(And here we see UFC light-heavyweight challenger Alexander Gustafsson just *towering* over the reigning champ. How is Jon Jones supposed to deal with such a *massive* size difference?? / Photo via Getty. Withering sarcasm via CagePotato)
If you want to know just how lopsided the main event of UFC 165 looks to be, you only have to subject yourself to the hilarious, terrible advertisements for it. The subtext of them reads something along the lines of “Jon Jones is a freak athlete, his reach is unreal, who can stop that?! … Oh hey look, this Swedish guy is really tall!” If that doesn’t sound like a compelling — or for that matter, convincing — narrative, that’s because it’s not. This isn’t to say Alexander Gustafsson, the aforementioned 6’5″ Scandinavian, doesn’t deserve this title shot or that he has absolutely no chance of defeating Jon Jones. It’s just that he almost has absolutely no chance of defeating Jon Jones.
In fairness to Gustafsson and Zuffa’s promotional branch, there isn’t anyone at light-heavyweight who Jon Jones wouldn’t be deservedly favored against. It is virtually impossible to credibly sell any opponent against Jon Jones on the basis of skill. He’s simply on another level than the rest of his peers. So the UFC is forced to resort to what little it can find to distinguish his opposition as fodder for promotion; in this case, it’s that Gustafsson is officially listed as being one inch taller than the champion. In any other given matchup, perhaps Gustafsson’s boxing ability or his submission savvy might be touted prior to the bout. Not against Jones. Why bother emphasizing Gustafsson’s submission ability against a guy who has never been taken down in the UFC? Why call attention to Gustafsson’s boxing when it’s so dependent on a reach advantage he won’t have?
Of course, Gustafsson could still win. But in order to do so, he’s going to have to avoid Jon Jones’ takedowns — which no one has really been able to do — and turn this into a boxing match. Even then, he’ll face an uphill battle. Jones showed improvement in his standup against Rashad Evans, as he’s switched to a more Muay Thai-oriented attack that focuses on picking opponents apart from the outside with low kicks and hurting them when they become impatient and rush in. He’s been beaten on the feet before (briefly), by Lyoto Machida, but Gustafsson lacks Machida’s elusive footwork and unpredictable rushes. He’s generally been content to allow his reach and height to provide him security as he works punches from the outside. It’s not a strategy that’s going to work against Jones.
Essentially, Gustafsson has two paths to victory. He may have completely refined his boxing game in a matter of months as well as his takedown defense — keep in mind, this is a man who was taken down in his last fight by noted wrestler Mauricio “Shogun” Rua — to the point where he may be able to outstrike Jones. Or he can shoot for the desperation knockout, or else hope for yet another debilitating toe injury to befall the champion in the middle of the ring. Neither is likely to happen.
Jones, on the other hand, has no shortage of options. But if he’s not feeling particularly adventurous, there’s one rather obvious one. While he’s more than capable of outstriking Gustafsson, expect Jones to utilize his exceptional clinch game to take the fight to the ground and use his elbows to either finish or debilitate Gustafsson. Gustafsson has decent submissions, but nothing to significantly threaten Jones from the bottom. He won’t have an answer once the fight reaches the ground, and he won’t have an answer to prevent the fight from going there.
If it’s any consolation, UFC 165 offers a second, more interesting title fight. Not that Renan Barao vs. Eddie Wineland is likely to be more competitive; Barao is simply way ahead of everyone not named Dominick Cruz at the moment. (And with Cruz injured for well over a year, perhaps even that’s not the case anymore.) But the overall skill level at bantamweight ensures that no fights, even one-sided ones, lack for excitement. But this won’t be the case for the main event, which won’t be particularly competitive. The UFC has pretty much acknowledged that. This is going to be a showcase for their champion Jon Jones, the final hurdle for him to overcome before becoming the UFC’s greatest light-heavyweight champion in history. If they need to make that hurdle appear a little taller than it actually is, well, that’s what the advertisements are for.