When you cover the UFC for a living, fighters tend to blend together. They're a whirling blur of tattoos and shaved heads, each employing the same basic strategies and using the same basic techniques. It takes a lot to stand out—to make the jaded and cynical sit up and take notice.
But when that happens, you know there is a special fighter on the horizon. And that's exactly what happened with Jon "Bones" Jones.
UFC 94 should have been all about Georges St-Pierre. The charismatic Canadian beat BJ Penn in front of a raucous crowd—Canadian and Hawaiian imports made the MGM Grand in Las Vegas roar like I had never heard it roar before.
But afterward, all anyone could talk about was the kid.
It was obvious right away that a new star had emerged. The 21-year-old Jones wasn't an ordinary fighter. It wasn't so much that he beat veteran Stephan Bonnar—that had been done before in the UFC, twice by Forrest Griffin and once by Rashad Evans.
But Bonnar had beaten five different men in the Octagon amid his losses, including former top contender Keith Jardine. He had also pushed Evans to his limit, nearly walking away with a decision. Bonnar may not have been a championship-caliber fighter, but he was no pushover.
Jones just made him look like one.
UFC matchmaker Joe Silva's expression spoke for everyone: a Macaulay Culkin-like exclamation of joy and wonder after Jones followed a textbook German suplex with an amazing spinning back elbow.
Jones had the look of a future champion. In retrospect, it's actually amazing that it took him more than two years to reach that goal. But in the end, the UFC put the brakes on the Jones hype train, trying to make sure that when he did arrive at the pinnacle, he would be ready.
The promotion put him on national television three times in a row, attempting to familiarize the audience, to give fans a free look at the next big thing. That he would achieve greatness was never in doubt.
At 26, Jones is already the best light heavyweight of all time. Before he's even entered his athletic peak, he's competing for immortality, for a place at the table with the sport's historical best.
Think that's hyperbole? Look at the numbers, the raw truth, for an indication of where Jones stands.
His UFC record stands at 12-1. Even his lone loss, a disqualification at the hands of Matt Hamill, was an aberration: a disqualification due to an illegal elbow that came after he had already demolished his opponent. Jones was the victim of an antiquated rule.
Since winning the UFC title from Mauricio "Shogun" Rua in 2011, Jones has defended the strap a whopping five times, tying Tito Ortiz's UFC record. He's won four of those bouts by stoppage. Only once, during a Vitor Belfort armbar attempt, did he look even remotely human.
Most incredibly, Jones only seems to be getting better. He's increasingly more competent at using his reach to dictate distance, and his takedown defense is virtually impregnable. After the Belfort scare, his submission defense has been sharpened to a razor's edge, according to head trainer Greg Jackson.
Among his peers, Jones clearly stands alone. Although anyone can fall victim to a rogue punch or kick, he seems likely to reign for a long time.
The competition is now with history. There are currently four men in the discussion when considering the best UFC light heavyweights of all time—Frank Shamrock, Tito Ortiz, Chuck Liddell and Jones—and the window for reasonable debate about whether Jones is the best is quickly closing.
A win over Alexander Gustafsson this weekend at UFC 165 will catapult Jones past Ortiz, making him the most successful 205-pound champion of all time. His physical tools and skill set surpass Shamrock's, a fighter who competed in a more primitive time in the sport's history. A submission or knockout will tie him with Ortiz and Liddell for the most finishes in the division's history.
Considering he is about to accomplish the feat in just 14 UFC fights, compared to more than 20 each for both Liddell and Ortiz, Jones has to be regarded as the most devastating finisher at light heavyweight.
The most dispositive question of all, however, is, could any of those former greats beat Jones in the cage? Even at my most creative, I can't picture it. In a fantasy fight, Jones would maul the smaller Shamrock, keep the hard-punching Liddell at a distance and outwrestle Ortiz. None of the bouts would be close, though Liddell's power would loom large until the fight was finally over.
The bigger question, for Jones and for historians of the sport, is whether he's the best fighter ever, period. That's a bold claim, but one that is already within reach. With every impressive win, the gap between Jones and current greats Georges St-Pierre and Anderson Silva narrows. UFC records for most title defenses, consecutive wins and total wins are all realistic objectives.
Jon Jones, in fact, isn't even competing with GSP or The Spider at this point. That he will pass them is a foregone conclusion. Jones, with each appearance in the Octagon, is competing less with his opponent or his peers and more with future greats to come.
MMA finally has its Babe Ruth. Enjoy him while you can.