(A torn-up Jon Jones spins for an elbow during his title-fight war against Alexander Gustafsson in Toronto. / Photo via Esther Lin, MMAFighting.com)
Let’s be honest here. No one saw last night coming. No one. That’s not to say that nobody believed Alexander Gustafsson was capable of beating or challenging Jon Jones, although those people were probably Swedish, rabid Jones-haters, or height aficionados. But no one predicted that Gustafsson would take the fight to Jones in such a complete manner that in addition to being the first man consistently hurt the champion, he would become the only man to ever land a takedown on Jones in the UFC. And if there was some visionary out there who managed to foresee this twist of fate, he didn’t expect the next wrinkle; that Jones, bent but unbroken, would rise to this challenge in the final two rounds with an onslaught that the challenger seemed to persevere through with only sheer will holding him up. When all was said and done, UFC 165 saw the best light-heavyweight title fight in history, possibly the fight of the year and most significantly, the birth of a rivalry between two young fighters in the sport’s marquee division.
So, first things first…I might have been a little hasty in dismissing Alexander Gustafsson. If there’s some small solace to take in being so incredibly wrong, it’s that there was plenty of company in that regard. The UFC focused on the challenger’s height as opposed to any of his actual skills — although to hear Dana White tell it, that’s because “he’s so tall” was considered a better selling point for UFC fans than constructing an intricate narrative contextualizing Gustafsson and his abilities within the history of Swedish combat sports. (In other words, the UFC thinks its fans are stupid. They’re not entirely wrong.) Others focused on Gustafsson’s relative lack of competition, or his performances relative to those of Jones’s. Almost every pundit came away with the same conclusion; this was Jones’s fight to lose.
That was completely incorrect. In the first round, Gustafsson got in his face, pressured Jones backwards as he landed punches. He took the fight to Jones. It was a smart strategy; Jones likes to keep his distance while he’s standing up through kicks, and moving in takes away the range required to successfully land those kicks. However, this normally comes with a caveat; moving in puts a fighter in danger of being taken down by Jones, which is the last thing they want. But Gustafsson didn’t let that deter him; in fact, he landed the first takedown attempt of the fight, the first in UFC history against Jones. It turned out there was a reason for his confidence. Throughout the fight, try as he might, Jones could not take Gustafsson down. For all the talk you hear about how fighter X is “in the best shape of his life” or “has shown massive improvements,” it rarely rings true. But Gustafsson was the exception to the rule last night.
But for all that, the champion remained the champion at the end of the night. It was a close decision; most members of the media had it 48-47 for Jon Jones, giving him the 2nd, 4th and 5th rounds. There’s a case to be made for Gustafsson taking the first three, or for a draw, but given Jones’ performance in the championship rounds, this was the most just decision. The champion survived Gustafsson’s assault, a bad cut over his right eye, and possibly a shattered foot, and almost managed to finish Gustafsson at the end of the fourth round with elbows and knees. He easily took the fifth over an exhausted Gustafsson, retained his title and promptly left for the hospital, with Gustafsson soon to follow. It was a war of heart and technique that not only was an extraordinary main event, but fundamentally reshaped the expectations of the entire division.
(The agony, exhaustion, and disappointment of defeat. Photo of the Year candidate by Esther Lin, MMAFighting.com. Click for larger version.)
Where once Glover Teixeira was assured of a title shot following this fight, he will now probably — hopefully — have to wait. Gustafsson more than deserves a rematch following that fight, and as he and Jones are both a mere 26 years of age, it will hopefully be the first of many. However, injuries could easily play a factor in the UFC’s matchmaking. It’s impossible to tell just when either man will return to the Octagon until the full extent of their injuries are revealed. In the meantime, consider Jon Jones’s possible ascension to heavyweight on a hiatus; if Alexander Gustafsson roughed him up this badly, I shudder to think what would happen if he was face to face with Cain Velasquez. It should also prove interesting when Daniel Cormier drops down from heavyweight — if he can — to inject some Olympic-caliber wrestling into the division. But until then, this new, unexpected rivalry will be more than sufficient to propel the light-heavyweight division forward.
Overshadowed by the main event was another title fight in the bantamweight division between Renan Barao and Eddie Wineland. The first round was what you would expect from any fight in the division; technical, compelling, and relatively well-matched. Then in the second round, Barao uncorked a spinning side kick that landed square on Wineland’s chin. Wineland was sent to the ground where Barao followed with punches as his opponent turtled, forcing a stoppage and allotting himself a brief moment to celebrate his accomplishment through the medium of dancing. (He made the most of it.) Wineland complained the stoppage was premature, and he’s not entirely incorrect, but he was out of it and offered little defense when he had to. For his efforts, Barao won Knockout of the Night and will probably meet a returning Dominick Cruz in a title reunification bout, unless Cruz’s knee manages to blow itself out for a third time.
On the rest of the card, Brendan Schaub secured a d’arce choke that put Matt Mitrione to sleep in the first round. Francis Carmont took an uneventful decision over Costa Philippou. Khabib Nurmagomedov showed off his wrestling yet again in dispatching the game Pat Healy over three rounds. (He then proceeded to lend his Dagestani headgear to Joe Rogan for the post-fight interview.) Submission of the Night went to Mitch Gagnon for putting Dustin Kimura to sleep with a guillotine choke. You can guess what won Fight of the Night. It was the fight that established a rising star beyond what anyone could have expected, reaffirmed the mettle of a champion and established the beginning of a new era for the light-heavyweight division.
Full UFC 165 results:
PPV MAIN CARD
- Jon Jones def. Alexander Gustafsson via unanimous decision (48-47 x 2, 49-46)
- Renan Barao def. Eddie Wineland via TKO, 0:26 of round 2
- Brendan Schaub def. Matt Mitrione via technical submission (d’arce choke), 4:06 of round 1
- Francis Carmont def. Costa Philippou via unanimous decision (30-27 x 2, 30-26)
- Khabib Nurmagomedov def. Pat Healy via unanimous decision (30-27 x 3)
FOX SPORTS 1 PRELIMINARY CARD
- Myles Jury def. Mike Ricci via split decision (29-28 x 2, 28-29)
- Wilson Reis def. Ivan Menjivar via unanimous decision (29-28 x 3)
- Stephen Thompson def. Chris Clements via KO, 1:27 of round 2
- Mitch Gagnon def. Dustin Kimura via technical submission (guillotine choke), 4:05 of round 1
FACEBOOK PRELIMINARY CARD
- John Makdessi def. Renee Forte via KO, 2:01 of round 1
- Michel Prazeres def. Jesse Ronson via split decision (29-28 x 2, 28-29)
- Alex Caceres def. Roland Delorme via split decision (29-28 x 2, 28-29)
- Daniel Omielanczuk def. Nandor Guelmino via KO, 3:18 of round 3