Fourteen years and 10 months ago, the Ultimate Fighting Championship held its inaugural event at the McNichols Sports Arena in Denver, Colorado. At the time of that event, infamous for Royce Gracie, the guy with one boxing glove and the dawn of the lawless "human cockfighting" childhood of mixed martial arts, Quinton Jackson was a high school wrestler in Memphis, Tennessee. Jon Jones was six.
The McNichols Arena was leveled in 1999 after the opening of Denver's new Pepsi Center, the site of Saturday's UFC 135 event, their first in Denver since that inaugural showcase. Later in 1999, Jackson made his professional MMA debut. By the time Jon Jones graduated from high school in 2005, Jackson had compiled a 22-5 record, adopted and become one of the sport's most interesting young stars for his impressive athleticism and magnetic personality.
Jackson would run his record to 26-6 before finally entering the UFC in 2007. One year earlier, Jon Jones won the NJCAA National Wrestling Championship at 197 pounds. By the time Jones made his debut in MMA, Jackson had already captured and defended the UFC Light Heavyweight Championship. His unanimous decision over then-Pride champion Dan Henderson unified the belts of the two promotions, but more importantly it was the last time the UFC crown had been defended without controversy.*
* - (Lyoto Machida would defend the belt against Shogun Rua in October of 2009 in a widely-panned decision; Rua won the rematch six months later)
Jackson's second defense of the belt came on July 5, 2008, where he would lose a razor-thin decision to Forrest Griffin after suffering a leg injury early in the second round. The loss was devestating, and coupled with a falling-out with his then-manager Juanito Ibarra over Ibarra's reported betrayal of trust*, Jackson would suffer an emotional breakdown that resulted in his arrest in Costa Mesa, California just 10 days after the fight.** Three weeks later, Jon Jones, then 6-0 with six stoppages, made his debut in the UFC.
* - Neither Ibarra nor Jackson have commented publicly on the matter, but others such as UFC legend/loudmouth Tito Ortiz have sided with Jackson, and Ibarra's only other work in MMA since the split has come with sideshow act James Toney.
** - Originally charged with felony reckless driving and felony hit-and-run, Jackson pled down to lesser charges of evading police and misdemeanor reckless driving. Charges were dropped following community service. No one was injured during the incident and he was not under the influence of anything while driving. However, he left no questions about whether he was controlling the vehicle because it had his face plastered on the side.
Since 2008, Jackson's status in the UFC has been in constant flux. He's knocked out a rival (Wanderlei Silva), beaten a former champion and perennial contender (Lyoto Machida) and turned in a pair of ho-hum decisions against outclassed competition (Keith Jardine and Matt Hamill). There was also his heated feud with Rashad Evans that spanned a contentious season of the Ultimate Fighter, a long layoff while Jackson filmed The A-Team and ultimately a unanimous decision win for Evans last May, the second of Rampage's only two losses in the last six years.
In that same time frame, Jones has remained on a steady upward climb, praised as the next big star for the UFC...thanks to his impressive athleticism and magnetic personality. With an unconventional style featuring Greco Roman wrestling throws and unconventional strikes, Jones' performances are highlight reel material, showing off a combination of speed and power that many consider to be unmatched in the current MMA scene. After his initial two fights (including an eye-opening performance against Stephan Bonnar) earned him decision wins, he hasn't seen a judge's scorecard since, finishing five consecutive opponents - a sixth, Matt Hamill, won by disqualification due to the angle of Jones' elbow strikes - and forcing himself into the conversation for the Light Heavyweight Championship.
Although Evans waited 10 months to receive the title shot he earned by beating Rampage, an injury late in training camp forced him to withdraw six weeks before the fight. Jackson was offered the title shot against champion Rua, but citing the short notice and lack of time to train (and not mentioning that Rua was the last man to stop him in a fight back in April of 2005), he declined. Jones was scheduled to fight on the night Evans withdrew and was offered the title shot as Plan C just moments after his victory. He would go on to dismantle Rua and become the youngest UFC champion in history.
Evans once again became a top contender but another scheduling miscue left him unable to challenge Jones immediately. Once again the call went to Jackson, the 33-year-old veteran with a boxer's swing and a professional wrestler's mouth.
The buildup to Saturday's showdown has taken on a predictable beat - the aging tough guy veteran from the Memphis streets against the soft-spoken New York wunderkind - and each man has played their part. Jackson has accused Jones of having a spy in his camp (an accusation that seems fitting given that Jones' trainer, Greg Jackson - no relation - is akin to the Bill Belichick of MMA). Jones routinely takes measured, needling shots at Rampage and his supporters either through social media or public appearances. Both men have charisma to burn and the UFC has taken advantage, even going so far as to send the two on Jimmy Kimmel Live together despite the smoldering animosities.
But for every time Jackson makes a "black-on-black crime" joke and Jones rolls his eyes and tries to act like he is above it, you can see the stakes for each man written plainly on their faces. For Jones, it's the need to live up to the hype, to not just win the belt but defend it, as Jackson did four years ago. A loss in his first true test as champion would cast aspersions on the perception of Jones as The Next Big Thing. For Jackson, his first opportunity to regain the title may also be his last. Nine years older than his opponent on Saturday, Rampage has future ambitions as an actor that are the source of frequent criticism by MMA die-hards. He has said repeatedly that he fights to pay the bills and won't look to be a full-time actor until he retires, but retirement could come a lot quicker if a loss to Jones eliminates his chances for future championship-level paydays.
Oddsmakers have Jones as an overwhelming favorite (as high as 7-1) and few pundits have given Jackson a serious shot (although he does have one interesting person in his corner). However, Saturday's fight will impact the legacy of both men, and that's what makes it one of the most intriguing fights of the year.
Light Heavyweight Championship: Jon Jones (c) vs. Quinton Jackson
Matt: There's no point in faking it; I'm obviously picking Rampage. I love the guy and that's no secret. There's a pretty good chance I'm taking a loss here. The champ is
faster, younger and more athletic with a bigger reach (an 11-inch advantage over 'Page) and a stronger wrestling
foundation. I love watching Jones fight; he is a wrecking machine, a prospect,
the most gifted young fighter in the game...but ever since he won the belt, I get the feeling that he agrees with me on all points. Every media
appearance or interview or Twitter post sounds like a guy who has bought into
his own hype. Any time your behavior has me starting to side with Rashad, you
are doing something wrong.
I think two things are going to happen on Saturday: 1) Jones will be more of a showboat than we've come to expect of him and 2) Rampage
will hit Jon Jones harder than anything he has felt so far. Rampage is one of the best boxers in the UFC and Jones' chin has yet to be tested. Of course, if Jones takes that shot, shrugs it off and proceeds to take Rampage
out, then he is exactly what
everyone says he is. But I will believe it when I see it. WINNER: Rampage by
KO in 3rd.
Bruce: This is one of those instances where I know who Matt will choose based on
personal preference. That works even better in this instance because I was going
to pick the opposite anyway. Jon Jones is the hottest fighter in the UFC right
now. His one loss to Matt's favorite, Matt Hamill, was a DQ loss because of
illegal elbows. Otherwise, nobody in the UFC has been able to figure Jones out.
I'd like to think Jones will make Rampage submit, or better yet, knock him out.
I don't think that will happen. Rampage still has enough in the tank to make
this one a good fight. A quality win against Rampage would seal Jones'
reputation and move him into the elite class. Make room boys, Bones is on the
way. WINNER: Jones by unanimous decision
Matt Hughes vs. Josh Koscheck (welterweight)
Matt: Both guys know that Koscheck is going to cruise in this fight. That's why
Koscheck has been asking for it for years and Hughes has been ducking it for
years. That's also why Hughes has said stuff like "The
outcome of the fight won't matter," because he's the kind of guy who
says stuff like that in advance to save face. This was supposed to be a
torch-passing match between wrestlers who learned to adapt their game to MMA,
but as far as legends go, Hughes is more Brett Favre than Joe Montana, and by
that I mean he is a jerk. Worse, he's too much of a jerk to realize that
Koscheck is the same kind of jerk, and it's an easy transition to let JK become
the new Dickhead Jock Wrestler Who Can't Beat Georges St. Pierre. Like his
predecessor, Koscheck is susceptible to the KO/TKO, so this won't be a cakewalk,
but if he's been ready for this fight as long as he claims, he'll get the win
he's been craving.
WINNER: Koscheck by TKO in 2nd.
Bruce: Another “pick against Matt” one for me here. Given his personal disdain for Matt
Hughes, I'm sure Matt will pick Koscheck. Given what I saw of Koscheck on TUF
and his subsequent loss to GSP, I'm not sold on Koscheck. Both fighers need a
win. I think Hughes will get it here. WINNER: Hughes by TKO in 2nd
Travis Browne vs. Rob Broughton (heavyweight)
Matt: Last time Browne fought I questioned his skills and picked against
him because he fought to a draw with Cheick Kongo. He came out in that fight (at
UFC 130 against Stefan Struve) and won Knockout of the Night with a first-round
KO. Fair enough, Travis Browne. I don't know anything about Broughton, whose UFC
debut was buried in the undercard back in the days before every fight was
broadcast on Facebook (you know, the golden oldies). This time I'll give Browne
the benefit of a doubt.
WINNER: Browne by TKO in 2nd.
Bruce: Browne is on the rise. He KO'ed Stefan Struve in his last fight. Broughton has
one UFC fight under his belt. Browne has the look of a fighter the UFC is
getting behind. This looks like a showcase fight to me.
WINNER: Browne via TKO in 2nd
Nate Diaz vs. Takanori Gomi (lightweight)
Matt: I don't consider myself a troubled person, but I can say with
confidence that if Gomi were to power up and hit Diaz so hard that his head
popped clean off his body, my first reaction (before disgust or even concern for
the laws of physics) would be to laugh. Watching Nate Diaz get beaten up (or
even just outwrestled, as he was against Joe Stephenson or Clay Guida) brings me
great joy. But that's not happening here. Gomi is old and his only UFC win was a
surprise punch KO. He has trouble with grapplers and will try and keep it
standing. Diaz has the reach and the jiu jitsu to foil Gomi at every turn, and
the "Fireball Kid" doesn't have the wrestling skills to control the fight.
WINNER: Diaz by submission in 1st.
Bruce: Diaz is fighting for his UFC career in this one. He has two consecutive losses.
Consensus is three losses and you are out. Likewise, Gomi has something to prove
after his loss to Clay Guida in January. I like Gomi in this one, simply because
he's more versatile. WINNER: Gomi via submission TKO in 1st
Ben Rothwell vs. Mark Hunt (heavyweight)
Matt: From July of 2006 through a year ago (pretty much to the day),
Mark Hunt went from being a 5-1 fighter to a 5-7 fighter, and all six losses
were stoppages. He finally stopped that skid against Chris Tuchscherer, who was
promptly cut from the organization. I do not think that Ben Rothwell is as good
as the six guys who beat Hunt silly in the past half decade (including Josh
Barnett and Fedor Emelianenko), but I also do not think he is as terrible as
Chris Tuchscherer. In the same span of time (July '06 to September '10),
Rothwell went from a 21-5 fighter to a 31-7 fighter with the only blemishes
being to heavyweight champions (former champ Andre Arlovski and current champ
Cain Velasquez. Although he could easily get dropped by Hunt, I think Rothwell
rebounds from injury with an improved game.
WINNER: Rothwell by unanimous decision.
Bruce: This is my hardest pick of the night. Both of these guys are double tough.
Rothwell fought with a torn ACL ANDa deviated septum. Hunt is a Samoan from
New Zealand. WTF? How hard is that? Still Hunt's recent record is not one to be
proud of. Meanwhile, Rothwell came back from that torn ACL to score a win by
decision against Gilber Yvel. Give me Rothwell in this one and then let the big
guys slug it out. WINNER: Rothwell via KO in 3rd