Jones pounds Rampage to erase doubts

An entourage surrounded Jon Jones as he walked out of his dressing room, past a battalion of security guards in the bowels of the Pepsi Center, and toward the Octagon. He could hear music blaring, hear his opponent being introduced, hear the simmering crowd ready to boil over.

Yet in the moments before he appeared before 16,000 fans in his first defense of the UFC light heavyweight title Saturday night at UFC 135, you had the odd feeling that Jones — the champion — had something to prove.

“This is nobody’s else’s time; this is Jon Jones’ time!” one of his trainers yelled at him.

“The champ is here!” another shouted.

But what could Jon Jones have to prove? He was king. He already was the sport’s hottest commodity, at age 24 the youngest UFC champion ever. He was the heavy favorite over mixed martial arts powerhouse Quinton “Rampage” Jackson. He was being touted as one of the biggest talents the sport ever has seen.

What the king had to prove was that he wasn’t just hype. So many times leading up to this fight, people had doubted whether he was really the “Next Big Thing,” as the media and the oddsmakers had made him out to be. And not just any people: big people. Important people. People such as Rampage, for one, who talked all sorts of smack leading up to UFC 135. And former light heavyweight champion Rashad Evans, too. And the voice that matters most in the UFC, president Dana White.

Half an hour later, after Jones beat Rampage by submission in the fourth round after dominating every minute of the fight up until then, the king had proved himself worthy of his crown.

“I thought he was all hype,” Rampage (32-9) said after the fight. “Straight up, I’m keepin’ it real here: I thought it was all hype. (But) the kid is tough. He’s very talented. He hit me with one of those spinning back elbows. It didn’t hurt, but he still hit me with it. I trained against it. I thought I had his number. I raise my hand up to this guy. He’s good.”

Jones (14-1) stepped into the Octagon to the sounds of Diddy-Dirty Money’s “Coming Home” for the night’s main event. Jones and Rampage met face to face in the middle of the Octagon. Rampage’s face contorted, sneered, twisted into a scowl inches from the younger fighter’s face. But Jones, fresh from leading a pre-fight prayer with his coaches, just looked down then closed his eyes.

Jones started with an odd technique: pouncing into a crouch, trying to get Rampage low. It didn’t work — perhaps the only time Jones came up empty in the fight. (Though it did make for a great post-fight exchange between the two. Rampage: “What the hell was you doing in the beginning of the first round? Suck my toes or something?” Jones: “I didn’t wanna get hit with one of your bombs, man. I know you hit hard. So I was like, let me stay low.”)

The first round started slow, the two circling each other, sizing each other up, the crowd starting to boo. Jones’ strategy soon became clear: Use his superior reach (Jones was measured at 84-1/2 inches to Rampage’s 73) to make sure Rampage didn’t get inside. Jones kicked again and again, employing his feet like a boxer does a jab, making sure Rampage kept his distance. He stuck with it through the second round, a steady diet of upkicks and straight punches so he didn’t leave himself vulnerable to one of Rampage’s power-packed fists.

“He will make mistakes!” Rampage’s trainer shouted at Rampage between the second and third rounds.

Things opened up in the third round. Jones got Rampage to the ground a couple minutes in, trying to pound at Rampage’s head. Rampage stood, then seconds later Jones nailed him with a kick to the face. A cut opened over Rampage’s right eye. Rampage missed a few big punches. The cut above his eye bled more.

Straight off in the fourth round, Jones got Rampage on the ground. Rampage moved to protect the cut over his eye, leaving him open to a rear naked choke hold. Jones held, and held, and held, until Rampage tapped out. It was Rampage’s first loss by submission in more than a decade.

Jones dropped to his knees as medical staff attended to Rampage. Rampage kept shaking his head, like he was shocked this kid was as good as they said he was. The two fighters hugged. There’d been a lot of smack talk leading up to this fight, lots of talk about a beef between the two. It had all rubbed Jones the wrong way. They spoke, and Jones kissed Rampage on the cheek, told him he was glad it was over, and they buried the hatchet.

“He definitely handed the torch over,” Jones said of their post-fight words. “He gave me a lot of respect. He admitted to the crowd that he felt the best he ever felt. He definitely was blessing me with his blessings. He said we were both children of God.”

Jones’ reign, it appeared, has only begun.

“Jon Jones, I’m telling you, that kid’s here to stay,” Rampage said.

And so Saturday night was not a coronation. The coronation had come six months before in New Jersey, when Jones first put the sparkling belt around his waist and became the youngest UFC champion in history.

No, Saturday was something more than a coronation: A resounding victory over a UFC legend. A four-round thumping of Rampage, who said he was in the best shape of his life heading into the fight. An answer to critics who thought Jones was too young, too brash, too cocky, too untested, too much hype and not enough substance.

Instead of a coronation, you left Saturday night’s fight feeling that Jones’ dominating performance was the welcoming of a very long reign at the top of his sport for this once-in-a-generation athlete.

“The beauty in the 205-pound division is that it’s stacked,” White, the UFC president, said afterward. “There’s a lotta tough guys out there. It’s one of the great things of being in a division like that. If (Jones) is what everybody believes he is, the 205-pound division will end up looking like the 185-pound division — which has had a lot of talent, but it doesn’t look like it, because the guy who is holding the belt (Anderson Silva) is so damn good.”

When you’re on top, though, there’s always someone looking to knock you off. And so, in the post-fight news conference, questions immediately shifted from Jones’ victory to his next opponent: former light heavyweight champion Rashad Evans.

“Rashad is the only person that basically has a chance of beating him,” a surprisingly upbeat Rampage said. “Because Rashad trained with him before, so Rashad knows. Other than Rashad, I don’t see anyone beating this kid straight up.”

But while Rampage was cracking jokes about getting drunk later that night, and about how he had to shower to wipe off Jones’ smell — even throwing in a perfectly timed “that’s what she said” one-liner whose specifics shall not be specified here — Jones stayed quiet. He answered reporters’ questions politely but briefly. Jones had the demeanor of the fighter who’d lost, not Rampage.

The only moment when Jones piped up with an answer that showed much emotion was talking about his next opponent, Evans, who has been in a bit of a blood feud with Jones as of late. The trash-talking leading up to the Rampage fight had seemed to get to Jones. He didn’t enjoy it. He didn’t enjoy Evans calling him cocky. Yet at the news conference, Jones couldn’t help himself, taking a swipe at his next opponent.

“I will say this about Rashad: He does not have my number,” Jones said. “He’s not even close to having my number. Me and Rashad, we sparred a few times. He talks about one day in practice where he held me down, and he lives that day in his head every day. So, we’ll see.”

Jones didn’t look excited to be there, and told reporters the only reason he was there was because it was his job. He didn’t seem to like having a target on his back. And perhaps this was the moment that it dawned on the new king of UFC: It can be lonely at the top, everyone else out to get you.