In an era that has seen the traditionally-revered aspects of a champion’s reign losing their value by the month, Jon Jones appears to be throwing back to the great championship reigns of UFC history.
Let’s cast our minds back to the UFC’s unforgettable debut in New York’s Madison Square Garden at UFC 205 and the prestigious main-event contest that sat atop its billing.
History was made in more ways than one on that night, but in the event’s lightweight title bout – a genuinely special milestone was reached.
An unstoppable force of pure Irish energy succeeded in becoming the first UFC champ to hold belts in two weight-classes simultaneously with one of the all-time masterclasses in title-winning performances.
It was unique, it was special, and, of course, it was completely unprecedented.
Even still, when it happened again at UFC 226 just over a year-and-a-half later, seeing Daniel Cormier hoisting both the light-heavyweight and heavyweight championship belts over his shoulder was incredible to behold.
And yes, Amanda Nunes’ destruction of the seemingly unbeatable Cris Cyborg was phenomenal to see play out a few months later at UFC 232 – but when the bantamweight queen held her second belt over her shoulder in a proclamation of domination over a division that never really existed in the first place, the effect was starting to wear off.
Just twenty days later, on the UFC’s debut on ESPN, another double-champ looked to be crowned as TJ Dillashaw moved down in weight to challenge Henry Cejudo for the flyweight belt.
At that point, the novelty was well and truly gone.
The UFC have made it painstakingly clear that they’re willing to pander to the percentage of their audience that needs to see a shiny belt on the line in order to part with their hard-earned dollars to hit ‘buy’ on a PPV.
Interim-belts have all but lost their value.
UFC 206’s Holloway/Pettis, UFC 213’s Whittaker/Romero, UFC 216’s Ferguson/Lee, UFC 225’s Covington/RDA.
All relevantly recent interim-title fights that have had some degree of bulls**t attached to either their conception or aftermath.
There is such a hunger within the fanbase for the spectacular that we’re losing touch with what made the greatest champions of all-time great.
Anderson Silva, Georges St-Pierre, José Aldo, Demetrious Johnson, Jon Jones. Each held their belt over the course of many years and allowed their notoriety to slowly build them into the legends they became.
At last weekend’s UFC 235, Jon Jones managed to reaffirm his status as the world’s greatest by methodically beating down the divisional top-contender Anthony Smith over five rounds on his way to a lopsided unanimous decision.
The point here is that Jon had every right to chase the money-fights, the super-fights, and that ‘champ-champ’ status.
Few would complain if Jones decided to finally answer that great ‘what if’ by testing himself against the giants of the heavyweight division or attempted to chase a potentially massive blockbuster matchup with Brock Lesnar – a move that would no doubt add fuel to the fires that still exist between himself and Daniel Cormier.
Simply put, if anyone can slip into the everpresent trend that has seen champions use their platform for quick gains and get away with it, it’s this guy.
And yet, upon defeating Lionheart, he made it clear that he would like to fight Thiago Santos next – another deserving contender in the admittedly shallow light-heavyweight ranks.
“Whoever it may be, I’m ready to take them all. I think all these younger fighters should get their opportunity at a world title. When you’re sitting in my position, it’s like, who am I to deny people?
“At the end of the day, I feel like this is my time, my era, and I was meant to be here to be a great, great champion. This belt here is supposed to be covered in red rubies. And I got a new challenge to get this thing covered in red rubies – and that means I got to beat a lot of ass, and I’m up for the challenge.” (via MMAJunkie)
We’ve finally started to see some movement at 205lbs. Look at the phenomenal victory turned in by Johnny Walker on Saturday. It’s hard to know how quickly the UFC should give him that push but with guys like him and Dominick Reyes making their climb, the seeds have been planted for the light-heavyweights to blossom.
Hastily-made super-fights and interim-titles lose their significance when the stakes aren’t raised to an almighty high.
Time has shown that we’re quickly growing tired of being given the blockbuster fights as soon as they become a possibility and yet, it is painstakingly clear that these occasions are so much better when they are given time to brew.
If you think Jon Jones is afraid of a move up to heavyweight you might as well stop reading here.
It will happen eventually but I believe we are seeing Jones attempting to make up for lost time here. Not for the division, not for his fans, not for his haters, the UFC or Dana. For himself.
Love him or hate him, you cannot deny that this guy is an insanely driven competitor. You can’t reach the heights he has without being that way.
Now, the man seemingly wants to reaffirm his control over the division – squeezing every bit of life out of it before he leaves it behind him and begins his assault on the heavyweights.
That’s a competitive mindset at play, folks.
The fans turned on Demetrious Johnson towards the end as he displayed a similar mindset but in hindsight, he was one of the last great traditionally-inclined champions.
A man who was the best in his weight-class and determined to retain his spot at the top of the pile above all else.
For Jones, he has made it clear that the UFC heavyweight title is in his plans but as a 205lb-r, it is genuinely refreshing to see him taking this path.
It takes an equal mix of talent, confidence, and consistency to walk the longer route rather than cash in on your status.
Jones has quite a lot of work to do to get the fans back on his side and in all likelihood, it may never happen.
But if he does truly allow his division to breath by fighting its top contender regularly, he will at least be re-establishing a precedent in a manner that only a benchmark like him can.
Where McGregor popularised (and later trademarked) the fashionable status of a champ-champ, history has proven that champions like Jones, like Silva, like GSP – these are the guys who have been truly tested enough to be mentioned in the G.O.A.T conversation.
Cillian Cunningham, Pundit Arena