Dominick Reyes takes on Jiří Procházka in the main event of this weekend’s UFC Fight Night card. Reyes looks to bounce back from his knockout loss at the hands of Jan Błachowicz at UFC 253. He also aims to avoid the same fate that befell two other fighters that had career-best performances against Jon Jones.
Alexander Gustafsson was the first man to come close to handing Jones his first non-disqualification loss. The Swede fought Jones at UFC 165 in September 2013 for the UFC light-heavyweight championship. Immediately, it became apparent that the challenger posed some problems for Jones that he had yet to encounter in his UFC career to that point.
Gustafsson showcased excellent lateral movement and managed to land regularly on Jones by utilizing his length, footwork and timing. He also appeared to surprise Jones when he took him down in the first round, becoming the first fighter to do so in Jones’ UFC tenure. The Swede was also able to neutralize Jones’ ground game, stuffing 10 of the 11 takedowns attempted by the champ.
Gustafsson was constantly getting the better of Jones in the first three rounds. “Bones” was having success with leg kicks, but he was being out-boxed and seemed to be one step slower than Gustafsson. Just as it seemed that Gustafsson was taking complete control of the fight in the fourth frame, Jones caught him with a spinning back elbow and tipped the momentum in his favor.
By the time the fight came to a close, Jones had landed 134 significant strikes to Gustafsson’s 110. Gustafsson had landed the harder strikes, connected with more clean shots to the head, and generally seemed to have done enough to secure a narrow victory. Somewhat controversially, though, Jones prevailed by unanimous decision and retained his title.
Gustafsson has had a dramatic fall from grace since that fight. He lost five of his next eight bouts. In many of these contests, he looked tentative and lacked the aggression and will to win that helped him push Jones to the limit. This was evident in his title rematch with the American in late 2018. He looked like a shadow of his former self and was finished in the third round. The ease with which Jones was able to take Gustafsson down and end the fight was in stark contrast to the resilience the Swede showed in their first contest.
The 34-year-old Gustafsson’s lack of sharpness in his last few fights can be attributed to the spate of injuries he has suffered in recent years. However, he has at times seemed to lack the motivation and desire needed to thrive at the highest level of the sport.
This reared its head in June 2019 when Gustafsson went up against Anthony Smith in front of his home crowd in Stockholm, Sweden. Gustafsson began the fight well, demonstrating his trademark elusiveness to frustrate Smith whilst he landed some hard leg kicks on the American. He seemed to be winning the fight entering into the fourth round. However, following a failed takedown attempt, he was taken down and submitted by Smith.
Gustafsson announced his retirement from MMA after this fight — he has since reversed this decision — and stated that he “no longer had it” and that he felt he couldn’t compete with the best fighters in the world.
Thiago Santos came even closer to giving Jones that first non-DQ loss. The Brazilian earned a title opportunity in July 2019 after amassing eight victories over his previous nine bouts.
Santos had a strong start against Jones. He landed some powerful kicks and backed Jones up at times with his explosive flurries of punches. Early in the second stanza, though, Santos’ left leg buckled. He appeared to sustain an injury, but he continued to throw forceful punches and kicks while appearing to get the better of Jones. “Bones” subsequently picked up the pace in the next two rounds as Santos’ flurries became more infrequent and his injury started to inhibit his movement further. Even though Jones had a clearly compromised opponent in front of him, he was hesitant to go for the finish, perhaps deterred from closing the distance due to Santos’ power and unpredictable striking.
Santos came out with great urgency in the final frame, throwing and landing several power shots. Jones seemed content to pick apart Santos from the outside, but this did not halt the challenger from making big explosions of strikes. The fight went to the judges’ scorecards, with many fans believing that Santos had dethroned the champion. It would turn out to be a split-decision victory for Jones, with Santos becoming the first fighter to win on even one scorecard in Jones’ entire MMA career.
Santos displayed incredible mental strength to not only keep fighting amidst the pain and limited mobility that he was suffering through in the cage against Jones, but to deliver an outstanding performance against arguably the greatest fighter of all time. Amazingly, it was later revealed that Santos had suffered a torn left ACL, PCL and meniscus, plus a cracked tibia and a partially torn right meniscus.
Santos underwent surgery before returning over a year later in late 2020 against Glover Teixeira. Santos hurt his compatriot early into the bout with a series of stinging hooks. Teixeira managed to scramble and ground Santos. He delivered some solid ground-and-pound, but Santos did enough to survive until the end of the round.
By this point, Santos was fatigued and showed little resistance when Teixeira took him down again early in the second round. Teixeira landed more heavy blows and put Santos in a rear-naked choke toward the end of the round, but Santos was saved by the bell.
Santos hurt Teixeira again at the start of the third frame, but, just like in the first round, the 41-year-old survived and managed to get up before taking the younger man down. Teixeira proceeded to take Santos’ back and submit him.
Following this loss, Santos took on Aleksandar Rakić at UFC 259 in March. This turned out to be a slow affair in which both fighters were seemingly wary of the power that the other possessed. Neither man threw many strikes, but Rakić appeared to have the edge by virtue of his constant forward pressure. Santos was timid and did not look like the man who many thought had beaten arguably the greatest fighter of all time whilst nursing serious injuries for four rounds.
The lack of urgency that Santos showed in a fight where his opponent was also throwing very little was bemusing. Ultimately, Rakić would win the fight by unanimous decision. Santos did not agree with the result, but he only had himself to blame. He failed to throw enough output throughout the contest. The fact that he could have put himself back in title contention with a victory made this display all the more frustrating.
Reyes entered his title fight with Jones at UFC 247 with a perfect 12-0 mark. He was coming off the biggest victory of his career to date: a first-round knockout of former UFC middleweight kingpin Chris Weidman. Reyes was considered a threat, but he was not perceived by the MMA community to have the skills necessary to beat Jones. He had never faced a grappler on the level of Jones, and it had been pointed out that he struggled in this department against fellow contender Volkan Oezdemir. The odds reflected this sentiment: Reyes was a +375 underdog coming into the fight.
Reyes came out firing from the opening bell, though, and caused Jones to attempt a takedown that the challenger stuffed. He proceeded to swarm the champ with his sheer volume of strikes, which came from multiple different angles. Reyes was particularly adept at hitting Jones with his trademark left hand before circling out of range to avoid being hit himself.
The usually unflappable Jones seemed flustered by the number of strikes coming his way from Reyes and the accuracy with which the challenger was landing. Reyes presented many of the same problems for Jones that Gustafsson had done in 2013. This was a tall, mobile, technical striker who had excellent takedown defense.
Reyes had seemingly recorded an unassailable 3-0 lead after the first three rounds. He did fatigue in the fourth and fifth frames. He was unable to land with the regularity that he had done in the previous three rounds. Jones sensed this and started to increase his own volume. In the fourth, “Bones” initiated a grappling sequence and momentarily managed to take down Reyes. However, the 31-year-old showed remarkable determination to get up straight away despite the fact that he was battling against exhaustion.
The fight came to an end with the majority of fans and media members feeling that Reyes was the victor of the bout. Controversially, yet again, Jones ultimately took the unanimous decision.
A key component of Jones’ success has been his ability to avoid strikes, so the fact that Reyes was able to land so many clean shots made his performance incredibly impressive. Reyes had the best case for defeating Jones. Unlike both Gustafsson and Santos, he had out-struck Jones in both significant and total strikes, becoming the first man to do so in Jones’ MMA career.
In the aftermath, Reyes expressed his feeling that he had won the fight. He campaigned for a rematch with Jones, who would proceed to vacate the title while citing a desire to move up to heavyweight.
Reyes got another chance to fight for the title, this time against the aforementioned Błachowicz at UFC 253 in September. Reyes had lost his chance to prove his worth against Jones, and there were signs in the build-up that he did not have the same level of focus before taking on Błachowicz. He bemoaned the perceived short notice he was given for the contest. He also expressed frustration in interviews about the fact that a bout in a lighter weight class, the middleweight title fight between Israel Adesanya and Paulo Costa, was headlining the card ahead of his fight.
This temperament was transmitted into his performance. Defensively, he lacked assurance. He shelled up and allowed Błachowicz to land on him without using the footwork and head movement that had made him difficult to pin down against Jones. A hard left body kick by Błachowicz left a significant imprint on Reyes’ body. In the second round, Błachowicz visibly damaged Reyes’ nose as the Californian looked increasingly uncomfortable.
After more heavy blows broke through Reyes’ guard, he decided to stand in the pocket and trade with Błachowicz. This allowed the Polish fighter to connect with a counter left that dropped Reyes. Błachowicz then finished the fight with ground strikes.
It was a bitterly disappointing end to a year which began with so much promise for Reyes.
Whilst there are many physical and technical reasons for losses in MMA, the mental aspect has seemed to play a major factor in the way Gustafsson, Santos and Reyes have struggled after delivering career-best performances against Jones.
The way these men have failed to deliver after facing Jones can be explained by the higher stakes that they had when facing him. Not only were they fighting for UFC gold, but they were also clashing with one of the best combatants this sport has ever seen. A common theme is that they have all overcome adversity to perform at an incredibly high level against Jones, knowing that they would have to execute a near-perfect fight in order to be victorious. They have also battled Jones with such force perhaps due to the lack of expectation they have from the MMA community for them to win. This “nothing to lose” mentality could have also played a part in the freedom with which they performed.
When facing other fighters, these three men simply might lack the motivation to extract the most out of their ability. It must also be considered that when there is no UFC gold on the line, there will almost always be an inevitable dropoff in intensity.
It will be important for Reyes to overcome the mental hurdles that have seemingly afflicted both Gustafsson and Santos. On Saturday, Reyes will need to prevent a third consecutive loss to help avoid becoming yet another fighter who peaked in a gallant, losing effort to Jones.
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