And now it begins.
Over two wondrous years, Jon Jones rose and rose until he was soaring, gracefully and unimpeded, in the way young athletes of awe-inspiring greatness do when they're building their legends. But now that he has reached the pinnacle of his sport, having won the UFC championship last March, life as a phenom is a thing of the past.
The 24-year-old has arrived. Does he have staying power?
You know what they say about those who've just won championships: You're not a true champ until you've defended the title against a challenge.
Whether Jones looks at his shiny light heavyweight belt in that way or not, he faces a whole new challenge Saturday night when he puts the leather on the line against former champion Quinton Jackson in the main event of UFC 135 in Denver (9 p.m. ET, PPV, $44.99).
By now you've surely picked up on the fact that there's some hype surrounding this "Bones" Jones guy. It all happened so fast. He rolled to a 9-0 record before, remarkably, enhancing his reputation further in a 2009 bout that appears as an "L" on his record. Jones thoroughly battered Matt Hamill that night, gaining full mount before being disqualified for throwing elbow strikes deemed illegal. He then mowed down Brandon Vera and Vladimir Matyushenko, both in the first round. And after dominating the previously unbeaten Ryan Bader in February, he was pegged to replace Rashad Evans in an upcoming title bout against Mauricio Rua. Six weeks later, Jones thrashed "Shogun."
He was the champion. He was Jordan. He was Gretzky. He was the greatest, unmatched and unbeatable.
"Rampage" Jackson has witnessed the buildup surrounding his opponent, and he's not buying into it. "Jon Jones does have skill, and I'm not looking past him at all," he said during a conference call with MMA media on Monday, when he was asked if he considers Jones to be among the sport's top three fighters, pound for pound. "But the only person he really fought was Shogun coming off an injury, and I know that wasn't the real Shogun. Other people can put him up there, but I'm not putting him up there just yet."
Jones had little response to that or even the more cutting remarks thrown out by Rampage during the conference call. "I'm very aware of why I'm here, and it's not to prove I'm a better talker," said Bones. "I'll let him talk and have fun, but I'll demand more respect in the octagon."
Truth be told, he's already getting a good measure of respect from Rampage, even if you have to read between the lines to pick up on it. Like in the quote above, where Jackson said he's not ranking Jones at the top "just yet." Rampage amplified that point in a guest blog he wrote for Yahoo! Sports, saying: "Honestly, I am impressed how fast he's learned. He is the future of the division, in my opinion. But I am the present. Rampage is the present of the UFC light heavyweight division."
That's Jackson's story and he's sticking with it. But here's another perspective on the matter: Bones appears to be the future
That is not to say Quinton Jackson can no longer fight. It's just that he's no longer living up to his nickname. At 33, Hollywood looks more attractive than ever to the one-time fearsome wrecking machine. In his three most recent bouts -- decision wins over Hamill and Lyoto Machida and a loss to Rashad Evans -- Jackson has been far from aggressive. You might even call him "Lamb-page."
But Jackson does have an incentive to ramp up the intensity this weekend. He has his own legacy to think about. "When I had to fight Machida, I wanted to be the first person to beat him -- nothing against him or anything," said Rampage during the conference call. "I just want to be the first person to beat Jon. Everybody's counting me out and he seems to be underestimating me, so I want to relieve him of his first loss so he can go on to be a great fighter like I know he can be. I just want to give him that first ass-whoopin'."
Jackson says he's seen all of Jones's unpredictable moves (spinning fists and kicks, etc.) so many times that they're no longer unpredictable. He misses the point. Even if you know it's in the arsenal, you still need to be quick enough to fend it off when it comes at you. That's easier said than done. And unfortunately for the talk-a-good-game Rampage, success in this fight will be determined by something other than simply what someone says he can do.