Jones just couldn't seem to get excited about defending his light heavyweight title against any of the top contenders, including ESPN No. 4-ranked Dominick Reyes and No. 5 Corey Anderson, who are both coming off impressive victories.
Jones tweeted on Sept. 9 that big news was coming soon. There was speculation he would move up to heavyweight and possibly challenge champion Stipe Miocic or maybe Francis Ngannou. Or maybe the talked-about fight with middleweight champ Israel Adesanya would get fast-tracked.
But it might have just been Jones having fun with a tease on social media.
Clarity finally arrived on Nov. 6 when Jones tweeted that he chose Reyes after determining with this coaches that Reyes is a more dangerous opponent than Anderson.
The fight became official on Friday and will take place Feb. 8 in Houston.
So how dangerous is Reyes for Jones, whose only loss was a controversial disqualification for an illegal elbow strike? And did Jones' unconvincing win over Santos, who had torn ligaments in his both his knees, reveal vulnerabilities in the champ? ESPN's panel of experts -- Ariel Helwani, Brett Okamoto, Marc Raimondi and Jeff Wagenheim -- breaks it down.
How dangerous of a fight is this for Jones?
Helwani: Jones has had a little bit of trouble with long fighters during this run, but of course, he's won all those fights. We're nitpicking here. My biggest concern is, is he motivated? It's no secret he's been looking for a big fight. Problem is, there isn't one right now. So, he is kind of settling here, even though Reyes is a tough and worthy opponent. Will he look past him? Will he take this fight seriously? That's what I wonder.
Okamoto: When discussing the difficulty level of a Jon Jones fight, it's important to keep in mind it's all relative, right? Jones is the favorite to beat anyone. So, when we're discussing these different opponents, it's not a question of, "Is this the guy to beat Jon Jones?" It's more a question of, "Is this a guy who could, maybe, theoretically, on his best night, beat Jon Jones?" And relatively speaking, I think Reyes is one of the biggest challenges to Jones right now. Certainly at light heavyweight. It's a dangerous fight in that Reyes has legitimate power, and he is undeniably in his prime, which you haven't always been able to say about Jones' opponents.
Raimondi: Every bit as dangerous as Thiago Santos was and Jones was not able to run through Santos by any means. Reyes is bigger, longer and younger than Santos. While he might not be as proficient or as experienced of a striker as Santos, Reyes is six years younger and still getting better. In his past four fights, he has knocked out Chris Weidman and Jared Cannonier and defeated the tough Ovince Saint Preux and Volkan Oezdemir. Reyes is arguably Jones' toughest opponent since Alexander Gustafsson at UFC 232 in December 2018, because we just don't know how good he can be yet. Consider this: Through 12 career fights, Reyes has a better résumé than Jones did (though Jones was significantly younger).
Wagenheim: How dangerous for Jones? Only as dangerous as Jon allows it to be. In fact, he should be insulted by this question. He's a raging hurricane of a fighter who's spent years as the one inflicting the danger upon opponents. And Jones is still capable of that, isn't he? We haven't seen much of that guy in the cage, really, since DC II a good two and a half years ago. But Jon is just 32, clear-eyed and healthy, and if he's still Jon Jones, he should be way too much for Dominick Reyes to handle. So I'm inclined to say this fight poses nowhere near the most peril Jones has been through in his time at the top of the sport. Then again, I'm a bit haunted by the recent "Bones" persona of a champion bored by it all (sigh), deigning to bestow a beating on the next victim up. That, my friends, is living dangerously.
What did we learn about Jones from the Santos fight?
Helwani: That he continues to evolve. He is able to dig deep. He can take a big punch. One of the biggest questions about Jones throughout his career has been about his chin. I think after that last fight he proved he has a very strong chin and can take a punch from the heaviest of hitters.
Okamoto: For me, it's not so much what I learned from that fight ... it's what I was asking myself after that fight. Because the biggest question I had was: Where did Jones' killer instinct go? I've spent the last 10 years watching Jones, and one characteristic he's always had is a certain level of nastiness. There have been times where he's actually pushed that line of what might even be considered fighting dirty. But against Santos, he had an opponent in front of him who was obviously compromised, fighting on one leg, and he didn't go for the kill. If anything, he took a conservative approach late in that bout. Jones' killer instinct has always been one of his better attributes in my opinion, so I do find myself wondering if it's as strong as it's been in the past.
Raimondi: He's not completely invincible, which some might have thought after he dominated Alexander Gustafsson and then Anthony Smith coming off a 17-month layoff. Indeed, some people scored that bout for Santos. I disagree with that -- Jones definitely was a deserving winner on the scorecards. But Jones also didn't execute the best game plan possible, admittedly so. He was content to fight Santos standing -- where Santos was most skilled and most capable of finishing him. Jones is continuously looking for challenges, even when it puts him in harm's way. If Jones took Santos down -- and he surely could have -- it would have been a different fight.
Wagenheim: Jon is at his best when he's the one on attack. He's excellent at fending off an opponent's offense, to be sure, and he is capable of a quick-strike counter. But in the Santos fight he never really got his engine into gear. Before that, against Anthony Smith, Jones also idled for long stretches, revving things up only as needed. In both of these fights, Jon got the job done but it was no masterwork. Wait, let me twist that around for proper emphasis: It was no masterwork, but Jon got the job done. Jones has not lost his winning edge. He's just a victim of his own creative muse. His early-career highlight reel set the bar so high that seeing him merely get his hand raised feels like a letdown.
What does Reyes bring to the fight other than a big left hand?
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Daniel Cormier breaks down Dominick Reyes' win vs. Chris Weidman and explains how the undefeated fighter could cause Jon Jones problems.
Helwani: His length and athleticism. He is 2 inches taller than Santos and an inch taller than Anthony Smith. Also, he has a 1-inch reach advantage on both guys. But, that said, he's the same height as Jones -- 6-4 -- and Jones has a 7.5-inch reach advantage. Jones should be the favorite in this fight, no doubt. The fact that Reyes is undefeated makes it compelling.
Okamoto: He demonstrated pretty good takedown defense against Chris Weidman in his last fight. Now, there's a difference between a former middleweight trying to take you down, and Jon Jones (likely a future heavyweight) trying to take you down. But if you don't have takedown defense, you have no chance against Jones, so it was nice to see Reyes perform well in that area recently. This sounds cliche, but Reyes also has the benefit of being undefeated. He doesn't know what it's like to lose. He's used to winning. He expects it, because it's all he's known in this sport. And against an opponent as potentially intimidating as Jones, I think that's a plus.
Raimondi: Reyes is a fantastic athlete, a former Division I football all-conference defensive back at Stony Brook University in New York. He is big, strong and has looked pretty technical on the feet. Reyes' ground game is largely unproven, though he has two submission wins in his career. While Reyes is definitely a threat on the feet, Jones has the advantage on paper pretty much everywhere.
Wagenheim: Reyes can punch and he can wrestle. He has massive self-belief, which is understandable considering he is undefeated. And "The Devastator" also has that far-reaching old Gustafsson talent: He's tall. Those are all ingredients in the secret formula for defeating Jon Jones.*
(* -- No one has defeated Jon Jones.)
How do you see the fight unfolding?
Helwani: I won't be surprised if we see a Jones who looks for a finish early. I think he wants to make a statement that no other light heavyweight is on his level, and I think he wants to shut up all the doubters who have been speaking up a little more this year.
Okamoto: How most of Jones' fights unfold. One thing Jones doesn't get enough credit for is his fight IQ. I've had numerous coaches tell me that over the years. He'll test Reyes in the early goings, feel him out. Not to say it will get off to a slow start necessarily, but Jones will be mindful of any big shots. He'll find his range. And as the fight unfolds, Jones will start to run away with it more and more. Outside of an early knockout, I don't think this matchup favors Reyes. But then, such is the case with all Jon Jones fights.
Raimondi: Unless Reyes continues to improve at a rapid rate -- which, by the way, is not impossible -- this looks like a Jones decision win, not unlike his victory at UFC 235 over Anthony Smith on March 2. There is always the possibility Jones gets caught and Reyes has big power. But Jones has an iron chin and better defense. For a long time, people thought the secret to beating Jones was to just catch him on the feet, and that has been way easier said than done. If Reyes stops takedowns (if Jones actually goes for them) and stays out of trouble in the clinch, he could make it a competitive fight like Santos did. It always does feel like the fight is contingent on where Jones' head is. "Bones" is the greatest of all time for a reason.
Wagenheim: Jones has this thing about fighting opponents where they're at their best. Maybe he's measuring the other guy, looking for an opening to lead the dance his way. Maybe he sees this tactic as the fastest route into the opponent's psyche. Maybe Jon is just bored and setting a challenge in front of himself. Whatever it is, I envision Jones seeking to shut down Reyes wherever Dominick takes the fight. With the challenger hunting from the outset for something big in stand-up exchanges, Jones will be content to rely mostly on kicks from distance. Soon enough, the champ will challenge Reyes' vaunted wrestling, and that will be the game. If Jones gets the better of the mano a mano -- which I suspect he will, because he has in every past fight -- it's going to be an unfulfilling night for "And new ...!" fans.