After another dominant performance to make the third defense of the title he'd won just 13 months ago, Jon Jones was unmarked and unfazed, the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) Light Heavyweight belt securely his.
And with a one-sided, five-round clinic over Rashad Evans in the UFC 145 main event last night (April 21, 2012) from the Philips Arena in Atlanta, Ga., it's apparent that Jones is well on his way to cleaning out the 205-pound division, at least in terms of the cadre of marketable challengers that comprised its elite when "Bones" was moving up the ranks.
Consider the list. A veritable Murderer's Row, or so it seemed, coming into 2011, when Jones was heading into his showdown with then-unbeaten Ryan Bader. Mauricio Rua had seemingly regained something of the potent killer that tore through the Pride ranks during the final months of the promotion. Lyoto Machida, recently dethroned by Rua, remained a vexing and difficult proposition for any fighter in the division. Quinton Jackson loomed as one of the best combinations of punching power and toughness in the game.
Jones steamrolled all of them in 2011, in addition to Bader, pretty much scuttling the division's elite in such one-sided fashion that a rematch with any would've been a hard sell.
Now, with Evans similarly dispatched -- and the sole moral take-away for Rashad is that he managed to go the distance, where Rua, Jackson and Machida could not -- Jones has turned the trick again. He's beating challengers so handily that he simultaneously demonstrated the gap between him and the next best available challenger, while making it pretty obvious that entertaining the notion of a rematch is on nobody's agenda.
That's the appeal of a tough, competitive championship fight, and the downside of a one-sided one that keeps happening over and over.
As it stands, the UFC light heavyweight division has one man left, at this point, to give Jones a fight that he hasn't failed to previously, and that's Dan Henderson. The veteran, the last of the stars from the late-90s to still compete at a world-class level, has as many of the tools you could reasonably ask for in creating a guy to beat Jones, whose evolving game and seemingly endless streak of inventiveness make him a terribly vexing proposition on the feet, backed by a shockingly dominating ability to plant people on the mat and dominate them with disdainful ease. Henderson's lightning-bolt right hand, outstanding wrestling and old-man savvy probably give him the best and most compelling shot at Jones as things stand now.
It's also the last of the 205-pound "old guard" for Jones to take on before the UFC has to readily build new contenders, or fall back on recycling rematches nobody particularly wants to see, at least not for competitive purposes.
You can already tell they're scrambling a bit to fill the gap, one Jones exacerbates with each recital, a kind of treatise on how much better he is than those who dare challenge him, as Mike Tyson once said, with their primitive skills. During Alexander Gustaffson's workmanlike, but unspectacular win over Thiago Silva in the UFC on Fuel TV 2 main event, announcer Mike Goldberg suggested Gustaffson was reminiscent of Jones given his slippery stand up style, height and reach.
It would have been laughable as a kind of passing hyperbole except for the fact that Gustaffson is nowhere near Jones' level technically, and he's not Jones when it comes to wrestling, which is pretty much saying someone fights like a prime Roy Jones, Jr. except for the fact that he doesn't have speed. I'm willing to excuse Goldie for the occasional venture into the improbable, but it was indicative of how the UFC is already scrambling to find someone to fill the gap.
Gustaffson's an interesting prospect with some good basic tools, but there is absolutely nothing he did against a faded, flat and post-steroids Silva that suggested he's anywhere ready for a top-five light-heavy, except if he manages to catch someone like Quinton Jackson on a blue period (an increasingly likely prospect, given Rampage's dissatisfaction with the UFC, and fighting in general).
Jones' wrestling is absolutely the key to everything he does, and why he's so successful, even though he barely used it against Evans. It creates a serious deterrence to getting close to him, which makes it impossible to close the gap because you're worried about takedowns. And unlike most lanky strikers, it's not like you can shoot in on the guy and take him down. Jones does the taking-down, thank you, with a kind of man-child leverage and strength that is humbling to opponents.
Henderson has an iron chin, dogged patience, and the kind of one-shot power that is a fantastic equalizer. He's also been in a zillion wars, and would have the kind of mindset to absorb the likely beating he'd take early. Evans didn't quit Saturday night, but after tons of smack-talk, he parked his car halfway between trying hard enough to keep it quasi-interesting and stopping short of going out on his shield. Jones does that to people, and that's the compelling thing about Henderson.
He always wins or goes out on his shield.
Given the expanding gap between Jones' skill set -- which seems to add a freakishly clever move every fight, with jumping teep kicks displayed against Evans -- and everyone else's, it would be one hell of a closing act for Henderson, 41, to take on the torch-bearer who is clearly the wave of the next generation.
Jason Probst can be reached at twitter.com/jasonprobst or at Jason@jasonprobst.com