When you think about the history of MMA, mentioning one fighter almost instantly brings with it another.
Say Chuck Liddell, and most people will think about Tito Ortiz.
Georges St-Pierre had Matt Hughes. Anderson Silva had Chael Sonnen. Even Ronda Rousey had Miesha Tate.
So, what is Jon Jones, the reigning UFC light heavyweight champion, missing?
A true rival.
Sure, the beef between Jones and Rashad Evans was fun while it lasted, but those two sides appeared to patch things up after “Bones” dominated him for 25 minutes.
Quinton “Rampage” Jackson did his best to bring out a different side of Jones and create something, but Jackson is on the wrong side of 30 to really create a long-standing rivalry with Jones. Now he isn’t even in the UFC anymore.
Mauricio “Shogun” Rua is a shell of his former self after recent struggles and Lyoto Machida has moved to a different weight class, as has Vitor Belfort.
Of Jones’ recent battles inside the Octagon, there is only one fighter who can legitimately say he gave the champion everything he could handle and then some, and remains a viable contender.
Gustafsson’s skills pushed Jones to the distance last September. If things play out correctly this weekend at UFC 172, we will see Jones-Gustafsson II sometime in 2014.
And that is exactly what Jones needs.
Gustafsson brought out the very best in Jones, which he has admitted in numerous interviews. He forced him to dig down deep and find another level to take his MMA game to—and he changed his entire mental approach about the fight game.
Jones has placed himself among the very best in UFC history already, as he holds the record for successful title defenses at 205 pounds with six. He was the youngest UFC champion when he won the belt from Rua in 2011 at just 23 years old and has defeated four more former champions since.
However, there’s always been this aura surrounding Jones. For some reason, whether it is his attitude, his youth or his past, people just don’t seem to care for him. After the Gustafsson fight, though, feelings were changed, as fans saw Jones pushed into deep waters and not only fight for survival but thrive in doing so.
We’ve seen a different side of Jones since that bout with “The Mauler.” His cocky confidence has turned into just regular confidence in himself and his abilities. It feels as if Jones found out that yes, he is human, but when he needs to be, he can take his talent to another level like the greats before him.
The five-round “Fight of the Year” with Jones also did wonders for the career of Gustafsson. While he immediately pushed for a rematch, he had no trouble dismantling Jimi Manuwa earlier this year to stay busy and confirm his status as the top contender.
Gustafsson, 27, and Jones, 26, are only one year apart, meaning we could see many, many more classics over the years. Heck, with their age and bodies, they could move to heavyweight down the road and continue trading blows.
Fight fans who sat down last September to watch Jones-Gustafsson likely did so expecting to see the Swede overmatched and dismantled much the same way the champion has done to Machida, Jackson, Evans and Belfort before him.
Instead, they left with a sense of excitement because the light heavyweight division had produced a true threat to the reign of the king. Gustafsson took the best shots Jones had and retaliated with better ones time and time again.
He took the former NJCAA national wrestling champion down, something not even Evans—a former standout at Michigan State University—could do. He attacked his face with reckless abandon, leaving Jones with damage to this day over his left eye.
While we are still months away from the rematch, Gustafsson has shown that he—like Jones—is still only getting better.
And for Jones that is a good thing.
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