With yet another solid performance in registering his fourth title defense, Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) Light Heavyweight champion Jon Jones found himself in trouble for the first time in his career in the UFC 152 main event, which took place last night (Sept. 22, 2012) from the Air Canada Center in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.
With challenger Vitor Belfort slapping home a tight armbar in the first round, Jones passed his first test of serious adversity with flying colors, soldiering through a wrenching submission before clearing the arm and delivering a one-sided thrashing over four rounds. Finishing with a textbook Americana submission to finish the match, Jones' performance showed that he continues to improve, while having one of the best heads for tactics in the mixed martial arts (MMA).
Also on the pay-per-view (PPV) main card, Demetrious Johnson outworked Joseph Benavidez to become the UFC's first flyweight champ, while Michael Bisping took a decision over Brian Stann.
Here's a closer look at the fights and fighters with the UFC 152 Report Card. Remember, grades are given relative to prefight expectations, and how the performance affected their immediate career prospects:Jon Jones: A
Calm, collected, and eminently gifted, Jones' head for good tactics was apparent as he pounced on Belfort in the opening moments of the fight, forcing a takedown. By doing so, he seemingly eliminated Belfort's most dangerous phase - Vitor's 9 UFC stoppage wins have all come inside the first five minutes. It also showed that Jones isn't letting his ego get in the way of making the best kind of fight. However, a brilliant surprise materialized moments later as Belfort sunk in a threatening armbar that gave fans a legitimate thrill, with Jones wrenching, struggling and finally extricating the limb, despite later citing that he felt it popping from the massive torque Belfort was putting on it.
Jones, properly alerted, took a somewhat defensive tack through the rest of the round, then turned up the pressure with short, high-percentage elbows, bloodying Belfort and grinding him down. Jones also unleashed his baffling standing assault with punishing kicks, a variety of angles and endless variations on distance and well-timed shots, rendering Belfort out of sync on the feet for the next two rounds. Vitor did land a few decent kicks and punches, but the end seemed inevitable after the first. Jones simply wore him down. In the fourth, Jones got side control and sunk home a perfect Americana to get the tap.
At this point, Jones' technical evolution has made it extremely unlikely anyone will beat him on points. He has yet to be taken down in the UFC, and his reach, range and diversity of strikes - including occasional whoppers like spinning back kicks and elbows - make him the MMA equivalent of a major league hurler with five world-class pitches. You never know what is coming next. And as a result, you can't dial in on anything when it does. Unless Anderson Silva demonstrates a willingness to fight him soon, Jones looks bound to steamroll through another handful of 205 clinics disguised as title defenses. Or maybe he gives in to the inevitable and moves up to heavyweight. Given how he performs, I wouldn't count him out against any of the big boys.
Cub Swanson: A
A seemingly permanent gatekeeper at 145, Swanson's steady improvement in recent bouts has been impressive, particularly in the standup department. Tonight, he picked apart and blasted out Charles Olivera with an impressive finishing right hand, that detonated like a delayed-action fuse, crumpling "Do Bronx" to the mat.
Swanson's years and experience were obvious on the occasions where Olivera, a dangerous submissions stylist, had top position on the mat, and he banked on his sharper strikes to deliver. And deliver they did. Tonight was the biggest win of Swanson's career, and he revived his contender prospects in the relatively thin featherweight contender ranks.
Demetrious Johnson: A-
The speedy Johnson was brilliant tonight against the stronger Benavidez, giving him no rest and plenty to deal with in a great performance. Taking the first 125-lb. title belt in the history of the UFC, Johnson's blend of activity, ever-changing angles and a relentless ability to keep battling even in the worst of spots served him well. Caught in a terribly tight guillotine in the fourth, Johnson wrested himself out by the narrowest of margins, and didn't miss a beat in battling back for the rest of the stanza and dominating the fifth. It was a fantastic showing by a fighter that the fans can really root for, and "Mighty Mouse" should be a fun champion to watch as he kicks off his reign.
Vitor Belfort: B-
In a career defined by rousing blowout wins and heartbreakingly tragic defeats, Belfort did everything he could tonight, and performed better than most expected. The first-round armbar attempt was a nice showcase of his rarely-used but outstanding submission skills, which for years have been overshadowed by his blazing hands. Strangely, Belfort was so vexed standing with Jones that he opted to pull guard a few times, forever chasing the armbar that he couldn't quite finish in the first.
Belfort gave a decent account of himself tonight. Few thought he'd last as long as he did, and his return to 185 is one he can look forward to while holding his head high. He lost to a great fighter tonight. The fact that he could rarely get off with his strikes is testimony to how well Jones controls range.
Michael Bisping: B-
Bisping is Bisping, which means he's almost always going to be there for the distance and keep scrapping until the end. He wins ugly a lot and tonight was a perfect example, as he used a higher volume of strikes and some well-timed takedowns to outwork Brian Stann en route to a decision win. Bisping's approach is intelligently calibrated to win rounds on judges' cards - notice how he almost always hits a takedown near the end of a round or in a close one - and his striking doesn't knock anyone senseless, but it's accurate and persistent. Stann, relegated to loading up on shots in search of the knockout blow, was yet another opponent beaten on percentages by Bisping. If this gets Bisping a title shot, good for him. I'm sure Anderson Silva didn't lose any sleep watching him struggle with a powerful but somewhat limited Stann.
Joseph Benavidez: C+
Outsped by the lightning-quick Johnson, Benavidez had the heavier hands and power advantage, but you can't hit what you can't catch. After a vexing, slow start, Benavidez dialed up the pressure in spots in the third, landing some good blows, but could never really pin Johnson against the cage or stop him enough to force a takedown. Benavidez is considerably big for the weight class, and his flat performance - this is the first time in his career we've ever seen him tired late in a match - might suggest that the weight cut is a bit much. Or, it could be Johnson's high-energy style. However, Benavidez will definitely get another title shot if he sticks around at 125, as he's a top contender with a ton of skills. Tonight, he simply couldn't get untracked.
Matt Hamill: C-
There was no excuse for the Hamill-Hollett fight being on the main card. It was dreadful and Hamill, returning after a 13-month absence following his dreadful showing against Alexander Gustaffson, looked exactly like a guy that'd been off more than a year. What's worse is he could barely keep up a moderate pace against an opponent that was clearly intimidated. Hamill's physique looked soft compared to previous outings, to boot, and he simply didn't perform well. Who knows what happened to the guy since he beat Tito Ortiz, but he's looked listless and underwhelming in three straight fights. Personally, I don't need to see him again on the paid portion of any card, and most fans would agree. Particularly when epic battles like Evan Dunham-T.J. Grant were relegated to the undercard.
Brian Stann: C-
Stann had the best possible matchup tonight against any of the top-ten middleweight contenders, and a big name in Bisping, to boot. But he simply couldn't get it done as Bisping outpointed and outworked him, and outwrestled him, to boot. Bisping's takedowns are decent, but he's still a British guy wrestling, which is kind of like being the best wrestler in Wisconsin - it doesn't mean a lot with nearby Iowa placed into the equation.
Stann faded down the stretch and opted to swing for a fight-changing blow, one he nearly landed in the bout but couldn't finish as the durable Bisping recovered and went back to his points-based style. Stann's wrestling deficiencies seem to be a permanent limiter on how far he can go up the contender ladder. And after watching both of these guys tonight, I would bet that Chris Weidman could beat both back to back. The irony is that it doesn't really matter because Anderson Silva wouldn't wrestle either of them (or anyone else, for that matter), but for the uneducated fan, tonight's Stann-Bisping being a bout with "title implications" only suggests how much Silva has cleaned out the division.
Roger Hollett: D
Hollett's bout was Hamill was canceled, then rescheduled, so he might have been hampered by an interrupted training cycle. Still, he looked pretty lousy against an obviously aging fighter. What's worse, Hollett didn't even dominate the standing portion of the match - which is where fans expected him to shine - and Hamill didn't respect his strikes enough to keep from wading in with his hands low and tossing off sloppy haymakers. Hollett definitely needs a full camp for starters, and more experience, because he barely looked King of the Cage level tonight.
Charles Olivera: F
After disappointing performances at 155, Olivera's drop to 145 still hasn't solved a couple key problems. He gets hit too cleanly and doesn't seem to take a good punch. There are no more weight classes to drop for him, and he's definitely going to have to go back to the drawing board and work on tightening up his standup game so he doesn't leave holes that can be exploited.
For complete UFC 152: "Jones vs. Belfort" results and coverage click here.
Jason Probst can be reached at twitter.com/jasonprobst.