mma / Columns

Jon Jones is Still the Best

July 8, 2019 | Posted by Dan Plunkett
UFC 239

Saturday night’s UFC 239 card delivered no shortage of news and memorable moments. Amanda Nunes delivered another stellar performance against a topflight competitor. Watching someone like her compete at their peak is a joy. Jorge Masvidal buried Ben Askren (for the time being at least) in five seconds, which holds interesting ramifications for both fighters. Jan Blachowicz made sure Luke Rockhold’s move to light heavyweight didn’t mean what Rockhold thought it would without patching up his holes. No, Diego Sanchez, dropping Jackson/Wink in favor of a movement coach with no MMA coaching experience was not a good idea.

The Nunes and Masvidal knockouts will live on for years to come and will be the best remembered moment from this weekend’s card. However, I found the most noteworthy happening on the show to be the Jon Jones vs. Thiago Santos main event.

Sealed in a vacuum, Jones vs. Santos was not particularly exciting nor all that interesting. In that vacuum, the most notable part of the fight would have been that Santos suffered some king of leg injury in the second round, but continued to put forth a strong effort for almost four entire rounds following the injury and kept the fight very close.

When you consider the context—Jones is arguably the best MMA fighter ever and Santos, 35, had been a relatively successful (but never elite) middleweight until his past few fights—the picture brightens up. Saturday night will stand as one of the few times Jones’s run on top has been challenged. There was armbar against Vitor Belfort, the war with Alexander Gustafsson, and now the split decision win over Santos. It’s the first time Jones has fought, went to a decision, and one of the judges had him losing on a scorecard.

None of this is to say we should see an immediate rematch or anyone is questioning Jones’s rule of the light heavyweight division. He is still the best light heavyweight fighter in the world and despite Saturday’s result, I still don’t believe we have a close number two.

There’s something extremely interesting about a generational talent like Jones having the type of performance he had on Saturday. This was not a run-through-you performance that you would expect from a -600 favorite—the type of performance Jones has had in the past against more reputed fighters than Santos. It also couldn’t be viewed as a sign of slippage. It more so appeared to boil down to comfort.

Nobody will claim to having seen the best Jon Jones on Saturday. We did not see him display his full arsenal of abilities, and his motivation did not appear to be to cut through Santos in the most efficient way possible. Jones wanted to beat Santos where he was best and had the best chance to win—on the feet. He did so in a calculating manner without taking unnecessary risks. Perhaps he was a bit too comfortable with the matchup to be motivated for training. He admitted in a post-fight media scrum that after his last two fights, he had started to “sip [his] own Kool-Aid a little bit.” He was certainly comfortable during the fight, as he showed commitment to be winning a stand-up battle.

For a talent like Jones, this battle against himself is a fascinating component of a run that his been historically dominant. Earlier in his career, Jones was drunk on his own Kool-Aid. The partying took away from training, which many cited as the reason his first fight against Alexander Gustafsson was so close. The apparent mindset was that he was so talented he could do whatever he wants, walk into the cage on any Saturday night, and handle his business. It seems that mindset has at least improved. Jones’s partying taking away from his training used to be an open secret, but you don’t hear so much of that anymore. Still, the factor of the motivation to get out bed in the morning and train is very real and after such a long time in the same spot—the very top in Jones’s case—that motivation must vary from opponent to opponent.

After his legendary 2011 when he was still rising and establishing himself as a champion, the best Jones performances we’ve seen were against Glover Teixeira, Daniel Cormier in their rematch, and Alexander Gustafsson in their rematch. The Teixeira fight came after the close Gustafsson fight, and Jones ate Teixeira alive on the inside. By that time, Teixeira and Cormier were the last serious contenders left at light heavyweight that Jones hadn’t beaten. The second Cormier fight was Jones’s return from a long layoff against his most heated rival. The second Gustafsson fight was his return from another long layoff and he had something to prove coming out of their first fight.

Those types of fights are easy motivation. That’s when we see Jones operating at his maximum level. He wins these fights and they’re among the first people cite when reviewing his career; they had tremendous legacy implications. Conversely, beating opponents like Thiago Santos, Anthony Smith, and Ovince Saint Preux doesn’t hold nearly as much weight. But these are very good fighters—you’re generally not going to see someone compete for a UFC title that isn’t dangerous in some facet—and getting through them means something. It means Jones won a mental battle and got up for each of them; it means he was talented enough to get by them even if he didn’t have reason to be as motivated for fighting them.

Great fighters throughout history have lost to fighters that they “shouldn’t” have lost to. Jon Jones has been on top of the sport for eight years and never lost to one of those fighters. He’s been tested and come within a point of losing, but he’s won every single time. To be a champion you need to win one fight; to be a great champion you need to get through strong top contenders; to be a legendary champion you need get push everyone back one way or another. Jon Jones is a legendary champion.

Dan Plunkett has covered MMA for 411Mania since 2008. You can reach him by email at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @Dan_Plunkett.

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Jon Jones, Dan Plunkett