After a hectic, last-minute change in venue, the UFC will close out 2018 with a pair of title fights on Saturday, inside The Forum in Los Angeles.
Polarizing former champion Jon Jones will try to reclaim his belt against Alexander Gustafsson in the main event, while female champions Cris “Cyborg” Justino and Amanda Nunes will meet for Justino’s 145-pound featherweight title.
Here’s everything you need to know about UFC 232, courtesy of ESPN’s Cheat Sheet.
Jon Jones (22-1) vs. Alexander Gustafsson (18-4), light heavyweight championship
Odds: Jones -255; Gustafsson +235
On Sept. 21, 2013, Jon Jones and Alexander Gustafsson produced one of the best title fights in the history of the UFC. It was one of those fights in which each man leaves a piece of himself permanently behind. It was, with no exaggeration, some of the finest 25 minutes the sport has ever witnessed.
Five years later, we’ll finally see it again, but the storyline is not one we would have expected. Rather than reflecting on the first meeting, or focusing on the competitive rivalry between the two, Thursday’s prefight press conference in Los Angeles focused almost exclusively on one thing.
The history of Jones’ drug tests.
“How come this is the third time we’re taking focus from the fighters and the fights and talking about what you have in your body?” one journalist asked Jones.
“Next question, please,” he said.
To be fair, Jones had spent the previous four days discussing the matter at length. His indignation toward that reporter appeared to be based more in his exhaustion on the topic as it did any unwillingness to address it.
This storyline is unfortunate. For years, Jones has talked about righting the wrong of his first fight with Gustafsson. Even though he won via unanimous decision, Jones has acknowledged that some observers felt Gustafsson won, and has looked forward to the opportunity to prove his superiority once and for all.
And although Jones still believes it’s possible for him to do that, that’s a hard sentiment to agree with at the moment. Jones is under heavy public scrutiny for an atypical finding in a test he submitted to the United States Anti-Doping Agency on Dec. 9.
Gustafsson, for his part, has simply said he’s “happy” the fight is still happening, despite that test. But when asked directly if he believes Jones is cheating, the two-time title challenger responded, “Yes. I do.”
“I think it’s bad for the sport, it’s bad for the organization, it’s not good for anyone to have these conversations before a fight,” Gustafsson said.
UFC president Dana White was asked if he gave any thought to postponing the rematch, simply for the sake of changing the narrative around such a historic fight. His response: The narrative will eventually change anyway, depending on Saturday’s result.
“If we did this fight in March, we’d be talking about the same thing,” White said. “Jon Jones has made some mistakes in his life. Every time this guy fights, there’s going to be questions about what Jon’s going to do, how Jon’s going to test. Jon needs to go in and win on Saturday night, continue to stay straight and narrow, and cement his legacy.
“If he does that, the talk will go away.”
Maybe. It is a shame, though, that talk even exists ahead of a fight like this.
Jones: 22-1, with 1 no contest. The one loss was to Matt Hamil by disqualification, after Jones landed illegal elbows in a fight he was dominating.
Jones: In his 18 UFC fights, Jones has outstruck his opponent in every one, according to FightMetric.
Gustafsson: 18-4, with 11 KOs.
Gustafsson: In his first fight with Jones, at UFC 165, Gustafsson became the first UFC opponent to take Jones down, according to FightMetric. (Daniel Cormier later landed a takedown of Jones at UFC 182.)
Gustafsson: He landed 110 significant strikes against Jones in their first meeting. No other fighter has landed as many as 60 on Jones in a UFC fight, per FightMetric.
In the buildup to the first fight, this theme of “reach” kept coming up. It was almost comical. Gustafsson was a significant underdog, but the one thing that made him unique was his reach. It was nearly as long as Jones’. The UFC even hinted at this on its official fight poster.
Well, as it turned out, Gustafsson’s reach was a big deal after all. It was very clear right away that Jones was uncomfortable with it. He couldn’t simply take a step backward and be out of range. And he acknowledges that.
“The reach played a huge factor in that fight,” Jones said. “I never fought anybody with that reach and the footwork. It was all foreign to me. This time, that huge X factor that was so different for me isn’t there anymore.”
Jones might be more prepared for the reach this time, but that doesn’t make this an easy fight. Gustafsson had a ton of success boxing on the outside. In general, we’ve seen pressure have success against Jones. Daniel Cormier pressured him, and so did Gustafsson, just in a very different way.
Jones was (maybe still is) the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world for a reason, though. He is a master at using his reach, but he has plenty more ways to win. He’s been so inactive in recent years, it easy to forget the way he threw Brandon Vera to the ground and broke his orbital, or ripped into Glover Teixeira from a close boxing range.
Gustafsson can win on Saturday, but he has to fight a perfect fight. Jones likely knows what’s coming, and he’s prepared for it. It’s still a style that can give him problems, but there’s just no debating Jones has more ways to win.
Prediction: Jones by decision.