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Jon Jones' Climb Back to the Top of UFC On Track After Dominant Win at UFC 235

Scott Harris@ScottHarrisMMAMMA Lead WriterMarch 3, 2019

LAS VEGAS, NV - MARCH 02:  Jon Jones sits in his corner during his UFC light heavyweight championship bout against Anthony Smith during the UFC 235 event at T-Mobile Arena on March 2, 2019 in Las Vegas, Nevada.  (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC)
Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

With Jon Jones, you know the controversy is coming. It's just a matter of whether it will be big enough to once again derail his train and send it back into the dust.

A few picograms aside, the light heavyweight champion was intact when he made it to his title defense Saturday at UFC 235 in Las Vegas, where he was a massive 3-20 favorite, according to OddsShark, to handle Anthony Smith.

The champ tried to put the challenger away early, but Smith isn't called Lionheart for nothing, as Jones would soon find out.

In the waning moments of the fourth round, Jones fired a knee at Smith, who was clearly down on the canvas at the time, making the strike blatantly illegal. The knee connected solidly with Smith's head, and the challenger would have been well within his rights to decide he couldn't continue and take a win by disqualification—the only manner anyone has ever successfully used to defeat Jones.

But Smith fought on, going the distance while taking a lopsided decision loss.

Anthony Smith (left) after Jones' illegal knee strike.
Anthony Smith (left) after Jones' illegal knee strike.Isaac Brekken/Getty Images

It was a dull affair for Jones, but a bullet was dodged.

"I'm getting familiar with what it feels like to be a UFC fighter," Jones told broadcaster Joe Rogan in the cage after the fight. "I'm past all the nerves and overthinking things and underthinking things. I'm really starting to feel like a veteran, which is cool because I'm still in my early 30s."

Fight fans need neither the full rundown of Jones' past transgressions nor the soliloquy on his singular greatness. They're both well-documented and larger than life. That's how he looked in the cage Saturday, as despite both men being 6'4", Jones was the bigger human. The rangy phenom is now a full-grown man; one can sense that veteran presence he alluded to in his remarks.

John Locher/Associated Press

The athleticism is still there, though. His kicks snapped with ease to all levels of Smith's body, with the legs and midsection his favorite targets. A spinning elbow caught Smith full in the face. There were flashes of Bones Jones throughout the contest.

Smith neutralized some of that with his toughness, and he deserves credit for going five rounds with the best fighter in the world. Still, the fight ground down to a crawl in part because Smith became hesitant to fire back.

He did land a couple of nice shots, including a right hand in the second that caused swelling over Jones' eye, but he was caught staring for long stretches. As Smith himself told Rogan afterward, "I sat back and let Jon Jones be Jon Jones."

UFC Europe @UFCEurope

All the way up! All the way down! @JonnyBones takes Anthony Smith to the ground at #UFC235! https://t.co/Ux0gJuLifI

When Smith wouldn't succumb to the knockout, the fight shifted to takedowns and extended sequences on the ground or clinched against the fence. Jones was dominant in all these phases. All of it was there: The hand fighting that has become so distinctive, the almost preternatural range control, the way he seems to find a convincing way to attack from unlikely positions.

Only Jones can bring that to the table. The illegal knee, which was nowhere close to being legal, nearly brought this latest MMA comeback—only two fights deep—to a standstill or worse. Maybe that was why Jones was effusive in his praise of Smith's toughness after the fight, as he knew full well he was a hair's breadth from yet another long fall into a dumpster of rotten tomatoes.

Ariel Helwani @arielhelwani

Am I crazy or should Smith have just taken the W right there?

"Hats off to Anthony Smith," Jones told Rogan. "His reputation is that he's just so durable. And now I see why they call him Lionheart. I have never had anyone talk to me while I was hitting them. Saying 'that was nice,' or 'is that all you got?' This guy was amazing. ... He was like the Terminator."

For years, Jones has playfully engaged with rumors about a move up to heavyweight. Brock Lesnar is a name that has been bandied about as a potential opponent. Of course, longtime rival Daniel Cormier is the heavyweight champ. Jones has always been coy about his future and remained so Saturday, but he may have tipped his hand just a bit.

"Right now, I'm just gonna enjoy this win, go back to the drawing board and think about ways to get better," he said. "There's a lot of young talent in the UFC. So many guys who are looking unbelievable."

Johnny Walker (right) knocked out Misha Cirkunov.
Johnny Walker (right) knocked out Misha Cirkunov.Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

That could be a signal that he's looking to stay at 205 pounds. Why? Because further down the card, a 26-year-old light heavyweight by the name of Johnny Walker continued a run that could be characterized as "unbelievable."

The dynamic, breakdancing Brazilian pulled off a flying-knee knockout of Misha Cirkunov in 36 seconds. It was Walker's third bout in the UFC proper, all happening over the past five months. All three ended in knockouts, and not one of them made it to the two-minute mark.

That would be an easy fight to promote, and you can bet the effusive Walker would be up to his end of it. There are good fights and fighters at heavyweight, but if Jones meant what he said about being interested by young guys looking unbelievable, that has to be where he's looking.

Speculation there will surely continue, as speculation is the fuel of the Jon Jones train. After a lackluster fight and another near-miss, fans should be glad they have the luxury.

                        

Scott Harris covers MMA for Bleacher Report.

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