Jon Jones will tell you that he has been in this position before, but he hasn’t.
Headlining a UFC event is a big deal. Distractions increase—from additional media interviews to multiple promotional appearances to friends coming out of the woodwork with advice and ticket requests—which means that the pressure to perform also increases.
Some guys clam up under the bright lights. Jones didn’t. The 205-lb phenom gave the fans the finest performance of his career, when he was given the first opportunity to headline a UFC event back in March. On that night, he defeated one of the best light heavyweights in the world, Brandon Vera, with one of the most vicious first-round technical knockouts of the year, sending a crystal clear message to the world that he was no longer a hot prospect but indeed a championship contender.
Just over four months later, Jones is ready to make his Octagon return after dominating Vera. He will once again headline the card. This time, however, Jones’ name is the one on the left side of the promotional material, not the right side. He isn’t the opponent. He is the feature fighter.
That isn’t to suggest that Jones was just another opponent for Vera heading into the UFC’s debut on Versus. Most of the world expected Jones to win that fight, but those expectations were based on his vast potential, rather than actual time spent in the Octagon against top veterans like Vera. Then again, had Vera pulled out the victory, nobody would have been surprised. Jones was then, and still is to this day, just a baby in the sport, compared to Vera, who has faced and defeated former UFC champions.
That is where this fight deviates from Vera-Jones. When Jones steps into the Octagon against Vladimir Matyushenko, he will be the betting favorite. Few people outside of Matyushenko’s inner circle actually expect Jones to come up short—and even those probably don’t give “The Janitor” better than a 50-50 shot at pulling off the upset.
In other words, this event is seen by some as a showcase for Jones. A win on August 1st is the next step toward headlining pay-per-view events against the likes of former champions Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, Rashad Evans, Forrest Griffin or Lyoto Machida. If he blows through Matyushenko, then Jones might only be another fight or two away from his first shot at a UFC title. Anything less than a spectacular win will be a very real speed bump for a machine that has been roaring down the road in overdrive since Jones showed flashes of brilliance in defeating Stephan Bonnar way back in January 2009.
Thus, this is, indeed, a new experience for Jones.
In short, I expect Jones to pass this test with flying colors, just like he has every other test that he has faced inside the Octagon. I think that he is too athletic, too well rounded and, to be honest, has too much momentum at the moment to stumble in this fight.
Then again, anything can happen in the UFC on any given night. I’ve written those words time and time again because that mantra is basically the gospel truth of life in the UFC. Think otherwise? What about Frankie Edgar defeating B.J. Penn? Better yet, Matt Serra stopping Georges St-Pierre by technical knockout? Randy Couture stopping Vitor Belfort at UFC 15? Mike Russow surviving a 14-minute beating only to turn the tables with an impossible come-from-behind knockout victory over Todd Duffee? Gabriel Gonzaga knocking out Mirko Cro Cop with a head kick? Randy Couture defeating Tim Sylvia for the UFC Heavyweight Championship?
I can go on for days, but you get the point, right?
If not, let me spell it out. Every fighter who steps into the Octagon to face another man is taking a huge risk no matter who he faces because the fight game is probably the most uncertain sport on the planet in terms of predicting an outcome.
This fight is no different. Jones must take Matyushenko seriously at all times if he wants to avoid ending up on the wrong end of a shocking result.
Assuming that he is fully prepared and focused when fight time arrives, Jones should have a relatively easy time winning the striking battle. The New York native has shown hockey-stick improvement in his standup through his five UFC fights. With his elite athleticism, I expect that trend to continue on August 1st.
Actually, Jones is so athletic and seems to soak up new techniques like a bone-dry sponge that I don’t know what to expect from him on the feet, other than continued improvement. Anyone who uses spinning backfists effectively against polished strikers Vera and Bonnar can probably get away with just about anything against a slower, less accomplished standup guy like Matyushenko. I wouldn’t be surprised if Jones brings axe kicks, crescent kicks, spinning backfists, or even some sort of karate chop (ok, the chop would actually shock me) to the table in this fight.
Nonetheless, Jones will enjoy a tremendous height and reach advantage when he steps into the Octagon with Matyushenko, so he would be well served to use those advantages by fighting behind an active jab and maintaining enough distance to where he can land good shots, but Matyushenko has to lunge to land something of consequence. If he does that, his speed and length advantages should allow him to pepper his foe at will from a distance.
Sure, Matyushenko is as strong as a bull and anyone with that sort of physical power wearing four-ounce gloves can knock out just about any other human being with a single punch. Jones must remain respectful of that fact and not stick his chin out or make any other silly mistakes on the feet.
On the inside, however, things could get a bit dicier. Jones still has the striking advantage, but Matyushenko at least has the ability to land with bad intentions on the inside. Plus, fighting in a phone booth opens the door for takedowns, something both fighters ultimately want to accomplish, though it is a mission critical part of Matyushenko’s game plan.
The Janitor follows the same game plan in every fight: take the action to the ground, work his ground-and-pound attack while trying to pass to the mount and then hammer away. Despite the fact that he has won a couple of fights by armbar and neck crank, Matyushenko is not really a submission guy. Arm triangles, Anaconda chokes and D’Arce chokes, moves that are very effective for dominant wrestlers, aren’t really in his fight day arsenal.
Jones, who also happens to have a deep amateur wrestling background, is at his most vulnerable when fighting from his back. Matyushenko knows that, so he will be singularly focused on taking the New Yorker to the ground. If he happens to win the lottery with a haymaker right hand, so be it. He won’t be counting on it, though.
It probably isn’t surprising that Jones will also be looking to take the fight to the ground. While the New Yorker doesn’t have the same elite-level wrestling experience, he was a junior college national champion and has shown a surprising ability to outwrestle far more accomplished wrestlers inside the Octagon.
Part of that is due to his amazing explosiveness. Jones grabs guys in a clinch and then throws them like a rag doll. He did it to Vera, who is one of the better Greco-Roman guys in the division. He did it to Matt Hamill, who is an alpha male wrestler. And so on.
I wouldn’t be a bit surprised to see Jones outwrestle Matyushenko on Sunday night. His foe has to worry about defending so many things that he cannot singularly focus on preventing the takedown. That will prove to be a major turning point in the fight, because if Jones is able to put Matyushenko on his back, it will suck the confidence right out of him and make the night that much easier for the soon-to-be superstar.
The other big factor in this fight is the age difference between the fighters. Jones celebrated his 23rd birthday a couple of weeks ago. He is just a baby in the sport, someone who hasn’t even entered his fighting prime yet. Indeed, he remains a few years from his prime, assuming he doesn’t take much punishment over the next three or four years.
Matyushenko, by contrast, is closer to 40 than he is 39. For anyone not named Couture, 40 is extremely old for a fighter. Reflexes start to slow. The chin starts to get a bit more brittle. And it is tougher to achieve and maintain peak conditioning.
Then again, Matyushenko appears to be a bit Couture-esque. He is enjoying the best stretch of his fighting career, winning 11 out of his last 12 fights. Maybe he is aging like a fine Left Bank Bordeaux. Maybe. But the fact remains that one day he will step in to the cage and be an old man. Fighters don’t age gracefully. They age overnight, and that night is coming sooner rather than later for Matyushenko.
My guess is that it happens on Sunday. Actually, old or not, I think Jones is simply too much for Matyushenko, even a prime Matyushenko.
To be fair, I said the same thing about Tim Sylvia versus Couture, so don’t count on it.
- 23 years old
- 6’4, 205 lbs
- 84.5-inch reach
- 10-1 overall (4-1 UFC)
- Lone UFC loss was a DQ for illegal elbow strikes to Matt Hamill in a fight Jones was dominating
- Last 3 fights have ended inside the distance
- Current layoff is 133 days (TKO1 over Brandon Vera on March 21, 2010)
- Longest UFC layoff is 175 days (UD over Andre Gusmao on August 9, 2008, to UD over Stephan Bonnar on January 31, 2009)
- Knockout of the Night (TKO1 over Brandon Vera on March 21, 2010)
- 39 years old
- 6’1, 205 lbs
- 74-inch reach
- 24-4 overall (5-2 UFC)
- In the midst of a 3-fight winning streak (2 in a row in the UFC)
- All 5 of his UFC wins have been by judges’ decision
- Has never been submitted
- Current layoff is 133 days (SD3 over Eliot Marshall on March 21, 2010)
- Longest UFC layoff is 183 days (UD3 over Igor Pokrajac on September 19, 2009, to SD3 over Eliot Marshall on March 21, 2010)