Photo via MMAFighting.com
We witnessed something special last night. A champion was pushed to his limits for the first time in his young career. A worthy challenger rose to the occasion in dramatic fashion, shattering the MMA world’s expectations of him and putting on the best performance on his life. UFC 165 wasn’t just a show. It was an event.
The last time I felt like this after a fight was November 19th, 2011, when Dan Henderson and Mauricio Rua put on an epic fight to end all epic fights at UFC 139. That fight was awesome. Awe-inspiring. By fight’s end, both men had been rocked, dropped, taken down, caught in submissions, reversed, and everything in between. Both were so exhausted that they, like Jones and Gustafsson, skipped the post-fight press conference in favor of recovering in the hospital. I’m not saying Jones vs. Gustafsson was better than Henderson vs. Rua, but it was easily just as good.
Barely anybody gave Gustafsson a chance leading up to UFC 165, but I saw the same level of confidence and self-belief in him that I saw in Chris Weidman before UFC 162. I still picked Jones to win, but "The Mauler" shocked almost as many in a losing performance as Weidman did when he KO’d the invincible Anderson Silva. Gustafsson showed a humanity in Jones that wasn’t there before, although he had to walk through hell to do it.
At the end, Jones’ face was covered in his own blood and Gustafsson could barely stand. The Swede established a rhythm early, landing sharp punches and surprising everyone by taking down the wrestler, but "Bones" dug deep and struck back with vicious head kicks and his trademark spinning elbow, badly hurting the challenger in round four. Such is the beauty of a twenty-five minute fight.
Jon Jones really impressed me with his heart and courage. His critics have called him a bully, a brat, and a front-runner, but he proved them all wrong on Saturday. He showed that he has a champion’s most valuable trait, a champion’s heart. The ability to weather a storm. But, courtesy of Gustafsson’s attack, there is blood in the water, and the division just got a lot more interesting.
In the book The Fighter’s Mind, author Sam Sheridan writes, "Great fighters are more than just athletes. They’ve seen through the vagaries of their human soul." Only one fighter went home with the belt on Saturday, but it’s clear to me that there were two champions in the ring that night.