TORONTO -- Since his arrival here a few days ago, light heavyweight champion Jon Jones flashed a huge smile to everyone who paid attention to him.
He gave no sign of being angry toward anyone who might have been his verbal antagonist the past month for refusing to fight Chael Sonnen on eight days’ notice. But with all the hostility directed at him, if Jones came to Air Canada Centre with hostility in his heart, no one would have been surprised.
Jones, however, walked toward the Octagon on Saturday night with that same huge smile still plastered across his face. It was as if he was sending the message to all his tormentors: "No matter how much you jeer, you will never steal my joy."
Then Jones entered the cage and, when confronted face-to-face with his UFC 152 challenger, Vitor Belfort, the smile was no more. Something about the crowd's booing him or seeing his former training partner Rashad Evans standing alongside Belfort wiped the smile off his face. So it was no surprise that when the fight began, Jones quickly unleashed his aggression on the man with whom he had no personal beef.
Jones took Belfort to the ground in an attempt to showcase the physical and athletic skills he’s used so often to dominate previous opponents. But something happened that Jones had never experienced inside the cage -- he got caught in an armbar.
Belfort -- the 8-1 underdog, the guy most pundits gave no shot at winning, the former light heavyweight champion whom many said would be judged by the number of rounds he could survive against Jones -- was seconds from pulling off possibly the biggest upset in UFC history.
Belfort held on to Jones’ arm and bent it backward. The pain was etched on Jones’ face; just a few more seconds and Jones’ arm might have snapped.
But Jones held on, refusing to tap, and escaped disaster. He would return to being aggressive on the ground, attacking Belfort with left elbows and opening a nasty cut above the challenger’s right eye.
The feeling of nearly losing all that he’d worked so hard to achieve, especially after being the target of so much hostility, would have taken years for Jones to overcome. But Jones survived and eventually submitted Belfort 54 seconds into the fourth round. The anger was now gone, possibly, hopefully, for good.
He remains champion, his much-talked-about deal with Nike still secure. But Jones is a humbled champion today -- no longer appearing unbeatable.
Jones claimed to have learned a lot outside the cage the past several months -- from his DWI sentencing to the backlash from his role in the cancelation of UFC 151. But his most valuable lesson was given to him by Belfort, the self-proclaimed old lion.
“He got that armbar in tight,” Jones said after improving to 17-1. “I honestly was waiting for [my arm] to break; I wasn’t going to tap. But I never felt anything like that before.
“I have a lot of work to do against southpaws.”
Jones and Belfort smiled and hugged one another after the fight.
Belfort asked for this fight and would have preferred to have walked away victorious. And though he left the Octagon a loser, Belfort knocked the label of invincibility off of Jones. There will be many light heavyweights lining up, begging UFC president Dana White and matchmaker Joe Silva for a chance to face Jones.
And the next time Jones steps inside the Octagon, the jeers are sure to be even louder. Because fight fans will have reason to believe he might not survive another close call.