ATLANTA -- In debating the greatest fighter in MMA history, there is a very short list of candidates. Anderson Silva, Georges St-Pierre, Fedor Emelianenko, Randy Couture, Dan Henderson and Chuck Liddell comprise the most cited names.
After Saturday night, you can add a new one to the list: Jon Jones.
I'm not saying he's the best ever, not quite yet, but he's now in the conversation. He has to be, after vanquishing rival Rashad Evans at UFC 145. That's admittedly an absurd notion when you take into consideration the fact that he's just 24 years old and barely four years into his professional career, but the facts are the facts. In the last 13 months, he's beaten four straight former champions, four straight possible Hall of Famers in Mauricio Rua, Quinton Jackson, Lyoto Machida and now, Evans.
Throw in his February 2011 win over Ryan Bader and he's beaten five top 10 opponents in the span of 14 months, an accomplishment likely unmatched not only in MMA, but in the history of combat sports. If he beats his next scheduled opponent Henderson -- another future Hall of Famer -- he will only be extending the most amazing run this sport has ever seen.
Evans had walked into the main event with the feeling that he could capitalize on his pre-existing knowledge of Jones' game from their time together at Team Jackson-Winkeljohn. Known for being a slow starter, he actually came out with a strong first round, but it didn't last. By the time it was over, he admitted that Jones had stymied and confused him, just as he seems to do to everyone else. The way he put it, he was "out-slicked."
"Jones definitely has a talent that is different than anybody else's," said Evans.
Jones is also becoming the rarest of the rare when it comes to MMA: a crossover star. Before the fight, he got tweets of support from superstars like LeBron James and Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson. Round-by-round updates from his fight aired live on ESPN's SportsCenter, in a first for the sport.
Despite the mounting pressure, he delivered when it mattered, making his third consecutive title defense in a unanimous decision. While it wasn't his most dominant performance -- Evans became the first man to take him to a decision in his last nine fights -- it was still lopsided, as Evans only managed to take a single round on two judges' scorecards.
According to stats provider FightMetric, Jones out-struck Evans by a count of 116-49, adding to the lopsided numbers seen in his other fights against top opposition. Against Machida, there was a count of 26-13. Against Jackson, it was 74-24, while against Rua, he out-struck him 102-11 in a performance that was MMA's equivalent of baseball's perfect game.
Facing Evans, the big challenge was to shut down his vaunted wrestling attack. Evans had managed to take down every opponent he'd ever faced in fights he attempted takedowns, but against Jones, he put up a goose egg. Jones also authored all of the fight's biggest moments, particularly a crushing left elbow that staggered Evans along the cage. By the end, Jones' face was completely unmarked as if he hadn't even fought at all.
Evans, meanwhile, had bruises and swelling on his face, and said his legs were hurting.
"I still got to go home and cry a little bit," Evans said.
This is what Jones is reducing his opponents to. Rua battered, Jackson admitting he can't imagine anyone beating him, Machida choked unconscious. And now, Evans crying. He probably wasn't the first, and likely won't be the last.
Jones still has work to do, though. He's young and adjusting. He's making improvements to his striking technique, he's learning to generate more power, and he's still growing his confidence. Amazingly, despite all his success, he admitted to being a little unsure of his approach to Evans. But with every success, there are lessons to be learned. Jones is a voracious viewer of fight video, and he dissects tape to make refinements in an attempt to reach his full potential. As long as he continues his work ethic and preparation, he just may chase down the "greatest" tag, which most believe belongs to his contemporary, Silva.
"It's tough to put anybody in the No. 1 spot as long as Anderson Silva is still undefeated, in my opinion," UFC president Dana White said.
But Silva's pedestal is isn't out of Jones' acclaimed reach. Henderson is the only great active light heavyweight Jones has yet to beat. If he gets by him, perhaps he makes the move to heavyweight, where he can cement his claim. Even if he doesn't, there's no doubt of where he is right now. He is the greatest phenomenon the UFC has seen since B.J. Penn, and no one has shown any inkling of how to solve his puzzle. Someday, someone might, but there's no denying what he's done so far. He's off to a historic start, one that puts him in conversation as the best ever. Whatever your view on Jones the person, Jones the fighter deserves his due as a singular talent, and so far, one of the best the sport has ever produced.