If my Twitter timeline is any indication, there has been more debate about who will win Saturday’s main event between Jon Jones and Daniel Cormier than any fight I have seen in a very long time. A lot of people see Jones as an all-time great and a fighter who isn’t getting enough respect as just a -160 favorite heading into a light-heavyweight title defense. Others believe Daniel Cormier has the tools and the mindset needed to take Jones out and become the new champion.
Let me be clear: I’m a Daniel Cormier fan. When Cormier replaced Alistair Overeem in the Strikeforce heavyweight grand prix a couple years back, I wrote that not only would Cormier win that grand prix, but he was a better fighter than Overeem… a position that was not widely held, since Cormier’s marquee win at that time was a decision over Jeff Monson. I’ve believed that Cormier is a fighter who is capable of going all the way and becoming a champion in the UFC, which makes it really gratifying to see him getting this opportunity.
With that said, if I want to be a serious analyst of the fights, I need to put away my personal biases and take a stone cold look at how good each fighter is and how they match up. I picked Myles Jury to beat Donald Cerrone because I genuinely believe Jury is the better of the two. When I look at how Cormier matches up with Jones, I simply can’t bring myself to come to the same conclusion.
While Cormier has the pedigree of an Olympic freestyle wrestler, his offensive wrestling has been merely “good,” not great. He’s landed 2.2 takedowns per 15 minutes at 48 percent accuracy – good output, but well short of the most effective takedown artists in the sport, such as Chris Weidman or teammate Cain Velasquez. In Cormier’s defense, he has faced a series of opponents known for having great submissions: Monson, Josh Barnett, and Frank Mir in particular. It’s possible that Cormier’s ordinary takedown statistics are a result of being hesitant to take down opponents who are good on the ground.
However, that brings me to my next point. Cormier hasn’t faced a good striker yet in his MMA career. Dan Henderson is more of a one-punch KO artist, but Cormier just threw him around the cage anyway. After that, the best strikers Cormier has faced are Josh Barnett, Antonio Silva, and… Dion Staring? Cormier’s striking has developed nicely and he’s shown an excellent sense of how to take away his opponent’s best weapons, but the fact remains that he hasn’t been tested by anybody who is nearly as good at standing distance as Jones.
Much has been made of the range battle between Jones, whose reach is 84.5 inches long, and Cormier, whose reach is about 12 inches shorter than that. Obviously Cormier will need to get inside on Jones to attack effectively, but that’s easier said than done. Even if Cormier is able to get inside on Jones, there’s no guarantee he will have an advantage in that situation. Jones has developed a nasty arsenal of elbows and knees on the inside, and while his Greco-Roman wrestling pedigree isn’t anywhere near Cormier’s freestyle wrestling pedigree, Jones has proven extremely difficult to take down throughout his MMA career.
All of this makes me pretty well convinced that Jones deserves his status as the betting favorite in this match. I don’t see Cormier winning rounds by landing more strikes, and taking Jones down should prove difficult. At the same time, I do expect Cormier to at least make this a really tough fight for Jones. Even if Cormier is unable to take Jones down, the threat of the takedown should open up striking opportunities and allow Cormier to land some heavy punches on the inside. Even though I believe Jones is likely to out-point Cormier from all striking ranges, his margin for error is pretty slim. Slip up, and Cormier will dump him onto the canvas or land a couple of heavy strikes.
At the end of the day, I have to judge fighters based on what they have accomplished within the confines of the MMA rule set. While I have no doubt that Cormier would dominate Jones in an amateur wrestling match, the conditions of MMA are very different, and should make it much more difficult for Cormier to take Jones down. In a striking match, I believe the versatility and diverse striking arsenal of Jones will be tough for Cormier to overcome. I would love to think that Cormier can overcome the unique challenge that Jones presents, but when I look at the data and each fighter’s history, I have to come down on the side of Jones successfully defending his title.
Pick: Jon Jones by decision