What a way to end a year for the ages.
Having already won three fights in 2011 -- defeating a world champion, a former world champion and an undefeated top contender -- Jon Jones had the bar set pretty high when he walked into the octagon for the main event of UFC 140 on Saturday night before 18,303 at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto.
The light heavyweight champ ended up finding a whole new way to impress.
Unlike in those three bouts just mentioned, or any others, really, in a career spent dominating and barely breaking a sweat, the man called "Bones" found his resiliency put to the test -- taking some early punches and kicks, looking a bit confused -- before he dropped and bloodied former belt holder Lyoto Machida, then choked him unconscious with 34 seconds left in the second round.
"He's just smart, man," Jones told pay-per-view color analyst Joe Rogan afterward, trying to explain why he had difficulty figuring out the Shotokan karate man. "He kicked really hard, he knew his range, he had great tactics. Yeah, he was definitely a very tough puzzle."
It was a puzzle that Jones (15-1) did not solve in the first round, as Machida (17-3) remained outside of the champ's jumbo-jet 84½-inch reach for the most part, entering Jones' airspace only occasionally to land a kick here, a punch there. Then, with a minute to go, "The Dragon" connected with a counter left hand, Jones staggered backward and Lyoto surged forward. Jones dodged the flurry, but when they squared off again, Machida landed a kick to the body that could be heard in his Brazilian homeland.
"It was good, you know?" said Jones. "One of my biggest critic points is that I can't take a punch. So I'm glad to prove to myself and to everyone that I can take a legit hit."
That's what you call retrospect. After the fighting was over, it was safe for Jones to make lemonade out of the lemons that life -- and Machida -- had handed him in that first round. But at the time it was happening, and when he returned to his corner at the horn, the 24-year-old did not look quite as puffed up as he had a few minutes earlier during his uber-confident walk to the cage. He looked like a guy who was in a fight. For the first time.
But it's amazing what a 60-second meditation retreat with trainer Greg Jackson ("Deep breaths ... deep breaths ... calm down ... calm down") can do for a guy's soul.
Especially when that soul is housed in the long, lean body of an athlete of uncommon skill, creativity and, yes, toughness.
Jones came out for the second round with none of the unease one might expect of a young fighter whose mettle was finally being shaken up. He kept his distance and his poise, calmly stalking his 33-year-old challenger as he looked for an opening. It came midway through the round when both fighters threw right hands but only the champ's landed -- and landed hard. Machida took it well, but 10 seconds later he was on his back anyway after Jones grabbed his legs for a takedown.
In top position for the first time, "Bones" maintained his patience. "I know Lyoto's a black belt," he said. "So I was expecting a lot more motion on the bottom, but he didn't move a lot, and I was able to open him up."
Indeed, a Jones elbow opened a Grand Canyon gash on Machida's forehead, above his right eye. The bleeding was so bad that, after the challenger managed to get back to his feet and the fighters were clinched along the cage, referee John McCarthy halted the bout so a doctor could look at the cut.
The fight went on, but not for long. They were restarted with just over a minute and a half left in the round, and with 55 seconds to go they had another of those both-fighters-throwing-punches-simultaneously exchanges. And again, Jones was the one who landed. Again, he landed hard. His short left dropped Machida face-first to the mat, and while Lyoto immediately rose to his feet, he took a knee to the gut on his way up. Then Jones clamped on a standing guillotine, which was especially effective with his height, because he was able to really sink in the choke and even twist Machida's neck in the process.
"It was a great lock. I knew that I had it," said Jones. "I knew I just needed to be tough and hold the position."
He did so until Lyoto's arm went limp, at which point McCartthy jumped in, Jones let go and Machida collapsed faced-first to the mat like he'd been shot with a bazooka.
It was the first time that Machida, who in addition to his karate credentials is a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt, has been submitted. (The official finish was a technical submission.)
Yes, the astounding accomplishments keep on coming for Jon Jones. Over the last 10 months, he's now beaten three world champions. Can't wait to see what 2012 brings.