TORONTO – A familiar script was playing out only seconds into the light heavyweight title fight Saturday in the main event of UFC 152 at the Air Canada Centre.
Champion Jon Jones quickly took down his opponent, this time Vitor Belfort. And just as quickly as he got Belfort to the mat, Jones was preparing to unload the most lethal elbows in mixed martial arts.
It's a formula that has, in just 18 months, made him one of the most decorated and dangerous fighters in UFC history: takedown, batter with elbows, finish. His opponents usually come out of fights looking like they had their faces raked along barbed wire.
His ground and pound is the deadliest in the sport, bar none.
The script flipped early, this time, though. Belfort, the massive underdog, didn't come to be pummeled and surrender meekly. And as Jones was preparing to do his thing, Belfort caught him in an arm bar. He appeared about to snap Jones' right forearm as the crowd roared.
"I heard it popping," Belfort said of Jones' arm.
But Jones, who was on his way to becoming Public Enemy No. 1 among UFC fans, refused to tap and give away his title. And he fought an entire fight with an arm that he believed to have suffered nerve damage.
He fought flawlessly and methodically, breaking down Belfort before submitting him in the fourth with an Americana keylock. It would have been a brilliant performance under the best of circumstances, but considering Jones may have trouble using the arm to hold his coffee cup on Sunday, it was beyond amazing.
"Jon Jones did look unbeatable," UFC president Dana White said.
That invincibility, along with the quirky, carefree personality he showed at the post-fight news conference, will make him plenty of fans.
He angered a large portion of them by declining to fight Chael Sonnen on Sept. 1 at UFC 151 on eight days' notice, which resulted in the first cancellation in UFC history.
But he put that long past him on Saturday, in a way reminiscent of his early days as champion.
On March 19, 2011 at UFC 128, the night he won the title from Mauricio "Shogun" Rua, Jones stopped a mugging. At the post-fight news conference that night, he animatedly described it, drawing laughs from all who heard him speak.
He brought that light-hearted version of himself with him on Saturday. He said he knew he would be booed, and so he tried to counter it by walking to the cage to Bob Marley's "Could You Be Loved?"
Jones beamed as he recounted his decision to pick that particular song.
"How can you boo Bob Marley?" he said.
That same question should be asked of the UFC fan base: How could one boo Jon Jones? The man is a brilliant talent, perhaps the greatest individual talent in UFC history. He comes to fight, is always in entertaining matches and has made finishing an art form.
Saturday's win was his fourth title defense and all five of his title fight wins came over current or former champions.
There were few doubters of his physical gifts entering Saturday's bout. However, he was derided as a phony and an egotist by many in the fan base and had been hearing more than his share of boos for a guy so gifted.
What wasn't so well-known, though, was whether he had the toughness or intestinal fortitude to grind through a difficult situation. He's been so much more talented than anyone he's faced, he hadn't faced a desperate situation before until Belfort caught him in the arm bar.
At that moment, Jones proved he's a rare breed of fighter. The prudent move would have been to tap and prevent a serious injury, surviving to fight for the title another day. Just a little more than nine months earlier in the same cage, Frank Mir snapped Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira's forearm with a Kimura when Nogueira refused to submit.
Jones took the same approach.
"Honestly, I was waiting for it to break," Jones said. "I was not going to tap out, but I've never felt that before."
He gritted it out and went on to dominate the fight, a bout in which Belfort fought passionately, as well. Many believed that Belfort, who took the fight on Aug. 23, was just showing up for a big paycheck. Clearly, though, he came to win.
But even with the use of one arm, Jones was dynamic in rolling to his 17th victory in 18 fights. His only loss was a disqualification that was an error by the referee.
In the 17 previous bouts, though, he never showed the kind of grit and moxie he showed on Saturday.
"He got caught in the arm bar there," White said. "He got out of an arm bar that looked deep, tight and was popping. Vitor even said he heard it popping. There's no way it wasn't popped. He pulled it out and started fighting like his arm didn't get popped. In no way, shape or form did that guy show any weakness whatsoever.
"His arm was hurt. He couldn't throw punches with it any more. He couldn't drop elbows with it any more. He made an injured elbow look like it wasn't [injured]. I think the guy looked phenomenal tonight. He took great punches from a real puncher and a guy who wanted to win that fight. … I think Jon Jones did look unbeatable."
It was an eventful card with a series of stellar performances. Demetrious Johnson was masterful in outdistancing Joseph Benavidez to win the flyweight title, a bout in which there surprisingly were boos from the crowd of 16,800.
That made White irate and at the post-fight news conference, he asked any fan who booed to never buy a UFC pay-per-view again.
"I don't want your money," White said to the booing fans.
He was also irate at a Toronto newspaper columnist, calling him a vulgar name before reading off parts of his column he said were inaccurate.
It was creating tension on a night that should have been a celebration.
And then he was asked about his Friday meeting with Jones, at which they'd discussed their war of words after UFC 151's cancellation. White said the talk went well, then eyed Jones' mother, Camille Jones, in the audience.
"You can imagine what Mama Jones said to me," White said, chuckling. "The Jon Jones conversation went much better."
The conversation about Jones should be overwhelmingly positive from this point forward. Jones proved his mettle in the world's toughest sport and still performed like a superstar. Later, he had all the right answers to all the hard questions.
A week that started horribly for Jones and the UFC couldn't have ended any better for either of them.
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- Vitor Belfort