The UFC middleweight champion had to do something spectacular to upstage the organization's rising young star, and he did so in the main event of UFC 126 on Saturday night in Las Vegas, knocking out Vitor Belfort in the first round with a front kick to the face that was as sudden and unexpected as it was devastating.
It was a stunning finish to an evening of fighting also highlighted by a dominant performance by the 23-year-old Jones, who learned afterward that he will face Mauricio "Shogun" Rua for the light heavyweight title next month.
More about that later. First, a word about Anderson Silva: Wow.
Widely acknowledged as the pound-for-pound top fighter in mixed martial arts, Silva was facing what was thought to be his most formidable challenge. And clearly he respected the danger brought by Belfort, a former UFC light heavyweight champion with explosive hands. The challenger was wary, too, as Silva had made many an opponent look confused and weak during his 13-fight winning streak.
That made for a tentative start. Silva and Belfort circled for a good minute and a half, nowhere near toe to toe, each fighter remaining at a safe, respectful distance. When a single low kick finally landed, the slapping noise had to cut through a rumble of boos that had begun to rise from the crowd. Then the fighters began circling some more, and in the heads of the thousands of fans at cage side and the millions watching the pay-per-view telecast, a tape began to play of a comment UFC president Dana White had made last week, about how despite these two guys' explosiveness, their fight "could be the worst staring competition in the history of the world."
And so it was for the next couple of minutes, other than a glancing Belfort left and Silva head kick that missed. Eventually they crept closer and began engaging, but nothing was landing. Until, with about 1:40 left in the round, Silva stuck out his left foot and flicked it between Belfort's fists and connected flush with his jaw. The challenger collapsed onto his back, and Silva pounced with a couple of relentless fists before referee Mario Yamasaki jumped in to save the defenseless Belfort at 3:25.
"That's just one of the strikes that he was working on," manager/translator Ed Soares said for Silva in an interview in the cage afterward. "He was focusing on various different types of kicks and attacks."
He didn't need them. He needed just the one. And it was spectacular.
Spectacular strikes are something "Bones" Jones knows all about, too. But none of his spinning elbows or fists or kicks made an appearance on Saturday night. That might have been because he, too, was facing his toughest challenge, fighting unbeaten Ryan Bader. Or maybe Jones stuck to the basics because that's all he needed.
Jones was in control from the start, easily evading everything Bader threw, then taking down the two-time NCAA Division 1 All-American wrestler. Bader fended off a submission attempt in the first round, but in the second round Jones took him down again and locked in a guillotine choke that forced a tap out at 4:20.
"I feel so confident every time I come in here," he told interviewer Joe Rogan afterward. "I feel as though it's my time and I'm hungry and I'm going for it."
Prophetic words, because at that point Rogan did something no MMA opponent has been able to do: He sent Jones crumbling to the canvas. Rogan did so by telling the young fighter that because Rashad Evans had to pull out of his title bout with "Shogun" with a knee injury, Jones will now fight for the lightweight belt at UFC 128 on March 19 in Newark, N.J.
"I feel great," a clearly surprised Jones said. "God is so good. I feel so great. Hats off to Endicott, N.Y.," -- his hometown -- "and I'm going for a world title, baby. Let's do it."
Whereupon "Shogun" came into the cage, and the reigning champ and newly-minted challenger exchanged a handshake and bows of respect. "Jon is a great fighter," said Rua. "I respect him. Rashad has a problem with his knee. But I fight anyone, no problem. I respect Jon Jones. I am a professional fighter, no problem."
No problem yet, Mauricio. We'll see about that next month.
The Past Isn't Going Anywhere: Former light heavyweight champion Forrest Griffin and ex-middleweight belt holder Rich Franklin both have had their day in the sun, and while neither is ready to ride off over the horizon yet, they didn't exactly bring much heat. Franklin was used to being the bigger, stronger fighter when facing middleweights, but in this light heavy bout he got to see how the other half lives. Griffin took him down in the first round and immobilized him, took him down again in the second and in the final round fended off a surging but not nearly desperate enough Franklin to win a unanimous decision. For Rich, it was the fifth straight fight in which he's taken on a former champ. Griffin, for his part, didn't feel like a champ afterward. "Oh, rusty," he said when asked what it felt like to be in the cage for the first time in over a year. "Rusty."
Bait and Switch: Jake Ellenberger originally was scheduled to fight Jon Fitch, and everybody knows what a win over one of the two or three top 170-pounders in the UFC would have done for his career. But then things got switched around, and instead Ellenberger was put in with the undefeated, but relatively unknown, Carlos Eduardo Rocha. A recipe for a letdown? It looked that way in the first round, as Rocha took the fight to the ground and seized control, threatening with submissions. But Ellenberger persevered, stayed out of trouble the rest of the way while landing more punches, and came away with the win by split decision. A bizarre split decision, that is. Two judges had it 29-28 for Jake. The other? Carlos, 30-27.
Beyond his Reach: Antonio Banuelos threw a decent amount of punches in the direction of Miguel Torres in their bantamweight bout, but Torres ended up as a unanimous-decision winner because most of Banuelos's shots sliced through the air harmlessly, about a foot from Torres's nose. There are two reasons for that: First, Miguel had an astounding 13-inch reach advantage, and second, the notorious brawler from East Chicago stuck to the jab-jab-jab game plan of his new trainer Firas Zahabi. (Where else have we recently seen a game plan like that employed? Oh, yeah, by fellow Zahabi pupil Georges St-Pierre in his pummeling of Josh Koscheck.) But back to that reach advantage. Shouldn't Banuelos have been given a ruler or something, just to give him a chance of connecting?
From No Touch to a Tap: Donald Cerrone and Paul Kelly clearly were not on the same page at the start of their lightweight fight. When they came to the center of the cage and Cerrone extended his hand to touch gloves, Kelly fired a 1-2. He did no damage, but the fight was on. Kelly landed some punches, but Cerrone nailed him with leg kick after leg kick, took him down, and before the round was over, he'd bloodied the Brit. The second round began with both fighters touching gloves (what a concept!), and it ended when Cerrone again took down Kelly, this time getting his back, immobilizing him with a body triangle and choking him out at 3:48.
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