September 25, 2011

"He's great, guys. I thought it was hype. The kid is good."

The gushing over Jon Jones came from someone who, based on several weeks of back-and-forth barbs, had to be considered an unlikely source. But there was Quinton Jackson standing in the Octagon being interviewed following the main event of UFC 135 in Denver, his face nicked up and puffy, a cavernous wound over his right eye slathered with a cut man's futile best try, a proud man humbled and deferential.

Any concern that Saturday night's beating at the hands (and feet ... and knees ... and elbows) of the light heavyweight champion had left Jackson in something other than sound mind, however, was dispelled by his next words. "I have to take my hat off to him," Jackson said of the 24-year-old, the slightest smile creeping onto his face as he lifted a hand holding a ball cap. "See? My hat is in my hand right now." That's Quinton being Quinton, even after having had the "Rampage" beaten out of him.

What else could he say? In a fight that lasted over 16 minutes, there wasn't a second in which Jackson (32-9) was anything but thoroughly outclassed. The end came officially at 1:14 of the fourth round, when "Bones" Jones (14-1) became the first UFC fighter to finish Ramage, after clamping on a rear-naked choke that induced a quick tap-out. But, really, the fight was over much earlier, as soon as it became clear that Rampage was unable to penetrate Jones' 84½-inch reach, which the champ had used to his advantage even before the fight began, slapping hands with fans on both sides of the aisle at the same time as he made his way to the Octagon.

Incapable of reaching Bones with his heavy hands (14 career KOs), Jackson could do nothing more than stand at the end of Jones' array of punches and kicks, which came from all angles and landed with regularity ... and with cumulatively damaging effect.

"The game plan was to prove that we could strike with Quinton Jackson," Jones said afterward. "You know, he kind of insulted me, saying I had no punching power. He insulted my striking. So me and [striking coach] Mike Winkeljohn, we got together and we really cleaned up my striking to prove a point. And I think we did that."

You think? According to CompuStrike stats, Jones outstruck Jackson by about a 3-1 margin, landing 66 total strikes, 48 of them kicks and knees. Those numbers actually aren't nearly as lopsided as the fighting appeared as it unfolded. There were long stretches when Jackson was unable to touch Jones with a fist, his puncher's chance dwindling as he stood in front of Jones but didn't throw down. Rampage launched only 37 punches all fight, and landed but 10. He was busy playing defense.

In that part of the game, Rampage actually did better than anyone else who's been in the cage with Jones. He fended off four of Jones' six takedown attempts. He did eat a few of the champ's spinning punches, elbows and knees, but he ducked under several that could have done him in.

"This is the best I've ever been," said Jackson, who held the light heavyweight title for a little over a year before losing it to Forrest Griffin in the summer of 2008. "Jon Jones, I'm telling you, the kid is here to stay, guys. Whoever fights him next, I don't know, man."

Standing not far away in the cage was that very man, Rashad Evans, another former champion. He and Bones have been circling each other menacingly for much of this year, after Jones replaced an injured Evans in the title bout and let it be known that he wouldn't be averse to fighting his then-training partner. When Rashad was shown on the arena video screens, the crowd booed. And after a microphone was put in his face and he said a few nice things about the efforts of both Rampage and Bones, Evans just stood there as Jones came over and proclaimed to the crowd, "He's going to be doing a lot of talking. I'm not going to say anything, I promise you guys, leading up to this fight. I'm not going to say much. I'm just going to prove that he's ruined my special night twice now, and the time will come."

Oh, please. Evans didn't ruin this night for Jones any more than he ruined things last March when he was ushered into the cage following the Bones win over Shogun. Once again, Rashad was in the Octagon not of his choosing but because the UFC had put him there -- to be booed by the fans -- to hype up the next step in Bones's ascension.

That is, if there's even any more rising for Jon Jones to do. When he dominated the first dozen professional fighters he faced, an ear-piercing buzz arose but it was met head on by a who's-he-fought skepticism. Then Bones crushed a previously unbeaten Ryan Bader, and six weeks later he was thrashing "Shogun" for the belt. The doubters were fewer, but there still were some -- such as Rampage, who saw Rua as a rusty sitting duck for Jones and also dusted off the old fight game adage: You can win a title, but you're not a champion until you've defended the belt.

Jon Jones has done all of that now. And no one -- not even Quinton Jackson -- is doubting him now.

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