Jones' star burning brighter than ever
From Jon "Bones" Jones' successful UFC title defense over Quinton Jackson to a series of explosive knockouts in Bellator to the next chapter in Japanese mixed martial arts, the busiest fight weekend in a long time did not disappoint.
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The focus, of course, featured Jones-Jackson during UFC 135 on Saturday in Denver. While the title fight offered excellence (Jones) and some mediocrity (Jackson), the card as a whole did not necessarily produce the best action. Not to worry; Bellator 51 and Dream 17 both featured the beginning of unaffiliated bantamweight tournaments, which helped round out this week's grades.
Spanning "A" to "F," the weekend produced something for everyone:
UFC 135/Dream 17/Bellator 51 grades
Ho-hum. Just another clinic by the 24-year-old UFC light heavyweight champion. With his first successful title defense now out of the way, Jon Jones has positioned himself among the brightest-burning stars in the UFC. All he has to do is keep winning, of course -- then we're talking about someone who could become the standard-bearer for MMA. The champion waited patiently until Quinton Jackson was ready to be had. He wasn't compelled to force anything. Jones, it seems, knows full well how dangerous Jackson can be. Beyond easily answering the physical demands of fighting, Jones (14-1) handled expanding media attention very well. He has all the makings of a long-term star in MMA.
Vila's main event in Bellator against Joe Warren took place midway through UFC 135, so chances are high most people missed his spectacular finish of Joe Warren. The opening round knockout, off a heat-seeking left hook, put Vila (10-0) in the Bellator bantamweight semifinals with Ed West (C+ after a decision over Luis Alberto Nogueira), Marcos Galvao (B- in a tough one against Chase Beebe), and explosive Eduardo Dantas ("A" for his KO off a lunging knee against Wilson Reis).
The submission of the night went to 26-year-old Nate Diaz for his slick armbar on Takanori Gomi, which came in part because the Japanese fighter had no answer for Diaz's punching accuracy and volume. Returning to lightweight, Diaz found a home for the vast majority of his strikes in the opening five minutes, during which he upped the pressure as Gomi struggled against the assault. Diaz (14-7) still has to find a way to cope with larger, stronger wrestlers, otherwise the win- loss carousel will trudge on.
Lost in all the talk about Matt Hughes' future was Josh Koscheck's gutty comeback. Making his first appearance since Georges St. Pierre blew up the right side of his face, Koscheck, 33, needed a couple of minutes to test his surgically repaired eye socket. He took some punches, nothing too serious, before moving in on Hughes. The final minute carried with it a sense of inevitability as Koscheck (16-5) stalked and punched and eventually hurt the former champion. For the time being, Koscheck should forget any notion of moving up to 185. He's a ranked welterweight, and has another run in him.
Granted, it happened against journeyman Aaron Riley, but there was a lot to like about Tony Ferguson's performance in Denver. The TUF 13 winner looks strong and fit at 155 pounds. He retained his punching power and forced Riley to quit with a broken jaw after the first round. Ferguson, 27, is long and punches to hurt. It's a long road from Aaron Riley to Frankie Edgar; I'm not saying Ferguson has it in him to climb that high. But at the very least, Ferguson provides us enough incentive to tune in and watch.
Bibiano Fernandes took care of business fast against Takafumi Otsuka, ducking under a punch, defending and slipping into immediate back-control. The subsequent rear-naked choke turned Otsuka -- who replaced Kenji Osawa -- unconscious. Working closely with Matt Hume agrees with Fernandes, who joins Masakazu Imanari (B for his sweet sub of Abel Cullum), Antonio Banuelos (C-plus in the aftermath of a hard contest against Hideo Tokoro), and the little known Rodolfo Marques (C-plus for three tough rounds against Yusup Saadulaev) in the semifinals of Dream's bantamweight grand prix. Fernandes fought like the favorite.
After three grueling rounds in the Denver altitude against an equally large and determined heavyweight, Mark Hunt (7-7) has taken on the veneer of a fighter who might hang around the UFC for a bit. Two wins after six straight losses is an attitude-changer, and if the 37-year-old New Zealander, a K-1 champion, continues to improve guard passing, position control and submission awareness (give the guy credit: he attempted a straight armbar), he'll quickly turn into someone fighters won't want to see on their path to the top. The winner between Cheick Kongo and Matt Mitrione would make a great opponent for Hunt.
After his featherweight debut, Tatsuya Kawajiri, one of Japan's most respected fighters, has new life. The drop in weight wasn't an issue for Kawajiri. Neither was veteran Joachim Hansen, who succumbed to an arm- triangle choke mideway through Round 3. Kawajiri will have a difficult time emerging in the featherweight rankings without fights against credible opponents. Outside of Aoki, Kawajiri (29-7-2) remains the Japan's best hope against international opposition.
As expected, Shinya Aoki (29-5) had an easy time with Rob McCullough, scoring a first-round finish thanks to a painful neck crank from back-control. Aoki is well aware what's required of him to be successful against stronger American fighters, most of whom hold a wrestling edge over the 28-year-old Japanese fighter, currently ranked No. 5 by ESPN at 155 pounds. There's talk that Aoki could grant Eddie Alvarez a rematch next. Let's hope East-West MMA politics don't get in the way and that it happens.
Middleweight suits "The Barbarian" Tim Boetsch. Hello, middleweights. Did you get the message? Boetsch, 30, did more than enough to hand Canadian Nick Ring his first loss. That's in part because Boestch (14-4) gained strength over the course of the fight and essentially bulldozed his way through Ring (12-1), who put up a solid effort but didn't have a response for the American's power on the inside. Boetsch is a grinder, and against better wrestlers or deft strikers he'll run into trouble.
Travis Browne is talented in that he doesn't move like most heavyweights. That's why his pairing with Eric Del Fierro at Alliance MMA in San Diego seemed inspired. Browne even resembled Del Fierro's prize pupil, Dominick Cruz, in his last contest against Stefan Struve. Changing camps to address Denver's elevation seemed to slow Browne's progress. He just wasn't very sharp against Rob Broughton, and as a result was required to go 15 minutes against the big Englishman.
Matt Hughes, 37, is done with MMA if UFC president Dana White has anything to say about it. The two-time UFC champion should be remembered for how he decisively navigated through the organization's best division over the last decade. Hughes (46-9) has surely lost a step or two. He's smaller and less powerful than he used to be. The fact is, he's aged and he can't compete at this level anymore. That's how it's supposed to happen, you know. Hughes will not be celebrated. He's never been a media darling. Still, his accomplishments stand on their own, and as the lens pulls back Hughes will take his rightful place among the all-time greats.
Quinton Jackson flailed. He missed. He didn't move much. He was hit. He attempted to box. To no avail. The point is, it wasn't Jackson's night Saturday, even if what he said was true and he entered the light heavyweight title clash in the best condition of his life. Jackson was definitely predictable. He has been for a while. And he was picked apart by Jones as a result. Jackson (32-9) never found a way inside. He couldn't get to Jones' body or head. Bottom line: The 33-year-old fighter didn't do much of anything.
Broughton, 28, isn't long for the UFC heavyweight division. Not if he can't defend a single-leg takedown better than that weak effort against Travis Browne. For that reason and many others, Broughton (15-6-1) looks like little more than a measuring stick.
The decision loss to Hunt means that Rothwell (31-8) has split his past six fights and holds a 1-2 ledger in the UFC. No one has ever doubted Rothwell's resilience, nor should they. He's as hard-nosed as they come. But at the highest level we know that's not nearly enough. Rothwell, 29, is taking more punches than at any point in his career. Sheer will kept him standing against Hunt. That's not something a fighter can get away with over long stretches. It's evaluation time for the Wisconsin native.
In his fourth UFC fight, Gomi was submitted for the third time. This was not a result the former Pride champion needed as UFC gets serious about promoting an event in Japan. Gomi (32-8) was overwhelmed by Nate Diaz and, at the age of 33, looked nothing like a fighter who once claimed the top spot in the lightweight division.
Bellator featherweight champion Joe Warren ventured down a weight class and received a terrible welcome. Hard, then, to claim status as the world's baddest man. Warren (7-2) set lofty goals leading into 2011. On the MMA side he's struggling to make good on promises of multiple tournament titles in Bellator. We know he's out of the bantamweight tournament. Up next, a featherweight fight against Patricio Freire. It's getting more difficult to like the 34-year-old wrestler's chances in that one.
Josh Gross covers MMA for ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter at JoshGrossESPN.
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