LAS VEGAS -- Do we have to pick one fighter over another in the debate over who is the top pound-for-pound competitor in mixed martial arts?
Does it have to be Jon Jones or Demetrious Johnson? Can they be 1A and 1B?
After a night like UFC 197 at the MGM Grand Arena, I'm not sure I want to choose one over the other.
For one thing, both guys have valid arguments.
Jones has never legitimately been defeated in his career. But since you have to technically call his disqualification against Matt Hamill in 2009 a loss, his victory over Ovince Saint Preux on Saturday night gave him 13 wins in a row, the second-longest in UFC history behind Anderson Silva's 16. Jones has taken out a Murderer's Row of former champions in the process.
Oh, and it's not like Jones' performance last night against Saint Preux in Jones' first bout in 16 months was the dud some have painted it as, either. Jones landed some wicked shots that would have broken the will of fighters less tough than OSP. Jones' work in the clinch and along the fence was still nasty, enough that nemesis and current light heavyweight titleholder Daniel Cormier really shouldn't crow too loudly about Jones' performance.
But we've raised the bar so high for Jones that many of us couldn't even conceive of the notion he'd be affected by ring rust the way a mortal would, or by a change in opponent, which turned into a setup for a letdown.
Johnson, meanwhile, just keeps getting better and better. Flyweight's a better division than is credited, but Johnson's so far ahead of the pack he's made everyone else look bad. John Dodson is a superb competitor who has been chased back up to 135. Joseph Benavidez, in an alternate universe, would be a champion, but he's been reduced to going through the paces while hoping for a third crack at "Mighty Mouse."
Henry Cejudo was supposed to be the latest big test -- credentials don't get any better than an Olympic gold medal -- and Johnson effortlessly flicked Cejudo off him after a takedown, took over the fight, and delivered a brutal symphony of clinch work that looked like an attempt at a reprise of the first Silva-Rich Franklin fight. It was Johnson's fifth finish in his last seven fights.
That's eight title defenses for DJ, tied with Jones, one short of Georges St-Pierre and two short of Silva's record. Which is precisely the company Johnson deserves to be mentioned with among the sport's greatest champions.
If you want to put me on the spot and pick one or the other? Fine. On April 24, 2016, I'll pick Johnson over Jones based on the way he's picked up his game in Jones' absence. Jones has the stronger body of historical work, but Johnson's work in 2015 and 2016 has been undeniable.
But does it matter? We've dealt with a mind-numbing degree of nonsense in this sport this year and we're only four months in. So we should be all the more appreciative of nights like UFC 197, when the two fighters whose skills are heads and tails above the rest of the pack did their thing and gave us plenty to admire.
UFC 197 quotes
"This may sound funny - a part of me was just like, ‘You've got to fight, Jon - you've got to fight DC.' Do what you've got to do to win this fight. The goal is to get back to the UFC. Whether you look like crap right now or not, the goal is to get back to DC.'" -- Jones, on pushing his way through the OSP fight.
"[I'm] very disappointed that I didn't get to compete tonight because I do believe that if he showed up in the form that he did tonight, or if this is the new Jon Jones, there's no way that guy can beat me." -- Cormier, on FS1's post-fight show.
"Did Jon look like a world-beater? Did he look like the Jon Jones who many say is possibly the greatest ever? No, but he won tonight." -- UFC president Dana White at the post-fight press conference
"I'm the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world and I will continue to show it." -- Johnson
"If you get hit to the body, man, it paralyzes you. It's a humbling experience for me. I was humbled tonight." -- Henry Cejudo on his loss to Johnson.
Up Edson Barboza For quite some time, Barboza felt like a fighter who had all the tools, but couldn't quite figure out when to use them and in which sequence. Every time the spectacular Brazilian seemed on the cusp of reaching the elite level at lightweight, a simple mistake would cost him a fight he should have won, a Jamie Varner here and a Donald Cerrone there. But Barboza finally appears to have arrived after his victory over Anthony Pettis. Barboza fought a smart game plan, punishing Pettis with kicks, greeting him with brutal lefts when Pettis closed the distance, and never letting Pettis get his explosive skills untracked. This version of Edson Barboza is capable of defeating anyone in the division on any night.
Down Anthony Pettis All of a sudden, the former UFC and WEC lightweight champion has lost three straight fights. It's not like he's been blown out of his last two, decision losses to Eddie Alvarez and Barboza. But the lightweight division is a ruthless shark tank, and Pettis has looked a step slow against both. It's been a remarkable fall for a fighter some were beginning to tout as No. 1 pound-for-pound less than two years ago. Pettis isn't quite at a panic-mode stage of his career yet, but something clearly needs to be changed up in his approach before his losing streak turns into a freefall.
Up Yair Rodriguez The emergence of Rodriguez, in and of itself, is enough to make the UFC's investment in the TUF Latin America series worthwhile. Rodriguez had already shown breakthrough potential with a string of all-action performances. But his head-kick knockout win over Andre Fili on Saturday stamped him as the up-and-coming fighter in the crowded featherweight division. With a dynamic style, measurable improvement every time he steps into the cage, and a willingness to learn English while also appealing to his Latin fans, Rodriguez has all the tools to be his division's next breakout star.
Hold Carla Esparza Esparza was victorious in her first fight in over a year, earning a decision over Julianna Lima. But there was nothing from the inaugural UFC and Invicta strawweight champ that suggested she's going to get back into the tile mix. The strawweight division is improving by leaps and bounds and an all-wrestling style might work against Lima, but it's not going to cut it against Joanna J, Claudia Gadelha. I'm not sure Esparza even beats the much improved Rose Namajunas, whom Esparza beat to win the UFC title just a year and a half ago, should they rematch. It's not that Esparza's even backtracked so much as everyone else has improved. She's going to need to up her game.
There were no terrible judging decisions Saturday night and no referees finding themselves at the center of controversy. We've actually strung a few of these nights in a row in Nevada. It's almost enough to call this a pattern. Knock on wood.
Jones, meanwhile, deserves a nod of some sort for treating the interim light heavyweight title belt like it was made out of nuclear waste. The UFC has taken to handling interim belts the way youth soccer leagues hand out participation trophies. You know how a sports team that wins a conference championship will usually refuse to touch a conference title trophy? That's how a fighter with eyes on the real goal should treat interim hardware.
Fight I'd like to see next Dominick Cruz vs. Demetrious Johnson
Johnson's win on Saturday night didn't just underscore how damn good he is, it also once again put a spotlight on his lack of competition at 125 pounds. Cejudo's a fine prospect and maybe even a future champion, but he wouldn't have gotten a title shot this quickly in any other division. Benavidez seems to have earned a third crack at Johnson, but the UFC doesn't seem in a rush to make that fight.
So why not go with a superfight with the bantamweight champion? Johnson has been untouchable at 125, with 10 straight wins after a draw with Ian McCall. He has improved by leaps and bounds since the last time he fought Cruz, in 2011 -- and even back then, he was competitive in going the distance with a fighter who has never lost at 135. If Cruz gets past Urijah Faber, the time just might be right for the lighter-weight superfight.
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