NEWARK, N.J. – One day, we may all look back at Saturday night's destruction of Mauricio ”Shogun” Rua as the launching of one of the great championship reigns in MMA history, with Jon Jones as the new UFC light heavyweight champion.
UFC 128 was the culmination of a breathtaking six-week period in which Jones went from being a very promising three-year veteran who was in the pack with a half-dozen other light heavyweights to having fans talk about who could possibly defeat him.
As the upstate New York native came down the aisle to ”Empire State of Mind,” then got in the cage and calmly did a cartwheel, the crowd at the Prudential Center seemed to sense they were witnesses to something more than just a typical UFC championship match.
It was quickly apparent that Jones' speed, reach, versatility and amazing wrestling made even Rua, ranked No. 4 in the Yahoo! Sports pound-for-pound rankings, look like a man placed in a horrible mismatch.
What's scary is that not only was this Jon Jones a completely different fighter than one year ago, but he improved greatly from six weeks ago, when he beat Ryan Bader and earned the title shot.
During the week, as Jones signed autographs with the tag ”Champion 2011,” and as people casually threw around comparisons to Muhammad Ali, the down-to-Earth reality was that he'd really only beaten one borderline top-ten fighter (Bader) in his career.
Many in the industry, including UFC President Dana White, saw the 2-to-1 odds favoring Jones as ridiculous, but even at those odds, most of the money came in on Jones.
In this case, the hype the public believed very quickly proved to be the reality.
When it was over, White said that Jones may be that true crossover sports superstar that the company has come close to having with a number of people, but have never quite gotten.
Chuck Liddell perhaps came a few years too early and had a fighting style and demeanor that connected with the UFC fan base, but he was nowhere near the all-around athletic freak Jones is. Georges St. Pierre's and Anderson Silva's success can't be denied, and its almost disrespectful to what both men have accomplished to talk about Jones reaching a level they didn't.
Yet watching the destruction of Rua – considering Jones has had only three years in the sport – he had to make believers out of any skeptic.
Jones is flashier and more spectacular than St. Pierre, as well as more dangerous standing up. And his wrestling is miles ahead of Silva. The only question before the fight was whether he would look this good against a high-caliber opponent, and that has now been answered.
”I told him he could be a mix between Jordan and Ali,” said former WEC featherweight champion Urijah Faber, who saw Jones' appeal early on and had his clothing line sponsor Jones. ”He's got a lot of character, a great personality and he's a good person. I remember the first time we sat down and talked. I talked to him about sponsoring and he didn't even know there was money involved.”
I'm seriously stoked to have one of my brands behind him on a guy who is going to bring the sport up. I was impressed. He looked awesome.”
Of course, it was less than two years ago when Lyoto Machida destroyed light heavyweight champion Rashad Evans in similar fashion, making it appear that nobody in the weight division was in his class.
Rua – an idol of Jones because Rua was at the top of the sport when he similarly was 23 – was just the first contender of what was supposed to be a long reign. Instead, Rua should have taken the decision in the first fight against Machida, a controversial loss, and left no doubt with a first-round knockout during the second fight in May.
Up next for Jones is a fighter who two months ago figured to be the last person in the world who would ever get in the cage with him – Evans, who Jones has called a brother, a best friend and a training partner.
It was a freak injury to Evans as he trained for what was supposed to be his shot at Rua that sped the Jones express up to warp speed. Six weeks ago, Jones thought after his fight with Bader, he'd been training with Evans by mimicking ”Shogun,” for Evan's title shot. The new champ pondered that if Evans won that, it would eliminate Jones from title contention, noting he would never have challenged Evans for the title.
Jones said when he was first invited to Albuquerque to train under Greg Jackson that he had to promise never to fight campmates Evans or Keith Jardine.
But with the shoe on the other foot, everything has changed.
White said he did not have to put any pressure on Evans to do what Jackson fighters have never done.
”He's 100 percent on board to fight Jon Jones,” White said. ”I don't know if I'm supposed to say this, but Rashad, he's done with Greg Jackson. He's no longer a Greg Jackson fighter.”
”Listen, being friends doesn't fly,” White said. ”Everyone's friends in this sport. They all hang out when we do press stuff and whatever else. These guys are always together. They eat lunch together. It's not personal. The easiest way to explain it is Jon Jones and Rashad Evans are friends, they're both good guys and they want to hang out together. But for fighters, there is a small window of opportunity and in that time you have to make a bunch of money and get as famous as you can. I've got friends, they've got friends, but at the end of the day, none of my friends are going to pay my bills. This is a sport. This is a business. You're job is to go out there and win and you have to get out there and do it.”
It was a coup for White, who has tried to get teammates to fight in the past, often with little success.
No timeframe was announced for the fight. White said that Jones, after fighting two bouts so close together, deserved a break.
Jones also said he wanted a little bit of a break, to take a vacation with his family, and shortly talked about marrying his girlfriend.
If Jones gets by Evans, there may be no bigger fight in the sport than Jones against Anderson Silva. Unlike the proposed St. Pierre vs. Silva fight that White still mentioned was a likelihood should St. Pierre beat Jake Shields on April 30 in Toronto, this doesn't have the obvious size and frame difference between competitors.
”About 75 people have asked me already about that fight,” White said. ”Anderson Silva has made it very clear to me he doesn't want to fight at 205 pounds. I've been talking to him about going for another belt at 205, but he's made it very clear he doesn't want to fight at 205. Maybe he sees someone as talented as Jon Jones, maybe then he will want to try.”