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History in the Making: 'Shogun' Rua vs Jon Jones and their wildly different (yet similar) paths to UFC 128 in Newark

He is 23 years old. His fighting style is aggressive and awe-inspiring. He has dominated -- and in many cases -- destroyed his opposition. He has only tasted defeat once in his career. He is heralded as the future of the light heavyweight division, and quite possibly, the sport itself.

Depending on the year, 2005 or 2011, this could be a description of the current UFC Light Heavyweight Champion Mauricio "Shogun" Rua or his opponent tonight, number one contender Jon "Bones" Jones.

Just how similar are these two light heavyweight titans?

We'll take a look at the four fights Rua won in the 2005 Pride FC Middleweight Grand Prix and the three fights Jones has won leading up to his title shot. The similarities are many, but it's the differences that will ultimately decide the bout.

Will MMA fans feel a sense déjà vu tonight or will "Shogun" prove that his meteoric rise to the top of the sport was one of a kind?

Let's find out after the jump:

Then: "Shogun" had been fighting for Pride FC since 2003, a beneficiary of the Japanese organization's love affair with its middleweight champion Wanderlei Silva. Like Silva, Rua was a product of the highly regarded Chute Boxe Academy and also like his teammate, was exceptionally skilled in the art of Muay Thai. He spent the first 16 months of his Pride career relegated to the Bushido series, earning three first round stoppages, each in particularly ruthless fashion.

When he was finally invited to the big show at Fists of Fire, he failed to disappoint, earning himself a spot in Pride's second middleweight tournament.

In the first round, he faced off against Chute Boxe nemesis, Quinton "Rampage" Jackson. The Memphis-born wrestler had a long standing grudge with Rua's teammate, Silva, and was determined to break his losing streak against the dangerous Brazilian camp.

Instead, the younger Rua brutalized Jackson in the clinch, landing uppercuts and overhands that wobbled the American and knees that snapped his ribs. Soccer kicks ended the fight in under five minutes, faster than Silva was able to beat Jackson in either one of their two battles.

Now: Jones had just suffered his first loss, a disqualification against Matt Hamill. But for anyone looking in the record books, reading "loss via DQ" would be terribly misleading. Everyone who watched the fight, Jones himself, and even Hamill who suffered a broken nose and a separated shoulder, knows that "Bones" was the real winner that night.

Not one to let the disappointing result of his bout with Hamill bring him down, Jones immediately set his sights on Brandon "The Truth" Vera. The UFC machine was already beginning to fuel up the Jon Jones Hype Train as the fight was set to headline the company's first foray onto the Versus network.

Minutes into the bout, "Bones" was able to secure a takedown. He used smothering top control against the former heavyweight before posturing up and delivering the single greatest elbow in the sport's history.

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The strike broke Vera's face in three places.

Then: To advance into the quarterfinals of the Middleweight Grand Prix, "Shogun" had to dispatch of a top five opponent in Quinton Jackson. But in a tournament that stacked, Rua's competition would only get tougher.

Standing in his way at Critical Countdown 2005 was Brazilian Top Team's Antonio Rogerio Nogueira. Chute Boxe and BTT was MMA's answer to the Hatfields and McCoys. Brazil, as large as it was, simply didn't seem big enough for both of the camps. Wanderlei Silva and Ricardo Arona were on a collision course to the semifinals and the quarterfinal bout between "Shogun" and "Lil Nog" served as an appetizer.

Had it not had the unfortunate fate to have taken place the same year as the classic Forrest Griffin/Stephan Bonnar fight from The Ultimate Fighter Finale it would have undoubtedly won "Fight of the Year" honors. It was a back and forth battle between the two Brazilians with neither giving an inch.

"Shogun" fought back from a knockdown and an armbar attempt in the first round to use takedowns and ground and pound in the second to sway the momentum back his way. In the third round, the young Chute Boxe fighter scored his own knockdown against the smaller Nogueira twin and open a gash under his right eye.

Mauricio Rua won the decision that night but more importantly, survived his first war.

Now: Jones' next fight was the typical, but no less intriguing, "young lion versus old guard" match up. He was penciled in against UFC 33 main eventer Vladimir Matyushenko, once again as the headliner for a UFC Live on Versus card. Jones had dispatched of wrestlers before, but had never faced anyone with the experience of the veteran from Belarus.

While there was some support for the match, it was felt that the 39-year old Matyushenko was being led to the slaughter against Jones, who had just turned 23 the month prior. The argument was that by using "The Janitor's" status as a veteran of the sport, the UFC was hoping to capitalize on a Jones victory to propel him to the next matchmaking level.

Jones did nothing to prove those people wrong by literally manhandling Matyushenko and pounding him out with his now infamous elbows in less than two minutes. The finish was almost anti-climatic to a point since it ended so suddenly and violently. Given Matyushenko's credentials and Jones' relative inexperience, even the most cynical fans assumed the fight would last longer than it did.

Jon Jones wasn't interested in anyone's expectations, however. He just wanted to win.

Then: Rua was two wins away from securing his place in MMA history. In the semifinals, he was drawn against Alistair Overeem. The Dutchman had guillotined his way to Final Conflict 2005, choking out Vitor Belfort and Igor Vovchanchyn along the way. Within minutes of the fight, he was able to snake his arm around "Shogun's" neck and it appeared as if the Brazilian would be the third victim of the submission.

The young Muay Thai expert popped his head out, unwilling to forfeit his claim to destiny. From there, he was able to control Overeem on the mat, eventually securing mount and a technical knockout stoppage victory. And he still had another fight to win that night.

Ricardo Arona had scored the upset decision against Wanderlei Silva in the other half of the tournament bracket and awaited the winner of the Rua/Overeem bout. "Shogun's" victory ensured the 2005 Middleweight Grand Prix finals would be something out of an epic poem: Arona on one side, picking off Chute Boxe one-by-one and establishing Brazilian Top Team as the dominant camp in Brazil with Rua on the other, seeking vengeance for his fallen teammate.

Three minutes later, Chute Boxe had been redeemed and Arona's body lay in a heap in the Pride FC ring.

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With these four victories, "Shogun" stepped out from behind Wanderlei Silva's shadow and established himself as the king of the light heavyweight division.

Again, he was just 23 years young.

Now: Rashad Evans was hurt. The Ultimate Fighter 2 winner and former champion was scheduled to get a crack at his old belt at UFC 128, but an injury suffered during his training camp forced him to bow out. The UFC asked "Shogun" -- who hadn't fought since he won the title from Lyoto Machida the previous May -- if he wanted to postpone the title bout.

He told them no ... the fight must go on.

After Quinton Jackson turned down the opportunity to avenge his loss to Rua, citing the extremely short time frame he would have to prepare, the company then decided the contender for Rua's title would be decided at UFC 126. Jon Jones was fighting Ryan Bader, The Ultimate Fighter 8 winner who was coming off the biggest win in his career over the light heavyweight Nogueira. 

Jones did as he had done up to that point and dominated the fight. Bader had no answer to anything "Bones" was throwing at him. He stuffed each takedown and shook off every strike. More impressively, Jones did all this while remaining patient and maintaining excellent composure. With less than a minute remaining in the second round, the young prospect had broken down "Darth's" defenses and sunk in a choke.

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Jones had once again made what was supposed to be difficult look extremely easy. For his efforts, he was awarded with the title shot his teammate could not take making him the third youngest man to fight for UFC gold.

Tonight: No one knows exactly what will happen when these two fighters meet in the Octagon. Pundits, fighters, trainers and even Las Vegas oddsmakers are leaning toward yet another upheaval in the 205-pound division. As for myself, it's difficult to say. I initially picked Rua, but watching each Jones fight forced doubt into my mind. A viewing of a "Shogun" bout, though, assuaged those uncertainties -- until I watched the next "Bones" fight, that is.

Leading up to tonight's title fight, Jones hasn't fought the caliber of opponent that Rua did during his amazing run in 2005. Vera, Matyushenko and Bader simply don't stack up to Jackson, Nogueira, Overeem and Arona. But while "Shogun" had to fight tooth and nail to best "Lil Nog" and struggled in the opening minutes of his bout with "The Reem," Jones has dispatched of his opponents with ease.

Will Rua prove that skill combined with experience is enough to derail the fastest rising prospect in the sport? Or will a Jones victory show that mixed martial arts is cyclical and the same excitement, the same frenzy that fans experienced in 2005 will once again materialize at the end of UFC 128?

All these questions and more will be answered in a few short hours when their different (yes similar) paths finally cross inside the Octagon at the intersection of Mulberry and Lafayette streets in Newark, New Jersey.

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