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Spend enough time in the fight game, and you begin to recognize certain patterns. Together these make up something of an unwritten set of rules, which assists one to understand and navigate the absurd world of professional combat sports.
Included on this invisible ledger are centuries’ old adages from the sweet science, like that a great fighter will typically continue competing long enough to desecrate their legacy, few things are sacred enough to come between a promoter and a bag of money and fights premised on ethnic confrontation sell the most tickets. More recent additions include that extreme weight cutting is a precursor to competitive success, wrestlers need to win more fights than strikers to get title shots in mixed martial arts, and fighters who’ve pissed off Dana White will not be inducted into the Ultimate Fighting Championship Hall of Fame.
Another rule that’s been part of the code for close to a decade now is that Jon Jones is, for all intents and purposes, unbeatable inside the Octagon. Since his UFC debut in 2008, which happened a mind-boggling four months and six fights after he commenced his professional career at an event called “FFP: Untamed,” “Bones” has been as close to perfect as one can get in combat sports. Outside a disqualification loss against Matt Hamill in 2009, and a No Contest against Daniel Cormier for testing positive for banned substances at UFC 214, Jones has vanquished every man that has marched into battle against him -- six of which were future or former undisputed UFC champions. He’s won 13 title fights, is currently riding a 17-fight unbeaten streak and hasn’t taken any serious damage since his UFC 165 performance against the then-unheralded Alexander Gustafson – a showing he has since attributed to his heavy partying.
This weekend Jones will continue his post-USADA suspensions comeback tour by attempting his 14th title victory against the undefeated Dominick Reyes at UFC 247. It will be his fourth title fight in just over 13 months, having captured the “vacant” title via third round TKO opposite Gustafson in their rematch back at UFC 232 before coasting to decision victories against fringe-middleweights-turned-light-heavyweight-contenders Anthony Smith and Thiago Santos at UFC 235 and UFC 239 respectively.
The build-up to UFC 247 has been muted, not least because Reyes is regarded by many (including Jones himself) as a pitstop; a stay-busy fight before Jones finally move up to heavyweight to chase a second title. That’s been the dominant talking point since this time last year, with the UFC’s reluctance to open up its check-book being the primary reason for Jones treading water at 205-pounds and crushing “dream-chasers” like Smith, Santos and Reyes. As Jones told reporters at a UFC 235 press scrum last March:
I feel like I’ll move up to heavyweight on my own terms when I feel like the UFC is playing ball with me contractually to entertain that. No one has entertained any idea of switching the contract for any super fights, so, we’re just kind of stuck at this spot here fighting at light heavyweight. (transcription via MMAJunkie)
“Stuck” is the appropriate description. Though Jones has rightfully earned praise for holding down his division and giving the next generation of 205-pounders a shot at gold (something that many of his counterparts are abjectly failing to do in other weight classes), it’s a division largely devoid of color and movement. The most intriguing, not to mention profitable, matchups for Jones exist either at heavyweight (Stipe Miocic, Daniel Cormier, Francis Ngannou) or at 185-pounds (Israel Adesanya), and it feels like everyone is just waiting for UFC 247 to be in the rear-view mirror so those narratives can be set back in motion.
That’s a dangerous place to be: an under-the-radar-fight which many casual fans will miss, against a virtually unknown and criminally overlooked opponent pegged as a 4-to-1 underdog, which the entire industry is betting on you to beat convincingly so you can unlock doors number two, three and four.
If anyone deserves to feel confident walking into a UFC title fight, it’s Jones. However, there are disturbing parallels between the expectations we have of him vis-à-vis Saturday night and that of another seemingly indestructible champion just two short years ago.
The event was UFC 227, the fighter was then-flyweight champion Demetrius Johnson, and the opponent everyone was under-estimating was Olympic-wrestler-turned-MMA-fighter Henry Cejudo. Johnson was gunning to make Cejudo his 12th title defense, and with “The Messenger” having fallen already fallen to “Mighty Mouse” once back in 2016 via first round blitzkrieg, most regarded Cejudo -- who commanded almost identical odds to Reyes as the challenger -- as cannon fodder. The build-up was listless, Johnson seemed at-times bored, and the outcome was never in doubt.
…Right up until the fight happened, when Cejudo clinched, grinded and wore on Johnson for 25 minutes, winning the narrowest of split decisions and usurping the throne in the process. The streak, the title and the GOAT-mantle disappeared in the most underwhelming of circumstances, and Johnson never competed in the UFC again.
Which brings us to another rule, which all-too-often supersedes the rest: this is fighting, and anything can happen.
Of course Jones should win this weekend. It feels inevitable. What a preposterous thing it would be for him to have circumnavigated felony hit-and-run charges, all those USADA perils and picograms, the broken toe against Chael Sonnen and every self-destructive decision he’s made in between, only to be derailed in a stay-busy fight that many enthusiasts won’t pay the $64.99 to see.
But that’s a genuine possibility, and we would all do well to remember that come Saturday.
Jacob Debets is a law graduate and writer from Melbourne, Australia. He is currently writing a book analyzing the economics and politics of the MMA industry. You can view more of his writing at jacobdebets.com.