Is Jon "Bones" Jones unbeatable?
That was the vibe buzzing around the Prudential Center on Saturday night after the 23-year-old dominated and obliterated light heavyweight champion Mauricio "Shogun" Rua in the main event of UFC 128 in Newark, N.J.
And that buzz has not gone away.
It's understandable. Those of us who were in the building that night or watched the pay-per-view telecast saw something unfathomable: Shogun going down without so much as a fight. That's not to say the Brazilian didn't try to put up his dukes or that he quit. Rua hung in there as best he could. Even in the third round, for which he came out of his corner beaten down and slowed to a shuffle, Shogun was too prideful to fade away. The end came after he'd scampered out of immediate peril on the mat, and courageously tried to stand and fight. But as he lifted his fists he wobbled a bit, slumped back against the cage, and Jones dropped him with a punch, then pounced. As referee Herb Dean himself pounced to wave off the fight and push away the new champ to protect the old one, Rua's hand was tapping the mat as he sagged on his hands and knees.
We see something like that happen to the likes of Rua, a former Pride Grand Prix winner who over nearly a decade in mixed martial arts has beaten the likes of Alistair Overeem (twice), Quinton "Rampage" Jackson, Antonio Rogerio "Little Nog" Nogueira, Chuck Liddell and Lyoto Machida, and we can't help but think we're witnessing greatness. And we were.
But as we usher in the dawning of The Jon Jones Era, let's not forget that less than a year ago we were blissfully immersed in The Lyoto Machida Era, so recognized after the karate black belt had shown himself to be not just unbeatable but unhittable. Until Shogun came along and hit him. And beat him. And ended his era as light heavy champ.
Can that happen to Jones? Sure it can. You want to know the name of the man who can beat Jon "Bones" Jones? His name is Jon "Bones" Jones.
Yeah, I know it's a dog-eared cliché to talk about athletes beating themselves. But in this case the warning label fits, mainly for one reason: Jones made history Saturday night by becoming the youngest UFC champion, but it wasn't just biology that makes him an MMA toddler. As we've heard everyone from Dana White to Joe Rogan say a billion times in the last few days, Jones has trained in MMA for just three years. So he's different from a 23-year-old who's done this his whole post-pubescent life. He's more prone to letting his inexperience show.
One of the sharpest observations I encountered in the fight's aftermath was from Jones' Muay Thai trainer with Team Jackson, Phil Nurse. Asked about Jones' love of spinning kicks, punches and elbows, dynamic and damaging moves that are high-reward but also high-risk, Nurse told MMAFighting.com's Mike Chiappetta, "He needed to learn to do things at the right time. The things he was doing, he was doing to show he could. It's great, but there's a time to do it when it's going to be a definite hit, or more likely to hit, instead of just looking good. He totally got it, and that's when he started sponging, soaking it up."
As much as Jones soaks up knowledge and knocks down opponents, though, his youthful daring still could put him in trouble. A couple of times Saturday, he came close to slipping into a bad position, but he's so strong and athletic that he quickly and seemingly easily turned the tables. His positional disadvantages lasted for the blink of an eye, but they did happen. And they were created not by Shogun but by Bones himself. Shogun was not fast enough, strong enough, skilled enough or big enough to take advantage, to test Jones in any way. Is Rashad Evans? Is anyone ... other than Jones?
So the answer, then, is for Jones to shut down his creativity and simply use his athleticism to ride out victories, right? No, of course not. That would be like LeBron just laying the ball off the glass on a breakaway, Tyson sitting back and eking out a decision. It would be a waste of a gift. Jon Jones owes it to himself to put it all on the line. That'll make for exciting fights, and if he doesn't lose his focus, get too cute and beat himself, it might make for a new era in the light heavyweight division.
Watching the DVR'ed PPV, I noticed some things that I hadn't while sitting cageside, no more than 10 feet from Jones' corner:
1. Walking out from the locker room, Jones looked nervous for the first time in any fight I've seen him in. Shocker, eh? The guy hadn't fought even a top-five opponent before; his best (and last) foe, previously unbeaten Ryan Bader, qualified as maybe a lower top-10 guy. I was actually surprised that he wasn't more nervous, considering not just the stakes but also the swirl of the spotlight he'd been under for weeks. It was cool to watch Jones taking deep, yogic breaths as he slowly made his way to the Octagon, trying to calm himself. And just as I was jotting in my notebook, "Looks nervous," my wife came in the room and said, "Is that the young guy who's fighting for the championship? He looks so relaxed." Maybe she should be writing this column.
2. During the introductions, Shogun's cornermen were staring across the cage at Jones and shouting, very animated. They might have been simply talking to their man, motivating. But if they were trying to intimidate, they had no chance. Greg Jackson had already whispered a little Svengali wisdom in Jones' ear, washing over him with calm. And besides, the guys were shouting in Portuguese, a language Jones does not speak. Then again, considering how fast he's learned in the MMA gym, Jon might well have devoted a few minutes these past few weeks to one run through a 10-CD Berlitz program and remarkably developed the fluency of a native of Rio.
3. After the fight I heard both Jackson and another of Jones' trainers, Mike Winkeljohn, mention that their man was fatigued at the end of Round 2. But watching on TV, I thought he looked tired in the latter stage of the first round. It was at that point, after launching an attack on Rua and clearly hurting him, that Jones backed off. It wasn't as though the champ was firing any damaging shots his way, but Bones still felt it necessary to create some distance. In my story Saturday night I chalked it up to a mature display of patience. That was a part of it, no doubt, but Jones also needed to catch his breath. For the first time ever, I was able to relate to the guy.
4. As TV analyst Joe Rogan prepared to interview the new champion following the fight, a smiling Jones leaned over and planted a kiss on Rogan's cheek. Joe didn't miss a beat, just asked his first question. Talk about staying in the zone.
5. Shogun looked horrible after the fight. Bruised. Bloody. Swollen. Dispirited. This is what the high-definition TV was invented for.
6. It was not part of the PPV, but since I DVR'ed this as well, I'll include it here. I wanted to see what play UFC 128 would get on ESPN, so I taped the 1 a.m. SportsCenter. And after sitting through an endless stream of NCAA basketball tournament highlights, I finally was treated to a brief clip of the fight, with a graphic explaining that Jones had defeated Mauricio "Hua." Imagine if during a Duke hoops highlight they used phonetic spelling on the name of Mike Krzy-- ... Mike Krzyzew-- ... Coach K.
"The last time there was so much hype put on a title fight, about a young contender, it was Mike Tyson when he stepped in to fight Trevor Berbick. But Shogun is not Trevor Berbick. He's a totally different animal."--Joe Rogan, during the PPV telecast, just before the main event
And over the next 15 minutes, what did Jon Jones do in the face of all the hype? He went out and turned Shogun Rua into Trevor Berbick. Or maybe into the Forrest Griffin who faced Anderson Silva.
"If he dedicated one year to the twice-a-day training lifestyle, I think he could compete with the UFC heavyweight champion. He's that special. It took me three years to get where I am, and Arthur is so special. He could get here in a year and a half."--Jon Jones, talking to Maggie Hendricks of Yahoo! Sports about his brother Arthur Jones, the Baltimore Ravens defensive tackle who spent three weeks training with Bones and the rest of Team Jackson
Well, there is this pesky NFL lockout threatening to cut into players' bank accounts. Maybe a second career isn't a bad idea. But can the 6-foot-3, 313-pounder make the cut to 265?
"The end came in the third round, but the end really came about 10 seconds into the fight."--Me, speaking to SI.com anchor Maggie Gray in a cageside video interview Saturday night
I hate when I speak in hyperbole. (It's almost as lame as quoting myself.) Watching the PPV on Sunday, I noticed that the flying knee Jones threw five seconds into the bout, the head kick he launched 10 seconds in and the spinning kick he threw in at the 20-second mark didn't damage Shogun a bit. It wasn't until Bones threw down the champ like a rag doll that the fight was over. That came 25 seconds in. Not 10.