If you want a snapshot that best describes the fork in the road for Jon Jones, look at these two post-fight headlines following his win over Vladimir Matyushenko on Sunday:
Jon Jones Wants a Top 5 Opponent
Trainer Wants to take it Slow with Jones
You can watch the videos, but the messages are fairly on the nose: Jones is getting restless, and coach Greg Jackson isn’t. Both Jackson and the UFC understand that there’s little upside to rushing Jones along, matching him in a tough fight before he might be ready, and tanking his confidence prematurely. This is boxing’s model for grooming: years and dozens of fights to puff up silly records that can attract higher prize purses.
Jones will never be strung along that far, but he’s already flirting with sandbagging. Matyushenko is an incredibly tough, durable fighter, but he also fit the classic archetype of an aging athlete with name recognition that’s fed to the promising younger talent. Thirty seconds in, the difference in speed was obvious, and the ending was inevitable. “I respect him,” Jones said after the fight. “He’s dangerous.” But it was the kind of cursory, empty compliment you pay more out of respect for a man’s career than what he was able to bring on the night in question.
In the end, Jones’ career trajectory will be decided by the UFC, the ultimate arbitrator of who gets spoon-fed and who gets thrown into the fire. After the fight, Dana White was promising a “top eight” opponent for next time.
“The kid’s going to make a lot of money,” he said. So will the UFC. How best to monetize Jones -- not Jones himself, and not Jackson -- will decide what’s next.
Next for Jones: Rashad Evans and Mauricio "Shogun" Rua look to be tied up until spring or summer of next year, with Evans promised a title shot and Rua hobbled by knee problems; Quinton "Rampage" Jackson and Lyoto Machida have a November date; unless Jones gets put in blister packaging and sits on a shelf for six or eight months, he’s probably looking at Rich Franklin.
Next for Takanori Gomi: The Japanese fighter put on the most impressive show of the night by knocking out Tyson Griffin: a fight with Melvin Guillard would be fireworks.
Next for Yushin Okami: A grueling win over Mark Munoz puts him back in the title conversation -- unfortunately, an Okami main event is box office poison. If it happens, expect him to co-star with a major attraction on the undercard.
The You’re-Not-Fooling-Anyone Award Versus, for pushing a “non-stop” event and then condemning viewers to in-between-rounds commercials by shrinking the in-cage footage and offering factoids to compel people not to tune out. Watching a guy hyperventilate while an ad for Bass Pro Shops rolls is an experience. One not worth repeating.
The Questionable Strategy Award Munoz, for exerting valuable energy trying to take down Okami when A). Okami had already displayed the ability to stuff them, and B). Munoz was having some mild success finding Okami’s chin standing.
The Hyper Award Chael Sonnen, for declaring that Anderson Silva has “ducked me for four years.” This despite Sonnen being in a position to contend for the title for only the past few months and being in a different organization altogether for a portion of that time. Sonnen is somehow finding a way to sound punchy before a fight even happens.
The Hyper Award, Part II Ariel Helwani, for blasphemously describing Sonnen as “Muhammad Ali-esque” during a wrap-up show on Versus. Today’s Ali makes more sense than Sonnen.
Is Jones a heavyweight?
Jones, 23, entered the UFC with the kind of lanky physique that doesn’t look terribly impressive on TV but resembles a brick wall when you’re a few feet away. And he’s still growing into it: Jones said he was over 230 pounds in training and cut from 226. By the time he’s 30, another 10, 15, or even 20 pounds of natural, lean mass isn’t out of the question -- but he’d still be giving up size to behemoths like Brock Lesnar and Shane Carwin. Typically, smaller heavyweights survive based on punching power. That’s one skill Jones hasn’t displayed yet.
Is Versus more attentive than Spike?
There’s a tremendous advantage to airing events on sports networks: they have the structure in place to provide the kind of post-fight coverage that lends everything an air of importance.
Versus went all-out Sunday, talking up Frank Mir, Dana White, and Jones in a wrap-up. The attention was substantial -- the more airtime UFC personalities get, the better for their cultural imprint -- but it had the side effect of making Spike’s cursory broadcasts weak in comparison.
The next question: will Versus begin to devote this much attention to their WEC events?
Is the crucifix the most helpless position in MMA?
In a sport where there’s a counter for virtually everything, there’s a running joke about the best defense against the crucifix position: don’t get into it.
The maneuver -- where an opponent pins both your arms and makes a “T” with your bodies -- essentially makes an amputee of fighters, taking away their arms while their face is defenseless against a series of punches or elbows. Jones used it to finish Matyushenko; Matt Hughes tied up B.J. Penn with it. Done properly, it’s hard to watch.
Fortunately, the offensive fighter usually doesn’t have the leverage or balance to deliver blows of any serious power. The victim, though, is left to eat nose-breaking damage with little hope of escape. At The Amateur level, it might be a position best left to the professionals.
Is Gomi leading a Japanese comeback?
It’s telling that Gomi, 32, preceded a vicious win over Griffin with an extended training session at AKA in the United States. Critics of Japanese MMA athletes point to erratic training, a poor understanding of weight cuts and strategy, and an overall discomfort with American athletes --many of whom either grew up in Division I or II wrestling rooms or regularly spar with those who did -- as roadblocks.
Gomi has incredible power for a lightweight: if he can marry it with a better regimen, he’ll continue to succeed. But having to go outside of Japan to do it is more of a condemnation of that country’s MMA program than an endorsement.
Brian Stann and Mike Massenzio split an $80,000 bonus for Fight of the Night, which went unaired on the Versus broadcast; Gomi took home $40,000 for KOing Griffin, a given considering it was the first time anyone had beaten Griffin inside of the distance…Jones told ESPN’s “SportsCenter “Monday morning that he’d happily “bump up” to heavyweight to close the mouth of James Toney, who had threatened to slap Jones over comments about his Toney’s abilities. (Or lack of.) Pointless fight. Toney will probably have more than one UFC fight, but his second should be against a Mirko "Cro Cop" Filipovic type, just for violence’s sake.