It's a question that made the rounds through the mixed martial arts community quickly following Jon Jones' destruction of Ryan Bader at UFC 126 on Saturday night. Following Jones' submission win over The Ultimate Fighter season eight winner, Joe Rogan announced that Rashad Evans had been injured in training camp and that the UFC wanted to extend the offer of an immediate title shot to Jones. Jones accepted and will now fight Mauricio Rua in the UFC 128 main event in Newark, New Jersey on March 19th, a mere six weeks away.
The online reaction to the announcement was as you might expect. Thirty and forty-year-old men were reduced to their teenage years with giddy excitement over the prospect of Rua meeting Jones, and many fans felt that it was time to usher in the Jones' era. Isn't it a little premature to be calling Jones a future legend on the sport? Some fans already feel that Jones will destroy Rua and stick to the top of the mountain for many years to come. At only 23 years old, it would be an impressive feat to see Jones not only win the crown next month, but maintain that crown for many years. It would certainly solidify him as one of the greatest fighters of all-time.
Whoa! Whoa! Whoa, fans! Let's not overlook the task at hand. Mauricio "Shogun" Rua is one of the best fighters to ever grace the ring or cage at 205 pounds. His mix of brilliant Brazilian jiu-jitsu technique, blazing fast striking, and devastating power is easy to forget when watching Jones manhandle one of the division's best up-and-coming stars. Furthermore, the size difference we saw as both men stood next to each other inside the Octagon was immense, fueling more fire that Jones will be too much for Rua.
I'm not buying into the hype just yet. Jones has been a highly-successful fighter in the UFC, but I'm still not convinced that he's ready to be a champion. In the future, he seems to have all of the tools and support to become a long-standing champion in the division, but is he at that point in his career already?
Jones' strength of record is a little lacking as proof, and there are some concerns when we look down his list of wins. First and foremost, Bader, who many believed to be Jones' toughest test to date, was given too much credit for his victories in the past. Every single opponent Bader defeated with the exception of Antonio Rogerio Nogueira is not with the UFC anymore. Carmelo Marrero, Vinny Magalhaes, Eric Schafer, and Keith Jardine made Bader look solid, and in Bader's first real test inside the Octagon -- I thought Nogueira had edged the standout wrestler from Arizona State.
For all the talk that Bader would make this a competitive fight with Jones, his style and history inside the Octagon proved otherwise. Fans seemed to forget that wild haymakers from the outside and sluggish shots for takedowns aren't the epitome of an elite-level fighter, and Bader hasn't improved in those areas. Jones was the obvious favorite in the wrestling department due to his length and size, and he brilliantly exposed Bader.
Scanning the list of Jones' past opponents, there seems to be a trend of facing fighters with glaring weaknesses. Every opponent Jones faces has an immense reach disadvantage to start, and if that opponent has historically had trouble dealing with reach or has failed at using footwork to move inside -- the fight is as good as over once the bell rings. Matyushenko fell victim to that very problem along with being manhandled by Jones' strength. Matt Hamill and Jake O'Brien didn't have the wrestling pedigree that Jones possesses, and Brandon Vera has completely fallen off the wagon since his return to the sport.
Don't get me wrong. I'm not attempting to discount Jones' successes, but rather bring to light the fact that he has yet to face a fighter who is as well-rounded as Mauricio "Shogun" Rua. Rua has a number of skills in his arsenal that make this fight very intriguing. Most notably, he's one of the very best in the division on the feet. He has wicked power in his hands, brutal knee strikes, and an aggression that fuses it altogether to create one of the most exciting strikers in the division.
His quick footwork is a major focal point in this particular match-up however. Rua was able to move in and out so quickly that even the perceived master of elusiveness Lyoto Machida was unable to escape brutal leg kicks from the outside. While Jones' reach will strain Rua's attempts to work a similar gameplan, he still has the speed to move in, damage Jones' lead leg, and move out before Jones can counter. Elusiveness will be a key for Rua, and I don't see any reason why that speed won't give Jones huge problems in March.
The ground game is area of concern, and most fans will point at Jones' size and wrestling ability as a means to his domination of Rua on the ground. I wouldn't put it past Jones to perform such a feat, but Jones has yet to face a high-level Brazilian jiu-jitsu grappler like Rua. Brandon Vera was unable to keep Jones down in his guard, but Rua will more than likely be able to threaten from the bottom. His quickness also comes into play as he's very good at scrambling from the bottom when the opportunity presents itself. Believe it or not, a big frame can consistently give smaller fighters openings to escape, and Rua should be able to take full advantage. If Jones can't posture up or pass Rua's guard, it'll be a long night for him.
Fans tend to forget that Rua has faced the who's who of the light heavyweight division. His PRIDE days offered a bevy of fighters of all sizes and strengths. Power wrestlers like Kevin Randleman and Mark Coleman, lengthy strikers like Alistair Overeem and Cyrille Diabate, and excellent grapplers such as Ricardo Arona and Antonio Rogerio Nogueira. Rua was in the same boat as Jones, a youthful talent with all sort of hype around him, and he eventually prevailed. Is it time for the torch to be passed? We'll find out in March. For now, enjoy what should be one of the best fights the light heavyweight division will offer in all of 2011.