[Image via www.jameslawphotography.com]
In the long run, it doesn't matter if Jon Jones ducked Rashad Evans or not — the resulting fallout has lined up one of the best title contention scenarios in recent UFC light heavyweight history.
No matter who wins the title shot at UFC 133 or the championship belt at UFC 135, it potentially sets up some matches that could do dynamite PPV sales and generate lots of awesome media coverage/analysis. Mixed martial arts is a turbulent sport, as injuries, contract negotiations, and random events often conspire to deprive us fans of the biggest fights that we want to see. It's been the case with Georges St. Pierre vs. Anderson Silva, Randy Couture vs. Fedor Emelianenko, and until very recently, Nick Diaz vs. Georges St. Pierre.
But this time, the planets have aligned just right, and we could get any one of these four great fights out of the infamous Jon Jones hand injury debacle:
1. Jon "Bones" Jones vs. Quinton "Rampage" Jackson for the UFC LHW Championship
What Has to Happen: Neither fighter gets injured.
For all intents and purposes, this fight is a done deal, and it's going to be a supremely interesting match. Jones brings talent, athleticism, and a villainous persona to the table, whereas Rampage contrasts with age, experience, and an almost teenager-like demeanor that endears him to most MMA fans. More than anything, Rampage might finally be the guy to test Jones and his chin, one of the biggest question marks about the young fighter.
2. Jon Jones vs. Rashad Evans for the UFC LHW Championship
What Has to Happen: Jones defeats Rampage, Evans defeats Phil Davis.
Originally, this was the big fight that everyone wanted, especially following Jones' systematic dismantling of Shogun Rua. Should both Jones and Evans defeat their respective opponents, the UFC can cash in on all the animosity that these two fighters have been building up since Evans left Greg Jackson's MMA camp. In my mind, that UFC Showtime special practically writes itself. Plus, you can bet on an excellent/awkward staring contest at the weigh-ins, and tons of tasty quotes down the road. By far, this fight is the most likely option, but not the only big one.
3. Rampage vs. Evans II for the UFC LHW Championship
What Has to Happen: Rampage beats up Jones, Evans still defeats Davis.
Rampage and Evans sold over 1,000,000 buys on PPV for UFC 114, and in an age ruled by Brock Lesnar, that was a huge feat. Should Rampage prove too powerful for the lanky Jones, a second clash between him and his nemesis would still be a sellable fight. Of course, there are concerns about putting both fighters in the same cage again, as noted by one of the UFC's most important fight fans, Dana White:
"Talking's fun before the fight, but if you do all this talking and then you go in there and don't fight, who wants to see that (crap) again?" White told USA TODAY. "Rampage-Rashad, the (freaking) snoozefest? I don't want to see that (freaking) fight again."
"Matt Hamill and Rampage might not talk a bunch of (crap) about each other before the fight, but when have you not seen Matt Hamill fight?" White said. "Matt Hamill's going to go in there and try to beat him."
For Rampage and Evans, this fight would have entirely new stakes, along with providing a way to "make up" for their last fight by settling the score.
4. Jon Jones vs. Phil "Mr. Wonderful" Davis for the UFC LHW Championship
What Has to Happen: Jones beats Rampage, but Davis upsets Rashad.
Poor Phil Davis just couldn't escape the comparisons to Jon Jones, and a win over Rashad Evans will do nothing to dissuade that. If Davis manages to pull off a huge upset and kick Evans out of the title hunt, this potential match should be a rare case -- one of the UFC's youngest champions against a similarly young three-year MMA neophyte. It would look like a monster movie; a battle of long limbs and enormous, tall, lanky physiques.
5. Rampage Jackson vs. Phil Davis for the UFC LHW Championship
What Has to Happen: Rampage beats up Jones, Davis avoids lingering "in the mix" after defeating Evans.
Even if Phil Davis beats Rashad Evans (and especially if he looks bad doing it), there's still no guarantee that he'll earn a title shot in his next fight. Should Jon Jones lose, that option becomes even less attractive with more recognizable, sellable fighters like Lyoto Machida and Forrest Griffin hanging around. Going by the oddsmakers, this is the least likely scenario, but still a possibility.
6. Rampage vs. Evans II for the #1 Contender's Spot to the UFC LHW Title
What Has to Happen: (See Entry Number 4.)
Hey, if Rampage and Evans lose, this fight is still there, and should Jones beat Davis, the revenge angle works well enough to set up a potential rematch with winner of this fight and the champion.
So, that's my list of long, rambling thoughts on the future of the LHW division and where it can go. Call me crazy, but I'm starting to think that Jones and Evans missing their first dance date isn't such a terrible thing after all. With all the mix-ups, pointed fingers, and wild conspiracy theories that have flown around since Jon Jones wrenched the title away from Shogun Rua, it's nice to think that no matter what happens, an interesting fight with a fascinating narrative with be right around the corner — no matter who wins or loses.
[McKinley Noble is a staff editor at GamePro and an MMA conspiracy theorist. Follow his Twitter account for crazy talk, 1990s movie references, and general weirdness. Or you could just stalk him on Google.]