Next year crucial for Jones' legacy

Saturday night in Denver, it was UFC play-by-play man Mike Goldberg’s turn to hand out the superlatives.

“A talent like never seen before in UFC history!” Goldberg declared, in the familiar cadence so inexorably linked now with action in the Octagon. “Jon 'Bones' Jones wants to challenge the light heavyweight record of five successful [title] defenses turned in by Tito Ortiz!”

Had Goldy been talking about any other 24-year-old making the first defense of a championship he’d held for barely six months, these words might have seemed like puffery. They might have seemed over the top, or at least like a very bad omen for the kid’s future, since the comments actually came before Jon Jones entered the cage to fight Quinton Jackson.

Yet on Monday, it feels like Goldy was just saying what many of us are thinking. After watching Jones effortlessly rout Jackson in their main event fight at UFC 135, the MMA community seems fairly evenly split between people who are ready to put Jones on the cusp of greatness and those who claim, more and more desperately perhaps, that they’re not fully sold on him.

In this case, the wonderful thing about the fight game is that over the next calendar year, we’re likely going to find out exactly what we’ve got in Jones. His win over Jackson was great -- anticlimactic in its dominance, actually -- but the next 12 months figure to be critical in determining his legacy in the sport.

It doesn’t take a UFC matchmaker to plot out the immediate future: Barring serious injury or other unforeseen setbacks, Jones’ next few bouts will come against a murderer’s row of competition that includes Rashad Evans, the winner of Dan Henderson versus Mauricio Rua and the winner of an expected, but as-yet unconfirmed fight between Lyoto Machida and Phil Davis.

If he can pull it off, it’ll put him one defense shy of Ortiz’s record and amount -- speaking of superlatives--– to the greatest run in the history of the UFC light heavyweight title. Not even Ortiz, Chuck Liddell or Randy Couture faced such a stiff level of competition during their respective reigns. If Jones emerges victorious from this gamut of challengers, he’ll solidify his place among the greatest 205-pounders ever and possibly topple Anderson Silva as the world’s pound-for-pound best.

If he can’t? Well, there is already a significant contingent of MMA fans ready to jump out of the bushes and scream, “Overrated!” Certainly, a second career defeat and the loss of his title during this stretch wouldn’t totally derail Jones’ career, but it would make him look a lot more like everybody else in the division -- a cadre of easy-come, easy-go champions who’ve been trading the belt back and forth for the past four years.

Precisely because of this weight class's chaotic recent history, we all know full well how dangerous it can be to declare anyone the future. This was a lesson learned the hard way when the UFC’s self-described “Machida Era” fizzled after less than a year. On the other hand, it would be disingenuous not to acknowledge the scope of Jones’ potential at this point.

It would also be unfair not to mention the very next thing Goldberg said about Jones after tabbing him a unique talent and a candidate to overtake Ortiz as the greatest 205-pound champion of all time:

“The pressure and expectations [are] larger than they have ever been.”

Considering how the next year of his career will look, you can say that again.