Before Jon Jones and Alex Gustafsson set foot in the Octagon on Saturday night, the story was all about reach.
According to the hype, the 6ft 5in Swede had the genetic tools to neutralise the 84in arms of a dominant champion whose career to date resembled a youngster pulling wings off a butterfly.
In the end both fighters strode tall and proud into the Toronto’s caged battlefield, yet left as broken men. After twenty five mesmerising minutes, they were transported separately to a local hospital. Soon their collective wounds will heal, but the tale of their light-heavyweight title bout at UFC 165 will be enshrined in folklore. This was a career-defining night for both combatants.
For Jones, it was an occasion that cements his legacy as the greatest 205 pound titleholder the UFC has ever seen.
We’ve seen him grow before us in the Octagon. From his early days as a precocious young talent to the all-conquering sponsorship darling of Nike and Gatorade, it has been an extraordinary journey. Yet he’s been victim of his own success. Dominance has brought fame, fortune and fast cars but it hasn’t bought him the popularity one might expect. Fans failed to connect with a man whose superiority often made for predictable viewing.
The success story of the UFC has been based on perennial instability. Zuffa eschews the old boxing matchmaking model of good fight, easy fight, mismatch, great fight that defined the careers of the likes of Muhammad Ali. In the world’s premier fight league, titles are earned through blood, sweat and tears. Fortune can be fleeting. The margin between success and failure is the width of a four ounce glove.
Men like Chuck Liddell and B.J Penn, bona fide Zuffa legends, walked those margins every time they entered the cage. Their constant flirtation with risk earned them reward, but it also earned them the lifelong respect of the MMA fanbase.
Whereas Jon Jones made it look easy. Too easy. History told us that it shouldn’t be this way. A young twenty-something with so few fights to his name shouldn’t be this good.
Every great champion needs a great rival.
Take the case of Anderson Silva. Now acknowledged as the greatest mixed martial artist the world has ever seen, the Brazilian didn’t always command such accolades.
Prior to his 2010 bout with Chael Sonnen, Silva had stunk out many a UFC arena with a fighting style that walked a fine line between arrogance and excellence. It was only after he survived a 23 minute beatdown from Sonnen and emerged victorious in their epic UFC 117 encounter that respect flowed from all corners. He had finally shown his fighting heart and the world loved him for it.
Like Silva, last night Jon Jones showed us all the fighting heart that defines the great champions. And for that he owes Gustafsson a debt of gratitude.
And what of the Swede? Stockholm’s fighting son proved to the world that he was more than the collection of long limbs that the UFC hype machine had us believe. This is a Scandinavian warrior with an indomitable fighting spirit. He survived a brutal final minute of the fourth round and marched onward in the fifth like a soldier whose chambers have long since emptied, yet endeavours to fight the enemy with his bare hands. They were six minutes that will change the course of his career forever more.
Gustafsson personified the evolution that defines this wonderful sport. After defeat to wrestling machine Phil Davis, he was criticised as a one-dimensional striker whose lack of grappling finesse was a fundamental flaw. Rather than seek comfort in the familiar, Gustafsson pushed himself out of his comfort zone. He swallowed his pride and turned to Davis for tuition, spending hour after tortuous hour on the mat honing his craft.
Last night we saw his emergence as a truly world-class mixed martial artist and a potential long-term rival to Jon Jones. The light-heavyweight division is no longer the barren landscape we perceived it to be. There is a pretender to the throne. A challenger to push the king to new levels of greatness.
On Saturday night Alex Gustafsson reached for the crown and fell agonisingly short.
Maybe it was all about reach after all.
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