Jon Jones had to be proven human before he could prove he had the stuff of legends.
Oh, we've seen hints of the UFC light heavyweight champion's courage under fire in the past. There was the time Lyoto Machida cracked him with a left hand and had him on the run. Then there was the time Vitor Belfort trapped him in a deep armbar and had Jones' title reign in jeopardy for a few fleeting, but real moments.
Those memories are so easy to recall because the've been so infrequent. And because Jones, as one of the most dominant fighters in MMA history, made those opponents pay for having the temerity to look good against him.
But Jones never experienced anything like what went down for 25 minutes Saturday night at UFC 165 in Toronto against Alexander Gustafsson. What separates the ordinary champions from the all-time greats is that one fight in which he finds himself in the unexpected dogfight and manages to summon that something extra to keep the belt when hope seems to be slipping away.
Call it courage, call it heart, call it warrior spirit. Call it all of the above.
Anderson Silva had his moment. At one point in his record UFC middleweight title reign, he was widely regarded as a fighter with otherworldly talent who was disliked for his perceived arrogance. Then Silva had his triangle choke submission of Chael Sonnen late in the fifth round of a fight he was about to lose 50-45, which marked his turning point as a fighter regarded as a true warrior under pressure.
UFC 165 was Jones' warrior moment. Somewhere late in the fourth round, with Gustafsson up two rounds to one on the cards and perilously close to taking the fourth, Jones found that extra something. He landed a spinning back elbow, turned up the heat, nearly finished the fight, and stole the round. That burst of momentum carried him through the final round, giving him just enough energy to stay a step ahead of Gustafsson as both fighters warded off exhaustion over the fight's final minutes.
Blood streaming down his face -- he reportedly had to beg the doctor not to stop the fight before the fifth -- Jones proved once and for all that he not only has the skills, but he has the heart which separates the legends from the rest.
And Jones knows it. "I'll tell you what, I've been asking for a dogfight for a long time, and I finally got that dogfight I was looking for," Jones said in his post-fight Octagon interview before heading to the hospital. "I got the victory and I got to prove a lot to myself."
Just like that, Jones owns the record for the UFC light heavyweight title defenses (six) and has joined Silva, Georges St-Pierre, and Royce Gracie as the only competitors with 10-fight UFC win streaks.
No one is forcing you to like Jon Jones. That's your perogative. But at this point, if you're not giving Jones his respect as one of the sport's all-time great champions, really, that's a reflection on you, not on Jones.
UFC 165 quotes
"Matt needs to talk trash to be up for a fight, but it's just business. I told Matt in the back, it's all good man, we can go back to being friends. It was good. I wish Matt and I were that smart where we did hype this fight big and follow this whole plan. No man, I really didn't like the guy leading up to this fight. I thought I was going to whip his ass at weigh-ins, Dana had to jump in, so that was all real." -- Brendan Schaub, putting his beef with Matt Mitrione behind him.
Stock up: Alexander Gustafsson
Sure, I focused on Jones in the lead item to this column, but it took two to tango Saturday night. Gustafsson was never intimidated by Jones' aura, never appeared daunted by the long odds attached to his name on the betting lines. Gustafsson gave Jones the battle of his life and came up just a whisker short (And he did lose. If you're still hyperventilating that Gustafsson was robbed, check out the Fight Metric stats, which show that Jones landed more significant strikes in every round except the fifth, which was tied), Sometimes, you can become a star in defeat: just look at Carlos Condit's stock now, compared to where he was before he fought GSP and Johny Hendricks.
Gustafsson was one half of a fight which will join Forrest Griffin vs. Stephan Bonnar and Dan Henderson vs. Shogun Rua on the short list of greatest fights in UFC history. He deserves a rematch and he'll be a headliner everywhere from now on, not just in his native Sweden. No doubt it stings Gustafsson to go home without the belt, but no one's questioning whether he has the heart of a champion.
Stock down: Costa Philippou
Philippou left the Serra-Longo Fight Club in part because he anticipated he'd cross paths with middleweight champion Chris Weidman somewhere down the road. But his performance on Saturday night sure opened that move up for second-guessing. Philippou came into his bout with Francis Carmont on a five-fight win streak, but he appeared listless throughout the bout. Carmont, who did himself no favors either, simply took Philippou down and kept him there, like some sort of nightmare middleweight version of a GSP fight gone wrong. Whatever the reason for Philippou's unimpressive performance, it's clear he needs to go back to the drawing board.
Good call: Brendan Schaub
Give Brendan Schaub credit for one thing: He loves jiu-jitsu, even if jiu-jitsu doesn't love him back. The heavyweight avoided the toe-to-toe slugfest which would have given Matt Mitrione his best chance of winning Saturday night, and instead took the fight to the ground and got the job done there, where he got the first D'Arce choke finish ever in a UFC heavyweight fight. If nothing else, after all the grief Schaub has taken from the jitz community this summer, give him credit for his ironic touch.
Bad call: Ontario's athletic commission
They've never seemed too concerned with the little details over at the Ontario Athletic Commission. Remember UFC 129? Mark Hominick missed weight for his featherweight title fight with Jose Aldo, and the commission basically said "ehh, screw it," and pretended it didn't happen. Which made it a little hard to believe when they claimed it was a mistake Friday when Wineland was announced as a quarter-pound over.
This lack of professionalism carried over to Saturday night's scorecards. We know that Doug Crosby and Richard Betran scored the bout 48-47 for Jones, and we know that Chris Lee had the interesting 49-46 tally. But unlike nearly every state and province in North America, Ontario doesn't provide round-by-round scoring. On the night of the most hotly contested five-round title fight in UFC history, we don't know the route the judges took to get to their final scores. That's a disservice to fighters and fans alike.
Fight I'd like to see next: The obvious choices
I'm not going to attempt creative matchmaking for its own sake this time. Sometimes, you come out of a night of fights with obvious fights to make. And after last night, I want to see a Jones-Gustafsson rematch and I want to see Dominick Cruz vs. Renan Barao. In the case of Gustafsson, simple fairness dictates a rematch after losing by such a razor-thin margin in an absolute classic fight. Cruz vs. Barao is the bantamweight title fight everyone is waiting on. I'd call it a clear case of No. 1 vs. No. 2, but Barao has been so impressive that it's more a case of 1A vs. 1B. If you watched the post-fight show on FOX Sports 2 Saturday, Cruz looked like he was ready to fight Barao right then and there. Hopefully, it means he'll be ready to go soon.