The look on Glover Teixeira's face toward the end of his five-round fight with UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones told the story of the fight. There was exhaustion. Amazement too. And, in the glint of the bright hanging lights, there was something worse—resignation.
Teixeira fought hard until the very end, but he never stood a chance against Jones. In his heart, after four rounds of fighting, he knew it.
The fight, remarkably, had played out exactly as it must have in Teixeira's dreams. Jones, perhaps foolishly, continuously put himself right in the power-puncher's sweet spot. Jones stood in a phone booth, both men against the cage, and he dared Glover to hit him with his best, testing his will against the challenger's.
And he won. Not just the fight, but all 25 minutes of it.
"You're putting on an amazing, artistic fight," Jones' coach, Greg Jackson, told him in the corner as the fifth round beckoned. "It's beautiful to behold."
This was Michael Jordan in 1993. This was Muhammad Ali in his prime. This was the best MMA fighter of all time.
Mixed martial arts, dismissed by critics as mindless violence, is actually the most cerebral of sports. Or, perhaps, it's both things at once. Deadspin's Josh Tucker calls it a "game theorist's sex dream," a sport that attracts some very intellectual eyeballs, in addition to those yearning to see nothing more than someone bleed:
What sets MMA apart from its cousins is that its rules create a strategic and tactical rabbit hole that seemingly descends forever. The seamless combination of striking and grappling, under rules that only barely limit the available targets and attacks, creates a landscape that allows almost unlimited creativity and a wildly high ceiling for execution. Periodically we're lucky enough to witness a fighter who tests those limits and expands the limits of the possible.
Jones, for all of his physical gifts, is the smartest and most tactically advanced fighter the sport has ever seen. For Teixeira, the goal was simple. He wanted to throw his hard overhand right, his left hook and his uppercut—in that order. If things got desperate, he would attempt a sneaky single leg takedown. And that was it. There were no guessing games. Teixeira is an open book.
Jones is anything but. The length of his playbook is enormous. No fighter in MMA history has had this breadth of techniques at their disposal. Against Teixeira, he was utterly unpredictable. At times he would lead with his unusually pointed elbows, pushing Teixeira into the cage, turning the bout into a dogfight.
Then, as soon as Teixeira would get comfortable with this paradigm, Jones would do something crafty, like faking the elbow and hitting a looping left hook instead. Once they established a rhythm, the two men dancing the world's most dangerous Tango, Jones would shatter the established comfort zone, suddenly dropping levels for a takedown.
A fight with Jones is as mental as it is physical. Winning requires out-guessing him, not just out-fighting him. As of yet, only Alexander Gustafsson has come close. It's an exhausting ordeal, not least because Jones seemingly adds a new wrinkle every time he steps in the cage. This time, it was an overhook arm crank, a move so innocuous that most completely missed it in real time. Jones simply engulfed Teixeira's right arm and squeezed. Teixeira didn't tap.
There was no immediate effect. But Jones had done serious damage to his opponent's most dangerous weapon—all with a spur of the moment flashback to high school.
"That's a move that I've been doing since I was a little boy in wrestling," Jones said at the post-fight press conference. "It was one of the things you couldn't do on your wrestling partners because it's dirty in wrestling, but it's always there when someone has an underhook on you, and you have an overhook, you can just crank their arm.
"I knew it was there. It was nothing studied or anything, I just felt it in the fight and always wanted to do it in those wrestling matches and finally got to hit it on somebody. I felt his elbow pop two times. I heard the 'pop, pop' and I was like 'ah nice', so I'm glad I got to hit that on him."
It's this kind of spur of the moment brilliance that leaves potential Jones opponents disheartened. After the fight Daniel Cormier, in the studio for Fox Sports 1 and a single fight away from a title shot, seemed downright depressed at the idea of trying to beat Jones. He tried to convince himself it was possible. Only he knows if he's really buying it.
"I still want to fight him, and partly because I’m a man and want to be the best in the world. But Jon looked awesome tonight," Cormier said on Fox Sports 1. "...I think what I have to do is impose my will on him. I have to press him against the cage and bully him. But I have to tell Jones that I’m a bigger man than him and put some doubt in him. I train harder than him with someone named Cain Velasquez. I have to go and fight into that style."
Jones, in that cocky style that one day I hope he wakes up and owns instead of runs from, told Cormier he should concentrate on the business at hand. Phil Davis had looked past an opponent right in front of him to peer at Jones from a distance. That hadn't gone so well.
For Jones, at this point, the opponent is almost immaterial. He's battling for his place in history. Not just MMA history—sports history. We're watching one of the best athletes of all time compete at the highest level at his absolute physical and mental prime. And, scarily enough for Cormier and other potential foes, he's only getting better.
"I do have a lot of great gifts. You have to be smart. You have to have a great work ethic," Jones admitted to Fox Sports 1 after the fight. "One thing you have to have is a chin. I realized I have a chin. I caught some uppercuts and some left hooks. I’m blessed to prove I can fight at close range. A lot of people believe that to beat me you have to get inside. Today I threw more elbows standing than ever. I’m closing up the holes in my game – jiu-jitsu, takedown defense, takedowns, close-range fighting. I believe I’ll be champion for a long time."
I believe he's right.
I never saw "Sugar" Ray Robinson at his best. Ali was a shell of himself as I watched him struggle through the worst years of his professional life. I only know of Willie Mays through words on paper. But I've seen Jon Jones from the beginning.
Enjoy him while you can. There will never be another.