UFC 128 dodged a bullet.
The addition of Jon Jones as a replacement opponent for 205-pound champ Mauricio Rua almost certainly saves the event from being relegated to ad-supported broadcast on Spike TV. Jones' star power lends interest to a main card decimated by fighter injuries, and perhaps makes Saturday night's headliner the year's most anticipated to date.
What We Know
Mauricio "Shogun" Rua entered the UFC over three years ago with justifiably high expectations. The Brazilian phenom's record in PRIDE included wins over Quinton "Rampage" Jackson, Mark Coleman, Kevin Randleman, as well as a pair of wins over K-1 (and current Strikeforce) terror Alistair Overeem.
Rua's introduction to UFC fans at UFC 76:Knockout failed to deliver as promised, as the former PRIDE Grand Prix winner quickly ran out of gas and eventually succumbed to a late choke applied by cardio nightmare, Forrest "Lungs" Griffin.
Since his inauspicious debut, Rua has undergone two knee surgeries to correct an injury which had apparently hindered his performance, and has steadily improved. A sloppy rematch victory over an aging Mark Coleman in 2009 was followed up with an emphatic KO of UFC Hall of Famer Chuck "The Iceman" Liddell, fast-tracking Rua to a title shot in October 2009 with the elusive karate-man Lyoto "The Dragon" Machida.
Despite battering Machida for five rounds and winning over fans, Rua somehow failed to win over the judges and dropped the split decision. Confident in his strategy against Machida and with a serious grudge, "Shogun" preempted the judges altogether the following May in the ensuing rematch, scoring an emphatic first-round KO to silence the critics and seize the UFC light heavyweight title.
Jon "Bones" Jones has been on a steady ascent since his UFC debut in the summer of 2008 against Andre Gusmao. Jones followed up that decision victory with another unanimous decision over veteran brawler Stephan Bonnar in a crowd-pleaser that introduced fans to Jones' spectacular wrestling and striking skills, but also raised questions about his cardio, as Jones spent much of the third round backpedaling.
Those questions remain for Jones only because he has since managed to finish every fight in the first or second round. Jones' win streak in the UFC currently stands at six (not including a questionable DQ loss to Matt Hamill) and is capped off most recently by a dominating submission win over Ryan Bader.
"Bones" surprised everyone by manhandling Bader, a powerful wrestler with deceptively good hands who was expected to give him his toughest match-up to date. After controlling him from the opening moments of the fight, Jones finished Bader in Round 2 with a brutal modified guillotine.
What The Tapes Don't Show
Rua reacted to his bitter decision loss to Machida by resolving to make MMA's much-debated scoring system a non-issue. His subsequent first-round KO of Machida was as dramatic and resounding a victory as any title bout in recent memory. The rematch looked more like a sixth round than a do-over, but was the result of reflection and study.
Wagering that Machida would be preoccupied with defending against his vicious leg and body kicks, Rua's camp spent more time working on his punches and studying Machida's counter-offensive habits in detail. The result was a game plan implemented with devastating success. Shogun's skillful dismantling of the elusive and unorthodox Machida provided coaches and fighters with a clinic on strategy planning and execution.
Speaking of strategy planning and execution, the Greg Jackson-trained Jon Jones hails from arguably the most successful camp in the business. Despite his being the UFC hype machine's employee of the month, Jones is a well-rounded fighter with a much more patient and dynamic game than his highlight reel indicates.
He possesses freakish reach, athleticism and exceptionally functional wrestling; but his most dangerous attributes may be his creative problem-solving ability and discipline. Jones seems to have that rare, uncanny ability to identify and exploit weaknesses in real-time—a trait reminiscent of Fedor Emelianenko—and as such doesn't waste a lot of energy making mistakes for his opponents to capitalize on.
What Might Happen
Rua and Jones are both thinkers, and neither is likely to charge and brawl. Knowing how how patiently Rua approached the Machida fight and that Jones will be cornered by Greg Jackson, I expect this fight to be more of a chess match than a barn burner.
In a five-round fight, cardio may be the deciding factor. While Rua erased all questions about his conditioning during his five-round war against Machida, it remains to be seen if Jones has the gas tank to keep up, should this fight even make it to the championship rounds.
Styles make fights, and anticipating the outcome of this stylistic matchup is particularly problematic. I expect each fighter to push the action towards each other's weaknesses, but it's hard to say what those are.
Clearly Jones' size and reach advantage should be a factor, and while Shogun isn't helpless on the ground, I don't expect to see him out-wrestle a wrestler like Jones. On the other hand, Jones' thin lower legs won't be able withstand the savage muy thai leg kicks Rua favors. The "shin factor" may play heavily in the direction the fight takes, if it doesn't end the fight abruptly in gruesome fashion (a la Corey Hill).
For all the problems the UFC encountered solidifying a main card, the Rua vs. Jones title bout makes this event worth tuning in.
Even if the main event doesn't deliver, perhaps Dana White will enter the Octagon and explain to Joe Rogan how Zuffa's recent acquisition of the fans' and fighters-only alternative to the UFC will actually benefit the both groups. Or perhaps not?