Jon Jones has defended his light heavyweight crown five times. | Al Bello/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images
The mixed martial arts gods, if they do indeed exist, were clearly unhappy on Saturday. What other explanation could there be for the bizarre confluence of events that went down at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J.? Two Ultimate Fighting Championship bouts were cut short due to eye pokes, another because of a badly disfigured thumb and a fourth was axed early in the morning as a result of excessive dehydration.
It could have been worse. If Chael Sonnen could have held on for 27 more seconds or if referee Keith Peterson had determined the Oregonian was intelligently defending himself during Jon Jones’ final barrage, it could have been much, much worse.
The UFC 159 main event was as thoroughly lopsided as one would have expected a bout pitting one of the sport’s most dominant champions against an opponent with exactly zero Octagon victories at 205 pounds to be. Despite being more than 10 years his junior, Jones gave Sonnen the big brother treatment for four and a half minutes. He dominated the action from the start, landing his first takedown inside of 10 seconds as the challenger rushed forward. From there, Sonnen was given little room to breathe, whether on the ground or against the fence, and he eventually succumbed to Jones’ patented brand of elbow-infused violence with 27 seconds remaining in the first frame.
“I wanted to ‘Chael Sonnen’ Chael Sonnen,” Jones quipped.
That was something he undoubtedly did. By the time Jones put the finishing touches on his fifth consecutive light heavyweight title defense, it was clear who was the better man. Unlike his two meetings with Anderson Silva, meetings in which Sonnen was somehow able to rationalize victory despite not having his hand raised on either occasion, there would be no post-fight posturing by the “Gangster from West Linn.”
“Jon is a lot better than I thought he was. To beat a guy is one thing. To beat a guy at his game is another,” Sonnen said. “He’s the best fighter I’ve ever fought. He was stronger than Silva. The last thing I want to do is disparage Anderson Silva. It’s tough. I whipped him for 30 minutes. He whipped me for 30 seconds. I whipped Jon for zero seconds. He whipped me the entire fight. If you’re asking me for my opinion, Jon’s better.”
Despite the high praise, any referee or ringside physician in his or her right mind would have awarded Sonnen a technical knockout victory had they noticed the gruesome broken toe that no one apparently saw until UFC commentator Joe Rogan approached Jones for a post-fight interview.
Then, instead of lamenting the postponement of a Jamaican vacation, Jones would have had far greater matters to attend to -- like getting his belt back. Mangled digits are no joke. Just ask Yancy Medeiros, who appeared to badly dislocate his right thumb while defending a Rustam Khabilov takedown during an earlier preliminary bout. Unlike Jones-Sonnen, that contest was very much in doubt, but referee Dan Miragliotta halted the bout immediately once he took a look at Medeiros’ hand.
Jones, who appeared to suffer an open fracture of his toe while successfully sprawling against a Sonnen takedown, would have been resigned to the same fate, regardless of his own wishes. That is an outcome that would have left no one, not Jones, not UFC President Dana White, not even Sonnen himself, feeling remotely satisfied.
It was clear from the start that Sonnen never had a puncher’s chance in hell of beating Jones; a podiatrist’s chance, perhaps, but nothing more.
Consider the near catastrophe to be a warning from the MMA gods. UFC 159 was an event that emerged from the Sonnen cauldron of self-promotion, and while the card seemed to generate a fair share of mainstream media attention, the result -- like Georges St. Pierre-Nick Diaz before it -- was fairly inevitable. Whether you believed Jones was “pissed off beyond belief,” as Rogan implied, or just mildly annoyed with his opponent’s routine, it did not change the fact that competition was never a real selling point of the fight.
Had Sonnen survived round one, the UFC could potentially have had a double-threat champion: a man who received a bout he never deserved holding onto a belt he did not earn, all in the name of entertainment, rebuilding the “The Ultimate Fighter” brand and, in theory, pay-per-view buys. Now, imagine trying to sell Jones-Sonnen 2 to the masses after what we just witnessed.
At the UFC 159 post-fight press conference, there was some debate as to whether Jones has accomplished enough to be regarded as the top 205-pound champion in the promotion’s history. There should not be. The man is already there, with victories over so many of the division’s luminaries that he has been paired with middleweight converts in his last two outings. Make no mistake, Vitor Belfort and Sonnen are highly accomplished fighters, but they are not part of the path Jones should be taking, not after he went through Mauricio Rua, Quinton Jackson, Lyoto Machida and Rashad Evans to begin his championship reign.
This was a reminder that a professional athlete’s career, even one as transcendent as Jones, is fragile and fleeting. It is easy to say that Jones, still just 25 years old, has plenty of time to tackle more significant challenges than Sonnen, but that is not always true. Something as small as an eye poke or as cringe-inducing as an open fracture, always has the potential to alter the trajectory of a career.
UFC 159 was a carnival of the bizarre, but it was also a reminder of just how brutal fighting for a living can be. Mixed martial artists are as tenacious as they come, which is why Jones said, “[My coaches] would have twisted [my toe] and sent me back out to fight. I just want to be a warrior.”
It would not, of course, have been his or his team’s decision to make, but those mysterious MMA gods were merciful this time. The rightful champion retained his crown and should recover to fight another day. We can only hope that next time it is against a serious contender.