Of Jon Jones, Floyd Mayweather and fight game intangibles

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting


Maybe the height did matter. By Monday, it does feel as though we’ve stood in the shadow of giants. 

Not that nobody saw it coming, because the guy who runs the Tale of the Tape graphics must have had a hunch, but what Alexander Gustafsson and Jon Jones did on Saturday night was embody their roles. Gustafsson was, literally, the challenger. He came in to shut Jones down. He did shut Jones down. He sent Jones to the hospital. He went in the there to conquer Jones or die trying.

Jones was, literally, the champion. He swam around for much of 25 minutes in what fighters commonly refer to as the deep water. His was a showcase of heart, whether it’s what he planned for, hoped for or ended up forced to discover. Whether you liked him or hated him coming in, he stood as inspiration at the end. If for no other reason than he still stood.

Those things unfolded before our eyes at UFC 165. Jones’ record-breaking sixth title defense -- a record he took away from somebody that Dana White refers to as "Dummy," though Jones’ route went through a "murderer’s row" -- will go down as a classic for all its unforeseen plot points. It was not sold as a "once in a lifetime fight," it just ended up being that way. Today Gustafsson, who also limped to the hospital on Saturday night, should be a star. And the only question left for Jones isn’t how tall but how great?

So, just how colossal was this thing? As colossal as the next one.

All week leading in people were drawing parallels to Jones and boxing’s moneyman Floyd Mayweather. Mayweather was the weathervane for UFC 165 because he broke records of his own two weeks ago against Canelo Alvarez by selling over two million PPVs. Jones isn’t Mayweather. The company doesn’t have a Mayweather on its fighting roster. As White pointed out in the post-fight press conference, Renan Barao -- who defended his interim bantamweight title in UFC 165’s co-main even against Eddie Wineland -- might be the closest Mayweather they have in terms of winning streaks alone. Barao hasn’t lost in 32 fights.

Problem is Barao’s humbleness happens to be unparalleled, too.

Of course, Dana White himself is this sport’s Mayweather. His business model is Mayweather’s preternatural movements. White is the one selling the fights. Where he and the UFC are different is that his duo of matchmakers (Sean Shelby and Joe Silva) keep their champions in a state of vulnerability. Jones is booked to lose. Just as Anderson Silva is booked to lose (and recently lost to Chris Weidman). And Georges St-Pierre is booked to lose (and very well could against Johny Hendricks). And each will be booked to lose again should they win. Perpetually.

In concept, the UFC is not banking on its individual stars and champions. White sustains his business by being a thousand moveable Mayweathers himself. He doesn’t need one colossal PPV night; he hopes for 13 good-to-great ones. The field of intrigue will always reset with every upset, every title defense, and every controversial decision.

Canelo-Mayweather was dubbed a "once in a lifetime" fight -- in fact, it was dubbed somewhat more dramatically "The One" -- because it’s rare that boxers come together precisely when they should these days. Gustafsson and the Nike-endorsed and Gatorade affiliated Jones are already being discussed for a rematch, even though the lion Jones just survived the scare of his life and all those sponsors and affiliates nearly came down with him. You survived the fire? Good, get back in there and do it again.

The fresh revelation wasn’t that we Gustafsson truly challenged Jones, it’s that we realized in the unfolding just how desperately we wanted Jones to be challenged. This is how the fight game works best. When emotions become a part of it.

There’s no protecting Jones, or any other champion. The idea is to put him in there against whatever challenge is actually a challenge. We were talking about Glover Teixeira as the next guy, not necessarily because he would present interesting problems, but because he was next in the pecking order. That’s the default model. But once we discovered the man who could threaten Jones, all the perfunctory stuff gets shoved to the rear. This sport is built around directing the best momentums into a collision course.

And that’s what happened Saturday night. Jones and Gustafsson collided to give us one of the greatest title fights on record. Is Gustafsson the Joe Frazier to Jones’ Muhammad Ali? Time will tell. But knowing the UFC, they’ll get the chance to try.

There is no "The One" in this sport. There is only "The Next One."

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