Jon Jones left the octagon in no small way fortunate to still be champion directly after last Saturday’s light-heavyweight championship showdown against Dominick Reyes.
I’ve already heard quite a number of different takes on what exactly went down in the UFC 247 main-event but I do still think that there is still quite a lot left to be explored.
Of course, the challenger Dominick Reyes has for the most part been showered with praise after undoubtedly giving the long-time champion the toughest fight of his career to date – and yes, I do include 2013’s thrilling Jones vs. Gustafsson I in that number.
But on the subject of Jon Jones himself, everything from his alleged post-USADA transformation to the wear and tear of his long and trying years at the top have been pointed to as potential reasons for the somewhat reserved fighter we’ve played witness to in his last three outings.
People can be very quick to zone in on the individual in cases like this and look, there is perhaps some truth to the onset of a decline in the man who remains the promotion’s youngest ever champion.
But in all honesty, as many others have claimed, it could well be the natural progression of the sport as a whole that serves as the undoing of Jon Jones.
In the men’s divisions within the UFC right now, would it be a stretch for me to say that the true technical advancements are being made to a far greater extent in the lower weight-classes?
I don’t think it’s hard to see that everywhere from middleweight down to flyweight has seen far more in the way of a progression than the light-heavyweight and in particular, heavyweight divisions.
MMA is evolving increasingly quickly as a sport and upon looking at each division and those fighters who have shaken up the status quo with a new, revolutionary approach – it’s clear that we’ve seen advancements of a much more impactful level from 185lbs down.
From established fighters such as Israel Adesanya, Tony Ferguson, and Khabib Nurmagomedov to rising talents like Zabit Magomedsharipov, Corey Sandhagen, and Ryan Hall – we’re seeing the lighter fighters entering the top-flight boasting a set of skills that makes them more akin to a complex puzzle than anything else.
Of course, the differences in technical potential that exists between a 265lb fighter and a 125lb fighter are known to most – differences that are brought about by the physical restraints of being larger, heavier, and more limited in your movement.
The major criticism of the overall quality of the UFC’s light-heavyweight and heavyweight divisions over the years had come about mainly because of the inability – for the most part – of the youth to supplant the older, more battle-hardened veterans.
I think it would have been fair to say that both weight-classes had grown aged and stagnant for a time, with many of the same fighters who had their athletic peaks five or even ten years prior somehow still meandering around the top of the division.
Jon Jones is a man who came after the Rampage’s, the Machida’s, the Belfort’s, and the Shogun’s as part of generation he shared with his great rivals Daniel Cormier and Alexander Gustafsson.
During his initial rise, he stood as the great technological advancement of that era – perhaps the most progressive fighter in the history of the sport.
And he was miles ahead of everyone.
The type of gulf that existed between Jones and everyone else allowed him, in his own words, to party and live his fast life outside of the cage knowing that he would be able to assert his dominance purely on the back of being a mixed martial arts supercomputer and an athlete of the finest calibre.
He bested the legends who came before him, crushed his contemporaries, and then, finally, after a turbulent period that saw his future thrown into some doubt, returned and went about stamping his authority on the next crop of talent.
And while Thiago Santos and Anthony Smith should be acknowledged as the fresh, new additions to the 205lb division that they are, with 27 and 45 pro-fights to their names respectably – they too stand among the veterans of this era.
This, in essence, is what made Saturday night’s contest so interesting.
Since winning his UFC title from Shogun Rua back in 2011 – the most inexperienced fighter Jones had fought was Daniel Cormier in 2015 when they first met. At the time, he held a perfect 15-0 record.
Reyes, at 12-0, was well and truly the first next-generation fighter to make the walk against Jones.
Roll back the clock just two short years and there were quite a few fans and analysts who frequently pointed to the lack of movement in both the light-heavyweight and heavyweight divisions.
Where other weight-classes were watching as the old-guard were picked off one-by-one, in 2017 and even 2018 we were still talking about the likes of Alistair Overeem, Fabricio Werdum, Cain Velasquez, Shogun Rua, and Glover Teixeira as legitimate top contenders.
We would watch time and time again as another undoubtedly talented prospect would fail to move past one of these grizzled veterans – leaving the hierarchy amongst the bigger men unchanged for the most part.
As we all know, however, the advancement of time is unstoppable and while it happened at a much slower rate than in the lighter divisions, we started to see the Ngannou’s, the Anderson’s, the Blaydes’, and the Oezdemirs make their ascent.
Do I think Jon is declining? Perhaps, but not at an alarming rate.
I do believe that we’re watching an advancement in the game here on a level that perhaps has come a bit too late to see it lumped in with the now-established modern fighters found below 205lbs.
The game has undoubtedly shifted to a tremendous extent in the last two or three years – quicker in some divisions than others.
When the least experienced fighter you have ever faced as champion arguably gives you your toughest challenge to date, I think it’s a clear sign that the sport is starting to move beyond you.
And that’s not to say that Jones cannot win in a rematch against Reyes – or, in fact, that he cannot beat anyone at 205lbs right now. But, based on what I saw on Saturday night, it sure looked as though all of the hours of tape out there on Jon Jones had finally caught up to him in moments.
This is how our sport evolves and to his credit, Jones has done a better job than anyone else at not allowing it to pass him by.
When I look at 205lbs right now, I’m not looking at the title-picture to the same extent as I am watching the likes of Johnny Walker, Aleksander Rakic, and the newly-signed Jirí Procházka – anxious to see how they inflict their own styles on the game – win, lose or draw.
If Jon Jones is to remain king for much longer, he will have to find a way to disrupt the natural evolution of the sport and adapt.
Now, just as he himself carved his way through the legends of years gone by, the new generation is well and truly at his door and I think that, at a very fundamental level, is exactly what we saw first-hand on Saturday night.