MMA: Quinton Jackson
That meant UFC 134 -- more commonly referred to as UFC Rio -- became a celebration of Gracie genealogy, of the Nogueira’s, of assorted Silva’s, of Chute Boxe, of the entire neglected culture of limb origamists everywhere who were so instrumental in changing the way people approached fighting. There were a dozen bouts on the card. Only one fight didn’t have a Brazilian in it, an out-of-place clash between Yves Jabouin (French-Canadian) and Ian Loveland (American). Smartly, that was the first prelim of the night, designed to play out while people found their seats.
Otherwise, it was Brazilian pandemonium. In a Brazil against the world scenario, a Brazilian had his hand raised in 10 of the remaining 11 bouts. It was all about Brazil and its best fighters. The Cariocas were whipped into a frenzy that night.
UFC 144 is official for Feb. 26 at the Saitama Super Arena, and it’s been simplified to UFC Japan. This, too, is a homecoming of sorts to the native roots. As Lorenzo Fertitta talked about the old recipes in a press release, saying, “Japan is the spiritual home of martial arts -- the world has learned from the Japanese many aspects of how to compete in hand-to-hand combat with respect and honor.” This parlays nicely with the UFC Rio vibe, which courted a similar muse. If there’s a difference, it’s this -- Japan may be a spiritual home of martial arts, but not its best practitioners. There are scant few Japanese fighters on UFC Japan’s main card.
In fact, there’s only one: Yoshihiro Akiyama. And he’s on there because he’s fighting a big name in Jake Shields in a new weight class (170 pounds) after losing three in a row as a middleweight. This is a curiosity bout for a man in search of lost mojo.
Otherwise, UFC Japan’s main card is all about the imports. Why? Because it has to be. Frankie Edgar from Jersey, against Colorado's own Ben Henderson for the lightweight belt. Pride star Quinton Jackson returns to Japan to fight wrestler Ryan Bader, who jumped at the opportunity to fight in Japan (just as he did in 2010 when the opportunity to do battle with Keith Jardine in Sydney arose). A re-imagined Mark Hunt takes on Frenchman Cheick Kongo in a heavyweight fight. Americans Anthony Pettis and Joe Lauzon round out the card in a lightweight bout.
Where’s Yushin Okami, the man Dana White called “the best fighter to ever come out of Japan” ahead of his fight with Anderson Silva in Rio? He’s on the prelims against revivalist Tim Boetsch. Okami headlines a fight in Rio as a stranger in a strange land (read: as prey for Anderson Silva), yet can’t crack the main card in his native Japan. It doesn’t help that there’s a very real chance of a stylistic stalemate in this one, but the point is this -- the best fighter to come out of Japan doesn’t exactly carry the importance that the imports do.
Same goes for the “Iron Broom” Hatsu Hioki, who underwhelmed in his debut victory against George Roop. He’s on the prelims, even if it is a No. 1 contender spot he’s fighting for against Bart Palaszewski. Ditto the “Fireball Kid,” Takanori Gomi (1-3 in his last four), Norifumi Yamamoto (1-4 in his last five), Riki Fukuda (coming off a loss to Nick Ring) and Takeya Mizugaki (who has traded wins and losses in his last eight bouts). All of these guys had successful careers in Japan that haven’t yet translated to the Octagon. In fact, some of them wouldn’t be on the roster if there wasn’t going to be such a thing as UFC Japan, so there’s no room for quibbling about placement.
Unlike with UFC Rio, UFC Japan won’t (and can’t) be painted as "Japan Against the World." It’s more like the world coming to Japan for an exciting visit. If the UFC dotted the main card with the best Japanese fighters -- which taken as a collective, would look like wholesale mediocrity -- it wouldn’t be fit for pay-per-view. And, as Dana White reminds everyone whenever possible, this is pay-per-view business.
Therefore, Frankie Edgar and Quinton Jackson will fetch the PPV buck as the UFC forays into Asia, and the local fighters will try and change a few notions in the relative quiet of their own backyard.
For that reason, it can feel at times trifling to make an attempt at context. If anything can ( and does) happen in MMA, it's simple sense to question the necessity of perspective, be it regular divisional rankings or, in this case, suggesting one fighter is better than the rest.
Shut up and enjoy the fights, right? Well, I never bought into that way of thinking. I see value in this sort of discussion, and will try here and now to illustrate that.
Save politics, is there an industry that thrives on embellishment more than sport? MMA observers know this well. So when I tell you that Dan Henderson is the most accomplished mixed martial artist America has produced, please take it for what it's worth. But I’ll assure you at a minimum, I believe it to be true. And I think if you look at everything Henderson has accomplished since he entered the sport in 1997, no American fighter -- not Chuck Liddell, Matt Hughes, Randy Couture, B.J. Penn, Quinton Jackson nor anyone else -- can claim his level of sustained success.
Keep in mind, this is a man with eight losses -- such is the slim margin between triumph and failure in which fighters like Henderson operate. Eight losses. As much as I'd like it to be different, if only because it would deliver an added strain of credibility to the sport, the last two decades have proven MMA isn't a profession that yields perfection. Hardly. That threshold differs sharply from boxing, particularly if a combatant is consistently tested like Henderson has been. Perhaps that changes as the latest crop does their thing. Who's going to defeat Jon Jones? Dominick Cruz looks untouchable at 135 pounds. Frankie Edgar flat out refuses to lose. Who knows, 10 years from now, one of them could be written about in similar tones to this trumpeting of Henderson. But not yet.
So as MMA approaches its 20th anniversary of the UFC era, Henderson, all guts and guile, resides at the top of my American born-and-bred list.
What separates him from some of the decorated fighters I mentioned above?
First, let's deal with his setbacks, because if there's an argument to be made against Henderson, it would be found there. Wanderlei Silva. Ricardo Arona. Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira. Antonio Rogerio Nogueira.
Kazuo Misaki. Quinton Jackson. Anderson Silva. Jake Shields.
Misaki and Shields is the pair that should raise some eyebrows. The Misaki fight came four months after Henderson defeated the tough Japanese middleweight and, putting it mildly, he was completely disinterested in a rematch. For that reason, this one is considered by most to be an aberration. Henderson, a two-division champion in Pride, essentially no-showed.
As for Shields, Henderson walked into that fight hampered by neck and back issues. Still, he almost knocked Shields out in the opening round. And maybe it’s worth crediting Shields, who survived an onslaught many fighters could not have.
As for the rest? Well, Henderson is either on equal footing, having picked up wins in other contests, or there’s no shame to be found in losing to Anderson Silva.
Each great mixed martial artist has losses and setbacks to contend with, so in this way there’s hardly a discernible difference between Henderson and the rest of the bunch.
But if you’re looking for an argument in the affirmative, let’s not gloss over the fact that at the age of 41 he has, insofar as names of the vanquished opposition, orchestrated one of his most impressive streaks of his career. Some might say that Henderson’s success at an age better suited for retirement is tainted because he competes under the treatment and benefit of hormone replacement therapy. Without the prescription, would he have romped to similar results? No. He admits as much. Whatever side you come down on, though, it’s indisputable that he’s playing within the rules. So there’s that.
As for the wins and the wars and all the stuff that makes Henderson my choice as the best American mixed martial artist since the sport emerged in the States in 1993, you really can’t do much better. Last Saturday against Mauricio Rua, Henderson displayed everything that makes him terrific. This doesn’t necessarily make him better than Liddell, Hughes, Couture, Penn or Jackson. They all reached the highest level of the sport and delivered similar moments.
In the final analysis, Henderson deserves this recognition because of the fast start to his career; his accomplishments across multiple weight divisions; his record in high-stakes tournaments; the fact that his win-loss record is peppered with consistently grade-A opposition; and his recent successes.
Go ahead and argue that there are American fighters with résumés equal to Henderson’s. Maybe that’s the case. But as best as I can tell, I’ve yet to see one that’s any better.
If it had occurred all the way back in summer of 2011, Dan Henderson and Mauricio Rua would have fought three not entirely memorable rounds. If things played out just as they did at UFC 139 without circumstantial revisions, Henderson would have won an easy 30-27 decision on all judges’ scorecards. This would have been the end of the story, and we’d be talking in terms of Henderson’s pan-divisional title prospects today, and pitting Rua with Quinton Jackson in Japan.
Or, at least we’d be discussing those things with a different emphasis than we are.
But since the fight happened in the era of five round main events, it quickly transformed from one-sided rout to “greatest UFC bout of all time.” Epic can be defined as the tables being turned. And isn’t this the magic that the UFC envisioned when it stretched main events by two rounds -- wars that take improbable twists and turns? By the time the “championship rounds” got going, Henderson and Rua had been swapping dominant positions like grappling swingers. There’s something about the redirection of momentum that plays with our sense of wow. It’s fun when you think -- no, when you’re sure -- that what you’re looking at is the epitome of heart, especially when you've had to crash through so many walls to find it. Or feel that you have. Sports are meant to be vicarious.
Rua withstood the third round onslaught that left Henderson a shell of himself. Against suspicion of having a peanut-sized gas tank, it was Rua with the reserves. It was Rua who began to mount an offense from previously unimagined depths. In the fifth, it was Rua who put Henderson in survival mode for about nine-tenths of the round. Henderson hung on while the molasses poured over him, and the clock moved as slow. In fact, the fifth round could be presented as Exhibit A in what a 10-8 round should look like -- a round in which one fighter has the other on the ropes from bell to bell. By strict definition, the fifth round couldn’t be anything other than a 10-8 for Rua.
Yet the California judges saw it 10-9 for “Shogun,” and Henderson escaped on the strength of his early work. It was a tale of two fights that intersected at the hinging point of the added rounds that everybody was curious about. That’s drama.
If there was a flaw in any of it, it’s that it didn’t end up in a draw as it probably should have. Since Dana White despises draws -- just like anybody who likes their events served up with definitive resolutions -- this was a mere footnote. There was finality. And finality went along perfect with the near knockouts, sweeps, reversals, blood and seismic momentum shifts, the guts, drive and hard-swallowing Adam’s apples that went into the plot.
Just where it took on a “one for the ages” feel was in the additional rounds, exactly to the hopes of the UFC who created them for this purpose. Big-event fights should be made to mature before our eyes. Though this was our first real look, it might mean two things going forward. One, that five-round main events have the potential of converting pretty good fights into great ones, like Rua and Henderson -- and two, that we’d be setting ourselves up for disappointment to expect everybody in those circumstances to dig as deep.
Mo knows Jackson. He wants Jackson. Jackson wants Japan. Mo loves Japan. Jackson likes yen-to-American dollar conversion rates. Mo called Jackson an Uncle Tom for, amongst other things, hating on multi-syllabic words.
Talk about pulchritudinous. If all that doesn’t translate into something worthwhile, what does?
The gutters are about to start running over with Strikeforce’s best sloshing their way toward the UFC. It wouldn’t be surprising if Dec. 17 is the last big Strikeforce card, at least for things like “championship belts” being contested over. If Strikeforce becomes a feeder league, as some suspect it might, Lawal is already well past prospect level. If it folds completely, that doesn’t change the basic fact that King Mo exists (though Dana White has sort of disputed this).
Everybody knows that Strikeforce has become a foster home, and that the UFC is the mansion on the hill with all the spoiled children. Lawal, like others in the less desirable circumstance, wants to make his way over there and smack somebody in the mouth. What’s not to appreciate? And realistically, Lawal versus Jackson would be a fun fight both leading up and in actuality. Lawal would happily stand and bang with Jackson, and that’s all Jackson ever asked for. Somebody to throw “bungalows” with. That Lawal can wrestle only intensifies the settings.
We know that Jackson requested a fight with Mauricio Rua for the Feb. 26 card in Japan. Jackson probably forgot (or didn't care) that Rua has a fight lined up with Dan Henderson on Nov. 19. It’s possible that Rua loses to Henderson and a fight with Jackson looks attractive enough. But from a fetish standpoint of build-up -- the fight game’s bread and butter -- Rua is always polite and Lawal, to use his own words, likes to “keep things 100.” In fact, he’s already barking.
“This fool Rampage calls me out, and then people get mad when I respond?” he told MMA Fighting’s Ben Fowlkes. “[Jackson]’s a b---- in my eyes, because he didn’t respond. Maybe he’ll respond later, but the word is he wants to fight ‘Shogun.' That’s whatever. But he called me out, so I’m going to respond.”
Lawal’s contract is up in February. If he’s not on the December card, he won’t likely be fighting before then anyway. If it’s not Rua and Jackson in Japan, it should be Lawal and Jackson, two former champions who’d never allow things to be anything other than thoroughly entertaining.
Four fights in 10 months would be tough on anybody not in desperate need of cash and exposure -- but four fights over 10 months with escalating pressures and stakes, inflated expectations and increased scrutiny is something else.
It’s warped. Happening at warp speed for a 24-year-old adjusting on the fly to media demands, stardom, promotional pressures, appearances and all the bodily/mental taxations in between. And these are just the personal issues that he’s been left to deal with since squeezing the chakras from Ryan Bader.
What we see is Jones’ overall hit list in 2011, the more public half of the marvel.
He ran through Bader on Feb. 5; he threw an artisan beatdown on then-light heavyweight champion Mauricio Rua after bringing a purse-snatcher down in Paterson, N.J., on March 19; he beat former champion Quinton Jackson in his first defense on Sept. 24. On Dec. 10, he’ll fight another former champion in Lyoto Machida. The process to and through these pairings is too absurd to recount, but suffice to say that somehow, Rashad Evans -- yet another former champion -- factored into every fight without having fought Jones. That fight belongs to 2012 (presumably). The thing is, the pressure and intrigue to each event gets progressively more as Jones goes along.
Remember when people were calling the UFC smart for bringing Jones along slowly?
Somewhere along the way -- maybe when he smashed Vladimir Matyushenko in August 2010 or when he Picasso’d Brandon Vera’s face -- the UFC shifted him in fifth and forgot about slow. That’s where we find ourselves as he goes about cleaning out the division with amphetamine speed. It’s a lot of prospects, defending and former champions to get through in the space of a year without time to reflect on anything.
And that’s why you can’t help but wonder about burnout when he faces Machida in Toronto.
What Jones is doing is unprecedented. Chuck Liddell defended his strap three times in 2006; two of those defenses -- against Randy Couture and Tito Ortiz -- were against former champions. That comes close.
Georges St. Pierre fought four times in 2005, but none of them had title implications. Jones will have fought three former champions and one previously undefeated prospect. The annals of the UFC’s history can’t produce his equivalent.
So far he’s handled the pressure of these events fine, though he’s taking his time more as he goes along. He’s finishing everybody, but chronologically speaking it’s taking him an extra round to do it: Matyushenko (first round), Bader (second round), Rua (third round), Jackson (fourth). Of all of these, Machida is arguable the hardest to solve, and is possibly the best reactionary fighter in the game. The style match-up will be fun to contemplate.
So it’s a dangerous fight for Jones on the basic match-up level. But Jones will have to continue staying hungry through the process just as his belly got full. That new Bentley he just got? It might have to represent things still to come instead of what’s been accomplished so far. That’s a hard mode to keep in, especially when you’re 24 years old.
But give Jones his credit. Never has anybody gained a legacy so fast, only to dangle it out there as often to be snatched away.
MMA fighters aren’t neglecting their submission skills to please knockout-hungry fans. Rather, the best grapplers in the world can’t make their jiu-jitsu work in the cage any longer.
The increasing scarcity of submission finishes has had analysts and observers scratching their heads and asking: “why don't we see more submissions in the MMA big leagues?” The UFC and Strikeforce are home to some of the most talented grapplers on the planet, yet submission rates are plummeting faster than Fabricio Werdum's backside to the canvas.
Brazilian jiu-jitsu was the catalyst that kick-started MMA, the original reason that fighters found it necessary to cross train in multiple disciplines. When wrestlers learned submission holds and kickboxers developed takedown defense, it was because they had to avoid the danger of jiu-jitsu.
Once responsible for the birth of modern MMA, jiu-jitsu now seems little more than an afterthought.
The top grapplers in the world congregated in England this past weekend for the 2011 ADCC Submission Wrestling World Championship. A bi-annual event, it's the most prestigious submission grappling tournament in the world and attracts fighters from across the globe. It was devised and is patroned by sheikhs from oil-rich (and, bizarrely, jiu-jitsu crazy) Abu Dhabi, the capital of UAE.
Of the 100 competitors at this year's tournament, there were more than a few names familiar to MMA fans. Professional MMA fighters such as Dean Lister, Fabricio Werdum, Vinny Magalhaes, Jeff Monson, Rousimar Palhares and more showed that their ability to wrench limbs and crank necks is as sharp as ever.
Even to the untrained eye, the standard of grappling this year was spectacular -- impressive, dynamic stuff -- but it's left fans asking why they can't perform to the same level of success when in the cage.
There is a well-worn, yet very true maxim among MMA fighters: if you punch a black belt in the face enough times, he goes back to being a white belt.
Much like in the late 1990's when kickboxers learned how to sprawl and take out the fearsome wrestlers who were dominating the sport, modern MMA fighters have increased their submission awareness to a level where it has become exceedingly difficult for even the most talented grapplers to grab a submission.
Familiar names find familiar success in ADCC
Of the high-level mixed martial artists who entered the 2011 ADCC tournament, almost all hold black belts in BJJ. And they did very, very well. Dean Lister walked away with a gold medal, as did Vinny Magalhaes. Rousimar Palhares picked up second place in the 88kg category. This goes to show they're among the best grapplers in the world right now. But none are considered particularly spectacular MMA fighters, and all are a long way from a top-10 ranking.
Even former Strikeforce middleweight champion Ronaldo Souza, considered by many to be one of the best pound-for-pound submission specialists in the world, only looks good on the ground against non-grapplers. He struggled with a strong wrestler with good striking in Luke Rockhold, losing his belt in the process.
The current consensus is that the best grappler on the planet is Marcelo Garcia, an affable and curly-haired Brazilian now living in New York City. He took his fourth ADCC world title on Sunday in amazing fashion, practically walking through the competition. But he bombed out atrociously in his sole foray into MMA, a second round TKO loss to an unheralded 10-4 fighter in 2007.
One-trick ponies just aren’t cutting it
Werdum, Palhares, Lister ... All amazing grapplers who look pedestrian in the cage. Why?
Because -- as obvious as it sound -- MMA is not grappling. As highly skilled as these fighters are, many of them enter MMA relatively late in their athletic careers. They've usually had a good few years’ worth of jiu-jitsu competition under their belt, with the associated wear and tear on the body. Starting an MMA career in their late 20s doesn't leave them much time to develop the skills to hang with even mediocre strikers with half-decent takedown defense.
Case in point: Roger Gracie. He's achieved more in jiu-jitsu than any other man alive, taking home an unprecedented 10 grappling world titles. Yet he had his clock cleaned inside of one round by Muhammed Lawal before executing a single jiu-jitsu move. His awkward stand-up is typical of jiu-jitsu fighters, an affliction that has plagued submission specialists since the very beginning of MMA.
It's not that guys aren't capable of performing jiu-jitsu tactics in an MMA environment; there are simply factors in an MMA fight that prevent this from taking place. There are, of course, the practical limitations of grappling in a cage. Grapplers are used to referees calling a time-out and dragging them back into the center of the mat every few minutes, and lengthy breaks during matches are not uncommon. The transition to getting mercilessly and relentlessly stuck against a wire mesh cage for five long minutes is a harsh one.
But perhaps the most restrictive factor for grapplers in MMA is the gloves. MMA gloves may only weigh between 4-6 ounces, but the layers of gauze and tape underneath the pads make them bulky and cumbersome when jockeying for position. Try slipping your fist into an MMA mitt and then sliding it underneath a chin for a chokehold -- it's harder than it sounds.
When most MMA fighters were still relative novices to the ground game, the gloves weren’t an issue. The aforementioned submission wizard Marcelo Garcia is known for his amazing ability to secure chokes from any position, yet he spent an entire round on the back of the very average Korean fighter Dae Won Kim and was unable to find his go-to move. A little submission defense goes a long way in the cage.
The next wave will be more complete
Contrary to what you might think, jiu-jitsu is not done for in MMA. We'll still see plenty of flashy grappling moves in the Octagon and elsewhere -- it'll just not be the elite-level grapplers doing them.
Take a look at some of the young talent in the UFC. 26-year-old Nate Diaz is keeping the Gracie style of jiu-jitsu alive in the Octagon with 10 of his 14 victories by tap out. Former WEC lightweight champ Ben Henderson fought in the recent BJJ World Championships in Los Angeles, placing a respectable third in the brown belt division. And of course Jon Jones, the blueprint for modern mixed martial artists, finished off Quinton Jackson with a classic rear-naked choke.
Even though Fabricio Werdum survived 15 minutes with Alistair Overeem and submitted Fedor Emelianenko, he’s very much part of the old school of jiu-jitsu fighters in MMA. Instead, look for the new generation of versatile athletes, the youngsters who started mixing the arts in their teens. With equal parts ability in the stand-up, wrestling and ground games, they have the well-rounded skill sets that will enable them to seamlessly transition from range to range and style to style, but without the years of bad habits fostered by competition in other arts.
Starnes fled the scene of a fight without actually leaving the cage against Nate Quarry -- and it made for an awkward experience. Kalib Starnes ran; Nate Quarry pursued; 15 minutes died in the interim. If there was ever a clear demonstration of the fine line between comedy and tragedy, this was it. In the end, one judge saw the fight 30-24. Another had it 30-26, and the last one -- a marathoner, no doubt, who didn’t disagree with the aesthetic he was watching -- had it a standard 30-27.
In other words, neither people nor judges know what to think when a fighter runs. Whether it’s for a whole fight, or just in pockets.
Jon Jones is a far cry from Starnes, but he ran from Quinton Jackson at UFC 135 -- only he was far more selective when he did it. This was a skipped-over detail of the fight. A couple of instances when Jackson coiled back in a scramble, Jones high-tailed it out of there. He admitted as much during the postfight newser, saying, “there were a lot of times where Rampage swung at me, and, instead of defending technically, I kind of ran like a little girl.”
Afterwards, on an ESPN podcast, Jackson talked about that very thing, and said that’s one of the reasons he’s contemplating a post-UFC career in boxing (ahem).
“I hate fighting people who are scared,” he said. “When you fight somebody who is scared, you never know what they’re going to do. They turn and run. That’s why I'm gonna go to boxing. I’m gonna try boxing because they’ve got to stand with you. If I get knocked out I don’t care because at least it’s a fight.”
Obviously, Jackson is bothered by Jones’ retreating. Why? Because when Jones ran, it wasn’t that he was hit and trying to recover like you see so often. He ran to avoid getting hit. This can be defended as fighting smart, but it can also be looked at as an unexpected new wrinkle in Jones’ game, the wrinkle of caution -- particularly for a guy who has dominated everybody the UFC has put in front of him. Rampage sees a fight as literal; swing until somebody gets knocked out. Jones sees it as something more akin to art; swing until you need to get out of the way.
While he still out-landed Jackson 74-24 in total strikes according to FightMetric -- with 61 of those strikes deemed significant -- it was unexpected that Jones’ first reaction in an exchange was to skedaddle. You say Jackson has knockout power? So did Mauricio Rua and Ryan Bader and Vladimir Matyushenko, all of whom have more knockouts in the last three years than Jackson (who has zero).
It’s possible Jones got caught up in the moment. It’s possible that his body and mind were parting ways for a few seconds here and there. It’s a fight, after all, and one that had more pressure than Jones was used to.
Even still, he dominated en route to a fourth round rear-naked choke. It was his fight from the opening bell. But in a bout where so much went right for the champion, it was one little, barely registering detail that looked a little wrong.
For the record, that's the same hefty banishment from contact training handed out to lightweight Aaron Riley, who withdrew from his bout with Tony Ferguson on Saturday complaining of a broken jaw after the first round. It's also substantially longer than the 60 days dealt to Jackson (who certainly appeared to be the one worse for wear after their fight) and the 45 days given to Matt Hughes after he got knocked cold by Josh Koscheck in the co-main event. Specific reasoning behind any of the suspensions was not immediately available.
Before this and reports that Jon Jones may have injured his foot -- supported by accounts that he had to be helped to and from the postfight news conference -- elicit an audible groan from both fight fans and the camp of Rashad Evans, it should be noted that these suspensions are sometimes purely precautionary. If Jones can get the go-ahead from his physician, he can be back to training soon enough, likely in time to make, say, a potential Super Bowl weekend show against Evans.
Whenever they officially add this fight to the docket, let's hope the re-rescheduled date goes off as planned, since any further delays for Evans, who has already waited some 16 months for his second shot at light heavyweight gold, will certainly only bring more backbiting and allegations of tomfoolery from all sides.
If reports out of Denver on Friday suggest that the animosity between Jones and Jackson seems to be growing as their bout for the UFC light heavyweight title draws nearer, that perhaps it has even eclipsed the hostility each has expressed for mutual nemesis Rashad Evans in the past, maybe all this time together has something to do with it.
“I don’t like being around him at all,” Jackson told MMA Fighting’s Ariel Helwani this week, about sharing the same space with Jones as they made the rounds to promote their fight. “You just feel the energy of people, you feel the fakeness coming off him. He tries to say little sly things on the side here and there. He tries to make me out like I’m the bad guy, like I’m the one picking on him. [It’s] the same thing Rashad basically did [before UFC 114] ... but honestly, Jon Jones is making me like Rashad more than him.”
Jones confirmed the feeling was mutual, but -- in typical fashion for the young champion -- gave the impression he’s been able to find something useful out of doing joint appearances and interviews and even sharing the same couch with Jackson on an episode of "Jimmy Kimmel Live!" this week.
“I’m actually liking it, I’m liking it a lot,” Jones told Helwani. “Rampage’s personality is a very unique personality and if you’re not familiar with it ... it can take a lot of people aback. Rampage has that in-your-face [attitude] like, ‘Oh, I’m going to knock you out, kid’ and the Mr. T talk. The more I’m around it, the more I’ve humanized him [and] the more I’ve realized that he’s just some heavy-handed Mr. T wannabe.”
Like I said, useful, if not exactly complimentary.
Certainly, this can’t be easy for either guy. A professional mixed martial artist typically spends the weeks leading up to a big bout secluded inside an anonymous gym, surrounded only by a close-knit group of training partners. This is the part most say is a drag, but there’s probably also something necessary about the isolation and solitude of training. During this time, fighters usually see the guy they’re about to fight only on film, and to the extent most will even cop to being the slightest bit concerned about him, it’s with an arms-length kind of contempt.
Nobody wants to spend much time around his opponent, let alone be confronted by daily reminders of him as an actual, living human being. So long as you are able to stay cocooned in the fog of camp, the guy probably isn’t even real to you until you show up on fight week and, boom, there he is, breathing and walking around and, maybe, mean mugging you.
Jones and Jackson haven’t had that luxury of that separation and, at this point, the prefight theatrics have probably worn off for both guys. It appears that with familiarity has come a true dislike, as Jackson reportedly said he didn’t even want to be in the same room as a “fake-ass kid” like Jones during their Friday morning "SportsCenter" interviews.
Only a bit more than 24 hours left, guys. Then you never have to see each other again. Well, until the next time.
On the one side, you have a limber Jones, who can tag you from six feet in, with a range of kicks, backfists and dervish elbows. He can hit you from distances that you can’t hit him back from and do it with staple gun speed. Since that’s the case, we’ve never seen him get tagged -- not truly tagged, anyway -- even against prominent strikers like Mauricio Rua. We’re left to theorize about the durability of his chin.
So what makes us think that Jackson can wade in through the flying things (knees, elbows, fists, backhands) and land that million-dollar shot? In a word: Audacity. The slower, flat-footed Jackson will be willing to eat a couple of Jones’ “pillow” shots to get in close enough and close the drapes on Jones. That’s what he’s selling. That’s what we need to build a belief around if we want this thing to look more competitive than it feels.
The best of all worlds would be to get both. To see the full canon of Jones striking, but also to see how he reacts to getting hit with a vintage Rampage “bungalow.” Then some mysteries could begin to unravel. And who knows, maybe afterward we’re talking about Rampage’s rematch with Evans. Maybe we’re saying of his career, “It’s alive, it’s moving it’s alive, it’s alive, it’s alive!”
It’s a long shot, but it would be the way to turn the Frankenstein analogy on its heel.
Around the Horn
If it was up to Matt Hughes, he’d go on fighting, win or lose this weekend, no questions asked. But he’s married. And as a good husband, he’s listening to his wife, who is urging him to retire.
What about his coach, Jeremy Horn, who has fought exactly 61 more times than Hughes (who’s fought in 53 pro fights)?
“He and I have had two different careers,” Horn told ESPN.com. “I’ve fought all over the place -- upper-, mid-, average-levels -- and he’s been the champion for quite a while. I think for someone like him, once the desire to chase the championship is not there anymore, he may think about retiring. Whereas with me, I just like beating people up. So whenever I get a chance to, I will.”
185 of bust for Kos?Josh Koscheck finds himself in Rich Franklin territory -- that is, 0-2 against the titleholder in his natural division. What happened to Franklin? A strong suggestion from the UFC to switch divisions if he wanted to continue pursuing a title. Guess where Koscheck finds himself heading into his fight with Matt Hughes? Ditto’d.
“To be honest, let’s see -- do they really want to see me and Georges St. Pierre fight a third time? I’d like it, but I don’t think the UFC is going to have anything to do with that anytime soon,” he told ESPN.com. “And that’s one of the reasons why I want big fights, so I can make money. Think about the opportunity of putting some Josh Koscheck matchups at 185 pounds. It’d be fun for the fans, and they’d be main event fights.”
In other words, this may be the last time we see Koscheck at 170 pounds so long as Georges St. Pierre is around.
Vulgar display of power
“It’s the Hawaiian people, man, it’s the Hawaiian pride, you know what I mean?” Browne told ESPN.com. “We put everything into that punch. That’s what I mean -- I’m kind of lean for the heavyweight division, and I’ll probably weigh in around 250 pounds for my fight, but my strength is highly underrated.”
“I was very gifted with what God gave me and my parents. They really did well giving me genetics. I can be totally out of shape, walk in front of a mirror and feel disgusted in myself, and then diet, lift weights for two weeks, walk in front of that mirror and I’m a different guy. So I’m very, very lucky.” -- Matt Hughes on the fortunate situation he was born into with his body type
After decimating Mauricio Rua to become the youngest champion in UFC history back in March, Jones is the consensus pick to waltz in similar fashion through his first title defense against Quinton Jackson on Saturday at UFC 135.
He’s already being heralded, in the words of color commentator Joe Rogan, as perhaps the greatest talent MMA has ever seen. Were it possible to buy stock in a fighter, investors couldn’t do much better than Jones, as he stands poised to be a linchpin in the UFC’s new network television era, where the possibilities simply dwarf anything the sport has seen to this point.
With good reason, the UFC seems giddy to have him, casting Jones in beer commercials and talk show gigs and public appearances everywhere from Denver (where he is this week) to the Philippines, where he’ll be next month as part of a personal “tour” not-so-subtly billed by a local television station as an opportunity for fans to “Face the Future.”
Jones is 24 years old and on top of the MMA world. There’s just one problem: If he is indeed the future of the UFC, why does a significant percentage of the promotion’s hard-core fan base appear to hate his guts?
"Jones your goin down $@%!$!!!!" wrote one commenter on ESPN.com this week.
"Anyone who really follows the sport knows Jones is a total tool and I personally want to see him get blasted by Rampage," wrote another.
"Jones has fought nothing but cans," said another ... And another: "Jones is cocky and his character is suspect" ... And another: "I think he is incredibly entertaining in the ring. I just hate his personality and hope that he get's his a-- kicked" … etc., etc., and so on and so forth.
So, what’s the deal? Why all the hate for a guy who may be on the verge of becoming one of the sport's all-time greats?
The likely answer is twofold. First, as another, perhaps more insightful commenter pointed out this week: Haters gonna hate. Any fighter who’s risen as fast through the ranks as Jones has is bound to have critics.
Second, there is the matter of Jones' carefully crafted public persona, which has always made him an odd fit in a subculture that prides itself on being unscripted.
Where other sports are overprocessed, staid and self-serious, the UFC has taken pains over the years to come off as casual, edgy and a little bit unpredictable. It was a “reality” show, after all, that gave the UFC its first foothold in the mainstream. More recently, one of its core promotional tactics has been to utilize unfiltered blasts of social media to connect with fans. "As Real as It Gets," promised the company's own slogan for a time.
For better and worse, the political correctness that hampers mainstream entities like the NFL and NBA hasn’t quite caught up to MMA yet. At least part of the sport’s appeal has always been grounded in hard-core fans feeling that they really know their heroes, and fans have come to expect "realness" from MMA personalities with the same regularity that they expect a pay-per-view or two every month.
In terms of pure marketing, it’s been a fairly genius approach and one that’s worked wonderfully for the UFC over the last six or seven years. Now, though, comes Jones -- who frankly doesn't play that way.
Even from the beginning of his career, Jones’ interactions with media have been studied and savvy. He’s not a “fake” or a “phony” as has been suggested by adversaries Jackson and Rashad Evans, but he’s certainly very sensitive to how he’s portrayed and very careful about the things he says in public.
As a result, some fans likely view him as dishonest. They think he’s trying to hide his cockiness beneath a humble exterior and near-constant talk of his faith. There’s nothing edgy or unpredictable about Jones and that probably rubs some people the wrong way, whether or not they can put their finger on exactly what it is they don’t like about him. Unfortunately, that’s also just the man's personality, and at this point I’m afraid he’ll always have some trouble connecting with a certain segment of rabid MMA fans.
Is that fair to Jones? Maybe, maybe not. There's nothing that says fans have to cheer for a guy just because he's an incredible talent. There's nothing that says Jones has to care, either. At the end of the day, the boos and negative Internet comments probably just equate to dollar signs for him. Plus, the good news is that his careful, easily digestible approach may well play much better to the droves of casual, mainstream viewers who promise to come along with the company’s new broadcast deal with Fox.
Of course, Jones’ greatest strength will always be that it is simply electric to watch him fight. Even his harshest critics can’t deny him that, and if he’s able to wade successfully through the absolute murderer’s row of opponents the UFC may throw at him during the next calendar year, his performance will speak for itself.
Some people certainly won't like it, but as the sport continues to grow in popularity, they'll probably become outnumbered by those who do.