Jon Jones returns for legacy-defining Heavyweight Championship clash at UFC 285
When Jon Jones returns to the cage on Saturday to challenge Cyril Gane for the vacant UFC heavyweight championship, he will be coming off the longest layoff of his professional career.
It is shaping up as the most unique test of 35-year-old Jones' career, and a chance to strengthen his resume as arguably the greatest talent in the history of the promotion.
Standing at six-foot-four with a seven-foot wingspan, Jones was blessed in the genetic lottery with an enormous frame for his weight division, coming from a family where both of his brothers (Chandler and Arthur) were college football stars who secured decorated careers in the NFL.
Instead of sticking with football, Jones wrestled in college, and he quickly combined those skills with his physical gifts to earn his UFC debut just five months after his first professional MMA fight at 20 years old.
Jones immediately emerged as a special talent in the light heavyweight ranks, which at the time was considered the most glamourous division in the company thanks to the legacy left behind by the era of Chuck Liddell, Tito Ortiz and Randy Couture.
Less than three years after his first professional fight, Jones was given the chance to become the youngest champion in UFC history, and he took the opportunity with both hands.
He finished Hall-of-Famer Mauricio 'Shogun' Rua in the third round, claiming the belt at 23 years old – a record that may stand the test of time.
That was in 2011, and 12 years later the immortal Jones is still yet to legitimately lose a cage fight, with the only blemish on his record coming from an accidental disqualification in a fight he was dominating in every aspect.
But it is fair to say he has not looked truly impressive since his 2019 unanimous decision over Anthony Smith, with his two fights since both ending up unexpectedly close.
Jones was pushed to the limit by Thiago Santos, emerging with a split decision victory despite Santos suffering a serious knee injury early in the contest, and a number of pundits felt Jones actually should have lost his most recent decision against Dominick Reyes as he struggled against an opponent his own size.
After 15 consecutive wins in fights for the Light Heavyweight Championship, Jones took a hiatus as he continued to tease a potential heavyweight move – at one point supposedly against Brock Lesnar – and although many felt it may never eventuate, he is now set to try his hand at joining the short list of fighters to ever reach the mountaintop in two divisions.
A win this weekend would again spark conversations about the greatest fighter in UFC history, and could potentially narrow the discussion down to Jones and Khabib Nurmagomedov – who never won a second belt, but was also never threatened in his 29 unbeaten fights.
The only thing standing in his way is the conundrum of Gane – and perhaps Jones' own ego.
Jones' route to victory
While Jones is a terrific size for the heavyweight division, this will be the first time that he will fight someone taller, and likely heavier, than he is.
Size is not everything, but when that size is partnered by an elite skill set, it presents the most dangerous striking matchup of Jones' career.
Whenever Jones has been made to look uncomfortable in the cage, it has come from long strikers who mostly negate his physical advantages, namely Alexander Gustaffson, Santos and Reyes – but those experiences should provide the template of how to succeed.
Having only rematched against one of those three fighters who gave him serious trouble (Gustafsson), Jones showed exactly how he can make life miserable for a dangerous striker – wrestling.
One of only two fighters to ever take down Olympian Daniel Cormier in the cage, Jones' wrestling chops are legit, and it is reasonable to assume his skill in this department is at a level too great for the 32-year-old Gane to bridge at this stage in his career.
But Jones has always been an elite wrestler, and outside of a few occasions (rematch against Gustafsson, late against Anthony Smith), he has neglected to rely on it, showing a clear preference to keep things standing where he can show off his creative striking.
Jones never wants to appear 'afraid' to throw hands with his opponents, but that is exactly what Gane will be hoping.
Gane – who was an undefeated muay thai fighter before transitioning to MMA – has just one loss on his record, but it was a telling defeat.
It came in his first crack at the heavyweight championship against feared striker Francis Ngannou, who decided to expose Gane's lack of takedown defense and inability to get back to his feet, instead of giving the crowd the exciting back-and-forth stand-up war they anticipated.
Gane will have been obsessively preparing for those exact situations in the 14 months since, but the wrestling gap could become clear, and insurmountable, if Jones swallows his pride and comes out grappling in the opening minutes of their fight.
Gane's route to victory
First and foremost, Gane needs to stay on his feet, and his entire game plan needs to revolve around ensuring that is the case.
That means instead of trying to control the middle of the cage and dictate the pace, the smarter strategy is likely to play a more conservative style with his back closer to the fence. That way if a takedown is landed, he can use the cage to help himself back up, instead of being stranded in the centre of the octagon flat against the mat.
If he can turn this into a kickboxing match, Gane's chances skyrocket, as he possesses the size (six-foot-five) and length (six-foot-seven wingspan) to both hurt and put fear into Jones.
However, Gane runs into his own difficult conundrum in the striking arena, as he is still at a reach disadvantage and Jones has shown the ability to point-fight as well as anyone to ever step in the cage.
Gane's advantage will come in the power department, and the fact that his strikes will hurt Jones more than vice-versa, but to draw Jones into the kind of exchanges where he can do damage, he will have to put himself in a position where is risking being taken down.
A win for Gane would earn him not just the Heavyweight Championship, but the chance to be forever known as the one man who beat Jon Jones – and jumpstart his own legendary reign as king of the heavyweights.