"Who's fighting tonight?" my wife asked the other evening as we cleaned up the kitchen after having friends over for dinner. She could tell I was a little jittery, as I can get on fight night, whether I'm sitting on press row at an arena or watching at home on pay-per-view.
"It's your guy," I told her matter-of-factly, continuing to clear the table distractedly.
All of a sudden, the only sound in the room was the sink faucet running. My wife had stopped washing dishes and was staring at me. "Jon 'Bones' Jones is fighting ... tonight?" she asked, the way a teen might respond to a Justin Bieber concert announcement. "Make sure you call me into the room for that one."
For the most part, following mixed martial arts is a solo pursuit, which is something I've had to get used to. All my life I've been watching sports, and I almost always used to enjoy the games and matches in the company of others. As a fan, that meant tailgating in the late-autumn chill with a Big Blue Bus-load of fans in Lot 8C outside Giants Stadium. As a professional for two decades in a major daily newspaper sports department, it meant having a running conversation about the games we were monitoring on the side-by-side TVs that stayed on all night long in the office.
But MMA, for all of its growth and evolution and recent incursion into the sports mainstream, has never caught on with the people around me. It probably comes down to demographics. I'm a wee bit older than the typical UFC fan, so while my buddies and I used to gather for beer and pizza and Marvin Hagler PPVs back in the day, those guys are all older now and have kids and mortgages and other things to think about. Even my old sports department colleagues are almost John McCain-like in their disconnect from MMA -- to them, the UFC is still a Tank Abbott brawl, and they've got enough other sports in their lives to be fine without the new-school fight game. So mostly I watch alone.
Unless "Bones" Jones is fighting. Yes, my wife will acknowledge that the Adonis physique and big smile are part of his appeal. But I will give her credit for seeing more in him than that. She watches the way he overwhelms opponents with throws and takedowns, and how he stuns them with spinning fists and elbows, and she sees a creative artist at work. She always wants to see more.
So when the time came for Saturday's UFC 140 main event, I gave the wife a heads-up, and I didn't have to tell her twice. She was seated right beside me when Jones entered the octagon, and she gave a little "oooh" when the light heavyweight champion did his usual cartwheel across the center of the cage.
Then the fight began, and some of the magic left our room. As you probably know by now, Jones looked tentative in the early going, and Lyoto Machida -- an ex-champ himself, but a heavy underdog nonetheless -- landed a few hard kicks and even a couple of solid punches. Bones kept his poise, however, and took down the Brazilian midway through the second round and opened a gash on the challenger's forehead with a sharp elbow. Then, in the final minute, he knocked down Machida with a short left, and as soon as Lyoto got back to his feet Jones put him in a standing guillotine, torquing his neck in an unnatural way and holding on until Machida went limp and referee John McCarthy waved off the fight.
"Wow!" was my reaction. The end had come so suddenly. One moment Jones appeared to be struggling -- not really, but as close to struggling as he's ever come in the octagon -- and the next moment he was celebrating as the ref knelt next to an out-cold Machida. Now, that was an impressively decisive turnaround.
At least from my perspective. "I didn't like this fight," my wife said flatly as we watched Jones hug his cornermen before Bruce Buffer took to the microphone with his "... and STILL the UFC champion ..." announcement. "I liked it better when 'Bones' was having an easier time."
This seemed to me to be an odd reaction, especially from a woman not unfamiliar with sports. She understands the ups and downs associated with a favorite team's (or fighter's) successes and failures. So I probed a bit deeper, and learned something that I believe will spill over into what the UFC might face as it seeks to become part of the sports mainstream.
First, what my wife really wishes she had seen more of was the graceful improvisation she's come to associate with Jones. She missed seeing his ballet. Then there was the thing she wished she hadn't seen: Machida dropping lifelessly to the mat as the fight was waved off. "Oh my god," she said as we watched a replay of him collapsing to the mat. "Is he going to be OK?"
"Oh, sure, he'll be fine," I heard myself saying in the calmest tone I could muster. But I have to admit that I did have a momentarily uneasy feeling. I'd seen guys have the lights turned out by choke holds before, and they always have ended up OK. But in the moment that they're lying there, unresponsive, a lot goes through your mind.
One thing that went through mine at that moment was this: What if this had been a UFC on Fox show? The diehards who buy PPVs can take the gruesome stuff, but how would MMA newbies -- curious sports fans giving this a try, or channel surfers who just happened to arrive here -- react to seeing a man choked unconscious? Would they ever watch again if they witnessed a man having his arm broken, as Frank Mir did to Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira in the co-main event? I know I didn't dare show that Big Nog fight to my wife.
As I expected, e-mails came pouring in about what transpired Saturday night. The gruesome finishes. The (slightly) rougher road for Jones. What the future holds. A couple of those letters will help take this discussion further:
From my perspective, McCarthy was right on top of it. As soon as Machida's right arm went limp, he jumped in. Before that, he was looking for the tapout. Which brings me to a related point: While I would never blame the victim of a violent act in the real world, I do think that's an appropriate response within the confines of MMA. In both the Jones-Machida and Mir-Nogueira bouts, the winners did exactly what they are trained to do and did not overstep the rules in any way. But the losers, for reasons known only to them, chose not to exercise their option to end the fights safely. That's on them.
Unlike boxing, where it's considered unmanly to quit -- just ask Roberto "No Mas" Duran -- MMA operates under a live-to-fight-another-day code. It's called pragmatism, as fighters are independent contractors who don't get paid to sit on a couch while an injury heals. So if you're in an inescapable position in which you're being choked or have a limb in jeopardy, you can end the fight instantly with a simple tap-tap-tap submission. There is no shame inherent in the tapout. At least that's how most fighters play the game. For some -- especially, it seems, the Brazilians -- tapping out is not an option. Apparently, they're willing to pay the price.
Perhaps they should be required to pay a bigger price. While Machida and especially Nogueira are going through some pain and suffering in the aftermath of their grisly losses, they're not the only ones who sustained damage as a result of their decisions not to tap. The UFC cannot afford to be portrayed as a display of bonebreaking and strangulation. Perhaps Dana White & Co. should levy some sort of sanctions against fighters who put themselves -- and the fight organization's reputation -- in jeopardy.
Sure, enacting such as policy might be seen as arbitrary and unfair, with nothing in the sport's unified rules explicitly requiring a fighter to tap out, but much of how the UFC deals with its fighters is arbitrary. Just look at last week's firing of Miguel Torres because of his rape-related tweets, which were ignorant and inflammatory, to be sure, but no more so than what's come recently from the Twitter feed of Forrest Griffin and the trash-talking mouth of Rashad Evans.
I don't agree that Saturday's first round proved that Jones can be beaten. I mean, I know he
As for Henderson, I agree that his KO power might not come into play if he were to step in the cage with Bones and his 84-and-a-half-inch reach. And yes, Rashad is probably the stiffest challenge out there for Jones. But if he beats Phil Davis next month and gets the shot at his old training partner that he's been waiting for, he won't be the first top wrestler Jones will have fought. Ryan Bader was a two-time All-American at Arizona State. Vladimir Matyushenko was a Soviet national champion. Matt Hamill was a three-time Division III All-American. But none of those guys had the quickness and standup slickness of "Suga Rashad."
Still, if your main takeaway from UFC 140 is that Jon Jones can be beaten, I think you're missing the bigger picture. This kid -- OK, this man of the tender age of 24 -- is growing into the most complete fighter in the UFC. And that's hard to beat.