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At least for one night, Jon Jones looks … vulnerable?

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Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Mixed martial arts history is young enough that it unfolds before us on the regular. The title of “best ever” or “greatest of all time” gets traded around like a hot potato. Fedor Emelianenko, Anderson Silva, Demetrious Johnson, Georges St-Pierre; they’ve all been labeled as rulers of the sport at some time or another, even though they are mostly contemporaries. When we have more time behind us, we will be able to view things with a more accurate eye. Still, the current king of fighting is hardly in dispute.

Jon Jones is the best. In over a decade as a professional, Jones has only a single blemish on his record, an infamous disqualification in a fight he was handily winning before committing the fight-ending infraction. He may have lost, but no one has legitimately defeated him; only one man — Alexander Gustafsson — has even come close.

A new barrier was cracked last night at UFC 239. For the first time, a Jon Jones’ scorecard-reading led to a bona fide cliffhanger. That was new. For Jones, it should also be a bit unsettling.

By most assumptions, Jones was supposed to blow out Thiago Santos, a 35-year-old who began his UFC career as a welterweight and who was knocked out by submission specialist David Branch just over a year ago. It was a job seemingly made easier after Santos visibly injured his left knee early in the bout. For much of the last 20 minutes, Santos’ knee buckled and wobbled. Despite his compromised base, Santos fired off heat-seeking strikes that did not consistently land, but frequently backed up the champion.

In the chaos, Jones’ vaunted finishing instinct went largely and mysteriously absent. He threw just 90 total strikes in the 25-minutes fight (landing 59) and attempted only a single takedown. And that takedown attempt took place in the first round. Yes, Jones never attempted to put his one-legged opponent on the mat despite evidence of said injury.

That is so out of character for Jones, it nearly boggles the mind. In his decade of dominance, wrestling has been one of his most trusty weapons, so omnipresent that the last time he tried fewer than two takedowns in a bout was against Vladimir Matyushenko in 2010 — and that’s only because he needed just one takedown to win!

Jones is generally a high IQ fighter able to calculate and execute on the fly, but on this night, he failed to exploit the most obvious opening of the bout, and one that should be right in his wheelhouse. Asked to explain the decision, Jones said the answer was simple. He thought he was winning anyway. But then he went on to say that they were playing a “very high-level game of chess,” which only serves to further question his strategy. Yes, Jones is good at many … most …. all facets of fighting, but he is truly outstanding on the ground. And yes, Santos is a striking powerhouse, but he has proven to be susceptible with his submission defense. So wouldn’t it make sense for Jones to match his strength against Santos’ weakness? What gives?

Here is the thing about Jones: he has always had a thing for beating his opponents at their own game. As a 23-year-old title challenger, he battered the wrecking ball Mauricio Rua. He out-wrestled Chael Sonnen. He made it a point to be the first to take down Daniel Cormier. He out-struck Gustafsson in their rematch.

On one hand, those kinds of wins are statement performances that add to his legacy. On the other, adding degree of difficulty to an already notoriously difficult sport is not always going to be a great idea. In fact, as cool as it is to see when it works out in his favor, it is still simple hubris. He has been good enough to overcome this compulsion every time out, but this one might have been a little too close for comfort.

While Jones still managed to leave the cage with his belt, he didn’t leave unscathed. With his legs battered, he needed the assistance of his brother Chandler and his coach Mike Winkeljohn to make it to the back.

Both in result and in person, the champion looked vulnerable.

UFC 239 had its share of wildness (hello, Jorge Masvidal!) and upsets (Jan Blachowicz channeling his inner left-hook Larry), but seeing Jones hang on by a thread against Santos was as shocking as anything on the card.

Right now, it is impossible to know if this was a onetime lull or if the champion has begun to slide back to the pack, whether it was just an off-night or the start of a trend. Whatever it is, rest assured that the challengers around him have perked up at the sight of it, the king’s stranglehold slipping every so subtly. You only have to look at the deposed GOATs of the past to realize that nothing lasts. Jon Jones’ reign is not over, but for the first time in a long time, we left one of his fights imagining a day where it might be.