There's a reason some sayings get to be old sayings, and that's because they're probably true. So after my fifth viewing this week of the Jon Jones vs. Alexander Gustafsson fight, my conclusion is that beauty is in the eyes of the beholder.
When the fight ended, Joe Rogan said that this may be the greatest light heavyweight championship fight in UFC history. It was a great, dramatic fight, and when it was over, I thought Jones won rounds four and five and Gustafsson won round one. As far as the other two rounds, they were close enough to go either way. Upon multiple viewings, I'm even more torn about who won rounds two and three. Like in any close fight, nobody was robbed. In this case, whoever got the "W" should consider himself lucky.
As far as where it stands on the list of the greatest fights of all-time, everyone looks for something different. I agreed with Rogan on it being the greatest light heavyweight title fight in UFC history, but not the greatest fight ever, or even the greatest light heavyweight title fight ever. I would not consider it among the top ten best MMA fights I've ever seen, but would call it an all-time great fight.
The fight it reminded me of in a lot of ways, not that it was the same in substance, but it was the same when it came to the finish and aftermath was the May 4, 2001, fight in Atlantic City, N.J., when then-heavyweight champion Randy Couture defended his title against Pedro Rizzo.
That five-round title fight to me was even more exciting than this one. When it was over, it was clear that Couture had won two rounds, and Rizzo had won two rounds, because each destroyed the other in the rounds they won. One round could have gone either way. All three judges gave the swing round to Couture, but the fan reaction was hardly unanimous.
The UFC, at the time, made the call to do an immediate rematch. To this day, Couture isn't happy about the decision, but he should be glad it happened. Couture felt he won the first one, just as Jon Jones felt he beat Gustafsson. In his mind, the UFC giving Rizzo another chance after a loss was proof the UFC wanted Rizzo to be champion. I viewed it differently. Far too many people thought Rizzo was robbed by the judges, and nobody clearly won the fight. The fact Rizzo was the highest-paid fighter in the organization by his contract, even though Couture was champion, probably played into his way of thinking.
The rematch was nothing like the first fight. Couture came on like gangbusters. He overwhelmed Rizzo, and finished him in the third round. It's too bad Jon Jones didn't know that part of UFC history. His reaction this past week may have been different, not realizing nearly half the people watching thought he lost, and will always think that unless he goes out there and proves them wrong in a rematch. Beating Teixeira will not do that.
Couture, in the rematch he didn't want, proved beyond a doubt he was the better of the two. Sure, some people still thought Rizzo won the first fight, but nobody could argue any longer about who the better fighter was, and who was the deserving world champion. Couture today is thought of as an all-time great. Rizzo is not. No matter what the judges said, a very significant percentage of the viewing audience did think Gustafsson won.
After watching the fight over and over, trying to convince myself that he conclusively didn't, I couldn't do so. I'm still left with mixed feelings on the two swing rounds. Aside from the fact Jones, a businessman, will make more money fighting Gustafsson in a rematch than he would against Glover Teixeira next time out, which is why he should have demanded the fight.
When people proclaim Jones vs. Gustafsson as the greatest this or that, it's all subject to your own opinion and interpretation. When the fight was over, my feeling was I had just seen two big, highly-skilled exceptional fighters and athletes, with great hearts and great fighting minds battling to the wire. The thought of it being the greatest fight I'd ever seen never crossed my mind.
I did think it was the second best fight of this year.
Wanderlei Silva vs. Brian Stann, with the crazy first round, and Silva coming back from nearly being finished to deliver a spectacular knockout, is still my choice for the match of the year, even though, due to timing, and that Jones vs. Gustafsson was a championship match, I think it'll win most of the awards.
Both Silva and Stann survived near finishes and came back, and it had a spectacular ending. With Jones vs. Gustafsson, yes, it was clearly two better athletes with a higher skill level, but at no point was Jones badly hurt during the fight. Gustafsson was rocked in the fourth round and in some trouble, but at no point did he go down, nor was it ever close to being finished.
That's the same reason I'd rate Couture vs. Rizzo as the better equivalent. Granted, Jones and Gustafsson are taller, quicker, more versatile and overall better athletes But they showed no more heart than Couture and Rizzo did in that heavyweight title fight. In that fight, there were periods where each man was completely done, hanging on for dear life until the round ended just before what looked to be almost a sure finish was happening. And the next round, the nearly dead fighter would not just return to life, but turn the tables.
As the greatest UFC light heavyweight title fight of all-time, that now supplants the Sept. 24, 1999, fight where Frank Shamrock retained the title with a fourth round TKO on Tito Ortiz. That was almost universally considered the greatest UFC fight in history at the time it took place.
Technically, that was the UFC middleweight championship, as the division was called at the time. It was a 200-pound weight limit instead of the current 205 pounds. But in reality, it was the same division with the same fighters. It just underwent a name change, and the UFC raised the weight limit largely because it was an easier weight for Ortiz, who ended up as champion later, to make.
Shamrock's win over Ortiz had a more spectacular come-from-behind finish. It also had a storyline, since Ortiz had mauled his way through beating Jerry Bohlander and Guy Mezger, long-time teammates and training partners of Shamrock.
It also had the drama of a fighter giving up no less than 25 pounds in the cage and seemingly losing every round, teaching everyone a lesson about how things were perceived vs. how they really were.
Shamrock was on his back, being beaten on for three straight rounds. But his active guard game was wearing Ortiz out. No judge would have given Shamrock a round as the fight was taking place. But after the full story was told, the reality was different. Shamrock was taken down, bloodied up, and he was not attempting submissions or striking from the bottom for most of the fight.
I can recall watching the fight live, and after the first two rounds, they appeared dominant for Ortiz. Watching the third round, suddenly it hit me that Shamrock actually was winning the fight, and had been actually in control from the beginning, even though he was still on his back seemingly being physically dominated.
The other great UFC light heavyweight title fight would probably be Forrest Griffin's upset of Quinton "Rampage" Jackson on July 5, 2008, in Las Vegas. Like with Gustafsson, few expected Griffin stood much of a chance. Griffin was the classic B+ fighter, great heart, good at everything and great at nothing in particular. At the time, he was an incredibly popular fighter, but nobody really saw him in Jackson's league. It was also a close fight that, when it was over, had those of us in press row debating who won.
As far as greatest light heavyweight title fight ever, I'd rank Jones vs. Gustafsson second to the Oct. 31, 2004, fight in Pride where Wanderlei Silva beat Jackson at the Saitama Super Arena. That was also called a middleweight fight in Japan, but it was the same 205-pound weight class.
In that one, Jackson was on the verge of winning at one point, but Silva came back with one of the most violent outbursts of knees in history to end it. I still view it as one of the greatest fights of all-time.
As far as greatest light heavyweight fight ever in UFC, the competition is a little too stiff to rank Jones vs. Gustafsson first.
In my mind, that comes down to Forrest Griffin vs. Stephan Bonnar on April 9, 2005, often referred to as the greatest fight in UFC history, and Dan Henderson vs. Mauricio "Shogun" Rua on Nov. 19, 2011, which is top ten on almost every list of greatest MMA fights ever.
Griffin vs. Bonnar didn't have the skill-level of Jones vs. Gustafsson. It was far less tactical, but a far crazier brawl, that was ridiculously even. Henderson vs. Rua had the big swings in each direction. And in both of those fights, the drama didn't end when the match was over, because there was no clear-cut winner.
Griffin vs. Bonnar was the best and most emotional overall presentation of a UFC light heavyweight fight. It was on the first live UFC show on broadcast television. The idea that only the winner would get a UFC contract. And when it was over, Dana White announcing there was no loser in the fight, and that both men were getting identical contracts. It was the proverbial cherry on top of the sundae.
Greatest fight overall in my mind runs the gamut. For a pure insane brawl, I don't see how any fight can top Don Frye vs. Yoshihiro Takayama in 2002 in Pride. Whenever that fight would be replayed on Spike TV and people saw it for the first time, I'd get e-mails from people who just couldn't believe it.
Once, at a UFC Fan Expo, when they were playing a loop of fights, people were paying no attention to some of the great fights of all-time. Suddenly, when this popped up, and it was clear that most people had never seen it. Then came the start, with the two men standing there, holding onto each other with their left hands and swinging several punches per second with their right hands.
It was like a collective pause of people who suddenly were captured by a fight they couldn't even envision in their imagination.
Frye vs. Takayama was so big in Japan that both men were hired to do a movie years later, to reprise the fight scene. With the benefit of scripting, copying the exact things they did in the first fight, editing and multiple takes, they couldn't come close. Years later, the two faced off in a pro wrestling match, based on the legend of their fight, and with all the benefits of scripting and copying what was already done, again, they couldn't come close.
The best fight I ever saw live was Diego Sanchez vs. Clay Guida in a lightweight bout on June 20, 2009, in Las Vegas. Guida survived one of the most amazingly quick attacks ever by Sanchez, and came back from the dead to where he almost got the decision.
Chan Sung Jung vs. Leonard Garcia, held on April 24, 2010, in Sacramento, Calif., was the U.S. equivalent of Frye vs. Takayama. What made this fight so memorable is that it was on the first (and as it turns out only) World Extreme Cagefighting pay-per-view show, and Jung-Garcia aired on Spike right before the pay-per-view went on the air. I know many people who told me that night, and the next day, that they were not planning on buying the pay-per-view, but were on such an emotional high after seeing that fight that it changed their minds.