There are only a handful of people who have an idea of what the heavyweight version of Jon Jones looks like with his current skill set, and Walt Harris is one of them.
Jones faces Ciryl Gane for the vacant UFC heavyweight title in the main event of UFC 285, which takes place Saturday at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas. Harris was called upon to work with Jones ahead of the former light heavyweight champ’s first bout in more than three years, and Harris has been blown away by what he’s seen over the past two months.
“I mean, he’s the greatest,” Harris told MMA Fighting. “He’s made the adjustments, in my personal opinion, as well as you can make it. He was powerlifting for those three years, he wasn’t just sitting on his tail. He’s so strong. He’s got all the skills, still moves the same, he’s just a heavyweight now.
“His cardio is ridiculous, and just being on the mats with him every day, I’m learning so much from him.”
Jones’ most recent fight was a controversial decision win over Dominick Reyes at UFC 247 in February 2020. Prior to that, “Bones” had another super close call against Thiago Santos at UFC 239 seven months earlier, winning a split decision against Santos — who badly injured his left knee, and tweaked a surgically repaired right knee during the five-round affair.
Jones recently said part of the reason for his move to heavyweight had to do with not having any “fear” for his 205-pound bouts, and that he didn’t feel challenged. Now that Harris has seen Jones in action in the gym, he understands where Jones was coming from.
“He’s 100-percent better [than he was before],” Harris explained. “I think he’s healthier. He’s more focused now than ever because it’s a different challenge. Heavyweight is a different ball game. He beat everybody at 205, he got bored with it. Now it’s time for a new challenge, and I think he’s ready to take it. We’ve got a room full of killers every day pushing him. He just looks good, man. I think he’s going to surprise a lot of people.
“It’s one thing to see him fight on TV, and then to actually train with him, it’s like, ‘What the hell?’ He’s fast, he’s explosive, and he’s just so smart. When you’re making a move, he already has a counter for it. He’s the greatest for a reason, and I think at heavyweight, all of those things are going to be accentuated. Most heavyweights don’t train like he’s been training for the last 12, 13 years of his career, and we’re in elevation too, so his cardio is on a whole different level.
“It gets frustrating at times,” Harris jokingly continued. “Sometimes I’m ready to get off the mats after a hard session, and he wants to do more work, you know? But it’s that champion’s mindset that he has.”
As fans and pundits break down the fight, many believe Gane will have the edge in the striking, while Jones will have the advantage if the fight hits the mat. But there’s also mystery surrounding Jones because he hasn’t competed in so long.
In Harris’ eyes, Jones will collect data as the fight begins to take shape, then he’ll take the fight wherever he wants to take it — even if that means going toe-to-toe on the feet with the athletic, former interim heavyweight champion.
“He’s right on point with his striking,” Harris said. “He’s been in there with the best strikers at 205, so there’s not going to be a movement, or a speed thing that he’s not ready for. Jon will be able to take the fight where he wants it, which is something he does better than anybody. If he wants to strike with Ciryl, he will. He can do everything, and I don’t think Ciryl will be any kind of puzzle that he can’t figure out. He’ll make Ciryl fight his fight.
“But he’s smarter than he was, he’s more mature now than ever before. I’ve seen it, I spend a lot of time with him off of the mats. Seeing where he is mentally, I’m telling you, he’s a different fighter now. At the end of the day, he’s going there to win the fight. He’ll go in there, figure it out, and he’ll take it where he needs to take it.
“I think Jon finishes him in the second round, if not the first.”
Harris said working with Jones helped push him over the edge in making his own return to the octagon. The 39-year-old has dropped three straight and hasn’t competed since a TKO loss to Marcin Tybura in June 2021, but knew he needed to take some time off.
Harris has had to deal with a lot emotionally, most notably the tragic loss of his stepdaughter Aniah Blanchard, who was murdered at the age of 19 in October 2019. In November, a 32-year-old suspect was indicted by a grand jury on charges of capital murder during a kidnapping, capital murder during a robbery, and capital murder involving a victim in a vehicle. That suspect faces the death penalty, or life in prison without the possibility of parole, for each individual charge.
Harris is now ready to return to the octagon, and is targeting June to do so. He first started considering a comeback a few months ago, but when Jones called upon him to help with preparation for his heavyweight debut, Harris was officially off the fence and back in the game.
“It meant everything, man,” Harris said of Jones’ call. “This is a big opportunity for him, and [also] it’s my comeback, so why not come back with the greatest to ever do it?”