As expected, 24-year-old phenom Jon Jones is still the man after UFC 135. In the first defense of his title, he beat an in-shape and motivated Quinton “Rampage” Jackson to keep his strap, six months after he throttled Mauricio “Shogun” Rua to become the youngest champ in the UFC’s modern era.
Like all of Jones’ fights in the octagon, the fight was one-sided. At no point was there imminent danger and at no point was Jackson able, as he’d hoped, to test the champ’s untested chin.
Jackson had posited Jones would crumble to exhaustion in later rounds. Instead, it was he who crumbled and quit, overwhelmed in the fourth by a relentless procession of kicks, punches, and elbows. He tapped to a choke in that championship frame. But it was an afterthought; he checked out at the end of the third when he started clock-watching.
So begins the Jon Jones era. Or does it? A crew like The Usual Suspects is just waiting to cut the kid from his perch and take his gold loot. So far, he’s given us no reason to believe he won’t parallel, and perhaps eclipse, the rise of welterweight champ Georges St-Pierre. There are significant threats, but at the moment, Jones’ 84-and-a-half-inch wingspan casts a long shadow over the division.
Let’s take a brief look at the murderer’s row:
Rashad Evans: The former champ, who’s next in line, is in his physical prime and has the speed to get inside and do damage with quick hands. With his wrestling, he could be the first person to put Jones on his back. Moreover, he could keep the champ there. It’s the foundation of Evans’ confidence leading into the yet-unscheduled bout, a do-over from a ill-fated meeting at UFC 133 that fractured the camp in which both trained. What happened under Greg Jackson’s roof when they sparred, before Evans accused Jones of betrayal and flew the coop, is a truth that will only be uncovered if walls talk. Evans says he made Jones quit. Jones says he could have handled Evans had he gone full speed. Training partners won’t break the code of silence endemic to MMA gyms, at least for now. So we’re left to what we’ve seen thus far from Evans. And if that’s any indication of the damage he could do to Jones, he could make things interesting.
Lyoto Machida: Perhaps the only charge that can match the champ’s level of unpredictability. The wide-stanced Machida is an expert at controlling the range of a fight and keeping opponents off-balance with all manner of kicks, leaping knees and straight-arrow strikes. Much of that could be neutralized against the cage, and his ability to stay on his feet looks doubtful when measured against the champ’s uncanny command of leverage in taking opponents down. But say Jones overcommits to a strike. The Brazilian may have a window — a very small one — if he correctly times a counter.
Dan Henderson: He lumbers a bit, and he’s not the prettiest technician to behold, but Henderson has a great shot at Jones simply because he can make it a dirty fight. He won’t be frozen by any aura; he’ll head the charge with an overhand right and get in Jones’ face. He’s downright nasty in the clinch and against the fence, and if he gets a hold of someone’s torso, they’re going down. Again, a lot of it comes down to timing. If Jones leads with a kick-heavy attack, can “Hendo” parry and advance? Can he catch Jones off balance when the two inevitably hit the cage? Can he control the champ once it hits the ground? Hard to tell. But Henderson has a better shot than most might think. He’s durable, too, and that counts for a lot.
Phil Davis: The greenest of all Jones’ potential opponents, the former NCAA Division I wrestling champ is the guy who, on paper, can take Jones down whenever he wants. He doesn’t have the deficits in height and reach as his contemporaries. And he’s coming into his own; at 27, we haven’t see the full extent of his development. He’s proven to be a cunning and creative submission artist, which could come in handy if he manages to put Jones on his back. It remains to be seen how he’ll bounce back from a knee injury and the grind of a busy 2010, but he’s no pushover.
Mauricio “Shogun” Rua: Hard to give the former champ much of a chance given his previous outing against Jones. Regardless of the less-than-favorable circumstances surrounding his return, he faces the same issues in a potential rematch. He may have the speed to get inside and tenderize Jones’ legs, but it’s doubtful. He ain’t taking the champ down and cinching a submission any time soon. A big overhand right? Sketchy. Knees from the clinch? Say hello to the mat. I’m not seeing it.
But enough of the future. Let’s take a look at the recent past.
Jon Jones (14-1): The live audience still sits on the fence about him, but from the many oohs and aahs he elicited at Denver’s Pepsi Center on Saturday, Jones is eminently watchable. The are few UFC fighters who so effortlessly carve out real estate on a seat edge. One is Anderson Silva. I couldn’t help but think about the middleweight champ when I watched Jackson freeze in front of him. Jackson admittedly stood in awe of the breadth of attacks coming his way. Jones was, and is, his light-heavyweight Medusa.
There just aren’t many others who harness an air of unpredictable, expected violence as well. Fedor Emelianenko at his prime, for one. Jones probably won’t ever meet Silva, and he definitely won’t Fedor, though there will only be so long before the kid grows into his frame and is forced to heavyweight. As you can see when you put him besides his two brothers, he’s the runt of the litter. He’s already growing into his shoes when it comes to handling the ever-brightening spotlight, so it won’t be long before we see blue-chip corporations investing in “Bones.” And in an era where old-guard MMA stars are dropping like flies, he’s going to pay off big for the UFC.
Josh Koscheck (16-5): It was hard not to feel sympathy for the onetime welterweight challenger. Just a little. Here he had just trounced UFC Hall of Famer Matt Hughes in under five minutes flat, and still the audience treats him like a cat-killer. Sure, it’s the role he chose, and he probably would have mouthed off to our expectations were he not a last-minute replacement for Diego Sanchez. But consider that he stayed in the fight when Hughes targeted the orbital George St-Pierre broke 10 months prior, and when he felled the former champ with a punch, he finished in short order. That’s no small feat with a former champion. His glass ceiling is pretty much installed as long as St-Pierre stays champ, so a move to middleweight is a good idea. He can always return to welterweight if the belt ever leaves Montreal.
Nate Diaz (14-7): The younger and more well-behaved Diaz brother looked woefully overmatched at welterweight against young lion Rory MacDonald at UFC 129, so watching him dismantle former PRIDE lightweight champion Takanori Gomi got the blood running. It’s just a first step, mind you. He’ll still fall short against the wrestler/boxers of the upper division. But he’s back where he belongs, he’s marketable, and there are plenty of mid-tier guys for him to thrash.
Tony Ferguson (12-2): Good first test for the winner of The Ultimate Fighter 13, and a good first win against the durable Aaron Riley. In the end, it was the one potential chink in Riley’s armor that Ferguson happened to exploit when he landed an uppercut that broke the veteran’s jaw, the second such time he suffered such a trauma. The weight cut doesn’t seem to be an issue for “El Cucuy,” which is good, because he’s a little undersized at 170. At lightweight, he keeps all the power inherent to his hands and picks up some speed.
James Te-Huna (13-5): Hard to argue with a first-round knockout. Time alongside Jackson, Hunt and Broughton at Denver’s MusclePharm facility clearly did the Australian good. If he can continue to shore up his takedown defense and defensive grappling, he can make a few waves in the light heavyweight division.
Mark Hunt (7-7): A win over Ben Rothwell makes it two in a row for the super Samoan, who could have taken a payout in lieu of a fight following the UFC’s purchase of PRIDE but chose instead to try his fortune in the octagon. Quite an improbable run for the former K-1 kickboxer, who, at 37, won’t be vying for a title any time soon, but nevertheless brings the fight every time. Saturday’s triumph was ugly as all get-out, with both men looking like a sack of potatoes by round three. But hey, that’s what happens when you book your main card with heavyweights in a mile-high city.
Travis Browne (12-0-1): With his agility and freewheeling footwork, Browne echoes his pint-sized teammate Dominick Cruz. That helps him get out of a lot of sticky striking situations, but I can’t help but thinking he’s in for a reckoning when someone times him correctly with a punch or a kick. Before oxygen deprivation sapped him, he tenderized the legs and landed big punches against Rob Broughton, a tough Brit with a limited skill set. I’d like to see how he fares against a returning Shane Carwin, who has the power to give him pause.
Takeya Mizugaki (15-6-2): The tough as nails Mizugaki is good enough to beat lower-tier guys but falls short against the well-rounded competition near the top of the bantamweight class. This time around, he took advantage of a strategic lapse in his opponent’s defense by hammering Cole Escovedo in the clinch en route to a TKO win. That will buy him a fight against a bigger name. It’s hard, though, to see how he does anything more than serve as a gatekeeper for future contenders.
Quinton Jackson (32-9): To pull off the massive upset against Jones, Jackson needed to reverse a long stylistic trend toward counter-fighting. He obviously did not. He waited. He played the punching bag, and he missed on the counter. Three years ago, that’s exactly how Forrest Griffin took his belt, and that started the slide we’ve seen since. He’s continued to win, but something has gone missing. Killer instinct, perhaps. Speed, a little. Desire, who knows.
Almost as soon as Bruce Buffer announced Jones the winner, Jackson already his next fight in mind: A meeting with Mauricio “Shogun” Rua in February when the UFC returns to Japan. He’s trying to right past wrongs, sure, but it seems like he’s also trying to reawaken a passion that’s perhaps lain dormant in the rollercoaster he’s ridden since migrating to the UFC from PRIDE. Can a change of scenery do that? We’ll see, but I’m skeptical.
Matt Hughes (45-9): Also trying to get his past back, Hughes filled his corner with those who watched over him during his phenomenal reign as champion so many years ago. And it looked like that had done the trick, at least until Josh Koscheck clipped his chin. No amount of top-notch training could stop time’s effect on his ability to take a punch. It was then only a matter of time before he lost consciousness, and with a few ticks left on the first-round clock, he did.
Hughes said he wants to be put on the shelf, but we all know what that means: Saturday night was the last time we’ll see him in the UFC. That’s the safe bet, because he’s veered into Chuck Liddell’s territory. Too many knockouts, and you’re gambling with future cognition.
Ben Rothwell (31-8): It was a perfect storm for Rothwell, a long injury layoff due to a busted ACL and a mile-high fighting environment. Still, to gas as completely as he did — to the point where he was almost comedically helpless, a zombie lurching toward his opponent — doesn’t bode well for his future. He’s got one more shot to prove he’s the caliber of fighter worthy of a UFC contract.
Takanori Gomi (32-8): Is there any doubt that Gomi is just phoning it in? He’s now 1-3 in the UFC after a submission loss to Diaz. It was more than a loss — it was a blowout. He had nothing for Diaz, just a looping overhand right that Stockton’s best could see coming a mile away. “The Fireball Kid” has been extinguished.
– Steven Marrocco