Jon Jones had to earn it tonight at UFC 165. He had to dig down deep and find a little something extra in the championship rounds. He had to deal with blood streaming into his eye and a badly swollen lip from the punches of Alexander Gustafsson.
Jon Jones had to rise to a level that we'd never seen before to set the all-time light heavyweight title defense record. His being pushed to the limit and surviving with a decision win should do nothing to diminish his place in the sport. It should only serve to grow his legend.
Alexander Gustafsson proved to be more than the "tall guy" that the marketing (more on that later) seemed to leave him as. His boxing was sharp and allowed him to pick away at Jones with right hands, left hooks, jabs and counters. He also was able to repeatedly defend the takedowns of Jones throughout the fight, only hitting the floor once and not staying there for any meaningful amount of time.
Gustafsson was able to prove his worth as not only a title challenger, but likely the best light heavyweight fighter on the planet not named Jon Jones.
And he was able to provide the fight that Jones needed. Allowing us as fans and media to move beyond "yes, but one time Machida landed a left hand" and the Belfort armbar when trying to picture Jones having to overcome adversity in the cage.
Gustafsson repeatedly, powerfully punching Jones in the face might have been the best thing to ever happen to the champion.
- As Gustafsson began to put on a great performance, winning the fight on the scorecard of many observers (but very few media members), it became a thing to suddenly say that the marketing for the fight was actually not that bad. No, the marketing was bad. That Gustafsson was tall with reach Jones hadn't had to deal with was obviously a factor in the fight and should have been talked about in the lead-up. But the head exploding promo and the way that they seemed to harp only on Gustafsson's height didn't sell him as a threat. That the height mattered in the fight doesn't retroactively change that. He needed to be sold as a threat because of the sum of his skills, not just that he has long arms.
- Everyone always gets all weird about immediate rematches. But that was one of the best title fights the UFC has ever seen and is only rivaled by Shogun vs. Henderson as the best light heavyweight fight in UFC history. I want to see them run it back. It's insanely compelling to see what adjustments each man can make for the rematch.
- Renan Barao is being done a disservice by the UFC allowing Dominick Cruz to remain "full champion." Barao is dominating 135, destroying top level fighters and comes across like the "b-side champion" because he can't hold the "real" belt. Cruz has been out long enough that they should strip him, promote Barao and let Cruz test his body out in the cage once or twice before fighting for the belt. But, god knows the UFC doesn't like to do that with either stripping titles or giving champs coming off long layoffs a tune-up fight or two, so it probably won't happen. And fights like Barao vs. Wineland will seem a little less special because of it.
- Matt Mitrione had openings to hurt Brendan Schaub, Schaub leaves himself so wide open when he punches and has chin issues that Mitrione could have clipped him. But Schaub had one of those performances where the better fighter wins because he is better. Schaub won on the feet and when it hit the ground he immediately upped his aggression, locking in a choke that put Mitrione to sleep.
- Francis Carmont will be the latest victim of the overly effective gameplan. He dominated Costa Philippou and had him to where he looked like he didn't even want to come out for round 3. But it wasn't flashy enough for most people, and Dana White hated it, too. Carmont had an area where he could win without risk ad he went there, but people wanted a "war" so he'll suffer for it the way Rory MacDonald did for his risk-free dismantling of Jake Ellenberger.
- Khabib Nurmagomedov took on one of the worst assignments a lightweight can get -- a bout with Pat Healy -- and he did to Healy what Healy does to others. I've never seen Healy look so exhausted and like he'd been ground down over three rounds like he was against Nurmagomedov. The calls for a title shot are premature, but the idea that there's one is his future probably aren't. Healy makes guys look less than great, even when they beat him, and Khabib just dominated that fight.
- Myles Jury and Mike Ricci sure did participate in the night's fight card!
- Wilson Reis, too!
- Stephen Thompson looked good against Chris Clements. That was a tough, dangerous fight for Thompson and he had to adjust his gameplan on the fly a little bit, but he did and scored a very important TKO.
- Mitch Gagnon's win over Dustin Kimura was probably my favorite fight of the card until the main event. Kimura badly hurt him with a body shot, one of the hardest things to recover from. Gagnon grabbed his side, then got a takedown and ended up locking in a choke and putting Kimura completely to sleep. It was a great back-and-forth fight that saw Gagnon recover from a horrible spot and get the choke stoppage win. It doesn't get much better than that.
- Except it did in the main event.