It's not really an even fight when you're performing on a completely different level than you're opponent.
The two breakout stars of UFC 128, light heavyweight Jon Jones and bantamweight Urijah Faber, were unstoppable Saturday because they fought in three dimensions instead of two. They were color to their opponent's black and white. They were artists.
And when fighting crosses over into the creative, it injects a shot of adrenaline into the sport.
Light heavyweight champ Mauricio "Shogun" Rua and Eddie Wineland tried to stop the advance. But they were affixed to a static set of attacks: punch, crowd, move, and for God's sake, don't end up on your back.
Jones and Faber flowed in the moment and let circumstance dictate the next step. While Rua and Wineland were thinking, they were acting, and they were almost always two steps ahead. Few impulses were chained. See an opening? Go for it.
Jones, in particular, brought to bear everything in his arsenal: a spinning back kick, a spinning elbow; a pesky side kick to Rua's lead leg that set up bigger attacks. Hell, he even butted Rua's midsection with his chin. Everything was with purpose and nothing went to waste.
Rua and Wineland spent a lot of time on their backs.
The Brazilian Rua wilted under the pressure midway through the third, his face a mask of misery from sustained punishment. Wineland made it the distance but lost two rounds to one on all three judges' scorecards.
It's into the great wide open for the 23-year-old Jones, who's now the youngest champion in UFC history. His stock wasn't exactly sagging before -- he jumped from red-hot prospect to contender by dominating Ryan Bader at UFC 126, and his "In the Moment" special that aired the week of UFC 128 spanked TV ratings for the event's preview show -- but he now appears to be on the cusp of dizzying heights.
If he can handle it. It's one thing to say you can handle the pressure of being champion at such a young age, as Jones has, but it's another thing to actually do it. Distractions come out of the woodwork, and everyone wants a piece of you. There are a lot of choices and uncomfortable situations to confront.
One is cued up already: an expected meeting with former champ Rashad Evans, a man with whom Jones shared ample time at Greg Jackson's gym. Evans was scheduled to fight Rua before injuring his knee, and he scoffed at a potential fight with someone he called his friend. But Jones' contendership and subsequent victory appears to have fractured that relationship, and Evans is moving on from Jackson's to prepare for the bout.
Faber is wise to the ways of pressure as a former WEC featherweight champ, and lucky for him, he dislikes his next opponent, bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz. But should he be victorious, a meeting with his Team Alpha Male training partner Joseph Benavidez, who also picked up a win on Saturday, could be the next saga in the teammate vs. teammate soap.
That means it could be a long run for the champ if he's able to get past Evans.
They've both since reinvented themselves as 135-pounders, but Cruz has a huge headstart. He's cultivated the kind of frenetic, unpredictable style that could give Faber serious problems when they meet later this year. Expect a long battle as the newly minted contender chases down the champion with punches and takedowns. I'm giving the early edge to Cruz, though it will be a close one.
His opponent, Kamal Shalorus, nearly broke his hand with a hard head. But he kept firing away while avoiding bombs from the Olympic-caliber wrestler. He then seized the day with a hard uppercut and knee to his ducking opponent and put the fight to bed.
So he asked, in so many words, for a title shot following his win. Unfortunately, the answer is not what he wants to hear. He's an earnest, hardworking, salt-of-the-earth fighter -- that's failed to strike a chord with fans. He hasn't yet cultivated the "wow" factor that will put him next in line for a crack at the belt. The line is shorter, to be sure. With George Sotiropoulos and Evan Dunham regrouping, he could be there in 2012. But he's a got a few more fights in the wilderness before he gets a No. 1 contender fight. Before him, there's the winner of Anthony Pettis vs. Clay Guida, Melvin Guillard, and who knows, maybe even Strikeforce champ Gilbert Melendez. Until then, he needs to keep winning and finish fights.
Hang in there, Jim.
Moving forward, Rua could always spend more time on his defensive wrestling. But he'll always be at a disadvantage in that area, just like wrestlers struggle to bring their striking up to par. His brand of violence will continue to be successful in the Octagon. It just won't be against Jones, who played Anderson Silva to his Rich Franklin. There's a gap he likely won't bridge.
The loser of Jackson vs. Hamill could be a good start for Rua, or perhaps fellow slugger Luiz Cane would like to step up. Come to think of it, Franklin vs. Rua might be a good utility headliner for the promotion. Whatever happens, the former champ needs a good bit of rest and relaxation before he jumps back into the Octagon. He had a rough day at work.