When K.J. Noons hit the national MMA scene at EliteXC: Destiny, he was touted as the next big thing in MMA due to his kickboxing and boxing pedigree. The marketing of his bout with Charles "Krazy Horse" Bennett focused almost entirely on how technically superior was and how outclassed Bennett would be on the feet.
However, as is usually the case in MMA, marketing rarely tells the entire story.
The truth is that Noons did have the advantage in technical striking, but he also had severe liabilities in his defensive boxing. He left his chin wide open in a striking exchange that resulted in a devastating first round knockout. The K.J. Noons hype-train was momentarily derailed that night.
This is where the frustration with Noons' career would begin. He was hyped as one of the best standup prospects in MMA but lost the striking battle to a journeyman. What made it worse is that EliteXC went "all in" with promoting Noons, hoping that he'd become one of the breakout stars of that inaugural event.
He'd his own chance to play spoiler when he was matched up with Nick Diaz at EliteXC: Renegade. Diaz was the more well known fighter, having built up a respectable record in the UFC's welterweight division. It was expected that Diaz would dominate Noons on his way to becoming the first EliteXC lightweight champion. A recognizable face for the startup promotion.
Instead, Noons chipped Diaz up in the first and only round, forcing a doctor stoppage. Diaz's face was an absolute mess, a testament to Noons' skills when working both from range and in the pocket.
This was the frustrating duality of K.J. Noons.
In one fight, his deficiencies in his defense were all too apparent. He kept his hands low and chin up. In the next, he showcased superior technique against an opponent who everyone thought had a clear boxing and reach advantage on the feet.
It's a theme that has followed Noons for his entire career.
Against fighters like Jorge Gurgel and Edson Berto, Noons is an unstoppable force of nature. His accuracy makes him a total nightmare for opponents with shoddy defense, while his punching combinations quickly overwhelm those who throw single punches at a clip.
But against well rounded fighters like Jorge Masvidal and Josh Thomson, he crumbles. He was expected to beat Masvidal, a fighter with a reputation of being apathetic in training, pretty handedly. Instead, he was outworked on the feet and controlled on the ground, losing all three rounds of the fight. The bout with Thomson further exposed those very holes in Noons' ground game, as Thomson scored takedown after takedown on his way to a clear unanimous decision victory.
The unfortunate fact is that Noons' MMA career is best described as being more sizzle than steak. He's the victim of marketing that's focused on his perceived stand up skills instead of his actual abilities. His reputation in the sport is built almost entirely on his win over Nick Diaz in 2007.
Think about that for a moment.
K.J. Noons' biggest accomplishment in the sport occurred almost six years ago. Since then he's lost to every top fighter he's faced. He also dropped a controversial decision to Ryan Couture, but it could be argued he should never have let it go to the judges. The last truly impressive performance he's put in was in his bout with Billy Evangelista in 2011 where he won a hard fought unanimous decision. But even in that fight, he dropped a round.
Essentially the marketing and reality just aren't in line. Based on how he's promoted, K.J. Noons sounds like one of the most dangerous lightweights in the world and a fringe top 10 talent. But when push comes to shove, he's faltered whenever given the opportunity to prove he belongs in the rankings discussion.
He's either has a mental block that he just can't get past or he's peaked and just can't develop the skills to be a top level fighter. One can be remedied by a trusted trainer or sports psychologist. The other is just a fact of the fight game: that every athlete eventually hits a plateau and can't develop further.
Tonight, Noons makes his debut at UFC 160 against another fighter plagued by inconsistency in Donald Cerrone. Like Noons, Cerrone has been unable to get up that proverbial hump. He took a big step backwards with a TKO loss to Anthony Pettis earlier this year in Chicago.
It's a clash between strikers that have fallen prey to their own promotion. Cerrone is the terminator that keeps coming forward, damaging opponents with the eight limbs of Muay Thai. Noons is the kickboxer being sold to fans as having some of the best stand up in the division. But neither can live up to their reputations
When he enters the cage this evening, Noons will have the opportunity to show that he does in fact belong in the shark infested waters that is the UFC's lightweight division. But he's going to have to prove that it hasn't been all hyperbole. Today is either a fresh start for a once promising young fighter or yet another chapter in the stagnant career of K.J. Noons.