By Michael Owens
2013 was the banner year for mixed martial arts fights. Never before have there been so many bouts that were immediately recognised as some of the greatest ever.
Wanderlei Silva’s brawl with Brian Stann in Japan, Diego Sanchez and Gilbert Melendez’s combined savage assault, Eddie Alvarez and Michael Chandler’s bloodbath rematch and Mark Hunt and Antonio Silva’s heavyweight collision barely scratch the surface of treasures on offer. Fight fans were left in awe on a staggeringly frequent basis by undercard crowd pleasers, contests between unknowns on the regional circuit, Fight Night headliners and UFC title fights on the absolute biggest stage.
Despite all of the competition, the decision of which fight stood above all others was an easy one. It was all too apparent even in the minutes immediately following its conclusion. The fight between Jon Jones and Alexander Gustafsson at UFC 165 on Saturday, September 21 was an instant classic, the best fight of Jones’s phenomenal career, the best fight in light heavyweight title history and quite possibly the greatest fight of all time.
Many people (myself included) had written Gustafsson off as just another pretender to Jones’s immoveable crown with no chance of winning. He started to prove the doubters wrong almost immediately as he matched Jones on the feet and took him down to win the round.
Jones looked to take back control in the second frame with his usual unorthodox and brilliant striking. At this point only the Swede’s most loyal supporters and training partners must have expected to rebuild any kind of momentum.
However, into the third round, Gustafsson took over the fight, brushing off the champion’s offence and answering with clean, hard shots of his own. He won the third round handily and was on course to win the fourth until ‘Bones’ landed an absolutely devastating spinning elbow that changed the fight.
‘The Mauler’ went straight onto the back foot and ate so much punishment from knees and elbows for the rest of the round that his opponent took the 10-9 scores from the judges. The fifth was purely a matter of survival from then on as Jones peppered the challenger with relentless power shots that would have finished off almost any other man. Against all odds and laws of human durability by staying on his feet and making it to the final bell.
The fight achieved greatness in so many different ways. First of all, it was a no-frills, blood-and-guts war that stretched each man to their absolute physical limit. Both fighters were so beaten up they could not make it to the post-fight press conference and instead had to be driven to the hospital to recover.
Second of all, the display of heart and fighting spirit was unmatched by anyone else this year, Hunt and Bigfoot included. Jones’s performance was his first real display of overcoming adversity and should have finally won him the respect of his doubters (he certainly won me over). He battled through a barrage of punches and fought through a potentially fight-ending cut with almost no regard for his long-term health. Similarly, Gustafsson survived just being in the cage with Jon Jones early on and then looked like the closest thing we’ve seen to a zombie in the octagon. From the moment the champ landed that elbow in the fourth round, Gustafsson looked ready to keel over at any moment. However, he kept upright and even fired back some strikes of his own despite eating a torrent of kicks straight to his head and dodging more spinning-elbow attempts.
Something else that made the fight so great was the way Jones was finally made to look human. With the exception of a tight armbar in the first round against Vitor Belfort and a little difficulty figuring out Lyoto Machida, Jones has eased through each of his opponents over the last couple of years. Virtually no-one expected Alexander Gustafsson to provide any greater challenge. He proved all of them wrong. The Swede took the fight to the champion, made him look ordinary for long periods of the fight and looked comfortable doing it. He even took Jones down – repeatedly – and stuffed all the attempts that came his way until the very last round.
FInally, one of the best things about this fight for me was that the right man won and no-one could honestly look back on the fight with bitterness because of an outrageous judges decision. Some backed Gustafsson in the immediate aftermath of the bout, but relented on their sense of outrage later. With a scoring system that prioritises effective striking and grappling, you award the round to the fighter who landed the most effective strikes. Jones’s elbows, punches and knees almost put Gustafsson into another dimension in round four and earned him a deserved 10-9 on all the scorecards, despite his inferiority in the previous four minutes,
A lot of people demanded an immediate rematch and were upset when Glover Teixeira was given the next shot, but there should really be nothing to worry about. The Brazilian deserves his chance after building an outstanding win streak and the time is right to make that match. Jones will probably deal with him, and Gustafsson is expected to move past Jimi Manuwa in March as well, setting the stage for a blockbuster rematch.
A few months ago, we were treated to 25 minutes of the two best 205 pound fighters in the world putting it all on the line in one of the most brutal, technically brilliant and breathtaking fights ever. All of those elements combined for a contest the likes of which we may never see again. Luckily, the prospect of a rematch in the coming 12 months might just mean I am proved wrong.