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.
Jon Jones (13-1): The way in which "Bones" crushed Rua isn't merely impressive -- it raises serious questions of who in the light heavyweight division has the skill set to compete with the 23-year-old phenom. The way it looks now, the list is very, very short. Jones is lightning-quick, an explosive wrestler and a devastating striker. The only person who's ready out-of-the-box to match him is Evans, who has the quickness and wrestling ability to make the fight interesting. It's not by any means an easy fight for the former champion; Jones' unconventional attacks bring an x-factor that will make him the favorite. But it's the best matchup to make at the moment. Then there's Quinton "Rampage" Jackson, who's raw power could give Jones some trouble; Lyoto Machida, who might be able to hit and run his way to victory if he can stay on his feet; Phil Davis could be ready by next year and has the wrestling chops to grind Jones out. All of them have more ways to lose than to win when compared with Jones and the rapidly expanding toolbox he brings to each successive fight.
That means it could be a long run for the champ if he's able to get past Evans.
Urijah Faber (25-4): It wasn't an affair to remember the first time Faber and champ Cruz locked horns. Faber's reign as featherweight champion in the early days of the Zuffa-owned WEC had kicked into full gear. They tussled briefly before Cruz put Faber on the mat with a takedown. But he exposed his neck in doing so, and before you know it, he was tapping to a guillotine choke.
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.
Jim Miller (20-2): What does a guy gotta do to get a title shot around here? That's what's on the mind of Miller as he emerges from Saturday's event with a seventh consecutive win inside the Octagon.
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.
Brendan Schaub (8-1): The UFC needs a homegrown star in the heavyweight division, and former football player and The Ultimate Fighter 10 veteran Schaub has made some excellent career moves. He's built cachet on the backs of those in decline, and is now perfectly positioned for a top-five opponent after a third-round KO of PRIDE legend Mirko "Cro Cop" Filipovic. The winner of Roy Nelson vs. Frank Mir sounds good right about now.
Luiz Cane (11-3): The hard-hitting Brazilian took a much-needed break to get his confidence back following losses against Antonio Rogerio Nogueira and Cyrille Diabate in his previous Octagon appearances. He undoubtedly got a favor when his originally scheduled opponent, ground-and-pound specialist Karlos Vemola, fell ill and was replaced by Eliot Marshall. But he nonetheless looked exactly like the predator that picked up a lot of buzz in the 205-pound division with wins over Jason Lambert, Rameau Thierry Sokoudjou and Steve Cantwell.
Mike Pyle (21-7-1): It wasn't exactly the prettiest win, but submission specialist Pyle is on the cusp of a top-10 opponent in the welterweight division with a decision over Ricardo Almeida. One opponent sticks out as a gatekeeper to that goal: Dong Hyun Kim.
Mauricio Rua (19-5): It's hard to say the outcome would have been any different had the now-former champ tweaked this or that in his preparation for Jones. The fact is, he got dominated by a man superior to him in every single area. As soon as Jones blasted him in the face with a shin in the first round, the fight was essentially over. Rua was never the same after that, and while he was tough enough to keep charging in the face of the challenger's onslaught, it was just a matter of time before the final cut.
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.
Dan Miller (13-5): He took a big risk in stepping up to face perennial contender Nate Marquardt on short notice, and it turned out to be a bad idea. Miller will fight another day; the UFC loves it when fighters do favors. It seems, though, that the former IFL champion is stuck in the middle of the pack at 185 pounds. He'll beat the lower and mid-tier guys all day. But against the best of the best -- Marquardt, Michael Bisping, Demian Maia and Chael Sonnen -- he can't seem to prevail. At this point, he's a gatekeeper for those who bested him. A fight with C.B. Dollaway is a sellable return for now.
Mirko "Cro Cop" Filipovic (27-9-2): Per UFC president Dana White, "Cro Cop" is now "No Cop" after back-to-back lights-out knockouts. "I have all respect for Mirko 'Cro Cop,' but yeah, I'd have to say tonight is probably the last time we'll see 'Cro Cop' fight again," White said following the event. Although the Croatian striker availed himself well in the first two rounds, he just can't take a punch like he used to, and he doesn't move fast enough to get out of the way. Coupled with a substandard ground game and a heavyweight division that's getting younger by the day, it's time for the 2006 PRIDE Open Weight Grand Prix winner to do other things. He's put in his time.
Kamal Shalorus (7-1-2): There's a big hole in the striking game of "The Prince of Persia," and Jim Miller exposed it. Shalorus swings for the fences with every shot, and in addition to wasting energy, he ducks his head with every bolo. That leaves him wide open for the counterattacks that eventually brought his demise against Miller. If he doesn't tighten up that part of his game, a hard head and solid wrestling aren't going to save him.
Eliot Marshall (11-3): The cast member of The Ultimate Fighter 8 looked out of step and out of place after an extended layoff from the octagon. He recently said the rest his career would match his stay in the UFC. If that's the case, he might be looking for work soon.
Kurt Pellegrino (16-6): Like Dan Miller, fellow New Jerseyan Pellegrino has picked up some impressive wins over guys in the middle of the pack. But he's struggled to break through against the standouts, and with a decision loss to Gleison Tibau, he'll be shuffled back to the non-televised preliminary card.