"Welcome to the Machida era."
These were the now immortal words Joe Rogan spoke after Lyoto Machida knocked out Rashad Evans to claim the UFC Light Heavyweight title. As it turned out, the era was short-lived. In his next fight, Machida's elusive game was cracked by Shogun Rua, who would go on to take that title away in the rematch. Rogan's line has become something of a joke since then - a sign of over-hyped expectations and declaring a fighter as unbeatable far too soon. The fall of Machida showed us as fans that sometimes we need to wait. And yet...
After Jon Jones defeated Shogun at UFC 128, cries of "Welcome to the Jones era" immediately sprang up. More patient fans insisted that we let Jones defend his title first, reminding us of the folly of the Machida era. Last night, at UFC 135, Jones did indeed defend that title, but unlike Machida, he did so in dominating fashion. Over 4 rounds, Jones slowly increased the pressure on challenger Quinton Jackson, using every tool in his ample kit to overwhelm Rampage and eventually choke him out. Already, the praise has been great, with writers like MMA Nation's Jonathan Snowden declaring, "Jon Jones is the best fighter in the world." So the question much be asked:
Is it too early to declare this the Jon Jones era?
In a word, yes. Yes, it is too early to declare this 24 year old champion as the dominating force of one of the sport's toughest, most grueling divisions.
You can't deny that Jones looked tremendous last night. He outstruck Rampage, using his range to keep the challenger at bay for over 15 minutes. Pre-fight, Rampage made his gameplan clear - get inside and test the chin of the champion. But despite Jackson's superb boxing skills, he never did get in to land that clean punch and get that game working. That striking could have been enough to win, but Jones added more to his game last night, including some nasty kicks to the knee, jumping to pull guard, and mental games that clearly bothered the veteran Rampage. In short, Jones dominated, looking like one of the best in the sport along the way. But before his era can truly begin, he has unfinished business that must be addressed.
Rashad Evans. He's the former Light Heavyweight champion, former teammate to Jones, #1 contender, and the last man to defeat Rampage. But more importantly, he's the man who was supposed to stand across the cage from Jones in that first defense, and the man who many felt Jones ducked. To truly begin his era, Jon Jones must prove that he can defeat Rashad.
To many fans, last night's fight showed that Jones vs. Evans is an easy win for Jones. He'll have the size and strength advantage, superior striking, and superior wrestling. But Evans will also be the toughest opponent Jones has yet encountered in his young MMA career. Jones has yet to face an all around fighter who is in his prime and presents a threat in both the physical and strategic game. Evans is the complete package. And he is the test Jones must pass.
And if Jones does defeat Evans, sending him back down the ladder in the same way he banished Rampage Jackson from future title contention last night? Then I will gladly say, "Welcome to the Jones era."