NEWARK, N.J. – An octagon's worth of observations after an evening at the Prudential Center that will long be remembered in mixed martial arts history:
1. Game changer: In five years on the mixed martial arts beat, there have been very few instances where it was obvious that what was unfolding in front of me was altering the sport's trajectory on the spot. The 2006 night that Anderson Silva rolled over Rich Franklin to win the UFC middleweight title was one. The Brock Lesnar-Frank Mir match at UFC 81 was another. Lesnar lost, but his athleticism and explosiveness showed he was a force to be reckoned with, and the crowd's ear-splitting response to the fight indicated Lesnar was going to be a superstar.
UFC 128 will go down as another of those evenings. It has been clear from the get-go that Jon Jones was destined for greatness. The only question left was whether he was being rushed into a title shot too soon. The answer? Jones' performance left fans clamoring for a superfight against Silva. That's a bit premature, but every superlative that has been used to praise Jones' championship victory over Mauricio "Shogun" Rua is deserved.
2. Bad night for "Shogun": In some fights, such as his light heavyweight title-winning performance over Lyoto Machida last year, Mauricio "Shogun" Rua has lived up to his billing as a former PRIDE tourney champion. On others, such as his lackluster win over an ancient Mark Coleman, he's looked anything but great. It's hard to know whether a long injury layoff left the former champ rusty or if he simply got flattened by a runaway freight train. The guess here is that it was a little of both. There's a habit in the MMA community of judging a fighter solely on the results of his most recent fight, but given the circumstances, Rua should be given a pass.
3. Quality start: After all these years watching Urijah Faber carry the WEC on his back, it was a bit surreal hearing his trademark "California Love" blaring over the PA at a UFC event. Faber himself admitted to having a "weird feeling" heading into the fight, but he got the infamous "UFC jitters" out of the way after a lackluster first round. Then he impressed by rallying to victory over the underrated Eddie Wineland. Faber has always been known as a cerebral, inventive fighter. In this match, he showed veteran poise, staying calm and working his way out of the sort of slow start that torpedoed the debut of many UFC newcomers. With his first UFC fight in the rear-view mirror, a rematch with current bantamweight champ Dominick Cruz, whom Faber defeated for Cruz's only career loss when Faber was WEC featherweight champ, promises on paper to be one of the year's best fights.
4. Heavy mettle: The jury is still out on whether Brendan Schaub will make it to the top level of the UFC's heavyweight division. But if he does, his victory over Mirko "Cro Cop" Filipovic will go down as the turning point. No, he didn't defeat a prime "Cro Cop." But he was facing a fighter in some ways even more dangerous – a cagey, aging vet who was desperate to stay relevant. The result was a compelling firefight, nearly three full rounds of twists, turns, fouls and haymakers. That Schaub had the wherewithal after nearly 14 minutes of trench warfare to sense an opening and go in for the kill is the sort of stuff of which future champions are made.
5. Step away: Chuck Liddell did great in all his late-career fights … right up until the moment he got tagged and had his lights turned out. Same goes for former UFC champ Andrei Arlovski. MMA fans don't enjoy watching the guys who made them fans in the first place get knocked out over and over. So let's hope that "Cro Cop," who thrilled fans for years with his PRIDE conquests, takes the hint and leaves the sport before his brains get permanently scrambled. Filipovic was never quite the same after being on the wrong end of Gabriel Gonzaga's epic head kick in 2007. And his losses since have gotten increasingly ugly. UFC president Dana White said "Cro Cop" is done in the UFC. Let's hope Filipovic takes the path Liddell chose and retires from the sport altogether, rather the route the fading Arlovski painfully chooses to endure.
6. The obligatory "Jim Miller needs better opposition" item: Jim Miller again demonstrated why he's one of the sports most underrated fighters, as he removed the tough-but-raw Kamal Shalorus from the ranks of the unbeaten Saturday night. Miller has won seven fights in a row and is 9-1 overall. But there is a logjam at the top of the lightweight division. The title picture is frozen until the Frankie Edgar and Gray Maynard rematch on Memorial Day weekend. Anthony "Showtime" Pettis was previously promised a title shot and is still in line to get the next shot if he defeats Clay Guida on June 4, which is no gimmee. So the question for the New Jersey native becomes, does he want to sit out for a bit and wait for the opportunity to fight one of the elites, or will he take another fight in the interim and stay sharp? Given Miller's "any opponent, any time," credo, the guess is he'll go for the latter.
7. Fight of the night: If Edson Barboza's spinning back kick in the waning seconds of his fight with Anthony Njokuani had landed a split-second quicker, we may have had an all-time classic knockout. Instead, Njokuani absorbed the strike and stayed standing. The kick was likely the deciding blow in a tight unanimous decision that rightfully earned "Fight of the Night" honors. It was a compelling, back-and-forth standup duel with big momentum swings from a pair of young fighters with plenty of potential. There are no losers in a fight like this: Barboza keeps his unbeaten record, and Njokuani gains respect and learns more about what he needs to work on to become a better fighter.
8. Moving on up: Featherweight Erik Koch needs to be moved out of the opening matches, pronto. Koch (12-1) has lightning in his fists and slick submissions in his repertoire. His first-round knockout of Rafael Assuncao was the first time in 20 pro fights that Assuncao has been stopped via strikes. Whoever the 22-year-old Duke Roufus trainee fights the next time out, he should be fighting live on television. Given the fight was broadcast both on Spike TV and the PPV broadcast, the UFC likely feels the same way.
- Urijah Faber