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The Silent Treatment: Jones vs. Gustafsson

Less than a month after one of the greatest fights in UFC light heavyweight championship history, the barely 2-month old Fox Sports 1 channel rebroadcast the pay per view portion of UFC 165: Jones vs. Gustafsson, and it was a real treat.

More importantly, it was an opportunity to give the main event the silent treatment: watch it without sound, and without the bias-ridden cum bias-inducing color commentary. Sure, Mike Goldberg and Joe Rogan are the best in the business, but sometimes they do have a difficult time divorcing their commentary from their personal opinions about the fighters.

Immediately after the Jones vs. Gustafsson fight ended, a great many observers, myself included, scored it for the challenger. Even though I had expected the champ to take care of business and win the fight in convincing fashion, finishing it either by submission or TKO due to ground and pound around the third round, I originally scored it 3 rounds to 2 for "The Mauler." I wanted to see whether, almost one month removed from the event and without sound, I would score it as I had.

Now, I am fully aware that, like anybody else, I already have my own bias, even without sound, by the mere fact that I had already formed an opinion – it might have been different had I watched the fight in silence the first time around, did not know the outcome, and had not heard anybody’s opinion about it. Dan Ariely put it best in his book, Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions:

Once we take ownership of an idea—whether it’s about politics or sports—what do we do? We love it perhaps more than we should. We prize it more that it is worth. And most frequently, we have trouble letting go of it because we can’t stand the idea of its loss. What are we left with then? An ideology—rigid and unyielding. (pp. 137—138).

Nevertheless, the exercise is worth attempting, so here are some thoughts.

Pre-Fight

We humans have a tendency to see things in the extreme, in black OR white, as it were, and often fail to see the different shades of gray in between (I hear there are exactly 50 of those…). That may explain why many attribute Jon "Bones" Jones’ success solely to his size and reach, conveniently forgetting that if that’s all there was to fighters and fights, Stefan Struve, not Caín Velásquez, would be heavyweight champion; Frankie Edgar would have never captured the lightweight belt; and the giant Tim Sylvia would have owned the undersized Randy Couture in their championship bout.

But that may also explain why Jones took the diametrically opposite stand on the issue of height and reach; in fact, at the weigh-ins the day before the fight, he said he was ready to prove size did not matter. Yet, the very next day, he had trouble connecting on an opponent large enough to be able to fight the champ from the outside.

The truth lies somewhere in between, of course: size matters if a fighter knows how to use it to her or his advantage. Unlike Struve, Jones is very good at utilizing his reach. Pound-for-pound great Georges St-Pierre purposefully used his weight to tire his smaller welterweight challenger B.J. Penn in the rematch by leaning on the then lightweight champ.

The point is, Jones might have come to believe so much in his point of view, that he inadvertently underestimated Gustafsson’s own physical gifts and ability to use them.

And speaking of underestimating…

The Walk

When everything and everyone else fails, hubris has a way of bringing the greats to their knees. What else, if not hubris, could have compelled the champ to wear a shirt that read in golden capital letters, "NOT QUITE HUMAN"?

Gustafsson proved Jones was human, all too human.

Or, after the bout, another one that, also in golden capital letters, read, "BONES OWNS"? (Nike’s cleverly self-congratulatory nod to its own Bo Jackson cross-training shoes campaign of the late eighties/early nineties, "Bo Knows".)

Jones most definitely did NOT own Gustafsson. In fact, some believe Gustafsson owned Jones in this fight. Yet, Jones knew ahead of time he would be wearing this shirt at the end of the fight.

That may have been a sign that the champ was starting to believe his own hype so much that he began to commit a capital sin of professional sports: underestimating an opponent – the surest way to encounter defeat, arrogance, not to be confused with self-confidence. For a recent example, one need not go back farther than the recent middleweight championship bout between long reigning Anderson Silva and then challenger Chris Weidman; and for an older example, there is and always will be GSP vs. Matt Serra I.

More worrisome, perhaps, at least for any of Jones’ supporters, particularly his camp, was the smile the champ was sporting on his walk to the Octagon—it was eerily reminiscent of his former stablemate, Melvin Guillard’s walk before his fight against Joe Lauzon: not a smile that said, "I’m confident," but rather, "I shouldn’t even need to enter the cage; just declare me the winner already," only to get submitted in the very first round by the underdog. (An aside, "The Young Assassin" had said in the past, "I don’t even need to fight for the lightweight belt—just give it to me.")

The Fight, Round by Round

I’ve already written far more than I intended to, so I’ll make this part brief…

Round 1

Not only did he land the first ever takedown on the champ, but the challenger also stuffed all of the champ’s own attempts. Moreover, "The Mauler" lived up to his moniker by cutting "Bones" above the right eye. First round definitely went to the challenger.

Round 2

Gustafsson tripped Jones in this round, thus putting the champ on the canvas for the second time in as many rounds, but ever since the fight took place I have not understood why commentators, and even Fightmetric, have failed to count that trip as a takedown. Again, the Swede avoided all of the American’s own takedown attempts, and even though this was closer than the first, the second round went to the challenger, putting him up 2—0.

It is worth noting that, at the end of the round, the champ raised his hands to signal victory. I took that as a sign that he sensed he was behind in the scorecards and wanted to influence the audience and, especially, the judges.

Round 3

When I saw the fight live, I wholeheartedly believed the challenger won the third stanza, but I can now see how others might have scored it for the champ. Nevertheless, I still would not give it to the latter; at worst, I would score it a draw, but based on how Gustafsson started tagging Jones with boxing, the third round should have gone to the challenger to put him up 3—0.

Again, the champ raised his hands in victory, and I believe he did it for the same reasons as at the end of round 2 (see above).

Round 4

In order to leave a lasting impression, one is advised to observe the principles of primacy and recency: what we say or do first and last is what people remember later; everything in between is mostly filler.

We all have been admonished that we only get one chance to make a good first impression, but recency is probably more powerful than primacy. The last thing we say or do is the one people are most likely to remember.

Recency is what made the fourth round a heartbreaker for the Viking, who was doing pretty well until the Yankee landed a vicious, jarring spinning elbow. That elbow and his attempt at finishing the fight, gave the champ the fourth round, finally putting him on the scoreboard 3—1.

Interestingly, I do not recall the champ raising his hands in victory as he did at the end of round 2 and 3, and I’m guessing that was because he felt the final 40 seconds of the fourth round did the talking for him.

Round 5

Jones finally managed to land his sole successful takedown attempt of the entire fight in the final frame, but he did not do much with it. In fact, Gustafsson managed to use the fence in order to get back up fairly easily.

Nonetheless, the champ landed enough kicks to the challenger’s face—or at least to his right arm as he tried to protect it—that the fifth and final round should have gone to the champ, ending it 3—2 and crowning a new titleholder.

I’m guessing the champ knew he took the final round in the judges’ scorecards, but had enough doubt for the fight as a whole that he raised his arms much in the same manner he did at the end of rounds 2 and 3. But maybe I am wrong—maybe he genuinely believed he won the fight, or was simply raising his arms to signal he won the final stanza.

Notwithstanding, Jones' reaction when Bruce Buffer finished reading the judges' scorecards is most telling: he really did not know how they saw it, and probably would not have been surprised had he heard, "and NEW...!"

A Brief Note on the Production

I thought it was fascinating, particularly at the end of the first two rounds, that the in-between-rounds highlights focused primarily on what Jones, not Gustafsson, did well. They were more, though perhaps not fully, balanced at the end of the fight. Yet, at the end of the entire PPV broadcast, I seem to recall the main event highlights focused mostly on Bones’, not The Mauler’s successes.

Perhaps that demonstrates the production team has its own bias,or that, just like the audience, it too, is influenced by the color commentary.

A Final Word on the Bout

Again, I may be operating under the inescapable influence of my own bias, but I think the light heavyweight belt should have changed hands on Saturday, September 23rd, 2013.

Yet, after giving the fight the silent treatment, watching it with the sound off, I can also see a draw, in which case the belt stays with the incumbent champion. But, of course, I’m only one single individual scoring the fight, for whom scoring a draw is easier than it would be for three separate judges, who do not get to compare notes.

In the end, the bout demonstrated or confirmed a few things:

  1. Size does matter, if used effectively.
  2. Dan Henderson is correct in his assessment of Jones as a little "sloppy." The truth is, the light heavyweight champ can get away with some things because of his tremendous size and reach—and this is not so much a knock on his skills as it is a compliment to his physical gifts. But the champ has to tighten and polish his skills if he is to stay champ for a long time—Gustafsson showed what might happen otherwise if Jones does not fully commit to perfecting his boxing, and even Lyoto Machida showed what might happen otherwise if Jones does not fully commit to perfecting his striking altogether; Vitor Belfort showed what might happen otherwise if Jones does not fully commit to perfecting his Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.
  3. The best part: the fans will be treated to a Jones vs. Gustafsson rematch, and it cannot happen soon enough. It will be interesting to see what improvements and adjustments each one of them makes.

After that's done, trilogy, anyone?

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