After 15 months on the sidelines, this weekend we finally welcome back arguably the greatest mixed martial artist of all time, Jon ‘Bones’ Jones.
The number one pound-for-pound fighter on the planet has been absent solely due to his reckless personal life shenanigans that have landed him in deep water with police officials on several occasions. The New York native claims to have overcome his demons and is more determined than ever to reclaim his crown, which he feels was unrightfully taken away from him.
However, despite allegedly overcoming his personal squabbles, another question is posed; should Jones be as worried about overcoming an additional obstacle – potentially – in the form of ring rust? Judging by the performances of leading fighters in recent times, who have found themselves in the same position as Jones, it is a mixed debate.
One man who is adamant that the concept of ring rust is a myth is recently crowned bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz. ‘The Dominator’ regained his 135-pound title after overcoming formidable opponent, T.J Dillashaw, in an exhilarating contest at UFC Fight Night Boston back in January.
The 30-year-old is the poster boy for facing ring rust as prior to his most recent fight in January he had only competed one time since 2011. This crazy statistic is down to a truly inauspicious period of devastating injuries.
Cruz’s bad luck began in mid-2012 when he was coaching opposite Uriah Faber on season 15 of The Ultimate Fighter. With both men holding a victory over each other the rubber match was scheduled for July 9th. Four weeks out from the bout Cruz announced that he had torn his ACL and was unable to compete.
In the absence of Cruz, Renan Barao had acquired the interim bantamweight belt. After more than a year on the sidelines, and two subsequent ACL surgeries, Cruz was scheduled to make his comeback on February 1st 2014 in a unification title fight against the Brazilian Barao.
Speaking to Inside MMA (via MMAJunkie.com) during the build up to his comeback, Cruz first addressed his critical thoughts on ring rust:
“I feel that cage rust is something that’s brought up to give odds makers something to bet on.
“I think you can work it completely out of your system as long as you’re in training camp and training correctly.”
It seems as though Cruz had failed to adhere to his own advice on proper training as, incredibly, in consecutive fights, the Californian had injured himself four weeks out yet again. Cruz had torn his groin and was forced to vacate the title.
Finally, after a run of crippling injuries and almost three years away from the cage, ‘The Dominator’ made his long overdue comeback against Takeya Mizugaki at UFC 178. Cruz seemed to certify his refusal to acknowledge ring rust as he put on a remarkable performance by finishing his opponent in the first round. Astonishingly, this was Cruz’s first TKO victory since 2010, and earned him a Performance of the Night award, which is a noteworthy endorsement for his argument.
Cruz had his momentum returned and was told his next fight would be for the title against Dillashaw. Just when the stripped champion thought his injury nightmares were over the unthinkable happened again. Undoubtedly the unluckiest fighter in the game, Cruz had somehow managed to tear the ACL on his other knee, the so called ‘good’ knee just three months after his comeback fight. The severity of the injury kept ‘The Dominator’ sidelined for the entirety of 2015.
After a lengthy recovery time away Cruz was finally granted his chance to reclaim the title he never lost and regain the recognition as the undisputed best bantamweight in the world. The man that stood in his way was commanding champion, and former pupil of Cruz’s biggest rival Uriah Faber, T.J Dillashaw.
The fight took place at Fight Night Boston on January 17th, a card which the UFC highly regards as the previous year Conor McGregor featured in the main event breaking Fox viewer ratings. Cruz put on a vintage performance of outstanding footwork and evasive movement that has made him so successful throughout his career. The former champ even managed to surprise everyone by nullifying the presumed impenetrable takedown defence of Dillashaw. In a thrilling affair Cruz eventually earned a split decision victory and recouped his place on top of the Bantamweight mountain.
After the victory Cruz self-righteously echoed his thoughts from three years earlier and ended any further discussions about ring rust (via the Mirror):
“I tried to explain there’s no such thing as ring rust. How much have I said that?
“There’s only rust if you don’t train enough. Remember, ring rust is nothing more than mental weakness.”
Unlike Cruz, a man who has failed to have a successful return to the octagon after an extended period away is former light heavyweight champion, Rashad Evans. Having been a member of Jackson/Winklejohn gym in Albuquerque, Evans is extremely familiar with the stripped champ Jones. Previous long time sparring partners and one time opponents, Jones need look no further than his former teammate as a prime example of the harsh reality of ring rust.
Rashad Evans has an excellent pedigree in the UFC. A product of The Ultimate Fighter season 2, the Niagra Falls native has competed against the very best light heavyweights in the world.
‘Suga’ Rashad put together a four-fight win streak after debuting at 205 pounds, with three of those fights coming in the space of five months, including a notable victory over Stephen Bonner. A draw with legend Tito Ortiz, followed by a victory over Michael Bisping led Evans to a career-elevating fight against the enigma Chuck Liddell. A defining fight for Evans’ career that transcended his game from a one-dimensional wrestler to accomplished striker.
This was signified by the stunning second round knockout of ‘The Iceman’ that earned him a Knockout of the Year award. Riding an all-time high Evans squared off against another legend, Forest Griffin, for the title and would eventually TKO the hall of famer in the 3rd round. Although losing the title to Lyoto Machida, Evans would go on to defeat substantial opponents in the form of Thiago Silva, ‘Rampage’ Jackson, Tito Ortiz and Phil Davis in a four-fight win streak. Back-to-back decision losses to Jon Jones and Antonio Nogueira would lead to victories over future hall of famer Dan Henderson and ‘Bad Guy’ Chael Sonnen.
From the above list of scalps the ‘Blackzilians’ leader has acquired, there is no denying Evans’s credentials as a legitimate elite fighter. However, his two most recent performances in the octagon have diminished this reality and ring rust is a key factor.
In early 2014, ‘Suga’ was expected to face current light heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier. Just ten days out from the fight Evans damaged his knee and was forced to withdraw. The seriousness of the injury was far worse than initially thought and would keep the former champ sidelined for exactly one year.
The comeback date was set for February 22nd 2015 and the opponent at hand was Glover Teixeira. This time around it was ‘Suga’s’ opponent who would withdraw with a knee injury. There was no late replacement fighter and Evans would be rescheduled on a later card. In the wake of the originally scheduled comeback, Evans underwent further surgery on the knee that had now become a plague to him. He announced he would be sedentary for a further five to six months.
The comeback did arrive eventually after nearly two long years away from the octagon. The task set for Evans was in-form fighter Ryan Bader. After being inactive for so long it was expected that Evans would not be spectacular but it was also presumed that he would also not be so underwhelming.
Bader controlled the fight from start to finish, picking apart Evans at will with effortless jabs and counter striking. Evans was slow, sloppy and uncalculated. The fluidity of his movement and speed looked hindered, probably due to the multiple knee rehabilitations. Bader won by unanimous decision and in the week following his loss, Evans spoke with ‘Rampage’ Jackson about the influence of ring rust (via Today’s Knockout):
“I didn’t think it was going to be that hard though. I really didn’t. When I got out there, I was like, ‘I see this s—t.’ But then when I was throwing, I was like, ‘God damn I feel slow.’
“This s—t is not coming off the way I see it in my mind. I’d see it and I’d think, and I was just too late on everything. Cage rust is real. That s—t is real.”
Last week Evans returned to the octagon again to try make amends for his previous unacceptable performance. Unfortunately this time around the result was far more disastrous than he could have imagined.
Teixeira dispatched ‘Suga’ in under one round with a devastating knockout that left Evans looking a shadow of his former self. Two years away from the cage is a long time and it is clearly evident with Evans. The post-fight interview is quite hard to watch as an emotional Evans struggles to come to terms with what is happening.
Ring rust is a debatable topic but Jon Jones is not Dominick Cruz or Rashad Evans. Jones is a different breed of martial artist entirely, in a class of his own. When posed the question about ring rust during a recent media scrum, Jones is understansably cautious but responded with confidence referencing his successful training and vast experience (via the LA Times):
“Ring rust is a small concern of mine. I’ve never been in a situation like this, never had this much time off. When I start thinking about ring rust, though, I think about my time in the gym,
“I know I can go five hard rounds right now and I know the longer the fight goes, the more comfortable I’ll become. I’ll get better as the fight progresses, cardio will be in my favour, as will my overall experience. I’ve been in more high level fights than he has.”
‘Bones’ recently claimed he has never competed sober and would always have that as a ready excuse in-case he lost. But he kept winning and that is ridiculous. The old Jones has beaten the best of the best comprehensively. The new Jones is focused, has real desire and a newfound passion for competing.
A newly acquired enthusiasm for power lifting has transformed his body into phenomenal shape. 15 months is a long time to be away from competing in a sport that requires so much, but if anyone can end the debate on ring rust once and for all then who better than the pound-for-pound number one himself.
With the Conor McGregor fiasco presenting itself this week, and the desperate search for a new main event for UFC 200, perhaps the UFC can’t afford a ring rusty Jones on Saturday night.
David O’Donovan, Pundit Arena
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