Thursday, April 19, 2012

UFC 145: Words With Friends

Former friends and current egos collide.

The resounding crescendo for one of combat sports most heated and personal feuds comes to an end Saturday night in Atlanta during the main event at UFC 145: Jones v Evans. The road to this fight between former friends and training partners light heavyweight champion Johnny 'Bones' Jones and 'Suga' Rashad Evans has been filled with so many twists, turns, betrayals, and back stabbings that Bill Shakespeare himself would nod in approval.

Of course the end of this drama won't end in typical Shakespeare fashion with everyone dead in a pool of blood, but it may not be that far off.

Well documented is the history of this feud, and it's reached a point where any common outcome of an MMA fight would be anti-climactic. Of course when Jon Jones is involved, everyone expects the extraordinary. Whether that be a new move from his You Tube bag of tricks or his opponent, the man in the ring who knows him inside and out better than any other fighter, can pull of a momentous upset and wash away Jones' now infamous AURA OF INVINCIBILITY-Ty-ty-ty!!!!!! 

There are a lot of story lines converging, but before we give Jones the win and ask a million Alexander Gustafsson questions, it's important to focus on what this fight means to each competitor. Outside of the obvious title implications, this battle of former friends that have had them jarring back and forth at each other for almost a year has moved from words to motivation for the upcoming fight.

MMA camps are often referred to as brotherhoods or a family. Fighters eat, train, and spend time together. They are there to make each individual better. It's an interesting dynamic. As such, many camps pledge to never fight each other. A rather ridiculous rule to set as fighters are paid to fight. And if your goal as a fighter is to earn a living and be the best, then it seems like a boundary that needs to be crossed.

Jon Fitch and Josh Koscheck are the most notorious and ultimately faithful members of the "We Won't Fight Our Own" team. Much to UFC President Dana White's annoyance, these two constantly refused to fight each other since they are in the same camp. Fitch would famously explain that he would move up a weight class or even turn down a title shot rather that fight Kos. This seeming unwillingness to fight is not appealing to fans or the UFC. It's a business. In most cases, Bones and Rashad not included, it's not personal.

Now, Fitch is tumbling down the 170 ranks and Kos is in another camp. So much for brotherhood.

This is not to say their stance hurt them professionally, but it surely didn't help. Like most things, if Fitch or Kos are up for a fight and there's another candidate, if you're White or matchmaker extraordinaire Joe Silva, would you rather give it to one of those guys who will just cause a potential log jam should they win, or give it to the guy that'll fight his neighbor for a title shot?

Leaning on the understanding of what a fight camp is, the popular genesis of this hatred is during an interview when Jones said he'd fight Rashad if Dana made him. When in actuality, this slow simmering rivalry probably started long before that. Rashad was one of the original pillars of Greg Jackson's camp. Him and Keith Jardine were the only notable 205'ers there at the time, and when Jackson looked to bring in Jones from an anonymous New York camp, Evans didn't like the idea.

Jackson went forward anyway, and although Jones and Evans got along, eventually it was clear their paths would cross. The interview seemed to not be the beginning but rather the spark that exploded all of these pent up feelings Rashad had for Jones. Jones, the younger, more athletic, more heralded fighter that was impeding on Rashad's turf and taking his spotlight.

It's not totally indefensible that Rashad felt betrayed, however, in all of Rashad's comments leading up to the fight it certainly seems jealousy is a big motivating factor for him. In Rashad's mind beating Jones would give him everything that Jones has. Adoration, respect, the belt, and this is his opportunity to take back everything Jones took from him 2 years ago when he first entered Jackson MMA. Showing everyone that not only is Jones a fraud as a person, but also an inferior fighter is more important to him than the title.

Jones has ceased this overly emotional moment by going the opposite direction and downplaying the emotional aspect of the fight. As fight night nears, both fighters have gone to their respective verbal corners in lieu of focusing on the task at hand. The months of build up are what verbal attacks are for. As Rashad continued down his similar path of saying the young champ is fake and cocky, Jones had disengaged from the verbal lock-up and opted for his more zen like approach.

This is more about the fight than the person for Jones. Something he sees as a weakness and lack of focus in Rashad. As if that wasn't Karate Kid enough for you, Jones is constantly referencing his mental focus and strength leading up to the fight.

Whatch'a gonna do when fans turn on you, brother!?
Mental strength is derived from many areas. For some being at peace with the world around you and finding your chi is enough. For others, it's being extraordinarily pissed off and angry. One isn't better than the other. Different strokes for different folks.

But in a world where Jones may have his oms in check, he's living in a world where fans are starting to turn on him.

This isn't a new thing in the world of MMA where fans like to find under the radar picks, follow them along their development, then turn on them when they reach the pinnacle and get a bit too much fame and notoriety.

Jones was lustily booed at his last two weigh-ins, and his on-going pursuit as the face of UFC has earned him a fair amount of enemies to go along with the fans. Being the best for so long can be a fickle thing, ask Hollywood Hogan.

The hype around Jones has always been there, and he's lived up to every part of it. He is on the verge of becoming the biggest star in the sport, and his youth and personality give him the best chance to be the biggest cross-over star (that didn't start in the WWF) in the UFC.

The risk Jones is running as coming off as too perfect. People constantly say how naturally gifted he is and how things just come naturally to him. That very well may be the case, but the reason more people like Batman than Superman is that Batman has flaws. He appears human. There's emotion there, and while Jones  certainly has flaws, his public persona and rightfully so, his ego is leaving a bad taste in some fans' mouths.

Look at the second half of Josh Gross' ESPN column. As true as this may be, it reeks of pomposity and writers kissing up to Jones.

Comparisons to Muhammad Ali and him being treated like the greatest champion of all-time is a bit much. Further down this road Jones goes, the more and more fans will want to see failure. In a sport where your opponent can knock you unconscious it's probably not the best thing in the world.

When the fight is over, it will be interesting to see if the proverbial beef is squashed. There will be good sportsmanship, but whether these two former friends can rebuild their friendship or if either even want to do that will be interesting to see. Perhaps this drama will go on a bit longer.


For the past several fights, all I've really wanted to see is someone challenge Jones. Machida grazed him with a couple shots and that got me excited, but before I could give out a Machida "Waaaaaaaaaah" he was dropped like a heavy bag after Jones choked the life out of him.

This has to be the fight where Jones is challenged. Rashad is the #1 contender at light heavyweight and he knows Jones better than any fighter could. Rashad has fought, trained, and probably tagged Jones numerous times. While Rashad was never a true mentor for Jones and Jones has rankings wise passed Rashad, it is a little of the student becoming the master type thing around this fight.

If Bones is able to roll through Rashad and finish him it would be his most impressive display to date. At that point we could talk Dan Henderson or Gustafsson, but really it should be about Jones moving to heavyweight. He's steamrolled every big name in 205 over the past 5 years (minus Rashad and Hendo) and trying to see anyone down the line that provides an intriguing challenge would be wishful thinking. Jones should take an extended vacation and pack on some pounds if he beats Rashad. Heavyweight is calling.

Ultimately, I think Jones will win. I can see Rashad taking him down, but I'm sure in Jones fashion he'll be well prepared for that.

I say Jones by unanimous decision. Good fight by Rashad, a guy I always liked more outside the ring than in it.

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