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Jones' 2011 campaign trumps them all

12/11/2011

One of the frustrating things about covering mixed martial arts is the inability to soak in history. Whatever happens in a particular moment always seems to be treated as the best or the worst, leading to a cycle where everything is great or stinks.

This is because the sport is not quite 20 years old, and its modern era -- the Zuffa era -- only recently celebrated its first decade. MMA also embraces short attention spans. Everything about it just works in the scenario of slamming information against your cranium and moving to the next thing.

Think of the incredible events that took place Saturday in Toronto. Mark Hominick's seven-second loss to Chan Sung Jung was stunning and emotional and heartbreaking. Who has time to reflect, though, when Frank Mir goes off and snaps Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira's arm? And then, minutes later, Jon Jones gets tested, responds and renders his opposition stone-cold?

Processing all that isn’t easy, especially since it's so fun gazing at the sparkling lights. Rarely do we step back at a distance to see if anything is spelled out. And to really understand what Jones accomplished in 2011, we have to take that step back. The UFC light heavyweight champion capped off a 4-0 campaign against top-shelf competition, though that hardly pays enough respect to what he did.

Jones was obscenely dominant, and in being so, he made this year the standard by which other great years are to be judged.

Sounds like that same old screaming-into-the-microphone MMA tone we've come to expect, no?

Wait, check his year. Memorable, decisive wins over an undefeated young lion, Ryan Bader, and three champions of the sport in Mauricio Rua, Quinton Jackson and "The Dragon" Machida, each of which offered opportunities for displays of his natural brilliance. That's superlative, actually, as it was even before he left the Brazilian slumped face first, sleeping, on the canvas.

Twenty-four hours ago I'd have gladly argued that in 2005 "Shogun" Rua fought and beat better opposition than Jones. In half the time, too. "Shogun" destroyed an in-his-prime "Rampage" Jackson, combined with Antonio Rogerio Nogueira for one of the most hyperbole-deserving fights in the sport's history, and on the same summer night tore asunder Alistair Overeem (the skinny version) and Ricardo Arona (the massive version). Just for emphasis, Rua's run included a fifth victory no one mentions against Hiromitsu Kanehara. He did all that in six months, and was every bit as violent as Jones had ever been.

At least, that's what I would have argued a day ago. Now? The answer is Jones.

How long can it last then? Was there ever a fighter more prone to hyperbole than Jones? And if he indeed recorded the best year for a fighter in MMA history (I'd love to hear an argument to the contrary), doesn't that also make him the top fighter in the sport right now?

UFC middleweight king Anderson Silva has owned that perch for a long time. He’s accomplished amazing things during his run at the top, but would you pick him to beat Jones? Can you say with certainty that the UFC middleweight champion is more dangerous than Jones?

It takes me a while to come around on these things, and I'm finally there.

Coming into UFC 140 I wasn't convinced Jones' 2011 was better than Chuck Liddell's 2006. Liddell went 3-0, knocking out Randy Couture, Renato Sobral and Tito Ortiz. That stretch propelled "The Iceman" to the cover of ESPN The Magazine, and made him the face of the UFC until "Rampage" slammed a hook into his jaw the following year. These things are fleeting, you see. Great years in the ring or cage deserve recognition, because when the next one rolls around there aren't any guarantees.

Except maybe for Jones, still just 24 years old, who looks capable and intent on keeping the throttle down. And he better be -- 2012 won't lack for tests.

Jones wants five deserved months off. Awaiting his return will be Rashad Evans or Dan Henderson or maybe Phil Davis, who by then would have proved himself as ready for the spot.

Also waiting, expectations that accompany success at his level.

Neither Rua nor Liddell lived up to them the next time around. Rua fell to a fluke broken arm against Mark Coleman. Liddell crumpled to Jackson. All that shows is no matter what you’ve done, no matter how dominant you’ve been, yesterday’s success means little when it comes to tomorrow’s fortune. But one thing seems certain: tomorrow will be compared to Jones’ 2011 before anything else.