At the core of things, 2012 has been a bit of a mixed bag for Jon Jones.
It would be nearly impossible for Jones to replicate his stellar 2011 run. After all, Jones went 4-0 in that calendar year, beating almost all of the world's top-ranked light heavyweights and capturing the UFC title in the process. He also made it look easy, leading many—and I'll include myself in this group—to believe that Jones turned in the best year-long performance by any fighter in the history of mixed martial arts.
This year has been a bit different.
Jones has fought just once this year; by this time last year, Jones had already fought and won twice and was preparing to step in the cage with Quinton Jackson. In 2012, we've only seen Jones in the cage during his UFC 145 win over Rashad Evans. He'll fight Vitor Belfort at UFC 152, but I'd be shocked to see him appear again before the end of the year.
This is the natural progression of things. Fighters who are young and hungry are willing to fight as many times as they possibly can, scratching and clawing their way to the top. Once they hit the summit, however, they tend to relax. They're making more money, and they've got the respect and the fame they once so desperately craved. They're content to take less fights and to be more calculating in the fights they do take, as witnessed during the UFC 151 debacle that saw Jones decline to face Chael Sonnen on short notice.
It's perfectly reasonable to assume that Jones will finish out this year undefeated; Belfort is a huge underdog at UFC 152 next week, and few expect him to present much of a challenge for Jones.
So what's on the docket for Jones next year?
His first challenger will likely emerge from December's UFC on FOX bout between Mauricio Rua and Alexander Gustafsson. Jones has beaten Rua before, and convincingly so, but "Shogun" is a marketable star and, barring a losing streak, will likely always stay near title contention.
Gustafsson is the light heavyweight division's next great hope, the guy with the kind of skill, frame and athletic ability that many believe will enable him to give Jones a run for his money. His biggest career win came over Thiago Silva, but he's won five in a row after losing to eventual teammate Phil Davis at UFC 112. A win over Rua would be the new biggest win of his career, to be sure, but it would also give him the kind of name-value boost he needs in order to be presented as a legitimate title challenger to the public.
Let's imagine that Jones emerges victorious against Rua or Gustafsson. Who's the next challenger?
I think that all depends on Chael Sonnen's performance against Forrest Griffin at UFC 155 in December. If Sonnen scores an emphatic win, I imagine it would be pretty tough for the UFC to decide against doing a very marketable Jones vs. Sonnen bout at the next International Fight Week, held each July in Las Vegas. That's the UFC's version of WrestleMania, and they want a big fight to headline the card each year.
Jones taking on Sonnen—especially given what happened with the cancellation of UFC 151—would undoubtedly be one of the UFC's most potentially lucrative fights of 2012. It may not be the most perfect fight in terms of deserving contendership—in this scenario, Sonnen would have just one win at light heavyweight after losing to Anderson Silva—but in the prizefighting game, the objective is to make money with intriguing and marketable fights.
But again, let's imagine that Jones beats Sonnen. What's in store for Jones 12 months from now?
There's always Lyoto Machida, provided he accepts the opportunities the UFC puts in front of him. Oh, and that's also assuming that he beats the next guy he has to face, because we now know that he won't get that title shot he earned at UFC on FOX after turning down the chance to save UFC 151 (and then the chance to face Jones at UFC 152).
It's tough to imagine another light heavyweight making a rock-solid case that he deserves a crack at Jones. Or, put it this way: It's tough to envision a light heavyweight emerging that the public would be desperate to see in the cage against Jones. Because again, this is prizefighting.
Glover Teixeira could string together a few dominant wins and make a case for himself. That's a perfectly plausible scenario. Teixeira has immense skills and puts on the kind of violent displays that the UFC and its fans crave.
Phil Davis might be able to win his way back to title contention. Or Cain Velasquez might win the UFC heavyweight title, forcing Daniel Cormier to drop down and challenge Jones in one hell of an intriguing fight.
But beyond that? The offerings at light heavyweight are sparse. Or rather, they would be if things go the way I've laid them out here.
If things get to that point, then Jones would have smashed the successful light heavyweight title defense record set by Tito Ortiz in 2001 and 2002. He's made it clear that breaking Ortiz's record is a major goal. Once he accomplishes that, I can't see him expressing much interest in sticking around to face the same challengers he's already dispatched once or twice before.
I think that will be the time that Jones starts casting an eye towards bigger fights. A mega-payday with Anderson Silva? Both fighters have stated that they're not interested in making that happen because they want to establish their own legacies without ruining the other's legacy. But should Jones get to the end of 2013 while still undefeated, you'd have to think he'll start looking to establish himself as the greatest fighter in the history of the sport. A win over Silva would help him establish just that.
All is not lost if Jones and Silva stick to their guns, however. There's another way Jones could establish himself as one of the greats, and that's simply by making a long-rumored move up to the heavyweight division. He'd need time to put on 15 or so pounds of muscle, but I have no doubt Jones would be the same dominant force at heavyweight that he is in his current weight class.
As of today, there are plenty of big fights at heavyweight available for Jones. A year from now? There will be even more. Jones could jump up and challenge for the heavyweight title immediately, creating a whole new slew of huge fights. Hell, every fight Jones participated in at that point would be a gigantic fight.
Yeah, Jones has come pretty close to cleaning out the light heavyweight division. But there's still plenty of places for him to go and plenty of room for him to grow.
And I'll tell you one thing I know with absolute certainty: I can't wait to watch it unfold.
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