Last night (Aug. 4, 2012), Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) staged a fantastic night of fights from the Staples Center in Los Angeles, California.
UFC on Fox 4: "Shogun vs. Vera" featured a pair of solid light heavyweight battles filling out the top of the card. It's also the rarified trick of a card where the four guys in the two main bouts have all lost to an existing champion (I'm probably missing something here -- let me know when it happened previously).
That UFC 205-pound champion Jon Jones has not only dominated and destroyed Mauricio Rua, Brandon Vera, Lyoto Machida and Ryan Bader speaks volumes on how talented the man is. And the fact that a title shot was up for grabs for whomever was most impressive -- and that was ultimately Machida -- hints at a difficult matchmaking situation for "Bones" should he turn back challenger Dan Henderson at UFC 151 on Sept. 1, 2012, and Machida after that.
Who's next after that?
The division is dangerously thin on viable challengers for him who he already hasn't stomped. It may seem dangerous to flirt with him rendering the rest of him into obsolescence, expect for the massive caveat that Jones -- who just turned 25 -- is improving rapidly with each fight and is improving at a scary rate.
His stand up, once a patchwork of awkward lunges and effective-but-unorthodox moves, is settling into a well-rounded weapon he can use to completely dictate fights, as he showed in his five-round drubbing of Rashad Evans. He still hasn't been remotely close to being taken down, and his length skews every variable of engagement, especially when grappling, as his endless limbs offer submissions nobody else even contemplates, and create a hopelessly wide base for a great wrestling foundation.
Is it really that bad? Is Jones close to creating serious talk that he's cleaned out the division? With a look at the existing challengers on the horizon, the answer is obvious.
Slotted to take on Jones Sept. 1, Hendo is an ageless wonder with great wrestling and a massive right hand that can sleep anyone. However, at six foot tall, he's not much of a kicker and Jones' ability to pester foes with endless variations of kicks is something he will be able to use to good effect. If there's anyone at 205 with the mojo to unseat Jones, it will have to someone like Henderson, whose ability to deliver one-shot knockout power is unquestioned. Hendo also has a ton of heart. The problem is, he'll likely have to show a lot of it. It's hard to see how Jones won't have so many options to pick him apart unless Henderson can land a fight-changing bomb before the damage adds up.
Tricky, elusive and magically fun with his strikes, Machida's stoppage of Ryan Bader was a classic finish Saturday night. You can credit him with being the first person to win a round against Jones, but notice how in their fight Jones simply adjusted and finished in the second. Also, Jon threw a ton of spinning back kicks against Machida, which shows how completely unfazed he was (who else would try that?). It was more a brief glitch in the matrix, and Jones' improvement only suggests he will know what to do against Machida again. He can also work to plant Lyoto on the mat if the standup game does get too frustrating, and Machida isn't getting any better. Jones is.
Let me say that I am a big fan of Mike Goldberg and Joe Rogan's commentary. For years. Always have been, always will be. But even the best go off the reservation from time-to-time -- it's a natural by-product of having to talk and fill air for several hours on cards. During Gustafsson's stick-and-move decision win over Thiago Silva, I was a bit rankled at the recurring comparisons Goldie made to Jones. The only similarities Gustaffson has to Jones is that they're both tall for light heavyweight, they both fight in the UFC, and they're both carbon-based.
Gustafsson's made some improvements since getting steamrolled by Phil Davis (see below) and has put together a five-win streak over faded and spotty competition. It's clear he's being groomed as a potential title challenger, which would be huge for the UFC's Europe market. He's kind of the latest version of the Bisping Exemption, where a foreign fighter has added promotional appeal so the UFC can break into new demographics and markets. But Gustafsson's win over Silva didn't show me he's remotely ready for Jones. And I can't get the vision of Davis wrestle-stomping him out of my head. So let's proceed with caution here.
Davis and his team used to joke that every time a reporter asked them about Jon Jones, someone had to drink a beer. That was during the Penn State wrestler's run-up to a decision loss to Rashad Evans, where Davis came out woefully flat in a five-round stinker, on the main event of a Fox card. Relegated to the dark portion of the card Saturday night, it was hard to tell if Davis was being given Wagner Prado as a tune-up or as punishment for performing so poorly against Evans. Either way, it didn't matter, as the bout was stopped 1:28 after an eye poke rendered Prado unable to continue.
Davis probably has the best set of wrestling chops and physical ability to challenge Jones of anyone in the division. Mentally, he just needs to put it together, and get more seasoning. The five-round loss to Evans will probably give him confidence in longer, competitive fights, and his talents are obvious. He decisioned the wily Antonio Rogerio Nogueira and showed a lot of ability. But he's still a year or more away and will need to put together a serious win streak and tighten up on his striking to be considered remotely competitive with Jones.
Exhausted in the second round, Rua outgutted Brandon Vera in a thrilling fourth-round stoppage win. His best days are clearly behind him, but he'll soldier on due to tons of heart and a loyal fan base that can rely on him bringing the fight every time. Rua could still secure a title shot with another solid win or two, especially if Jones keeps dominating challengers, with a "revenge" storyline built around the rematch. But the truth of it is he doesn't have the conditioning he used to and he still gets nailed. A lot. Jones will only be better and Rua will have added mileage under his belt. It's a sellable fight to the casual fan, but if you remember Rua in Pride, it's more of the grim life cycle of cashing in on an aging legend so great fighter in his prime can add a highlight-reel scalp to his collection. Jones would likely destroy Rua again, and it wouldn't be competitive in the least.
Beloved among hard-core fans, Mousasi remains one of the game's least-known talents. Resurgent in recent fights, his mix of outstanding standup and slick grappling make him a compelling opponent for anyone, at least when he's had the benefit of a proper camp. The problem with bringing Mousasi into the UFC is that it will take at least a fight or two to justify plugging him in against Jones. That might be the next option for the UFC as Jones mows through the division, however. They did it with Nick Diaz when Georges St. Pierre needed a challenger. Mousasi probably would give Jones a decent scrap, but his modest takedown defense and undersized frame would be serious issues against the massive champ.
Jason Probst can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter.com/jasonprobst.