For 25 minutes, Jon Jones and Alexander Gustafsson traded punches, elbows, knees and kicks as if their lives hung in the balance.
Even if it had been two no-names duking it out on the prelims, it would have easily been fight of the night. But this was the proclaimed best fighter in the sport doing everything he could to defuse a sinewy stick of Swedish dynamite.
Jones bled, from a cut so bad that the doctor wanted to stop the fight after the fourth round. Gustafsson was so battle-worn that in the fifth and final round it appeared as if a small gust of wind could tip him over. Instead, he chewed off more offense from the champ and somehow managed to stay upright.
Both went to the hospital afterwards. And took a smiling picture together for proof of life.
Jon Jones vs. Alexander Gustafsson gave us one of the great back-and-forth stand-up affairs in MMA history, one of the most compelling title fights in the first 20 years of the sport.
Let's take a look at a few other things it gave us.
A potential glimpse at the future of the light heavyweight division
As MMA grows, and more bodies literally get into the sport, it will be interesting to see how each division matures based on variables such as weight, height, reach and anything else you can poke a stick at.
In the lead-up to this fight, the marketing push from the UFC was "Greatness Within Reach."
The slogan was bemoaned as hackneyed and that Gustafsson's height and reach would be immaterial. We believed Jones was simply from another planet and that Gustafsson would look lost in outer space against him.
Gustafsson looked anything but lost. In fact, he made himself right at home on Jones' lawn.
A little too close for comfort for the champ. Gustafsson looked to be Jones' counterpart—in more ways than one—and right off the bat, it was clear size mattered. Fighting, it turns out, can very much be a game of inches. And being able to close the distance, well...that counts for a lot.
Our very own Jeremy Botter was quick to admit he was wrong in brushing off Gustafsson's stature.
I will firmly admit that I was wrong in making fun of the Greatness Within Reach tag. Greatness definitely WAS in reach. What a fight.— Jeremy Botter (@jeremybotter) September 22, 2013
Early in the exchange, the faces of Rashad Evans, Shogun Rua, Lyoto Machida, Chael Sonnen and Vitor Belfort—all victims of Jones' past war making—blurred together, and the singular thought that emerged from that image was that none of them belong at light heavyweight anymore (Machida recently dropped down to middleweight, Evans has flirted with the idea and so forth).
Not in a division that Jones and Gustafsson now tower over. It is a new day for the weight class, or at least the start of one. Where it goes from here, in terms of physical maturation, will be something worth paying attention to.
Beyond talk of size, there is skill. Both fighters showed that their skill, coupled with size, will likely put them out of reach. Untouchable for now, perhaps. Size and skill go hand in hand quite nicely. If Machida had an 84" reach, or Shogun Rua was 6'5", then maybe they'd have more of a fighting chance.
But I digress.
Jones and Gustafsson, for all intents and purposes, became the Cain Velasquez and Junior dos Santos of the light heavyweight division last night (ironically, it was the smaller and more nimble heavyweights that took over their division).
Not that the respective duos are anything alike, simply that within their respective weight classes, each pair is head and shoulders above the rest (we will save talk of Phil Davis for another time).
A final reminder that "Anything can happen in MMA"
It is a phrase often used and one that maybe feels worn out.
But like a good doormat, no matter how worn it gets, it keeps its welcome. If what went down between Anderson Silva and Chris Weidman didn't fully nail the aptness of the phrase into your synapses, let Jones vs. Gustafsson be the final hammer-swing.
Jones was being given Jesus Christ Superstar treatment heading into this fight. It had been building with each consecutive title defense. Perhaps justified, albeit over the top. But if he had started turning water into wine inside the Octagon nobody would have blinked twice.
Gustafsson was just another kid from the wrong side of the tracks who wanted to make something better for his life. He had the right glean in his eye, and had gotten this far, but running into Jones would simply be the end of the line. However, he got out his ruler and extended the line right of the page.
But wait, there's more
Heading into the fight especially,many wanted to see Jones finally get his comeuppance—because they saw him as an arrogant, self-righteous, hypocritical man child. Others, who saw him as the greatest thing since the Doritos Locos taco, simply wanted to bear witness that greatness.
Both factions got at least a fraction of what they were looking for.
The haters did not get to see Jones put down via vicious knockout. But they did get to see him sufficiently beaten up over the course of five rounds. His eyes closed up like he had been stung by a bee and his lips puffed up like he had eaten a fistful of shrimp...and was allergic to shellfish.
Perhaps seeing Jones exposed as human after-all was enough for them. Probably not.
Those in the congregation, shell-shocked no doubt, still had something to believe in. Their messiah waged war for twenty-five minutes and still came out on top, perhaps surviving what will be the greatest test of his career, south of the heavyweight border. Forget that maybe Gustafasson should have won the fight, the judges held heaven together for at least one more fight.
For myself, heading into the fight, I certainly got caught up in both the real and in retrospect manufactured hype bestowed upon Jones.
Things have a way of escalating quickly with those on a tour de force upward trajectory. Escalating in how we try to make sense of what they accomplish and how it dovetails in the grand scheme of it all. Greatest of all-time is a phrase given away too easily in this sport, somewhat forgivable given how young it is.
In sports, especially combat sports it seems, we want our champs to be great, otherworldly. Parity is not a word you hear blood-thirsty fans gargling on.
Over time though we get bored with their dominating ways and we want them to be challenged. And when they fly too close to the sun, in terms of being challenged, the boil we he had for them when they were cooking everyone's goose becomes a simmer. And we begin looking for the next shiny new rock.
Is Jones destined to be the greatest of all-time? Or was he simply a bigger guy picking on littler guys. Sure he has skills. In spades. As stated, size and skill feed nicely into each other. Jones had made the most of what he was born with, coupled with what he carved out in the gym.
Expectations and trajectory will now be re-calibrated. A rematch makes sense for every reason.
Does Jones make better half time adjustments? Does he come out and finish Gustaffson in the "3rd of 4th quarter?" Will it come down to the wire with the judges deciding fate?
We had said that for Jones to truly be great, he needed to be tested...that he needed a foil. He found that in the form of an unassuming Swedish striker.
Whether or not Gustaffason can extend things beyond one night remains to be seen. Perhaps he fought the perfect game plan, gave it everything he had and simply came up short. And will come up even shorter next time. All of that remains to be seen.
Beyond all the conjecture of what is to come, and the hyperbole of the moment, Jon Jones vs. Alexander Gustaffson simply gave us one hell of a fight. Here's hoping for more.