IS THIS THE START OF SOMETHING GREAT?
On July 11, 2009, Jon Jones scored his third win in the Octagon. There was nothing extremely special about the way he defeated Jake O’Brien. Jones didn’t score a highlight-reel knockout. He didn’t show amazing grit by coming back from the brink of defeat. His second-round guillotine choke, while extremely effective, wasn’t a move that caused submission wizards to take notice.
Yet, there was something special about Jones on that night. There was something about the win that caused me to write the following statement in my event post-mortem:
Jones, who turns 22 this weekend, is only three fights into his UFC career. No matter, I’m going to go out on a limb with what many may think is a crazy prediction: at some point in his career, Jones will wear UFC gold.
Admittedly, I didn’t think it would happen this fast, and I certainly did not think that he would completely outclass Mauricio “Shogun” Rua over the course of three one-sided rounds on Saturday night. But it was obvious to me that a guy with Jones’ physical gifts and amazing thirst for improvement would someday be crowned king. It was his destiny, if he could avoid the trap so many other young phenoms succumb to – eating a healthy serving of his own hype cake.
Jones remained committed to improvement following the win over O’Brien. Five bouts later, the kid from Endicott, New York reached the pinnacle of the sport, becoming the youngest fighter in history to win UFC gold.
Honestly, winning the title for Jones was the easy part. The more difficult task will be holding on to it for more than a brief moment. Hangers-on everywhere will be looking to spoon feed him massive doses of his own hype cake, and it will be tough for Jones to resist taking a bite.
Why? Because rising to the top of the sport has come easily for the young superstar. In fact, no other reigning UFC champion has walked through his professional career with the same ease as Jones. Each suffered at least one beating before becoming champion.
Dominick Cruz and Jose Aldo both got choked out early in their careers. Frankie Edgar received a wrestling lesson in a one-sided unanimous decision loss. Georges St-Pierre tapped to an arm bar and later survived a bludgeoning in a disputed win. Anderson Silva suffered four losses before joining the UFC, including two by submission. And Cain Velasquez survived a gut-check fight after getting dropped multiple times in one of his early UFC wins.
The only adversity Jones has faced thus far in his career, other than getting a bit winded in his first couple of UFC bouts, is dealing with a “loss” to Matt Hamill. The word is in quotes because Jones was every bit as dominant against Hamill as he was on Saturday against Rua. A series of illegal elbows to Hamill’s head in an overzealous search for the coup de grace led to a questionable disqualification in a fight that Jones had in the bag.
The only thing that result tested was Jones’ class, and he displayed great humility in the face of a result that arguably was improperly decided by the referee. Hamill stated that he could not continue due to damage suffered to his shoulder, not due to the illegal elbows. No matter. Jones accepted the result with dignity.
Some might think that such a display is meaningless in a fighter’s career. I disagree. Humility is a sign of coachability. If a fighter is not coachable, no matter what physical tools he possesses, then it is only a matter of time before he is conquered in competition. Jones is one of the more coachable fighters in the division, and that is the main reason why he is a champion at the fresh, young age of 23. Whether he can maintain that level of coachability will be largely responsible for how long he reigns as champion.
Since there is really no parallel in the UFC for Jones’ unscathed, meteoric rise to greatness, the best comparison is probably in MMA’s distant cousin—professional boxing.
Twenty-five years ago, a 20-year-old kid with limitless potential knocked out Trevor Berbick in less than six minutes to become the youngest heavyweight boxing champion in history. Mike Tyson was thought by many to be the greatest fighter the world had ever seen. He was destined to break Joe Louis’ streak of 25-consecutive title defenses. He would set records that would never be broken.
All that came crashing down 10 fights later, when Tyson was knocked out by 42-to-1 underdog James “Buster” Douglas. It was an unthinkable result to even the most educated experts. Tyson admitted afterward that the monk-like training habits that led to his early successes had long since gone by the wayside. He believed that he was the so-called baddest man on the planet, so why properly prepare for opponents who didn’t have a chance at beating him?
Jones will face those same temptations as people shower him with praise based on his limitless potential, rather than his career accomplishments to date. Will he go the way of Tyson or remain sharply focused like current pound-for-pound king Anderson Silva as he embarks on a storied run as champion?
Nobody knows the answer to that question. Not even Jones himself. But the odds are definitely stacked against him.
Eleven men have held the UFC Light Heavyweight Championship since its inception 13 years ago. More than half of them lost in their first defense. Only three men successfully defended the title more than one time, with Tito Ortiz holding the record at five.
Think about that for a moment. Eleven men were crowned king. Only five successfully defended it at least once. Only three of those men successfully defended it more than once.
First up for Jones is friend and former training partner Rashad Evans. We will break down that fight in great detail as it approaches. The one notable point to make now is that I actually believe facing Evans is a gift in disguise for the newly crowned 205-pound ruler.
Don’t get me wrong. This isn’t an easy fight. Not by a mile. Evans, who is one of the six former champions to lose the title in his first defense, has the skills to beat Jones or anyone else on any given night.
The fortunate part for Jones, though, is the friction created by Evans wanting to fight a friend will undoubtedly serve as pre-fight motivation for the champion. It was obvious from the moment that UFC commentator Joe Rogan called Evans into the cage to discuss the matchup. Jones’ affect immediately changed. He was in full fight mode, wearing the scowl that has become all too familiar during post-weigh-in staredowns.
If Jones isn’t offended by Evans wanting to fight him, he should win an Academy Award, because the tension between the two was palpable, with most of the tension emanating from the champion. By contrast, it seems more like business as usual for Evans.
The interaction between the fighters suggests to me that there will be no lack of motivation for Jones during training camp, and that may be just what the doctor ordered to minimize the chance that he starts buying into his own hype right out of the gate.
FABER SHINES AHEAD OF HIS FIRST UFC TITLE SHOT
Urijah Faber is no stranger to championships. He has reigned over divisions in three different mixed martial arts promotions, including a record-setting run as the WEC Featherweight Champion. But the reality is that, while those titles were great accomplishments, the real dream for the “California Kid” has always been winning a UFC title. It was a dream that seemed unattainable until Zuffa, the company that owns the UFC brand, acquired the WEC and made the lighter weight classes a reality for the world’s premier mixed martial arts promotion.
Faber is now one fight from making that a dream reality. Fresh off the heels of a unanimous decision win over Eddie Wineland on Saturday night, Faber now turns his attention toward Dominick Cruz, the reigning UFC Bantamweight Champion. The pair will square off later this year in one of the biggest “little man” fights of the post-WEC era.
Faber already owns a win over Cruz, stopping him in 98 seconds with a guillotine choke back on March 24, 2007. That was a long, long time ago in a bout contested at 145 pounds. The two now compete in the UFC’s newly minted 135-pound division. The historical win likely gives Faber the mental edge heading into the fight, though past results are not always indicative of future outcomes.
I think it is more relevant to the analysis that Faber was able to bounce back from a rough first round and still defeat Wineland. The former champion is so accustomed to competing from a position of dominance that he hasn’t been able to right the ship in the few times we have seen him truly struggle early.
Keep in mind that we are only talking about four losses in 29 professional bouts. Still, the ability to adapt after a bad opening round is something that we haven’t really seen from Faber in the past, so I think Team Alpha Male should be feeling pretty good that the bantamweight version of Urijah Faber might be even better than the featherweight version that made him an MMA superstar.
HAVE WE SEEN THE LAST OF CRO COP?
Mirko Cro Cop once struck fear in the hearts of opponents. I don’t care what any former PRIDE fighter claims. Nobody looked forward to fighting this guy. Why? Because win or lose, Cro Cop was going to bring the pain in the worst possible way.
Go back and watch what he did to Wanderlei Silva in their 2006 rematch. It was the single-worst beating that Silva has ever taken as a professional. Yes, I know that Vitor Belfort blitzkrieged him in 44 seconds back in 1998. But I guarantee you that Silva will point to the savage beating handed out by Cro Cop in the PRIDE Open Weight Grand Prix as the most devastating knockout he has ever suffered.
Today’s version of Cro Cop is a far cry from the guy who annihilated Silva. It is obvious to anyone who has been watching the UFC and PRIDE for the last five or six years. The question is whether he can do anything about it at this point in his career.
I wrote about this exact topic after Cro Cop’s loss to Frank Mir back on September 25, and the reasons for his struggles remain the same one fight later:
Not to be too critical, but Cro Cop is only an average boxer – he has big power in his left hand, but he is only average in terms of his overall boxing skills. Let’s face it. His hands aren’t what earned him untold riches in Japan. His hands aren’t what won him the 2006 PRIDE Open Weight Grand Prix. And his hands certainly aren’t what other heavyweights feared when he entered the arena.
Cro Cop is first and foremost a leg-based striker, and that isn’t going to change at this late stage in his career. Trying to transform him into a boxer is like trying to turn Shaquille O’Neal into a point guard or Randy Johnson into a finesse pitcher. It’s just not going to happen.
If I were managing the Croatian, I would implore him to return to his roots. When this guy uses his legs with the same frequency that other strikers use their hands, he is darn near unbeatable. That may sound silly because one-dimensional fighters rarely succeed in the UFC. The point, though, is that Cro Cop is far from one-dimensional. He is a skilled fighter whose entire game depends on his kicks.
Without that weapon, he is a good, but not great, heavyweight. Saturday night proved that as he was completely outclassed on the feet by a guy who wouldn’t have dared to try and stand with him five years ago. On Saturday night, Cro Cop threw somewhere in the neighborhood of three or four left kicks, all in the second round (if my memory serves), and each of them was thrown with sort of a frantic, hurried manner, rather than sitting down and uncorking a confident bomb. Of course, he ended up getting knocked out, something that was almost unthinkable during his PRIDE career.
If I had to point to the root of Cro Cop’s decision to abandon his kicks, it would have to be his April 2007 loss to Gabriel Gonzaga. The Croatian was making his second UFC start fresh off a five-fight knockout streak in PRIDE (yes, I’m taking literary license and counting a submission due to strikes as a KO). He looked every bit as confident in his kicks during the opening seconds against Gonzaga, firing a few without reservation and laced with bad intentions. But then, Gonzaga caught a high kick and used it as a vehicle to take the fight to the ground and began grinding away with some brutal ground and pound.
By the time Cro Cop made it back to his feet toward the end of the round, he was exhausted and physically battered. Gonzaga capitalized on his wounded foe by landing a high kick of his own, which led to one of the most shocking knockouts in UFC history – a timeless highlight-reel moment that will forever replay itself in Cro Cop’s mind.
We haven’t seen kicks thrown in any meaningful quantities since that time. If Cro Cop wants to someday fulfill his dream of becoming a UFC champion, he needs to forget the loss to Gonzaga. He needs to stop fearing getting taken down if someone catches a kick – that risk has existed throughout his career, by the way, and it never stopped him in PRIDE. And he needs to get back to using his kicks as his primary weapon—mixing up low kicks, body kicks and high kicks so that it is difficult to catch a leg and take him down.
After all, when a guy possesses one of the most dangerous weapons in the history of the sport, it is criminal not to use it with regularity.
I don’t know what else to say. I think anyone who has watched Cro Cop over the years will agree with those words. Brendan Schaub seemed wide open for quick, slamming leg kicks. The former football star has serious skills and even better athleticism. There is no doubt about that. But it seems logical that he would have at least a bit of difficulty defending leg kicks from one of the best to ever bring that weapon to the mix, particularly since he fought most of the fight with his weight forward on his toes.
Maybe at 36 years old, Cro Cop is too far past his athletic prime to right the ship. Maybe he doesn’t throw kicks because he can’t throw them with the same velocity as in the past. Each man reaches his athletic peak at a different point in his life, so it wouldn’t be unusual for an explosive fighter like Cro Cop to fade away more quickly than a methodical tactician like Randy Couture (who may well fight at a world-class level until he is 50 at this rate).
Maybe a drop to 205 pounds is in order. I would love to see Cro Cop square off against fellow standup destroyer Shogun Rua and see what happens. A bout with Rich Franklin would be lots of fun for the fans. Quinton “Rampage” Jackson is another mouth-watering matchup.
Or, maybe it is time for the Croatian sensation to ride off into the sunset and enjoy what he has accomplished to date. I have no idea what Cro Cop has in mind for his future. All I know is something needs to change because he doesn’t seem to be able to find his old form as a heavyweight.
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