- Brett Okamoto, ESPN Staff Writer
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TORONTO -- It’s interesting to hear Jon Jones describe his toughest fight.
Jones believes this because at the time, he didn’t really know how what he was doing. It was his UFC debut. He hadn’t learned how to, in his words, flow. It had nothing to do with the man standing on the other side of the cage.
“I didn’t really know how to fight,” Jones said. “I felt like I was sprinting the whole time. Now I know the game and I can play the game. They say the art of fighting is fighting without fighting. I wasn’t at that type of mindset then.”
The underlining message here is that no one in the UFC has really given Jones a fight. If it’s true his toughest test came in 2008, metaphorically against his own lack of experience, one can see how easy he’s made this whole title run thing look.
The question this week: Is Lyoto Machida the man to change this?
Jones is a mere 24 years old and has just 15 professional fights on his record, but already the desire is there to see this kid truly challenged. Basically, we still don’t know what happens when things go wrong for him.
Can Machida provide that answer? If the karate-based fighter represents one thing Jones hasn’t seen before it’s that he’s different. His style is unorthodox and he’s the first southpaw Jones will face under the UFC banner.
He’s also had the luxury of a longtime gym relationship with UFC middleweight champion Anderson Silva, who is probably one of the best sparring partners one could ask for in trying to prepare for Jones.
His karate background featured a few other duels with rangy opponents; however, Machida said the impact that has is minimal due to the differences between strict karate and MMA.
Two years ago, Machida built a reputation as possibly the most difficult fighter in UFC history to hit. That mystique has been unveiled as of late, prompting some to suggest the Machida riddle has been solved.
In his first seven fights, Machida’s significant strike defense was a UFC-best 26.4 percent. In his last three bouts, however, that rate has risen to 48 percent. Jones believes those numbers are due to a change in Machida’s style more than the idea opponents have figured him out.
“When he started, he was way more elusive,” Jones said. “Now, he engages a lot more. He likes to fight a little bit more. Maybe he gave into criticism a little bit. A lot of people said, ‘Oh, he’s boring.’ Or maybe he just believed he needed to change his style, who knows?”
Unless Machida has fooled us all, it doesn’t sound as though he’s planned to necessarily change anything for this particular matchup against Jones. If anything, the word from his camp is that he’s more elusive than ever.
Rather than try and fight offense with offense, it appears Machida still trusts the style that saw him to a 16-fight win streak and the UFC title in 2009.
“Jon Jones is an incredible athlete, but I believe in what I study, in what I train and my technique,” Machida said. “I did notice some things he has done wrong and that, maybe, some of his other opponents didn’t catch on to.”
Jones has made it look easy against some of the most talented 205-pound fighters in the world. In his mind, a fight is based solely on what he does -- not his opponent.
Machida built his career around the same mentality. Whether or not that helps him become the first to truly challenge Jones is unknown. If not, looks like Gusmao will remain the toughest outing on Jones’ résumé.
21dAndrew R. Davis