Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Looking Back: The early days of Jon Jones

Everyone knows who Jon “Bones” Jones is today. The charismatic light-heavyweight champion has blasted his way up not only through the 205-pound ranks, but the pound-for-pound ranks as well. It’s with good reason, as his 2011 alone was one for the record books. He defeated Ryan Bader, Mauricio “Shogun” Rua, Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, and Lyoto Machida in just one year. Bader was in the top ten, and the other three were ranked in the top five. The scariest part is that Jones didn’t just beat them; he dismantled every one of them. A little over three years into his UFC career, he had transformed from unknown prospect into potentially the most dominant light-heavyweight champion in MMA’s history. Love him or hate him, Johnny Bones is one of the UFC’s biggest names right now. Hardcore fans and pundits knew he had big potential, but I would be quite confident saying that no one knew it would happen this quickly AND be that dominant. As I said, it was just about three-and-a-half years ago that this all started...

My first experience watching Jones came when I purchased the UFC 87 DVD. The card was headlined by Georges St. Pierre vs. Jon Fitch and Brock Lesnar vs. Heath Herring. Jones wasn’t even on the main card that night. There, in the prelims section, was Jon’s first UFC fight against Andre Gusmao. I didn’t know anything about either of the two at the time, but I did know I had nothing going on that day, so I figured there was no reason to not watch every single fight. Though it didn’t contain the sheer dominance and brutality we see today, I became intrigued by the potential Jones could have. He was in his early 20s, stood 6’4” with an 84.5-inch reach, and looked very athletic. Though I can’t remember anything too specific (the fight itself was kind of forgettable to be honest), I do remember seeing his natural athleticism, strong Greco-Roman wrestling base, and willingness to use unorthodox techniques.

When I saw his next fight was against Stephan Bonnar on the main card of UFC 94, my initial thought was that Jones was a “feeder” opponent for Bonnar since he was just coming back from injury and Jones wasn’t a name. As it turned out, it may have been Bonnar who was fed to Jones. It started when he walked out to “Angry Johnny” by Poe; Bones had a certain swagger about him. With one spinning back-elbow to Bonnar’s head, he earned my attention. When he German suplexed Bonnar, it became clear that Jones was someone to keep my eye on. However, for as impressive as he looked against Bonnar, he was still quite raw as a fighter. His next challenge was tough wrestler Jake O’Brien. Though he upset Heath Herring in Herring’s UFC debut (albeit in one of the most boring fights I’ve ever seen), back-to-back losses to Andrei Arlovski and Cain Velasquez made O’Brien realize that 205-pounds was a better weight for him. Jones vs. O’Brien was booked for the preliminary section of the historic and star-studded UFC 100 event. Though I saw what Jones was capable of in the Bonnar fight, I thought O’Brien may be able to out-muscle and lay n’ pray his way to decision against Jones. However, Jones continued his rapid improvements by controlling O’Brien throughout, and eventually catching him in a guillotine choke in round two. In his 3rd UFC fight, he secured his first UFC win via stoppage. Jones continued to evolve and impress, but I don’t think anyone was prepared for what was next.

Jones’ next three fights were headliners on three nationally televised cards; one on Spike TV, and two on Versus. His opponents were tough UFC veterans Matt Hamill, Brandon Vera, and Vladimir Matyushenko. Hamill, Vera, and Matyushenko had all been defeated by good competition before, but no one they had faced battered and dismantled them the way Bones did (On a quick side note: the Hamill fight should’ve been over before Jones threw that illegal elbow, I look at it like Jones won that fight). All of that potential that was showcased in those first three fights was becoming a reality, and much faster than most expected. He had taken down and savagely assaulted three extremely tough UFC veterans to the point where they couldn’t take anymore, and made it look easy the entire time.

His next fight was February 5, 2011 against fellow fast-rising prospect Ryan Bader at UFC 126. As the saying goes: the rest is history. Jones started his amazing and historic run in 2011 to capture UFC gold and solidified himself as the top light-heavyweight on the planet. Jon’s next test will be in April against former teammate (and former champion) Rashad Evans. If Jones beats Evans in the long-awaited grudge match, things won’t be getting any easier as he would be likely to face Dan Henderson after that. Dan and his right hand have been on an absolute tear since he rejoined the 205-pound ranks. Winning both fights may seal Jones’ legacy as the best light-heavyweight of all-time. The short amount of time it took for him to get this far is incredible. He has developed his striking and improved his ground game immensely, and he has not gone to a decision since the Bonnar fight in 2009. Jon Jones is now a superstar and a champion in the UFC, but it’s hard to believe that just a few years ago he was an unknown kid fighting on the prelims. At just 24 years old, Jones is already one of the greatest of all-time. It’s amazing to think where he can go in the coming years.

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