The road to the top of any division in mixed martial arts is a long and grueling journey. Achieving such heights in this sport is a goal many fighters will never see come to fruition no matter how desperately they may want it.
Only the greatest fighters can achieve championship status; only the elite can stay there or achieve it on more than one occasion across their career. The consensus is that getting there is only part of the battle; it is staying there that becomes the true quest for greatness.
Standing on top looking down the mountain, a champion can survey the landscape they rule. What they see are many challenges and the occasional glaring threat. Everyone wants what they have—and everyone thinks they can take it.
UFC Light Heavyweight Champion Mauricio “Shogun” Rua fought long and hard, overcoming multiple obstacles to become a champion in this sport again and he is staring a glaring threat right in the eyes.
That threat to his newfound title is Jon “Bones” Jones.
Jones has had a well documented, extremely hyped and stunningly impressive rise to threaten for “Shogun's” title. But now Jones faces an opponent in the champ that far exceeds any challenger he has faced thus far. On a competition level, Rua is an entirely different animal than anyone Jones has fought.
Regardless, Jones is rising to the occasion and is both mentally and physically prepared to make a run at Rua's title. Now Rua has to flex his championship pedigree and educate a young lion who has seen a jump start to his career not unlike Rua's own.
If there were a man for the job of pushing a phenom like Jones, a healthy “Shogun” is that man.
He was kind enough to sit down and speak with reporters on the UFC 128 conference call, and HurtsBad MMA was listening in. The champ spoke through his translator Eduardo Alonso.
Jones has a lot of momentum built up behind him and a very involved MMA community hyping every move he makes. The talent he has shown over a short period of time has catapulted him to the front of the discussion—and that is reflected in betting lines on his matchup with Rua.
The odds favor Jones—not the champ, Rua. When asked his thoughts on not being the favorite, the humble Rua offered this explanation:
“Obviously I am very happy being the champion, it was my goal and something that I worked for my whole life. Regarding Jon Jones being the favorite on all the betting lines, I don't really care. It just serves for me as motivation. I just feel obligated to do my best.”
This was not “Shogun's” original matchup for his first title defense. His original opponent was Jones' teammate Rashad Evans. Rashad was injured and forced to withdraw, leaving Rua without an opponent less than two months out from the fight.
The UFC selected Jones to replace Evans and now both Jones and Rua are preparing for a championship fight with less than two months notice. They both pose significant challenges to one another.
Rua was asked about how the change in opponent so close to the fight affected his training.
“Regarding the change of opponent and affecting my training I feel that Rashad and Jon Jones are somewhat similar in many senses because they are very good strikers and very good wrestlers.”
“I had to change sparring partners for the fight, getting some guys who were bigger with bigger reach. But their games still have some things in common, so I didn't have to change that much.”
It has been almost a year since Rua won the title and he was asked what adjustments he had to make having been away from the cage for as long as he was. In the champ's eyes, it was a none issue.
“Actually it doesn't really bother me because if you look at it I will be sidelined for about 10 months, but if you look at things it was almost the same difference between the first Machida fight and the second Machida fight.”
“I'm pretty tranquil about it because I know I am going to fight a guy who is a very good fighter like Jon Jones. But I have been training hard and I know that I am well prepared for the task.”
Rua won his first title in Pride at 23 years of age and has competed for almost nine years. Now that he is a champ once again, he was asked where he finds his motivation after so much success.
“Sure, I already went through a lot and conquered by biggest dreams in the fight game. When I won the Pride Grand Prix belt some years ago I went through some hard times to motivate myself, but that changed and I learned a lot.”
“Now that I have already went through that, I face every fight like the fight of my life, as my dream that I need to conquer.”
“Ultimately at this point I don't fight for money anymore, because thank God I am already financially stable. I fight for my family, I fight for my team, and for my fans. This is my big source of motivation and where I get my fuel from.”
Rua and Jones share many parallels between their careers. Rua made his first title run at 23; Jones is 23. Both are extremely gifted and dangerous competitors; both are phenom-type talents.
Rua was asked to reflect on his younger days—the days when he won the Pride MW Grand Prix. He was asked to draw comparison to his start in the sport to what Jones is accomplishing today.
The champ shared some great insight and paid homage to one of the greatest warriors this sport will ever know. He referenced a man who has defined war in a cage and set a very high bar with regard to winning but also embracing the fans.
“Actually I was truly very young back then. I always looked up, I had Wanderlei Silva as a teammate who was already ahead of me. So I always looked up at Wanderlei and had him as inspiration. I wanted to reach his level and to get to his status.”
“I battled a lot for that and with a lot of effort I managed to conquer my goals. I have some very good memories from those days. Back then we had a great team with a bunch of friends and we had a great time together. Like we do nowadays with my team who is actually pretty funny, so we have a great time.”
“But I truly cherish those memories and I look back at them with a great fondness.”
Today, the roots he gained competing under the tutelage of a legend like Wanderlei Silva are blossoming at Universidade De Lute. And he has once again become a proud yet humble champion.
He has his work cut out for him to stay on top. The division is stacked neck-deep with hungry talent and potential matchups. It starts with Jon Jones—who, quite honestly, is one of the most promising fighters to come along since Georges St. Pierre started turning heads before dominating his division indefinitely.
Not one UFC light heavyweight has been able to hold the title since Chuck Liddell refused to let it go by defending it four times. That all seems like so long ago. Only Rampage Jackson and Lyoto Machida have defended one since then.
And just between us and the internet, Machida might have had a little help in his first match with Rua. That outcome was debatable at the least.
So now, Rua takes his first steps towards establishing a reign over the land he now rules. “Shogun” is standing tall and proud on top of that mountain peak as the best LHW in the world.
It is not his first time at the top and it was no accident how he found himself there. He cracked the code of a man many felt would define an era. When he brought his war to Lyoto “The Dragon” Machida, the entire landscape changed in that division.
He belongs at the top—there is no doubt. He sounds confident and ready to prove it this Saturday night at UFC 128.
He may not be the young phenom he once was—or that Jon Jones is today—but he is a seasoned veteran of war with a proven championship pedigree driving him.
Many people believe in Jon Jones, and rightfully so; no one has been able to get through his attack or defense; no one can withstand his barrage of unorthodox striking and movement. He is the future of the LHW division without a doubt.
They used to say the same things about Lyoto Machida. It's amazing what a world-class talent and a good game plan can do to change common perceptions.
This article originally featured at HurtsBad MMA.