By Jon Lane
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Mainstream boxing historians will always remember the name James “Buster” Douglas as the man who pulled off the biggest upset in the history of the sport with his 10th-round knockout of the indestructible Mike Tyson in 1990.
Those well-versed in following mixed martial arts simply have to bring up Matt Serra as an example of how on any given evening, the largest of underdogs can slay the mightiest of dragons.
History, Olympic-caliber wrestling ability and an unprecedented gift of gab is what Chael Sonnen has going for him when he takes his shot at Jon “Bones” Jones and the UFC light-heavyweight championship of the world Saturday night in UFC 159 at Newark’s Prudential Center. Sonnen’s 28-12-1 record matched against Jones’ 17-1 ledger – the lone defeat a disqualification for illegal elbows to the head of Matt Hamill – has the former U.S. Olympic wrestling alternate a whopping plus-550 underdog on the MGM Grand sports book. But to perceive him as an underdog as big as Buster Douglas would not be entirely accurate.
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Armed with the guts of a gladiator, Sonnen is 5-2 over the past three years with both defeats coming to UFC middleweight champion Anderson Silva, and Sonnen dominated Silva for four rounds before getting caught in a triangle choke. He’s a major underdog based not on his deficiencies, but a historic run by Jones that already has him in the same breath as Muhammad Ali among the greatest ever in combat sports.
“As great as Jon is, I don’t think that he understands how good he is,” Sonnen said. “You know, for him to pay tribute to Mike Tyson and Muhammad Ali earlier was a very nice thing for him to do. The reality is Jon Jones could beat up Mike Tyson and Muhammad Ali in the same day.”
The youngest light-heavyweight champion in UFC history, Jones has won his last five bouts over men who once held the title. A win on Saturday ties him with Tito Ortiz with five successful title defenses. Jones is an elite collegiate wrestler and a national junior college champion. Sonnen’s game is to grind it, whereas Jones puts together a dizzying array of moves standing up and when taking the fight to the mat.
And when discussing Sonnen, Jones’ mat game was his warning shot.
“I don’t think anyone respects my grappling or my wrestling,” Jones said. “I’m excited to go out there and show people what I do. I’m excited to go out there and prove my critics wrong about being this inferior wrestler.”
Jones has rarely tasted adversity over his young career. The two times he has, he’s rebounded to bludgeon his way to victory over Lyoto Machida (technical sumbission-2) and Vitor Belfort (submission-4). Jones isn’t one to make the same mistake twice. Sonnen left openings that proved costly in his two losses to Silva. Because Sonnen is a gamer, this won’t be a rout, but Jones will solve his latest puzzle and takes his game to new heights. Prediction: Jones TKO 3.
UFC 159 main card breakdowns and predictions:
Michael Bisping (23-5) vs. Alan Belcher (18-7)
For all the trash-talking between Jones and Sonnen, the war of words between Bisping and Belcher has added more intrigue to a co-main event in which the winner positions himself as a top middleweight contender and the loser falls further down the pack – possibly to the point of no return.
“I’m a natural competitor,” Bisping said. “A win over Alan Belcher puts me back in the win column. It’s a win over a top-10 opponent. And it gets me back in the mix for the title shot. That’s what I want. And as long as there’s life in my body, I will continue to try and get that title shot. I want to be the world champion.”
Both fighters come off damaging defeats, but Bisping remains in the UFC rankings’ top five at No. 4, with Belcher tumbling to No. 10 following a smothering decision defeat to Yushin Okami that ended his four-fight winning streak. Like Okami, Bisping can make life miserable on the ground and take control of the Octagon. Coming off a devastating TKO loss to Belfort, Bisping rebounds to get back into the title conversation. Bisping unanimous decision.
Roy Nelson (19-7) vs. Cheick Kongo (28-7-2)
Win or lose, Big Country Nelson generates excitement. All five of his UFC wins have come via strikes, the last a TKO win over Matt Mitrione in December. Kongo will have to create distance with his nine-inch reach advantage, but Nelson is adept at getting inside and putting together powerful combinations. Kongo’s questionable chin seals his fate. Nelson KO 1.
Phil Davis (10-1) vs. Vinny Magalhaes (11-5)
Davis is in the process of slowly rebuilding a still-promising career since Rashad Evans handed him his first loss last January. Magalhaes, an Ultimate Fighter 8 finalist, is a winner of eight of his last nine and justified his UFC return ticket with a second-round submission of Igor Pokrajac in September. Expect a tactical ground matchup between Magalhaes’ jiu-jitsu and the wrestling ability of Davis, a four-time NCAA All-American at Penn State. Davis unanimous decision.
Jim Miller (22-4) vs. Pat Healy (31-15)
Whippany, N.J., native Miller comes off a wild victory over Joe Lauzon, but is 2-2 in his last four bouts following a seven-fight win streak. Healy, a former Stirkeforce veteran, has won six straight and has faced his share of name fighters throughout his 12-year career. Miller, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt, is tenacious on the ground, but showed against Lauzon he can get it done standing up too. A nip-and-tuck battle develops until Miller breaks his opponent. Miller TKO 3.
Follow Jon Lane on Twitter: @JonLaneNYC
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