Sunday, 22 April 2012

Jones vs. Evans: Worth the Hype?

In the final days leading up to UFC 145: Jones vs. Evans, even the most hardcore of MMA fans had just about had it with the months and months (and months) of pre-fight hype surrounding the frenemy status of light-heavyweight headliners, Champion Jon Jones and number one contender Rashad Evans.

The story was an easy sell: Evans, a veteran UFC fighter, winner of The Ultimate Fighter reality show, former world champion, and number one contender, playing mentor to the up-and-coming Jones who, despite still being in the infancy of his career, is already being heralded as the new breed of MMA fighter. Through a series of serendipitous events, including number one contender fights, and over a year's worth of injury & re-injury to Rashad, Jones is offered the opportunity to replace an injured Evans in a fight against then-champion Mauricio 'Shogun' Rua for the light-heavyweight title.

Jones, in one of the most dominant performances of any UFC fighter ever, put on a striking clinic against Rua, causing a ref stoppage - and simultaneous tap-out due to strikes - in less than two rounds. He was crowned the youngest champion in UFC history and in the subsequent post-fight interview was brought face-to-face (literally) with his best friend, trusted training partner, mentor, and next challenger for the light-heavyweight championship.

Cue the smack-talking.

Jones and Evans wasted no time in starting a very public beef, pointing the finger, calling out coaches, mythologizing past sparring sessions, and questioning the others' professional and personal integrity.
This went beyond most pre-fight banter. It came from somewhere deep inside their psyche. Both felt betrayed. This time, it really was personal.

The UFC, quite rightfully, ran with it, giving both fighters any and every opportunity to open up on the other in commercials, after subsequent wins, during press conferences, at little league softball appearances, in cameos appearances on Top Chef... It was a bitchy, year-long buffet, and the MMA community ate it up. Unfortunately, like all buffets, you eventually lean back in your chair, stomach bulging over your belt, staring in self-loathing disgust at the unending minefield of sushi bars, salad stations, and silver trays of chicken-fried rice. We had ingested a steady diet of MMA beef for thirteen months. We were bloated. We were groggy. Even the two fighters were clearly done with rehashing the same tired storylines. And yet we still had to wait for the main course.

On Saturday night, all the drama and all the hype finally culminated in the main event of UFC 145.

The fight was by and large what many people expected: Jones used his almost criminal reach advantage and ever-improving striking to pick apart Evans from the outside, shucked off a few negligible takedown attempts, and generally imposed his will for five rounds. In fact, the most surprising aspect of the fight is the very fact that it went the distance. Evans deserves all the respect in the world not only for going 25 minutes with a seemingly untouchable champion, but also for keeping pace, landing shots, and even momentarily rocking Jones midway through the fight. "Bones", however, retained the title with a mostly dominant performance, and in the process forced critics to cross "Conditioning" off of a dwindling list of possible chinks in the champion's armour.

It was a solid fight. It was an entertaining fight. But was it a classic fight? An historic event? Not really. If anything, fans may look back on UFC 145 as Jones' least dominant performance to date. And when it was over, you didn't really know what to say.

Despite a solid undercard that included a fight of the night performance by Mark Hominick and Edie Yagin, a couple of crushing knockouts by Michael MacDonald and Ben Rothwell, and the continuing evolution of Rory "Ares" MacDonald - who himself is fighting on a similar Jones-like MMA trajectory - the event was completely dominated by the pre-fight hype of the headlining fighters. You found yourself impressed by vicious ground and pound, cheering for skull-crushing knockouts, and confused by non-existent ground games, but somehow always preoccupied with the looming behemoth that was the main event.

I imagine it's similar to people who 'save themselves' until they're married: the relationship builds, the wedding is planned, there's suspense and tension and excitement, but when it finally happens, you're left wondering if it was really worth all the hype. Should you maybe have just gotten it over with that first night, after you checked out Mr. & Mrs. Smith, then hung out together at your apartment for a couple of hours, but didn't think to take advantage of your roommate being gone for the weekend?

It's difficult to pinpoint what caused this feeling of disappointment, but it most likely hinges on the lack of a climactic ending to the fight. A moderately competitive, five-round affair will rarely stand out as much as a highlight reel knockout or crippling submission. We didn't even get the emotional release of a post-fight embrace between champion and challenger, burying the hatchet in a show of mutual respect that could only be earned through 25 minutes of physically draining competition.

In the end, the most satisfying part of UFC 145 is that the MMA community as a whole can now definitively put the Jones-Evans grudge behind us. It's closes this chapter of the fighters' careers, so they can move on to the next challenge: For Evans, it's back to the drawing board as returns to the heady mix that is the UFC's Light-Heavyweight division; for Jones, it will be a title defense against the always dangerous Dan Henderson.

And for the fans, we sit back and wait patiently for the next all-beef buffet.

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