UFC 159 Statistical Matchup Analysis: Jones vs. Sonnen

By: Reed Kuhn
Apr 23, 2013
UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones has won eight in a row. | Al Bello/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

A great season of “The Ultimate Fighter” is not truly over until the coaches get locked in a cage together.

No matter what light heavyweight champion Jon Jones thinks of Chael Sonnen’s right to a title shot, Ultimate Fighting Championship President Dana White decided to put the gold up for grabs. Let us look at the numbers and see how this main event could play out at UFC 159 this Saturday at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J. Despite Jones’ impressive streak in the light heavyweight division, Sonnen’s been around much longer, with World Extreme Cagefighting and UFC appearances dating back almost a decade.

All in all, we have more than 17,000 data points to sift through to see if Sonnen can convert on what is likely his last chance for UFC gold.

The Tale of Tape shows that Sonnen, who was a good-sized middleweight, is facing a giant of the light heavyweight division. Sonnen will be three inches shorter and on the wrong end of a 10-inch reach differential. Getting the close range needed to land bombs or takedowns will be that much harder in this trip to the Octagon. Granted, Sonnen’s had almost a year to rebuild his body for the larger division, so perhaps he is packing more power and explosiveness than he did at 185 pounds. We will see.

Jones, as always, presents a Tale of the Tape conundrum for his opponent. He is tall and wields the longest range in the UFC. In this case, Jones is also 11 years younger than his opponent. At 36, Sonnen is already into the danger zone for increased knockdown risk. Though Sonnen has not suffered many knockout losses, each trip to the cage only increases the probability a landed strike will drop him. The only ray of hope on the Tale of the Tape is Sonnen’s southpaw stance. Jones’ only minutes of vulnerability came against southpaw striker Lyoto Machida. That did not stop Jones from finishing Machida, and Sonnen does not have the striking prowess of a Machida. However, it may give Sonnen a small early window through which to close the distance on Jones. That brings us to the striking stats.

Once again, we see a stat line that heavily favors the champion. In striking metrics, Jones is the more accurate and more powerful striker, and he also has better defense. Neither man is particularly accurate with his power striking, but Jones does excel at landing his jab, which is a key clue that he knows how to use his reach. Of Jones’ four knockdowns, two came from a distance and two more from the clinch. His elbows and knees can come from all angles and may be more dangerous than traditional power strikes.

The one important metric that favors Sonnen is pace. When standing, Sonnen has been aggressive and has out-struck opponents by 70 percent based on pure volume of strikes. However, keep in mind that only one quarter of Sonnen’s strikes in the Octagon have occurred while standing. That is less than anyone else on the UFC 159 card by a long shot. His aggressive, low-accuracy, high-volume attack has instead been used to set up clinch work and takedowns, not to purely box with his opponents. Can he do that here?

Given the range disadvantage, Jones should be able to spend more time standing and trading with Sonnen, giving him more opportunities to test the challenger’s chin from a distance. Sonnen will have a tougher chase than he is used to in trying to corner the larger and elusive Jones. Still, with a relentless enough pursuit -- and relentless pursuit is something at which Sonnen excels -- he should eventually get to a clinch for a higher potential takedown attempt. That leaves us with one more outlet for Sonnen: getting this to the floor.

If Sonnen manages to deliver a trip takedown from the clinch, the stat line on the mat starts to look better for him. In fact, if we were not matching him against Jones here, his stats would look pretty impressive. Sonnen has NCAA Div. I wrestling credentials, and in MMA competition, he attempts takedowns frequently and with above average success. Once on the ground, his clear focus is on striking, as he has out-struck opponents by a better than 7-to-1 margin there. He has been dominant in top position, passing guard 28 times in UFC/WEC competition and reaching a dominant position of side control or better on 22 separate occasions. This positional dominance and ground-and-pound style has won him plenty of decisions -- and five different rounds against middleweight champion Anderson Silva. Unfortunately, those five rounds were not all in the same fight. It was also from top position that he earned his only UFC submission: an arm triangle against Brian Stann. The conclusion is that Sonnen’s top game has been critical to his success.

Therein lies the problem for the challenger. Where Sonnen is good, Jones has been better. To date, no one has taken down Jones, not even high-level wrestlers like Vladimir Matyushenko, Ryan Bader and Rashad Evans. During one scramble in the closing seconds of the Evans fight, Jones went to ground, but it was not scored as a takedown. Jones has fended off all 16 attempted takedowns by opponents, while converting 22 of 36 of his own. In his past fights, Jones has rained down strikes from above at a staggering 11-to-1 ratio compared to his opponents, so while Sonnen’s wrestling and ground-and-pound skills are great, Jones’ are superior.

Unlike Sonnen, strikes are not Jones’ only weapons on the ground. Jones has more UFC submission finishes (five) than he has wins by knockout or technical knockout (three). Moreover, he has only needed eight submission attempts to finish five opponents; his two most recent victims, Machida and Vitor Belfort, were both Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belts. Meanwhile, Sonnen has been submitted five times in UFC/WEC competition. His submission defense rate may look high at 76 percent, but that figure has been compiled against 21 different submission attempts. As such, the submission game between Jones and Sonnen appears to be a glaring mismatch.

The Final Word

The current betting line favors the champion at -850, with an implied win probability of 89 percent. That puts this fight into the potential layup zone for Bones. As always, no MMA fight is a foregone conclusion, and Sonnen is not going to go down easy. He has brought his best in every big fight, even when he appeared to be outgunned. Regardless of outcome, Sonnen has surprised naysayers before and looked impressive even in defeat. Given that Sonnen’s winning game plan of the past is unlikely to be as successful against a giant grappler like “Bones,” perhaps that long betting line is justified.

What do you think? Are there any particular stats you feel suggest that Sonnen can spring the upset or hint at which weaknesses Jones will exploit? Next month, we will examine a heavyweight rematch, as champion Cain Velasquez meets Antonio Silva at UFC 160.

Note: Raw data for the analysis was provided by, and in partnership with FightMetric. All analysis was performed by Reed Kuhn. Reed Kuhn, Fightnomics, FightMetric and Sherdog.com assume no responsibility for bets placed on fights, financial or otherwise.

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