The Stakes Are High for the Major Players at UFC 165
At just 26 years old, the Jackson's MMA-trained phenom has already proved beyond doubt he is one of the greatest mixed martial artists to ever compete inside the cage. "Bones" has won nine consecutive outings with five of those showings being successful title defenses, making him the most dominant champion in light heavyweight history.
While he has already made a solid impact on the UFC record books, Jones will be looking to add another chapter to his impressive career when mixes it up with the Team Alliance fighter on Sept. 21. With a trail of former champions and fighters who were supposed to pose a legitimate threat left broken and crumbled in his wake, what challenges—if any—remained for him at 205 pounds was a popular topic around the MMA community.
And this is where Gustafsson entered the picture and made things interesting.
"The Mauler" has won seven of his eight showings inside the Octagon, including his most recent run where the rangy Swede has put together six consecutive victories. Yet, while an impressive winning streak does well to build the hype for a fight, the truly interesting wrinkle will come in the stylistic matchup between the two fighters.
Of all the styles Jones has smashed during his title reign, he is yet to face an opponent who uses his range and striking skills in the fashion Gustafsson brings to the table. That being said, UFC 165 will not be the first time the young champion has been forced to figure out a difficult puzzle inside the cage.
The highlight reel material he made out of Lyoto Machida is proof that "unique" doesn't equate to advantage where Jones is concerned.
Nevertheless, it will be an interesting main event tilt in Toronto and a crucial fight for both the champion and challenger.
While the light-heavyweight collision will take top billing on the card, a title bout in the bantamweight division has the co-main event slot as Renan Barao will put his interim title on the line against Eddie Wineland.
The Nova Uniao product has put together one of the most dynamic runs in the current era of mixed martial arts as he's collected 31 consecutive victories. The 26-year-old Brazilian is coming off his first successful title defense when he submitted Michael McDonald in the fourth round of their dustup at UFC on Fuel TV 7 in February, and will be looking to add another victim to the list when he faces the former WEC bantamweight champion in Toronto.
On the other hand, Wineland will be looking to bring Barao's momentum to a grinding halt. While the championship tier of the bantamweight division has been entrenched in chaos for the past two years with belt holder Dominick Cruz out with injury and Barao holding down the interim strap, the Indiana-based fighter has been using the time to make a title run.
The savvy veteran collected back-to-back wins over tough competition the likes of Scott Jorgensen and Brad Pickett to earn his shot at the interim belt. As the first man to ever hold the 135-pound title when the division was created in the WEC, Wineland is looking to reclaim the belt he initially won over seven years ago.
In addition to the two biggest fights on the card, there are several other tilts that hold heavy implications for the fighters involved.
Let's take a look at what is at stake for the major players at UFC 165.
Jon Jones vs. Alexander Gustafsson
For a fighter to become recognized as one of the pound-for-pound best it typically takes years of work inside the cage—unless that fighter is Jon Jones.
The New York native has only been competing in the professional ranks for five years, but already has carved out his place as one of the greatest of all time. The Jackson's MMA fighter has been basically flawless in his 19 outings, with the only blemish on his record coming by way of disqualification against Matt Hamill back in 2009, in a fight where he was thoroughly dismantling the TUF alum.
While such a dominant run has exalted Jones to place far above the rest of the pack in the light heavyweight division, it has also brought him to a juncture were the options for exciting challenges have become slim.
He's already wrecked five former champions during his time as the 205-pound king, and outside of his upcoming bout with Gustafsson and a potential showdown with Glover Teixeira, not much remains for him at his current weight.
There has been talk of Jones jumping up to heavyweight for the past two years, and with slim pickings at 205 pounds, that move may be coming sooner than later. Yet, in order for "Bones" to keep the level of appeal that would make such a move an exciting option, he will need to keep his current run alive.
Being considered the pound-for-pound best comes with an element of mystique and a loss to Gustafsson would serve to deafen that buzz. Therefore, if Jones is looking to keep the pitch on the stellar trajectory, he will need add Gustafsson's name to his already impressive resume.
While he may not held in the same regard as the champion, Gustafsson knows the feeling and expectations that come from being a highly-touted prospect.
The 26-year-old Swedish-born fighter has been "lights out" since joining the UFC fold in 2009, winning seven of his eight outings. The only setback Gustafsson has suffered during this run came at the hands of fellow prospect turned contender Phil Davis at UFC 112 back in 2010, but has since gone on to collect six consecutive victories in the aftermath.
The rangy striker steadily built a strong case to earn a title shot he knocked off talented competition each step of the way. His two most recent wins came against heavy-handed Brazilian Thiago Silva and former champion Mauricio "Shogun" Rua respectively, and proved "The Mauler" was ready for a shot at the 205-pound strap.
That being said, title opportunities in the UFC can be difficult to come by, and if Gustafsson doesn't make the most of his chance to pull off the upset against Jones, it could be quite some time before he'll see another. Where the champion carries one of the most visible profiles in all of MMA, Gustafsson is still yet to break through as a household name with the passionate MMA fan base.
Becoming the first man to truly defeat Jones inside the Octagon and claiming the light heavyweight title would change all of this in an instant, and there is no doubting Gustafsson will have the biggest opportunity of his career at UFC 165.
Whether he can pull off the feat remains to be seen, but the opportunity will certainly be present. At the same time, should he suffer the same fate as the five previous No. 1 contenders that came before him, Gustafsson will be reshuffled back into the deck at 205 pounds.
Renan Barao vs. Eddie Wineland
Champion Dominick Cruz hasn't been present in the division for two years, but that hasn't slowed Renan Barao down in the slightest. He will look to make his second successful defense of his interim title when he mixes it up with Eddie Wineland at UFC 165.
The 26-year-old interim champion has held the divisional throne in Cruz's absence and has turned back a collection of the division's best in the process. The Nova Uniao product earned the strap by defeating former WEC poster boy Urijah Faber at UFC 149 in June of 2012, then made a huge statement by submitting highly touted prospect Michael McDonald in their tilt back in February.
While the Brazilian phenom has been aiming at a unification bout with Cruz, "The Dominator's" lengthy layoff from injury has prevented it from coming to fruition. Nevertheless, Barao has jumped out to a solid reign as the interim champion and will be looking to further his claim as the legitimate champion if he can defeat Wineland in Toronto.
The scrappy bantamweight has notched 31 consecutive victories heading into his bout with the Indiana native, including a perfect 7-0 under the Zuffa banner. A win over Wineland, in addition to Cruz not having a set date for his return, should make Barao's case to turn his interim belt into the legitimate strap and open-and-shut case.
On the other hand, a loss to Wineland would derail him just as a handful of future title contenders are making their moves to the top.
With former title challengers Faber and McDonald fighting their way back up the divisional ladder, there will be a sense of urgency for Wineland going into his bout at UFC 165.
Where other fighters in the divisional have consistently hovered on the title radar for years, the Chesterton native had to rely on two solid wins and a bit of circumstance for his shot at the interim title to materialize.
Nevertheless, that opportunity will arrive on Sept. 21 and if Wineland can defeat Barao, he will have put a definitive statement on his career resurgence. Yet, a loss to the Brazilian phenom would send him to the back of a line that has suddenly started getting deeper over the past year.
Matt Mitrione vs. Brendan Schaub
While the two title fights on the card carry interesting stakes, perhaps the most pressing when it comes to circumstance will be the heavyweight battle of former TUF housemates between Matt Mitrione and Brendan Schaub.
The 35-year-old former NFL player fired out of the gates in his UFC career as he picked up victories in his initial five outings. "Meathead" garnered acclaim for his hot start, but that buzz would take a hit when he dropped back-to-back showings to Cheick Kongo and Roy Nelson.
Facing two established veterans the likes of Kongo and "Big Country" were Mitrione's first experiences competing at the next level of the weight class, and while the losses pushed him back in the bigger picture, those fights also provided an education for the former Purdue University football standout.
His bout against Kongo at UFC 137 in 2011 was only the sixth fight of his career. The brick-handed heavyweight was late getting into mixed martial arts, and took a spot on the 10th season of The Ultimate Fighter, without ever having a run in the amateur ranks.
The Chris Lytle protege would bounce back in his next outing against Phil De Fries at UFC on Fuel TV 9 in April, but much like the opponents he defeated in the opening stage of his UFC run, the Team Alliance fighter is considered far from top-level competition in the heavyweight division.
And that is why the bout with Schaub is so crucial where Mitrione is concerned.
The bout with "The Hybrid" will come at an interesting juncture in Mitrione's career and will ultimately decide if he moves on to compete with the best in the weight class, or takes a step toward obscurity. If Mitrione defeats Schaub at UFC 165, it will guarantee his next challenge will come from the next level of the division, where a loss would push him to the outer limits of relevancy in the heavyweight ranks.
The same holds true for Schaub as well. The Colorado native bounced back strong following his loss to Roy Nelson in the TUF 10 finale to collect victories in his next four outings. The 30-year-old former football player began to build talk of title contention when he scored a knockout victory over MMA legend Mirko "Cro Cop" Filipovic at UFC 128 back in 2011.
Unfortunately for Schaub, that momentum would get starched in his next outing as he suffered a knockout loss to former interim champion Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira at UFC 134. Looking to regain his footing in the division, the Team Reign fighter squared-off with veteran Ben Rothwell at UFC 145, and appeared to be seconds away from getting back into the win column, until "Big Ben" shockingly turned the tide and landed a knockout blow of his own.
With back-to-back losses, the shine on Schaub's prospect label started to fade, but he was able to get things back on track as he defeated knockout artist Lavar Johnson via unanimous decision in their meeting at UFC 157 in February.
Now, with his bout against Mitrione approaching, Schaub will stand at a critical crossroads in his career. A victory over the Indiana native will bump him up into the next level of competition in the weight class, where a loss would put his UFC employment in jeopardy.
Both Mitrione and Schaub are in the exact same position. A win moves them up into a higher tier in the division, where a setback would mean losses in three of their last four outings. Those circumstances makes their tilt at UFC 165 a high-stakes affair and both are fully aware what will be on the line when they meet in Toronto.
Duane Finley is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report.
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