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UFC 182 Fight Night Preview: Jones vs. Cormier

"Jon Jones defends his light heavyweight crown against the unbeaten Daniel Cormier on Saturday in Las Vegas."

The Ultimate Fighting Championship returns to pay-per-view with a card worthy of paying the price, as reigning light heavyweight champion Jon Jones faces his biggest test to date in undefeated Olympic freestyle wrestler Daniel Cormier. This is one of the very best fights the UFC has ever put on — a bout of titanic proportions between two fighters who have never suffered a legitimate defeat in the cage.

The rest of the card is solid and features a fantastic lightweight co-main event between action fighter extraordinaire Donald Cerrone and the little-discussed but highly skilled and unbeaten Myles Jury. Rising flyweight contender Kyoji Horiguchi and top welterweight Hector Lombard get belated Christmas gifts in the form of stay-busy bouts against overmatched opponents, while the rest of the lineup includes a mixture of veterans and prospects in reasonably entertaining matchups.

Let us take a look at each bout at UFC 182, set for Saturday at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas:

Jon Jones (20-1, 14-1 UFC) vs. Daniel Cormier (15-0, 4-0 UFC)

THE MATCHUP: At long last, after months of trash talk and legitimate animosity, light heavyweight champion Jones will defend his belt against two-time Olympian, top contender and Strikeforceheavyweight grand prix winner Cormier. Jones has compiled a record seven straight defenses of his title, most recently against Glover Teixeira in April, while Cormier has never been defeated or even been seriously challenged by any of his 15 opponents.

From a technical perspective, this is one of the very best fights that can be made in all of MMA.

Fighting Jones is like pushing yourself through a wood-chipper. The defending champion is a lethal threat at any range and in any phase, from kicking distance to the clinch to top position. He switches fluidly between orthodox and southpaw and prefers the latter at the fringes of striking distance, where he bombs away with side, front and round kicks at all levels. He times his spinning kicks well, usually as his opponent is attempting to circle away from his power side. From kicking to punching distance, Jones prefers the orthodox stance, as his boxing is much cleaner and his kicks still dangerous. His orthodox jab has come a long way, and he whirls quick left hooks and the occasional straight right to mix up things, while from southpaw his jab and cross are still quick but less mechanically sound. It is notable that Jones is much more defensively crisp in orthodox, with sharper head movement and better command of the distance, and he is more comfortable hand fighting and parrying.

Jones’ length and reach are so freakish that his punching range corresponds to his opponents’ kicking distance, and boxing range for his opponents is Jones’ wheelhouse for landing elbows and knees. He has a special fondness for trapping his opponent’s hand and stepping in with an elbow, and if his opponent ducks, the flying knee is always an option. The clinch game might just be Jones’ best facet, as his length gives him tremendous leverage and a range of options that simply are not available to other fighters. His knees are sharp, his elbows constant and he has an array of tricks, like the standing over hook shoulder lock he used against Teixeira. He wrestles less than he used to, but his trips and throws are still effective, his single and double are perfectly fine and from top position, he remains an absolute monster.

Cormier is less unorthodox but no less effective for it. His deep wrestling base — he was the 2001 NCAA runner-up at 184 pounds and represented the United States in freestyle at the 2004 and 2008 Olympics — obviously forms the core of his approach, but he is hardly one-dimensional, and his incredible quickness, strength and athleticism translate to every phase of the fight. As a striker, Cormier shows exceptional hand speed and throws clean two- to four-punch combinations to the body and head. However, that hand speed and explosiveness disguise his inconsistent mechanics. He often steps with the wrong foot as he moves forward throwing combinations, which limits his weight transfer and robs him of the power his punches should carry in every shot. While kicking is not Cormier’s strong suit, he will toss out the occasional round kick up high or front kick up the middle. He is quite sound defensively, consistently moving his head off the centerline as he throws and rolling under hooks and overhands in the pocket, but he has consistently had trouble with low kicks.

Naturally, wrestling is Cormier’s strongest suit. His clinch game is exceptionally strong, and his punches and knees at close range are brutally powerful and suck the life out of even the most durable opponents. He owns a full arsenal of takedowns, ranging from slick trips off caught kicks and step-outside throws to misdirection singles and blast doubles, all of which he chains together with the ease and fluidity of a lifelong high-level competitor. It has thus far proven impossible to get him to the mat, and he has some of the strongest hips in MMA. From top position, Cormier maintains effortless, suffocating control in traditional grappling scenarios and wrestling positions such as the top ride, all while dropping heavy ground strikes and threatening with the occasional submission.

BETTING ODDS: Jones (-185), Cormier (+160)

THE PICK: This is an exceptional fight, and I think the odds effectively capture the difficulty of the matchup for the challenger. It is impossible to overstate how hard it will be for Cormier to consistently get inside Jones’ massive height and reach advantages, and he has little to offer from the champion’s kicking and long punching range. Cormier is too technical and too quick to be kept on the outside forever, though. Especially early in the fight, he will give Jones fits, countering the champion’s single kicks and jabs with overhands and combinations to cover his forward movement and get onto Jones’ hips. Cormier will probably get Jones to the ground, though whether he can keep him there is an entirely different story. As the fight wears on, however, the cumulative damage from Jones’ steady stream of kicks to the body and legs will take its toll — multiple opponents have had success attacking Cormier there — and even if the Olympian can get the fight into the clinch consistently in the later rounds, I am not convinced he is the better infighter. As Cormier slows from accumulated shots, the tireless Jones will grow more confident and up his output to a pace the older fighter cannot match. Still, Cormier is too good to be shut down completely, and I expect him to land his fair share of powerful strikes and takedowns. The pick is Jones by 49-46 decision in a strong contender for “Fight of the Year.”

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