By Elton Hobson
Or, as it is otherwise known, the Jon Jones show.
Possibly the biggest hype train in Mixed Martial Arts today is pulling into San Diego, California (after a slight detour past Salt Lake City ). At the crest of the wave is a soft-spoken man of just 23 years old, with only two years experience as a professional fighter and 11 total fights to his credit.
Behind him is an avalanche of fan support and interest, tons of media coverage, the full promotional power of the UFC and the Versus network, and some pretty big expectations indeed. In front of him is Vladimir Matyushenko, a 13 year veteran of the sport with nearly 30 fights against some of the best names at light-heavyweight.
Or “That Russian Dude who’s fighting Jon Jones” as he is known to most casual fans.
Also Tyson Griffin looks to get back in the win column at the expense of a stumbling Takanori Gomi, John Howard and Jake Ellenberger throw down in a guaranteed scrap, and Anderson Silva team mate Mark Munoz faces the resurgent Yushin Okami in a possible middleweight title eliminator.
Here are the 5 biggest questions heading into this Sunday’s event, starting with the question of questions, the single biggest reason we‘ll all tune in Sunday:
Is Jon Jones MMA’s Superman?
Sorry to disappoint you all, but like Santa Claus and the tooth fairy, there is no unbeatable, all-powerful Bruce Lee-like fighter in Mixed Martial Arts. It is a myth, designed to sell Pay-Per-Views and T-Shirts and Xyience meal supplements. It is a trap that time and again has ensnared the gullible.
Rampage knocked the “unbeatable” Chuck Liddell cold in only slightly shorter time then it took Matt Serra to do the same to the “unbeatable” GSP. The “legendary” Anderson Silva once tapped out to a horizontal Japanese lightweight just as the “legendary” Fedor once tapped out to Fabrico Werdum’s jock odor. Everyone loses, and no one is invincible.
There’s no doubt Jon Jones is something special, a once in a lifetime kind of prospect. The Lebron James of Mixed Martial Arts, so to speak. His fights thus far in the UFC have been not only dominant, but creative, unique, and devastating.
What’s more, he has captured that spark, the legitimate buzz that electrifies even casual fans. Chuck Liddell had it. Brock Lesnar has it. Fedor, before his recent loss, had it. It is an unquantifiable “it” factor, and it translates into talk, hype, and most importantly, cash.
The UFC knows this. That’s why they have brought him carefully along and promoted the blue hell out of him. He’s young, handsome, marketable and has all the tools. In time, he could be the next big crossover fighter in Mixed Martial Arts, the GSP of the light-heavyweight division.
But no, he’s not Superman. Good news is, he doesn’t have to be. Not really, anyways. To keep the hype train rolling, all he has to do is win in his usual impressive fashion. It’ll be interesting to see what Jones and Greg Jackson come up with as a gamelan for Matyushenko. Look to try and take down the decorated wrestler in a clinch battle, or try to win it standing up and cede the wrestling initiative to “The Janitor”?
What Jones decides could determine the future of the 205 lb division.
First of all, Vladimir Matyushenko is Belarusian, not Russian, though you’d be forgiven for making the mistake. To their discredit, the UFC has not done a very good job promoting Matyushenko, a proven fighter at the elite level on a 2 fight winning streak inside the UFC. In the last seven years he has lost only once, to Rogerio Nogueria, and racked up 11 wins and an IFL world title. Not too shabby
He is more then just a stepping stone for Jon Jones, though sadly most fans will likely see him as a step down from Brandon Vera or Matt Hamill.
In one way, this makes the fight even more interesting then it might otherwise have been. I firmly believe Vladimir Matyushenko represents the sternest test Jones has faced in his career. He has the wrestling to stifle Jones’s flashy Greco-Roman offence, and the poise and experience to take advantage when “Bones” starts to fade in the later rounds, as he has in past fights.
Fans have proven they will stick with Jones through a loss, as evidenced by his DQ loss to Mat Hamill only two fights ago. But that was a unique circumstance, a fight one man was utterly dominating before the referee stopped it on questionable grounds to give it to the other guy. Fans were willing to forgive Jones that lapse. Will they forgive him losing to, or even looking unimpressive against, an unknown commodity like Matyushenko?
Are we Watching Yushin Okami 2.0?
It seemed Yushin Okami was on the verge of becoming the middleweight version of Jon Fitch: a tough as nails, strong as an ox wrestler who is kept away from a title shot because of his unflashy, grinding style. Okami has been sitting on the edge of the middleweight top ten for years now, kept away from a title shot by his style and his stumbles against the divisions elite.
Throw in time off due to an injury and a decisive loss to No.1 contender Chael Sonnen, and it seemed Okami was destined to be the flash without, if you’ll pardon the pun, the “Thunder”.
Then Yushin did that thing so few fighters do. He went and trained with Sonnen - the guy who just beat him - at Team Quest. If you’re a professional fighter, this seems like an obvious move, yet it is so rare. If you want to know how best to not have your ass kicked, go to the guy who last kicked your ass and take notes.
In his rebound fight against Lucio Linhares, Okami was a new man. Gone was the grinding, position oriented wrestler of old. Instead, Yushin lit up Linhares with crisp combinations on the feet. Instead of a decision, Yushin beat the tar out of Linhares and forced the ref to call it in the second round. Fans were ecstatic, and Okami, never a crowd favourite, was the man of the hour.
Now he’s facing Mark Munoz, an NCAA national wrestling champion and team-mate of Anderson Silva and Lyoto Machida at Team Blackhouse. In fact, Munoz could be considered Anderson’s primary wrestling coach, helping him prepare for Chael Sonnen while Anderson gives Munoz insight on what it’s like to be in the ring with Okami (“Thunder” actually owns a win over Anderson via DQ).
If this really is Yushin Okami 2.0 we‘re watching, he’s going to need that newfound stand up ability. Munoz has the wrestling ability and the power to stop Okami’s grinding attack should he choose to revert to old habits. Conversely, we know Munoz doesn’t exactly have the hardest chin in the world. If Yushin truly is a reborn fighter, in this fight he will have to prove it.
Is Takanori Gomi still Relevant?
Opening the show is a lightweight title pitting former Shooto and Pride standout Takanori Goma against short notice replacement Tyson Griffin. This fight is interesting because both men are in need of a win. For Griffin, dropping his last fight against Evan Dunham was a stumbling block on his road to a title shot, but a win in this fight could right his ship.
For Gomi, the situation is more desperate.
Once arguably the #1 lightweight fighter in the world, Gomi’s career at first stumbled, then fell into disarray in the last couple of years. Following his loss to Nick Diaz at Pride 33 (later overturned into a No Contest) in 2007, Gomi has gone 4-3 including back to back losses to Sergey Golyaev and Satoru Kitaoka.
In his UFC debut last March, he was utterly outclassed by Kenny Florian. He seemingly lost his once respected KO power, his confidence and aggression on the feet, and his ability to shrug off takedowns. Put more simply, the motivation and focus just don’t seem to be there anymore. The once red hot “Fireball Kid” is now little more then an ember.
Gomi’s UFC stint was supposed to provide the motivation for him to restart his career and fulfill the lofty expectations many had of him back in the middle 2000’s. After losing to Florian, the truth may be that motivation has nothing to do with it. Like Jens Pulver, Marcus Aurelio, and David Baron - all classic opponents of Gomi - time may just have caught up to the sport’s older generation.
Gomi will get no favours in Griffin, a powerhouse of a wrestler with cardio for days. If Gomi cannot solve this puzzle, he has no business in the UFC lightweight title picture, and one begins to wonder what else he could accomplish in his career at that point.
If Gomi wants a last chance at cementing his legacy as one of the all time great 155’ers, he needs to find a way to win. Anything else would be the end of the line for another of Japan’s once great MMA stars.
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