In the coming days, it no doubt will be tempting to paint Jon Jones’ dominant win over Vitor Belfort at UFC 152 as one of two extremes: either the latest triumphant example of the champion’s greatness, or an empty gesture in a fight that never should have been booked in the first place.
This urge is understandable -- it’s tough to have a conversation about Jones right now that doesn’t lapse into the fanatical -- but it should be resisted.
In the wake of a fight as high-profile and arguably nonsensical as this one, it’s natural to go looking for definitive answers. We all want to believe some decisive statement was made during the weekend because that’s what we expect from the best fighters in the world and because otherwise, well, what did we spend our Saturday night watching, exactly? We want to shout: Jones looked fantastic! or This matchup was a farce! and then click “publish” or “tweet” so we can get on with our lives.
These sorts of unyielding positions are fun and make for good conversation, but neither best illustrates what we really learned at UFC 152. As usual, the truth is actually somewhere in the middle.
No, Jones versus Belfort wasn’t particularly meaningful, but it did turn out to be just a bit more interesting and enlightening than anticipated.
If nothing else, this fight gave us a few more pieces to the puzzle that is MMA’s most talented and enigmatic fighter. While Jones revealed what might actually be some vulnerabilities lurking in his fearsome skill set, he also played it cool when Belfort caught him in an armbar early in the first round. He battled through the tightest spot of his mostly spotless career and fought three more rounds sporting a (possible) injury.
This was noteworthy because to date there hasn’t been much cause for Jones to show grit or grace-under-fire. That he was able to tap into both in this most unexpected place was fairly instructive. It was also probably about as substantive an exchange as we could’ve hoped for in this bout, one pitting a brilliant young light heavyweight against an aging middleweight whose flaws have been a matter of public record for nearly 15 years.
We learned more than we had any right to learn from this fight during its first 90 seconds, and that alone saved it from being a total wash. Small victories, right?
Most of the rest of the way, Belfort was revealed for what he was; a guy who hadn’t even fought at 205 pounds since 2007 and whom the company inked for this bout only after its preferred choices proved either unavailable (Dan Henderson), unacceptable (Chael Sonnen) or unwilling (Lyoto Machida, Mauricio Rua). He may not have belonged in the cage with the sport’s most dominant champion, but at least he briefly forced Jones to do something we’ve never seen him do inside the Octagon: endure.
On the other hand, for all of the positives -- “focus on the positives” was the unofficial motto of UFC 152 -- this can’t rightfully be called a stellar performance from Jonny Bones, either. The 25-year-old juggernaut let Belfort hang around too long and for at least the first 15:30 didn’t show much of the urgency he’d promised during the lead-up to this bout. He won, but had a fairly impossible task on his hands if he meant to impress and now it’s all but assured that his 2012 will fall well short of the lofty standard he set for himself during 2010-11.
Lastly, it had been fairly widely suggested that this fight was somehow about Jones answering his critics. Again, that’s only partially true. Sure, Jones denied his “haters” the chance to see the public pressure get to him or for his seemingly endless media gaffes to someway manifest themselves inside the cage, but that’s as far as it goes.
To propose that Jones could somehow strike back at his detractors or turn the tide of public opinion in his favor by winning a fight is to completely misunderstand the conversation we’ve been having about him for months now. His lack of popularity among hard-core MMA fans has nothing to do with what he does inside the Octagon or even -- as the UFC suggested again and again Saturday -- with his DWI in May.
Those who insist on despising Jones (and it does feel like a weird insistence at this point) do so because they think he’s an arrogant, sanctimonious phony. They thought it long before he got drunk and crashed his Bentley and they’ll continue to think it no matter how many opponents he beats or how many awkward one-on-one interviews he cuts with Joe Rogan.
For some reason, at least part of the MMA industry can only see Jones in absolutes when, in fact, it should be clear by now that he works exclusively in shades of gray. He’s not a villain, but he’s also not a hero.
The same is generally true of his odd, makeshift main event against Belfort at UFC 152. It wasn’t great, but it wasn’t awful. It wasn’t strictly necessary, but we also shouldn’t walk away feeling like it was completely superfluous.