BALTIMORE — Ultimate Fighting Championship star Jon Jones once again showed something new the last time he defended his belt in September.
Jones successfully defended the light heavyweight title for the sixth time that night, but Alexander Gustafsson became the first challenger over that span to truly push Jones in the cage.
With the outcome still in doubt, Jones took control of the fight with a devastating spinning back elbow late in the fourth round and won it on the scorecards with a strong fifth round.
Instead of showing weakness, it’s possible being pushed to the limit just set the stage for Jones to take one more step toward proving he is one of the best the sport has ever seen.
“The biggest thing I learned for myself is that I’m game for war. I’m game for it. No fighter wants to have fights like that last fight. Obviously I was getting punched in the head and I wear a permanent scar now over my eye and stuff like that. Nobody wants to have fights like that,” Jones said as he prepares for his next defense against Glover Teixeira in the main event of UFC 172 tonight at Baltimore Arena. “But, it was about time for me to have one of those. It was good to know that I can play that game and that I can win that game.”
Teixeira certainly isn’t ready to say Gustafsson laid out any kind of a blueprint for how to beat Jones.
“You saw that this guy can come back strong every time. He’s a tough dude,” Teixeira said. “Everybody can be hit. Jon Jones is not invincible. He’s going to lose sooner or later. I just think it’s going to be on Saturday night.”
Before the fight against Gustafsson, Jones seldom faced any sort of adversity inside the cage. The only loss of his career came in 2009 when Jones pummeled Matt Hamill, only to land an illegal elbow that was ruled a disqualification. During his title run, Jones has run a gauntlet of former champs with few tense moments.
“The level of guys I’m fighting against are a whole different beast. One close fight doesn’t mean anything. It’s just like a pitcher or a quarterback or an athlete in any other sport, you’ve got to be able to reset. I’ve reset. I’m not even thinking about that fight. I’m going to go out and pick up right where I left off,” Jones said. “I never felt like I was invincible. I knew I was really good and I know I’m really good. Nobody’s invincible.”
While that’s true, Jones was as close as it get in this largely unpredictable sport and in particular, the UFC light heavyweight division where none of the previous five champions had successfully defended the belt more than once.
Jones, 26, said it’s possible the struggle he endured against Gustafsson will renew fan interest in his fights, knowing that anything’s possible.
UFC president Dana White certainly hopes so. He believes the wins Jones has already racked up in the manner he has, combined with his age and what could be on the horizon over the next year, make it possible Jones could soon enter the conversation as best fighter in UFC history.
White said a win over Teixeira, then a rematch with Gustafsson this year and either Dan Henderson or Daniel Cormier after that, would have to at least make Jones a candidate for that title.
Jones and White have not always seen eye to eye, but White says the champion has matured and the win over Gustafsson was the latest step in that process.
“I think he’s a totally different guy now. His attitude has changed,” White said. “When you take your first ass-whooping, the guy had never been in a fight like that in his life, had dominated everyone he’d ever fought. Then he went in against Gustafsson and that fight was a war, his first war. He was in deep water and everyone here and everyone in the world saw it, and he came out of it and kept fighting and hit him with that elbow and came out like he wanted to win that (expletive) title in the fifth round. That takes a lot, man.
“When you fight through something like that, it makes you a different person one way or another. You either don’t ever want to do it again or you rise to the occasion and realize how bad you want to be the champion and I think Jones did that.”
One thing is for certain going into this fight. The talk is all about Jones. Despite Teixeira’s 20-fight, nine-year winning streak, Jones is the unquestioned story.
That’s just fine with the challenger.
“Nobody was talking about Alex Gustafsson before the fight. Then he gave him a hard fight and ... everybody’s talking about him,” Teixeira said. “They’ll be talking about me after Saturday night.”
Or Teixeira could be just another footnote in UFC history.
The event airs live on pay per view at 7 p.m., with the four-fight preliminary card on Fox Sports 1 (Cable 329) at 5.
Contact reporter Adam Hill at email@example.com or 702-224-5509. Follow him on Twitter: @adamhilllvrj.