If you wanted to be generous, you could call it a testament to Jon Jones’s dominance as UFC light heavyweight champ. If you wanted to be something else, you could call it a sad state of affairs. Either way, UFC president Dana White is calling it a reality: the winner of Saturday night’s UFC on FOX 4 main event between Brandon Vera and Mauricio "Shogun" Rua will get the next shot at the light heavyweight title.
Because, hey, someone has to. It doesn’t necessarily have to be someone who the current champ has already throttled, but every great champ goes into reruns eventually. We just didn’t think it would happen this soon with Jones, or with this sort of baffling logic driving it forward.
Listening to White try to sell this fight as a number one contender bout, it was hard not to feel a little sympathy for a salesman with an impossible task. He did an admirable job, considering the circumstances, but even the best promoter can only bend perception so much before it snaps back into place. Just take a look at White’s best attempt to make this fight seem like the logical choice for crowning the next 205-pound challenger during today's media call. Helpful edits in the parenthesis added by yours truly:
"'Shogun' Rua just came off a 'Fight of the Year' last year (edit: which he lost). He's probably one of the best fighters of the last decade (edit: even though he’s 2-2 in this decade). Think about it. This guy knocked out [Quinton] 'Rampage' [Jackson] (edit: seven years ago), knocked out Chuck Liddell (edit: in the midst of Liddell’s career-ending losing streak), knocked out Mark Coleman (edit: when Coleman was 44 years old), knocked out Lyoto Machida (edit: after losing a decision to him), knocked out Forrest Griffin (edit: who has beaten just one fighter in the last four years not named Tito Ortiz), knocked out Alistair Overeem twice (edit: back when Overeem looked like something that the Overeem of today would pick his teeth with), submitted Kevin Randleman (edit: just saying, so did Ron Waterman). A win vs. [Vera] puts him right back in position, and then he's probably the No. 2 guy in the world."
See what I mean? As a general rule of thumb, if someone is trying to convince you of any given fighter’s greatness, the point where they mention a 2006 win over Randleman is the point where you know they’ve given up. In this case, it’s also an argument that misses the point entirely. We know Rua is/was a great fighter. We know he fought and beat many of this sport’s fiercest competitors. It’s just that, we also know that the Rua of 2011 was no match for the Jones of 2011, and the gap between them has likely only grown since then.
It’s the same if Vera wins. Only, you know, more so. Go ahead and point to his win over Frank Mir if you want to. It won’t make any of us forget that Jones needed just a shade over three minutes to break his face with elbows. Neither will it make us forget that Vera has won just one fight in his last four outings, or that the lone win came after he was nearly submitted by a guy who was then cut from the UFC after losing the decision. And now, after that, Vera’s one win away from a title shot? And without even a victory over Kevin Randleman to bolster his credentials? The mind reels at the thought of it.
Still, as nonsensical as this choice is, there is at least one way it could actually go well for the UFC. Dan Henderson could pull off the upset against Jones in September, and Rua could beat Vera exactly as easily as many of us are expecting. That would set up a rematch of one of the greatest (if not the greatest) fights the UFC has ever seen, this time with the title on the line. Or we could end up with the Jones-Rua rematch that no one has been asking for.
My guess is that the UFC’s real goal here is a little more short-term and short-sighted. With grumblings about mediocre fight cards growing louder, maybe White believes that calling this weekend’s main event on FOX a number one contender bout will make it seem instantly more appealing. The UFC still hasn’t put a title fight on network TV since that first little taste of the FOX deal last fall, but hey, you can call just about anything a number one contender bout in order to lend it some temporary significance. If you don’t like how that fight turns out, for one reason or another, maybe you change your mind later. Maybe you let Jones jump up to heavyweight. Maybe you pretend like this whole number one contender promise never happened, and maybe it’s not the first time you’ve done that very thing.
Regardless of how it turns out in the end, let’s give the UFC some credit for one thing. This announcement did succeed in getting people talking about Saturday night’s Rua-Vera fight. It just didn’t get them saying anything the UFC wants to hear.