Once in a lifetime athletes are labelled as such for a reason. Every now and then, someone comes along to make heads turn and jaws drop. When Jon Jones landed that famous spinning back-elbow on Stephan Bonnar, he did exactly that. Even UFC matchmaker Joe Silva could not resist jumping out of his chair. That move accompanied a virtuoso display that saw Jones rag-doll the UFC veteran and mesmerize him — as well as as the audience watching in amazement — with all kinds of unorthodox maneuvers.  Jones might as well have titled that performance “Act 1”, as he has been able to replicate it — or even eclipse it — every time he has set foot inside the Octagon. Such enthralling showings have carried him all the way to championship glory, and this Saturday at UFC 135, Jones returns to the cage to defend his title for the first time. The man with the unenviable task of handing Jones his first legitimate defeat is someone who knows what it takes to be a champion: former UFC light heavyweight kingpin Quinton “Rampage” Jackson.

Light Heavyweight Title Fight: Jon Jones vs. Quinton Jackson

When fighting smart and to his full potential, Quinton Jackson is not the one-dimensional slugger many mistake him to be. Not only is he a very capable wrestler, but his clinch work and dirty boxing are some of his biggest assets. Moreover, when he is not in pure aggressive headhunting mode and is not content to simply move forward and throw power hooks, Jackson possesses a nice blend of controlled aggression and accurate counter-punching. His knockouts of Chuck Liddell and Wanderlei Silva are great demonstrations of Jackson’s ability to make his opponent pay with precise countering. Liddell made a critical mistake by leaning forward to throw a shot to the body with no set-up, and “Rampage” leveled him with a pinpoint right hook that put an end to “The Iceman’s” reign of terror over the division. Likewise, the moment Wanderlei Silva threw his trademark wild haymakers, Jackson ducked, parried, and landed a textbook left hook that saw him gain a measure of revenge over his longtime nemesis.

Jackson’s right uppercut is equally lethal, and he does an excellent job at using it to counter as his opponent moves in (see the Forrest Griffin fight), and an even better job and landing it from close-quarters, as Kevin Randleman and Marvin Eastman both found out. Jackson’s work on the inside is one of the best in the game, and he is extremely dangerous when he starts putting combinations together and mixes things up by going to the body. His performance against Matt Hamill may not have set the world on fire, but Jackson displayed some variety in his striking particularly when moving forward, as he punished Hamill with punches and knees to the body every time “The Hammer” covered up.

When seeking to initiate the clinch, Jackson’s footwork is quite underrated. He is quite savvy when it comes to cutting off the cage and closing distance. Once there, “Rampage” possesses some nasty dirty boxing and his takedowns are quite effective. Conversely, when he gets frustrated due to his inability to find his opponent’s chin, his footwork becomes quite predictable and ineffective. Rashad Evans was able to exploit that hole in Jackson’s game perfectly, as he never allowed “Rampage” to get within range. This forced Jackson to become even more aggressive when moving forward, which in turn made him an easy target for Evans’ takedowns as he used Jackson’s aggression against him.

Therefore, and in this fight more than any other, it will be vital for “Rampage” to be patient and not to get too discouraged should he fail to have much success landing anything significant early on. This is particularly crucial given that he will likely have a very hard time finding a way around Jones’ reach and get on the inside. That is the chore of the problem for “Rampage” in this particular match-up, as while his best offense comes on the inside — be it with his boxing or clinch work — Jones’ reach will allow him to stay long and keep his opponent at bay. Jones hasn’t developed much of a jab yet, but the Mauricio “Shogun” Rua fight showed that he is finally learning to make full use of his reach by utilizing his long frame to throw plenty of kicks — particularly front kicks — to control distance. Before that, much of Jones’ striking was revolved around some flashy strikes that he threw without much of a set-up. However, having combined tactical discipline and smart fighting with his creativity makes Jones an even bigger nightmare to deal with.

More impressive was how devastating Jones’ offense was on the inside, as he brutalized Rua with knees and body shots. Worse yet for Jones’ opponents, he utterly confuses them by landing some shots on the inside before immediately putting them on their backs with a takedown from the clinch; not to mention the fact that the variety in his takedowns is pretty astounding. This spells trouble for “Rampage”, as while his base and takedown defense are both solid, he struggles to deal with unpredictable opponents who confuse him by mixing things up. He was able to stuff all of Hamill’s takedowns because he knew what to expect, but couldn’t deal with Evans’ takedowns as Rashad threw plenty of feints, continuously changed levels, and set things up with his striking.

Of course, Jones doesn’t fight exactly the same way that Evans does, and he will not change levels as much, or shoot from distance (though he did effortlessly put Ryan Bader on his back with a shot from the outside), but he will be able to use his reach to prevent Jackson from utilizing his striking effectively, and he will be one of the few who will get the better of the clinch work with “Rampage”, and thus preventing Jackson from using his dirty boxing.

If/when he gets taken down, it will be important for Jackson not to be too eager to get back to his feet, as he tends to give up position when doing so. This was the case against both Evans and Lyoto Machida. Against the former, Jackson was continuously fighting an uphill battle to regain his vertical base, while Machida was able to take him down late in the fight, pass his guard and get to mount. Jones’ top game is an even tougher proposition to deal with, and his ground-and-pound is more dangerous than anything the aforementioned pair were able to offer. His elbows to the body were a key feature in his triumph over Rua back in March, as he completely took the wind out of the Brazilian’s sails with continuous body work. Jones is capable of both staying in full guard and start landing elbows, as he did against Brendon Vera; as well as passing guard and advancing position, as he did against Vladimir Matyushenko and Bader. Such dedication is admirable, as Jones’ top game doesn’t even need to be as dynamic as it is, but his quest for improvement made his grappling even more multidimensional.

His submission arsenal is ever improving as well. In fact, in addition to choking out Bader, Jones was in position to submit “Shogun” with a beautiful Kneebar in the second round but ran out of time. The way Jones transitioned from half guard immediately to that Kneebar is a testament to his creativity and free flowing approach inside the cage. Jackson’s submission defense is extremely solid, but it is not outside the realm of possibility to see Jones polish off a tired “Rampage” late in the fight with a submission.

The match-up issues are just too severe for “Rampage” to overcome, and barring a well-placed punch that separates Jones from consciousness, it is going to be a long night for Jackson. Expect Jones to frustrate him on the feet, take him down, punish him with elbows to the body, advance position, and finish things off with some more ground-and-pound.

Official Prediction: Jon Jones to defeat Quinton Jackson by TKO in the Third Round