Can UFC's 'Elite Eight' Light Heavyweights Slow Down Jon Jones?

Two years ago, I became one of the first people aboard the Jon Jones bandwagon. At the time, I'd just watched the largely unknown Jones win his UFC debut, beating Andre Gusmao by decision in a UFC 87 prelim. Beforehand, I'd heard bits and pieces about Jones' athleticism, work ethic and drive, and as the fight went on, I found myself impressed by what I was watching. Jones was not polished, but there was no denying his raw tools.

And then there was his poise. Only 21 years old, with just a few months of training under his belt, and fighting on three weeks' notice, he didn't portray a hint of nervousness while fighting before 15,000 people. After it was over, and he was declared the winner by decision, I texted my cameraman John Moody (at the time I was working for NBC), and told him that we needed to interview Jones. The kid, I said, was definitely going to be somebody.

Five fights later, Jones has yet to disappoint. And even though I've spent quite a bit of time writing about Jones' incredible promise, I also think it's very necessary to slow down the hype train a bit as he steams towards contender status.




This is less about Jones and more about what lies ahead of him. Yes, Jones won via TKO again, dismantling the rugged veteran Vladimir Matyushenko in just 1:52, but in essence, it was the last of his personal prelim fights. From here on out, Jones will be running with the big boys.

UFC President Dana White said afterward that Jones (11-1) would face a "top eight" fighter in his next bout. No matter whose rankings you follow, that Elite Eight group includes names like Mauricio "Shogun" Rua, Rashad Evans, Lyoto Machida, Quinton "Rampage" Jackson, Forrest Griffin, Randy Couture and Antonio Rogerio Nogueira. Any of those names would be a major step up in competition.

Everything he's done up until now shows that he's ready for the jump, but we just can't expect things to be as easy for him as they've been so far. Those guys are too experienced, too strong and too talented.

The hype train has done its job, and it's no longer necessary. In many ways, Jones' quick rise defies logic. He made his UFC debut after training MMA for less than a year, and just three weeks after his 21st birthday. By all rights, he probably should have gotten smashed early and often by any seasoned UFC fighter. Instead, it was just the opposite. He faced black belt Gusmao in his debut, and never was in trouble for being submitted. Then he faced striker Stephan Bonnar, and repeatedly out-struck him. He's been the better fighter in every match he's been in, and that obviously includes his one loss, a DQ to a clearly overmatched Hamill.

In fact, his progression is startling in terms of the new weapons he's added to his game. He had two decisions in his first two UFC fights, and since then, each finish has come faster. He went into the second round to beat Jake O'Brien. He was on his way to finishing Hamill inside the first round before the illegal elbows. He finished Vera in 3:19, and now Matyushenko in just 1:52.

Those results prove that his aptitude for learning is just as impressive as his athletic skills.

But there's a big level in jump from those guys to what's likely next for him. The Shoguns, Machidas and Griffins of the world have been battle-tested against the best. Can Jones figure out Machida's footwork? Can he take Rampage's best punch? Can he survive Couture's clinch? He hasn't yet faced an opponent with any weapons like the ones that are soon to be fired against him.

So who's he likely to face? There's a bit of gridlock ahead of him, as many of those top-flight 205ers have scheduled fights. The UFC could make him wait and take on the winner of one of those bouts, or they could potentially pair him up against Griffin, who is still rehabbing from shoulder surgery but could be ready to return around October. Since Jones' fight was so quick, he'd likely have no problem fighting again so quickly.

If Couture beats James Toney later this month, a Jones-Couture fight would be intriguing to many as well.

The hype train has done its job, and it's no longer necessary. Going forward, his performances against Elite Eight opponents will say everything that needs to be said. There's nothing to suggest that Jones won't continue his rapid ascent up the UFC light heavyweight rankings. There's plenty of evidence to warrant a belief that he's a legitimate heir to the throne. But all that is conjecture. What we do know is that Jon Jones has a world of talent, and that he's going to need all of it to get to where he wants to go. And most of all, that things are about to get a lot more difficult from here on out.

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