UFC light heavyweight champ a one-of-a-kind talent
Jon Jones is already one of the best fighters in all of mixed martial arts.
The UFC 135 headliner is just 24 years old but already wears the light heavyweight title around his waist. He claimed that championship by making Mauricio "Shogun" Rua look like a complete amateur, dominating the former Pride superstar like no one has before.
In less than four years of competing, Jones has risen to the top of his division. It's where he is now that makes thinking about where he could end up when it's all said and done even more impressive.
Jones has laid waste to each and every opponent that has been set before him. His lone loss came via disqualification in a bout where he manhandled Matt Hamill prior to landing a series of illegal elbows. In truth, it was a separated shoulder Hamill incurred when Jones expertly swept him to the canvas with crashing force that caused his inability to continue, and not the elbows, but that doesn't really matter; everyone looks at Jones' loss to Hamill the same way they did Fedor Emelianenko's loss to Tsuyoshi Kohsaka in the 2000 Rings King of Kings tournament. It just doesn't count.
Beating up on veterans like Hamill, Vladimir Matyushenko, and Brendan Vera was somewhat expected. While each was viewed as someone who could potentially challenge Jones, the bulk of the money was on the dynamic talent emerging victorious. Those bouts showed he was ready for bigger and better; his last two fights showed that there might not be anyone in the division who can stop him.
Ryan Bader had put together a 12-0 record prior to stepping into the cage with Jones at UFC 126. The winner of Season 8 of The Ultimate Fighter has scored solid wins over veterans Keith Jardine and Antonio Rogerio Nogueira, and his strength and wrestling background were supposed to be threatening to Jones. It wasn't anywhere near close.
Jones used the first round to show that his wrestling – not Bader's – was superior, controlling the three-time PAC-10 champion throughout. Early on, Bader looked like a fighter who just figured out he was significantly overmatched. Jones collected a second round submission win, handing Bader his first career loss and illustrating the great divide between prospect and potential superstar.
Six weeks later, he looked even better, battering Rua en route to collecting the UFC light heavyweight championship, becoming the youngest champion in UFC history.
On the eve of Jones' first title defense against Quinton "Rampage" Jackson on Saturday night in Denver, projecting what Jones could achieve is impossible.
In a sport where everyone loses at some point, Jones looks unbeatable. His talents inside the cage and approach outside the cage make him a perfect combination of skills and smarts; a cerebral fighter who studies his opponents, trains diligently, and has otherworldly abilities when the cage door closes.
What takes things to the next level for Jones, elevating him from superstar to someone with legitimate "greatest of all time" potential is the level of success he's achieved to this point in his career. If this is where he's at as a 24-year-old with under four years experience, where will he be when he's entering his athletic prime at 27, 28, 29?
Provided Jones gets through Jackson on Saturday night, his next test would come from former teammate turned bitter rival Rashad Evans. That bout stands as the last test that looms in the light heavyweight division for Jones at this time.
On paper and in comparisons, there is no one in the 205 pound ranks who matches up well with the current champion. While that doesn't necessarily mean he won't be beaten inside the cage, until it happens, few will expect to see it take place; Jones has simply looked that good thus far, and he keeps getting better.
Every fight is better than his last, a scary thought considering how good he has looked over that time and how easily he dominated Rua in March. There really is no way to accurately measure where Jones' ceiling sits.
The only thing Jones appears to be lacking is one-punch knockout power, and that doesn't seem to have limited him thus far. In every other area, he has a counter to his opponents' approach. His striking is varied and unpredictable, and his length keeps the opposition at bay. He's shown on several occasions that his wrestling is among the best in the division, maybe the best, and his submission game is coming along as well.
Long term, many believe—myself included—that Jones will ultimately move to the heavyweight division; his 6'4" frame is still filling out, and cutting down to the light heavyweight limit will eventually be less appealing. With the way he has performed to date, we just may have to wait until that happens to see Jones tested again.
Where his career path will take him is unknown.
If Jones continues on the road he's on, it will lead to a place among the best in the history of the sport. When it's all said and done, he could end up being the greatest of all-time.
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