In many ways, Mauricio Rua is the forgotten champion.
After knocking out Lyoto Machida in the first round at UFC 113 back in May 2010 to win the light heavyweight championship, "Shogun" was forced into exile to once again go under the knife to repair his faulty knees.
During that span, Jon Jones was building his steadily rising contingent of followers, all in a rush to hop aboard the proverbial hype train. His wins over Vladimir Matyushenko (UFC on Versus 2) and Ryan Bader (UFC 126) were so impressive, fans couldn't help but clamor for the young lion to be thrown to the wolves; to test his might against the best the sport has to offer.
All the while, Rua was recovering, out of the limelight and in the shadows, preparing to do battle once he was healthy again. But it wasn't Jones he was getting ready for; it was his teammate Rashad Evans.
However, just six weeks away from what he hoped would be his glorious return, the Brazilian was informed he wouldn't be fighting "Suga" after all. No, Evans had blown out his knee, something all too familiar to the champion, and a search for a new challenger was underway.
Enter Jon Jones.
With his return so close, and so much time dedicated to training for Evans while he was out, you would think the switch in opponents would discourage Rua. This is not the case. In fact, the two Greg Jackson products are enough alike that very little change was necessitated.
"I feel that both Rashad Evans and Jon Jones are somewhat similar in many senses because they are both very good strikers and very good wrestlers. I had to change my sparring partners for the fight, getting some guys who are bigger with bigger reach and all that but their games still have some things in common so we didn't have to change that much."
So the last minute switch in opponents seemingly won't have much of an effect on his performance come March 19 in New Jersey at UFC 128. But what about the layoff?
"It doesn't really bother me because if you look at it, I'll be sidelined for about 10 months but it was almost the same difference between the first Machida fight and the second Machida fight. I'm pretty tranquil about it because I know I'm going to fight a guy who is a very good fighter like Jon Jones but I have been training hard and I know that I'm well prepared for the test."
The change in opponents, no biggie. The long layoff, eh, been there and done that. The biggest problem? The otherworldly reach Jones possesses, something that is extremely difficult to emulate in training.
"He's certainly a very tall guy with a very big reach and it's hard to find the sparring partners of his size. But we did the best and found some big guys to help out and they are, they have been imitating Jon Jones and been able to adapt my game and hopefully I'll be able to do my thing in the Octagon."
One of the most important things in the fight game, as well as life, is adaptation. It is essential to the success of any human who wants to be great in whatever it is they do. That's never been a problem for Rua, who has an extensive list of accomplishments, one Jones is in the process of attempting to catch up with.
But with great success at such a young age, comes an aura of invincibility, or at least the perception of one. "Shogun" is no stranger to this pitfall, as he fell victim to it just the same as so many others before him and surely so many after. Essentially, if you've done it all, what's left to get up for?
"I already went through a lot and conquered my biggest dreams in the fight game. When I won the PRIDE grand prix belt some years ago, I went through some hard times to motivate myself but that changed as I learned a lot and right now, since I already went through that, I think every fight is the fight of my life, is my dream that I need to conquer. At this point, I dont' fight for money anymore because thank god, financially I'm already stable. I fight for my family, I fight for my team and for my fans. This is my big source of motivation and where I get my fuel from."
Growth is a wonderful thing, and while being youthful and full of vigor is undoubtedly an edge that Jones enjoys over the champion, he hasn't been through the trials and tribulations the battle-tested Brazilian has.
That doesn't mean there aren't a myriad of similarities between the two. After all, when Rua was making a name for himself by running through top competition in PRIDE, he was just a wily fighter in his early twenties, learning the game at the same time he was dominating it.
"Yeah, actually, there are some good parallels. Obviously, he's 23 years-old, which was my age when I was rising and I became world champion at PRIDE. I think surely we have lots of things in common, obviously the youth, the age, and he's beating people soundly like I was back then. I just think our games are a little different as his strongest point is his wrestling and mine is my striking."
Jones perceived strong point, his wrestling, is the same aspect of Rua's game that many have harped on as his lone weakness. The kink in his armor. The very deficiency that will prove to be his downfall.
But is that what he is most worried about heading into March 19?
"Well, Jon Jones is a very complete fighter. He is good in all areas. He has especially great wrestling. I always saw him as a very complete fighter, good in standing up, good on the ground and good in wrestling. There is not really one weapon to be concerned most, you have to train everything to fight him, I have to be prepared in all areas and that's what I'm doing. Training Muay Thai, jiu-jitsu, wrestling and everything but if I had to point something out I would say his wrestling is his strongest point."
You will find no shortage of people to agree with the champion. "Bones" is a phenom, who has looked all but untouchable in his 13 professional fights. His size, combined with his elite training team and drive to be the very best have combined to make a veritable wrecking machine.
So much, in fact, that immediately after the announcement of his insertion into the title fight against Rua, he was made the favorite by oddsmakers.
Does that bother "Shogun?"
"Actually I understand that people think he is the favorite for the fight because he has been winning his fights easily. I certainly think he is rightfully the favorite for the fight, I understand why people think that and how they view that and I truly consider myself the underdog."
Ultimately, that doesn't matter. Who anyone thinks will win doesn't mean a thing. All that matters is what happens when two of the best fighters in the world square off for one of the biggest prizes in the entire sport -- the UFC light heavyweight title.
"I feel very happy being the champion. It was my goal and something I worked for my whole life. I don't really care about the betting lines, it just serves as motivation. I just feel I'm obligated to do my best."
One thing is for sure with Mauricio "Shogun" Rua: when he makes that long walk to the Octagon at the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey, we know exactly what we are going to get.
One of the greatest champions in the history of MMA. That's what Jon Jones is up against on March 19 at UFC 128.
Are you ready?