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Despite unexpected challenge, Jon Jones hangs on to title belt

Photo: Al Bello/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

Jon Jones (right) took a number of head shots but still beat Alex Gustafsson in five rounds.

Pick on somebody your own size.

That's a cry we've all heard since elementary school, when a kid is bullying someone from a lower grade or a classmate who's small for the age. In sports, we hear it when some major conference football power runs up the score against a small college team.

Or when Jon Jones walks into the octagon.

The UFC light heavyweight has always stepped in with top-shelf competition. After becoming the promotion's youngest champion at barely 24 years old by taking the belt from Mauricio "Shogun" Rua back in March 2011, Jones defended against (and destroyed) a succession of former champs -- Quinton Jackson, Lyoto Machida, Rashad Evans and Vitor Belfort -- before smashing Chael Sonnen, whose only recent UFC losses had been in tightly contested bouts with then-middleweight and pound-for-pound king Anderson Silva.

In wrecking every light heavyweight put in front of him, the 6-foot-4-inch Jones, with his Airbus wingspan, had looked like a man tussling with boys. The only sensible thing for "Bones" to do, it seemed, was to follow through with what he'd long been talking about doing: Move up to heavyweight.

Instead, the UFC stood in front of him a 205-pounder he could look up to. Alexander Gustafsson is 6-5, something we were reminded of again and again in the leadup to UFC 165 in Toronto. The fight promotion sold him as the biggest challenge the champ had ever faced.

It turns out the UFC sold the tall Swede short.

Gustafsson wasn't just tall. He was also tough. He was timely and fast and accurate with his punches, battering and bloodying Jones with long-range fists. And he was big-time in the area of the game expected to be his weak point, fending off all but one of the champ's 11 takedown attempts and even scoring a takedown himself, the first Jones has ever surrendered in a UFC fight.

In the end, when Bruce Buffer bellowed out the judges' scores -- 49-48 on two cards, 49-46 on the other -- and announced "And still...," the look of concern that had been spread across the face of the champion morphed into relief. Jones had survived the fight of his life. He had even made history, as that sixth successful title defense broke a UFC light heavyweight division record set by Tito Ortiz a decade ago. But that wasn't what Jones (19-1) was most proud of afterward.

"That was by far my toughest fight," the champ said through swollen lips, gauze covering a gash on his right eyebrow, bruises under both eyes. "I got to exercise my warrior spirit tonight."

Nothing less would do against Gustafsson (15-2), who backed down not one bit. Jones likes to attack his challengers at their strengths -- he'd taken down Sonnen, a one-time Olympic alternate wrestler, within seconds of the start of their fight in April -- and when it became evident that Jones was looking to test his standup on this night, Gustafsson, a former amateur boxer who once beat the Swedish national champion, didn't hesitate to engage.

A glancing right hand from Gustafsson cut Jones in the first round, and the challenger continued to land left jabs and quick overhand rights, while absorbing kicks to his lead leg. Before the five minutes were over, "The Mauler" had even scored a takedown.

"He caught me out of position," Jones said, "and he had a lot of tenacity to finish that shot."

There was a lot more tenacity where that came from. Gustafsson continued to beat Jones to the punch, though Jones' leg kicks started to slow him a bit as the fight reached its midpoint. The champ was stalking, trying to land elbows and kicks, but he looked more plodding than we'd ever seen him. It wasn't until well into the fourth round, when he hurt the Swede with a head kick, that Jones became energized. A spinning elbow from Jones drew blood and wobbled the challenger. The crowd at the Air Canada Centre came alive with that, anticipating a finish. Instead, what the fans saw was a back-and-forth fifth round that concluded with two beaten-down men.

"Man, I tell you what, I've been asking for a dogfight for a long time," Jones said. "And I finally got that dogfight."

Are you ready for another? Although Glover Teixeira, he of the 20-fight win streak, was seated cageside and had been promised the next shot at the light heavy belt, UFC president Dana White was effusive in his praise for the main event at the post-fight press conference and came awfully close to announcing a rematch. He wouldn't commit to that, but did toss around the possibility of the fighters meeting in Sweden.

And why not? Until this night, Jon Jones had been superhuman. Not only had he never lost a fight -- other than a dubious disqualification -- he had never even been dragged into a fight. Gustafsson did just that, and that elevated the profile of both the feisty challenger and the persevering champion who didn't wilt when, for the first time, things weren't going his way.

Notes from the undercard

Interim, schminterim: For most people, an interim is simply a period of time between events. But in the UFC, an interim is the time between a champion's injury and the belt holder's return. In the case of the bantamweight division, it's been nearly two years since Dominick Cruz sustained a knee injury that has kept him from fighting. During that time, his No. 1 contender, Renan Barão, has actually brought honor to the faux belt he's been given.

The 26-year-old Brazilian (31-1, 1 NC) defended the secondary strap for a second time, and did it in style, stopping former WEC champ Eddie Wineland 35 seconds into the second round. It was Barão's 32nd consecutive fight without a loss, his eighth straight win in the UFC and sister promotion WEC.

A spinning kick did the job, flooring a dazed Wineland (20-9-1) and allowing Barão to pounce with punches before referee Yves Lavigne could quickly jump in.

What's next for Barão? "Now I'm just waiting for Dominick Cruz," he said. Aren't we all? The champ, rehabbing from two knee surgeries, is planning a return in early 2014. At which point, his Brazilian is aiming to never again hear the word "interim."

OK, now we're impressed: It's not like Khabib Nurmagomedov came out of nowhere. The 25-year-old Russian walked into the octagon with a gaudy 20-0 record, the last four of those victories coming in the UFC. And in his most recent outing, the two-time combat sambo world champion had really showed off his grappling chops, setting a UFC record with 21 takedowns. (How do you even fit 21 into 15 minutes of fighting?) But that came against a middling fighter named Abel Trujillo, and no one Nurmagomedov had faced before that was anywhere in the vicinity of the top 10.

Pat Healy sure was a top-10 guy. The former Strikeforce contender was coming off a shockingly thorough beating of the stout Jim Miller and appeared to be moving on up in the lightweight division. That is, until Nurmagomedov chopped him down.

In winning all three rounds on all three judges' scorecards, the Russian was faster with his strikes, bloodying the slower Healy (29-17, 1 NC) with lead uppercuts and flying knees, and took the bout to the mat whenever Healy appeared to be changing the momentum. And afterward, Nurmagomedov tried to supercharge his own momentum.

"Listen to me, UFC and Canada," he said. "Ladies and gentlemen: 21-0, 5-0 in the UFC. UFC, give me a title shot. Please. I am ready."

Actually, Nurmagomedov still has some climbing to do on the lightweight ladder. But he sure has our full attention now.

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