of kick-defense, as Santos mostly got them off for free as he got Jones backing off with his frame. Jones’ lack of defense that isn’t distance hurts him severely in terms of clinch-entries; where someone like Leon Edwards has systematized clinch-grabs as an opponent swings, Jones’ game there isn’t nearly as developed, so Santos’ aggression shut him out of that space of his game. Whether Reyes can do the same is an open question.
The rankings at 205 at this point is a crabs-in-a-bucket situation, well-equipped to cut off most “traditional” prospect-rises at the knees; the reason the title scene has felt so stagnant is that the area underneath it has also stagnated, and most homegrown contenders who came close to deserving shots have been beaten by a veteran like Ovince Saint-Preux or Corey Anderson. This is what makes Dominick Reyes such a rarity; running the 205 gauntlet shouldn’t have been hard for someone without massive areas of weakness (or at least being undersized, as Saint-Preux’s last derailment showed), but the rise of someone at 205 without said areas doesn’t happen often. He’s put together the right resume at the right time, when no middleweight has moved down with any measure of success to cut the line, and now gets an opportunity to face a champion mostly on a diet of middleweights and prospect-killing veterans. Jones is a powerful adversary, but Reyes is a new threat of a different kind.
Reyes is unique at light-heavyweight in terms of being comfortable on the counter; the previous man who was considered “the boxer” at light-heavyweight was Alexander Gustafsson, whose counterpunching was not at all existent, and the best counter-threat at 205 for many years was quietly the decrepit Mauricio “Shogun” Rua. Reyes can lead, mostly with the stock southpaw game of rear-kick and rear-hand playing off each other (the Christensen finish was perfect in that regard), but his moments of success against truly noteworthy competition have come as a response to their aggression; he isn’t great defensively, but he’s a bit more developed there than most at 205, and it builds well into the counters he selects. Even so, Reyes isn’t tremendously diverse as a counterpuncher; for the most part, it’s dropping back or weaving out as his opponent throws the rear hand to land his own (which is what flattened Chris Weidman), although he did show a nice counter-uppercut against Jared Cannonier off a shoulder-roll.
At range, Reyes is a kicker who mixes up his targets alright, between the leg kick (inside against an orthodox, and repeatedly outside to kick an opponent out of southpaw), the body kick, and the head kick. He’s long enough for this to be viable, even though he doesn’t link the kicks to his hands particularly well outside the one threat of the straight. On the lead, Reyes’ game really only opens up when his opponent is against the fence; both the knockout of Cannonier and the beating of Ovince Saint-Preux showed this, as Reyes could play with the trajectory of his rear hand to circumvent their defenses or kick them as they looked to circle away.
That said, this specific area of strength leaves the Oezdemir fight a bit puzzling; Oezdemir committed to controlling the center and did so, as Reyes conceded the backfoot fairly easily. He still won (quite clearly, in fact), bodypunching Oezdemir and moving around somewhat effectively on the outside, but it wasn’t an encouraging showing; Oezdemir had far too much success, as a fairly limited striker in his own right, to say that Reyes is a massive diversion from the 205 norm. In general, the stock southpaw game (the way Reyes does it) requires a level of comfort in pushing forward that he doesn’t have, even though he’s better in close-range than most light-heavyweights. Reyes’ wrestling is also reasonably questionable; he’s a long and big 205er, and that helped him get away from the control of Oezdemir and Weidman, but the fact remains that he conceded takedowns fairly easily. Reyes is entering his sixth year as a professional fighter, so it’s entirely possible that he isn’t all that close to being the fighter he’ll be in his prime; that said, his shot at the top is now.
Conclusions and Capping
Just as a function of trajectory, it’s hard not to pick Reyes here; he had his moments against Oezdemir where he didn’t look like “the chosen one,” but the Jones of 239 looked far from the sort of fighter that it would take a “chosen one” to beat. Reyes is an active kicker with the length to keep Jones from just pecking away from outside a range of retaliation, and Jones has struggled with both. He might be able to mitigate Reyes’ edge in exchanges just by not deciding to punch with him often, which he would do well to consider since his form invites danger from an OK counterpuncher, but he’s also looked pedestrian on more than one occasion on the outside against an opponent fine with staying there (all of the Santos fight, and much of the OSP fight). Reyes could just get flummoxed by the frame as a puncher, given his lack of diversity in the open; however, as a kicker, he at least outguns Jones, and can probably scare him away from the clinch with his counters.
The risk with picking someone to beat Jones at 205 is that they’re untested over the distance almost by definition; Jones as the champion is reliably present over five rounds, and anyone with any promise against Jones simply wouldn’t be taking five whole rounds to beat other light-heavyweights. There are a host of things that could go wrong for Reyes: fatigue, mental collapse, simply not fighting the right fight on his biggest stage (the way Anthony Smith was simply broken from the first second, except Reyes actually has a chance). Jones could even prove to be more adept at getting the fight into the clinch/ground than he’s seemed in recent times, and just buzzsaw Reyes there. But the Jones of Santos was unspeakably dire, and it’s hard to expect him to overcome a functional striker who simultaneously poses a fair few questions that he hasn’t satisfactorily answered.
Prediction: Reyes by UD. This writer caps Reyes at -110.