Vitor Belfort wasn't Jon Jones' toughest opponent to date, but he did provide Jon Jones' toughest moment.
In the first round of the UFC 152 main event, Belfort dangled from Jones' arm like a parasite. The armbar Belfort was working was edging Jones' elbow ever farther in the wrong direction. It seemed like a simple matter of what would break first: the arm or Jones himself.
A second ticked away. Then another.
"When I heard [the elbow] pop, I lost the pressure and it got away," Belfort said at the post-fight news conference.
Soon after Belfort relinquished the hold, it seemed his strength was leaching away. Jones used one of his lethal elbows to open and then further open the skin over Belfort's right eye. From that point until he succumbed to an americana in the fourth, Belfort played solid defense but never truly bothered Jones again.
Belfort, as most fans know, was a very heavy underdog here. A Belfort win would have been one of the biggest upsets in history. Nevertheless, the win cemented Jones, in my mind, as the very best light heavyweight that MMA has ever seen.
The armbar revealed a different side of Jones, a side the fighting public (and maybe Jones?) had never seen before. With his elbow bending backward and escape proving futile, there was no game plan left. There was no reach advantage in that moment. No film to study. No flying knees to unleash. No cautious words to chant about planning for long-term success. Just a dude gritting his teeth and praying that his radius and his cojones stayed intact just a little longer.
"He got that armbar in every way, shape and form," Jones told broadcaster Joe Rogan after the fight. "I've never had my arm pop like that before, but I've worked too hard to give up...I was honestly waiting for it to break. I wasn't going to tap. I've never felt that way before."
Forget that first round with Lyoto Machida, maybe the only round Jones has ever legitimately lost. This was Jon Jones' true moment of adversity, bar none, and Jones overcame it with flying colors. That was the last box Jones needed to check. I don't think adversity outside the cage has much to do with adversity in it, but everyone knows about the precipitous approval-ratings drop Jones went through in the wake of the cancellation of UFC 151. Jones had to have known that everybody in the known Twitterverse was howling for him to tap or snap. (Especially after the ridiculous comment, made in an interview with Rogan broadcast earlier in the evening, that "my DUI set me free." Eh, come again?) To hold on, in the face of all that simultaneous physical and psychic pressure, means something.
From a pure fighting perspective, it's been getting harder to deny Jones' advantage over the other claimants to the all-time light heavyweight throne. Jones has a prototype physique. He can strike. He can wrestle. He can submit. He can clinch. He can take a punch. He is creative. He is smart. He is unpredictable. The only thing I'm not sure he's proved is whether he can fight off of his back. Anyone want to test his skill in that phase or, you know, try to put him there? Who could honestly see Chuck Liddell stuffing Jones' takedowns? You think Randy Couture or Wanderlei Silva could have controlled him in the clinch? Tito Ortiz or Dan Henderson wouldn't (and can't) last with him. He's already beaten all-timers like Machida, Rashad Evans, Mauricio Rua and Quinton Jackson.
But we knew all that before. Now, though, we know that he's tough—really, truly tough. That was the final unknown. I'm not saying he's unbeatable; that condition doesn't exist. But there is nothing left for Jones to prove—not to the present or the past, the lovers or the haters. After UFC 152, he must be the greatest.
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