Jon Jones gruesomely dismantled Mauricio Rua in March to take UFC gold. | Photo: Sherdog.com
When Greg Jackson reflects back on the night that Jon Jones became the youngest light heavyweight champion in UFC history, a specific word comes to mind.
No, not “surprised,” even though no one could have expected Jones to so thoroughly dissect Mauricio “Shogun” Rua for two-and-a-half rounds before their UFC 128 bout was mercifully called to a halt. The revered trainer had something else in mind.
“I think ‘surprised’ was the wrong word,” Jackson says. “I think [I was] more relieved, because Shogun’s such a dangerous fighter.”
It seems odd now, considering that Jones’ domination of Rua was only the halfway point of one of the most memorable years for an individual in mixed martial arts history. Back in March, however, Jones was merely a highly regarded up-and-coming talent, a 23-year-old wunderkind who, if he was both dedicated and fortunate enough, could reach the heights that Rua once did at the same age.
In 2005, the Brazilian beat Quinton Jackson, Antonio Rogerio Nogueira, Alistair Overeem and Ricardo Arona in a four-month span to win the Pride Fighting Championships middleweight grand prix. After a rough start to his UFC career, Rua had returned to form in capturing the 205-pound strap with a first-round knockout of Lyoto Machida at UFC 113.
After routing Ryan Bader in February, Jones was tabbed as a replacement at UFC 128 for then-teammate Rashad Evans, who had to withdraw from the fight with Rua due to a knee injury. What transpired inside the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J., that night was painful to watch, yet somehow thrilling at the same time, because it demonstrated that Jones was beginning to realize his seemingly limitless potential.
“It feels so good,” Jones said in a post-fight interview. “It’s a testament that dreams do come true. Believe in yourself, and once you get there, don’t slow down. It comes true, everybody.”
Rua couldn’t have felt nearly that well. The bout began with a flying knee from Jones, a move that Rua would later say affected him throughout the contest. It ended with Shogun reeling against the fence before Jones punctuated the victory with a vicious left hook to the body followed by a knee. What occurred in between was a steady diet of Jones dominance, earning the bout “Beatdown of the Year” honors for 2011 from Sherdog.com.
Considering the valiant effort Shogun gave eight months later, rallying from one of Dan Henderson’s trademark right hands to nearly steal a five-round victory at UFC 139, a one-sided throttling of the former Pride superstar is no small achievement.
Jackson was cognizant of Rua’s ability to take punishment and roar back throughout the bout with Jones.
“It was a concern. I was like, OK, I really want to make sure that we keep riding him, keep doing damage everywhere and just wear him down, piece by piece, instead of looking for one big shot to take him out,” Jackson says. “I think with a guy like him, you just want to beat him everywhere so eventually you can finish him.”
Jones did exactly that, taking his opponent to the mat within 30 seconds and methodically pounding away with elbows and punches. As Rua attempted to get up near the cage, Jones landed a brutal combination that included a knee to the body, another knee to the face and several punches to the head.
Wobbled by the barrage, a visibly exhausted Shogun continued to press forward but couldn’t find his mark against the native New Yorker’s 84.5-inch reach.
Between the first and second rounds, Rua’s corner had one recurring piece of advice: “Breathe.”
It would get worse before it got better. With Rua’s back pressed against the cage early in round two, Jones connected with a spectacular spinning back-elbow. A winded Rua continued to struggle to close the distance, and when he attempted a leg kick, Jones caught it and tripped Rua to the canvas. The rangy Jones was smothering in his top game, at one point covering the airways of his opponent with his hands, a tactic that would draw cries of protest from Rua supporters but was totally legal.
More effective were Jones’ elbow strikes, which left the right side of Shogun’s face swollen and battered as the round waned. Jones ability to control the action with his wrestling was uncanny, especially given Rua’s background as a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt.
“Shogun has a half-guard sweep that he really likes, so we worked a lot on countering that and making sure that we used Jon’s length to his full advantage so that [Rua] wasn’t gonna be able to [get up],” Jackson says. “So, we systematically broke those moves down and made sure that Jon wasn’t going to get in trouble there.”
Prior to what would turn out to be the decisive stanza, it was Jones’ turn to combat fatigue. In the corner, Jackson made sure to remind his charge that Rua was much more exhausted than he was.
“I think there were a lot of nerves there, and he was adrenaline-dumping a little bit and getting really tired,” Jackson said. “I wanted to make sure that he stayed very confident, so I was saying, ‘I know you’re feeling that way, but looking over at [Rua], he’s really tired,’ just to keep Jon's confidence going. A young fighter with that potential confidence is very important.”
The third round saw Rua dive for a leg lock early out of desperation. The Jackson’s MMA product thwarted the Brazilian’s submission and flattened his opponent out, where he proceeded to rain down elbows and punches from inside Rua’s guard.
“It’s a man against boys. This is just the story of every Jon Jones fight,” said UFC analyst Joe Rogan during the fight, seemingly taken aback that anyone could manhandle Rua in such a manner.
Finally able to make it to his feet, the champion wobbled backward, stumbling into the fence. The left hook buckled him, and Jones left nothing to chance by adding one final knee. Herb Dean stepped in to call it at the 2:37 mark, with Rua simultaneously tapping the canvas in submission.
The post-fight statistics supported the visual evidence that Rua’s swollen face provided. Over the course of their 12 minutes and 37 seconds in the Octagon together, Jones out-landed Rua 75 significant strikes to nine, with the former Chute Boxe representative never connecting on more than five strikes in a single round. The disparity was the worst in recent memory for Shogun, who is more accustomed to being on the opposite end of such a performance.
“He might be the greatest talent that we’ve seen in the UFC,” Rogan said of Jones. Recent events have done nothing to dispute that notion, but even one-sided victories over Quinton Jackson and Lyoto Machida haven’t erased the image of a battered Rua in the cage, conceding that he had fallen to the better man.
“The strategy was to fight him anywhere the fight would go,” Rua said. “I have to congratulate him. He was better than me. He is a very tough guy, and he showed great muay Thai and ground work. He is the man.”
As Jones continues to improve, a similar sentiment could be echoed by plenty of future foes.