December 09, 2011

Invincible. Untouchable. Irresistible. Unique.

I'll stop there, lest you become jaded by or even bored with the flurry of superlatives that naturally get tossed around whenever it's time for UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones to step into the octagon.

But guess what: Those lofty words were pulled from the deep recesses of my memory, words once spoken with all due reverence not for "Bones," but for his opponent in Saturday night's UFC 140 main event in Toronto.

Just over a year and a half ago, Lyoto Machida was 16-0 and the champ. He was the one being talked about as not simply unbeatable but unhittable. Then he fought Mauricio "Shogun" Rua, who hit him. And hit him. And beat him.

The aura instantly vanished.

Before the year was out, "The Dragon" lost for a second time, dropping a close decision to Quinton "Rampage" Jackson.

What aura? Machida? I don't remember him ever having an aura.

The Brazilian karate man did right the ship in April with a breathtaking jumping front kick KO of Randy Couture, sending the 47-year-old UFC Hall of Famer into retirement. That victory, combined with an array of injuries to other contenders and some right-place-at-the-right-time fortune, put Machida where he is now. In UFC 140. In the main event. In a title bout.

Against the fighter who now is hearing all of the accolades that once came his way.

Machida isn't whining about being viewed in a different light -- a less-spotlit glimmer that's made him a heavy underdog this weekend.

"He doesn't pay too much attention to what people are thinking," said Machida's manager, Ed Soares, translating his fighter's answers during a video interview this week with MMA Fighting. "The most important thing is that he believes in himself."

Through Soares, Machida then told a story about when Frank Sinatra was a kid and his mother questioned his desire to become a singer.

"That doesn't do anything in your life," she said, in Machida's telling via Soares. "What are you thinking?"

And Ol' Blue Eyes is said to have responded, "As long as I believe, then anything can come true."

It was a sweet, even meaningful story, although you've got to wonder how many in MMA's young demographic sat there listening and thought, "Sinatra. Sinatra. Name rings a bell, but I can't place him. Is he one of the guys on Jersey Shore? The Situation, the Chairman ..."

Anyway, the point is that Jones, 24, is where the 33-year-old Machida used to be. He has something Machida wants and "The Dragon" believes he can grab that championship belt back because anything you believe in can come true.

That sounds like a magical game plan, but Jones is the one who's been making all of the magic happen lately in the light-heavy division. This will be his fourth fight of 2011, his third against a champion or former champ, and he's barely broken a sweat. At 14-1, with the lone loss coming on a questionable disqualification in a bout he was dominating, Jones has devastated everyone put in his path.

You'd think he's the second coming of Lyoto Machida or something.

60: Percent of his bouts that he's ended by knockout. That's nine KO's in 15 career fights (14 wins plus a DQ loss to a battered Matt Hamill, who was saved by the ref from being a 10th KO victim).

7: Consecutive finishes (submission, TKO, sub, TKO, TKO, DQ, sub).

84½ : His reach, in inches (to Machida's 74).

85: Percent of takedown attempts he's successfully defended over his career, according to Fight Metric's UFC statistics, placing him fifth best in company history (behind Andrei Arlovski, Gleison Tibau, Georges St-Pierre and Gray Maynard).

58.2: Percent of significant strikes landed, making him the fourth most accurate UFC striker (behind Anderson Silva, Cain Velasquez and Evan Tanner).

10: Knockdowns during his career, tying him for fourth in the UFC (with Rich Franklin and Thiago Alves, behind Silva, Chuck Liddell and Melvin Guillard).

What we should expect: Machida is a devastating striker, to be sure, but Jones has shown himself to be no less destructive in a standup fight. Machida is unorthodox, but Jones is even more so, adding creativity and improvisation into the graceful mix. And while Machida is a black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, he's never shown anything on the mat that suggests he can handle the ground game of Jones, who has taken down decorated wrestlers with seeming ease and had his way with everyone who's tried to grapple with him. Machida is an ex-champ, so he's not to be counted out, but Jones' last two opponents had been belt-holders, too, and a lot of good that did for them.

Why we should care: It's a battle of champions past and present, with a shiny brass-and-leather belt on the line. That should be enough to get the heart pumping. Need more convincing? One word: "Bones." Anytime he steps into the Octagon, it's worth paying attention.

"I look at the fight with the same mentality as I had with my UFC debut. Fight the body, not the name."

-- Jones, speaking during a UFC 140 conference call with MMA media last week.

"It was difficult with winning the title and then losing the belt and then losing to Rampage. I am a completely different fighter now."

-- Machida, during the same conference call[

Brothers in arms: When Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira faces Frank Mir in a heavyweight bout and Antonio Rogerio Nogueira takes on Tito Ortiz at light heavy, it will be the fourth time over their careers -- but first time in the UFC -- that the twins will have competed on the same fight card. Big Nog is 2-1, Little Nog 1-2. If the UFC ever goes to the tag-team format ...

Going my way? Brian Ebersole has won nine straight fights, his two most recent victories coming in the UFC, including an impressive debut against Chris Lytle. That streak should give him an edge over welterweight opponent Claude Patrick, right? Not so fast. Patrick has had his hand raised after his last 13 fights, his last three being in the UFC. If you're looking for an edge, you've got to decide between near-perfection (Patrick is 14-1) and ring savvy (Ebersole has 64 pro fights, with a record of 48-14-1, 1 NC).

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