The trouble with being a hot young prospect in the UFC is that there are so many ways to go wrong, and only one way to go right. It's a good problem to have, but it's still a problem, not to mention a minor headache.
Jon Jones (10-1) is the perfect example. He's been an MMA fighter for only a little more than two years, but already he's been labeled the next big thing. When he faces MMA journeyman Vladimir Matyushenko (24-4) at UFC on Versus 2 in San Diego on Sunday night, he does so as a 6-1 favorite.
Think about that for a moment. Jones, a relative novice, is expected to walk right through a veteran who's 11-1 in his last 12 outings. If he doesn't, if he simply beats Matyushenko in a close fight, it will most likely be considered a disappointment for him. Anything short of a one-sided shellacking, and out come the critics.
That's a tough spot to be in as a 23-year-old fighter, particularly against an opponent who's much tougher than most fans realize.
Granted, the hardcores appreciate what Matyushenko can do. Those who were around to see him fight Tito Ortiz for the light heavyweight title nearly a decade ago, or those who saw his unbeaten run through the IFL ranks, they know that "The Janitor" can abuse grown men with his strength and wrestling prowess. But to the casual fan he's just another unknown guy with a name they can't spell, and anything less than a destruction by Jones will be regarded as a sign that he's overhyped.
Is that unfair? Yeah, but that's the fight business. The good news for Jones is that, at least on paper, he has the edge in almost every department in this fight. He's bigger, taller and longer than Matyushenko. He's faster, more athletic and in a completely different class with his striking.
Matyushenko's best hope is to get in close and make it a slow, ugly fight and win a decision. The problem is, Jones is at least a good enough wrestler that holding him in one place for 15 minutes seems next to impossible.
Again, if you do the math on this fight, it's hard to see any way it doesn't end in a relatively easy victory for Jones, which is exactly what makes this one so dangerous for him. As we've seen often enough in MMA, there are plenty of times where the math doesn't add up the way it's supposed to.
As we look around at the other fights that fill out the TV broadcast, it becomes clear that this is a cable TV event less than a week before a UFC pay-per-view. These are the guys the UFC doesn't mind putting on free TV, because it's doubtful you're going to be motivated to pay to see any of them at this point.
That's not to say they're bad matchups. Mark Munoz (8-1) could easily be the most interesting prospect here, and his bout with Yushin Okami (24-5) has the potential to be the kind of clash of similar styles that makes each man reach deep into his toolbox. Or it could be a boring, three-round battle for underhooks. It's certainly worth watching to find out, but again, probably not worth paying for.
Then you have Takanori Gomi (31-6, 1 NC) taking on Tyson Griffin (14-3) in a fight that should serve as proof enough that the UFC is not at all interested in doing Gomi any favors. If Griffin is smart, he'll try to get back in the win column by smothering Gomi for three rounds, and chances are he can probably do it. Will it make for an interesting fight? No, but the alternative is to stand and trade with "The Fireball Kid," which would be a gamble Griffin doesn't necessarily need to take.
Finally, we've got Jake Ellenberger (22-5) facing John Howard (14-4) in a legitimately interesting fight that could probably serve as a main event to several regional promotions, but neither has gotten enough of a promotional push by the UFC for the mainstream fans to have any clue why this one matters.
Both these guys are tough welterweight prospects with great ground skills. After Howard's highlight-reel knockout of Daniel Roberts on the last Versus show, he apparently earned himself an upgrade from the prelims to the televised card, which is more than justified. Both men have shown that they can win at this level. The question now is, Can they entertain?
While the UFC waits to find out the answer, the Versus undercard is about as good a place as any for this fight. As with the rest of the lineup, even if it doesn't turn out to be anything worth talking about at the water cooler on Monday morning, at least it was free.