If UFC wunderkind Jon Jones thrashes and bashes Dan Henderson around the Octagon next weekend at UFC 151, the 25-year-old light heavyweight champ could have a unique and vexing problem on his hands.
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What’s a champ to do when he’s taken on and beaten down all comers?
Beat Henderson – who is a mixed martial arts legend, yes, and a certain Hall of Famer, sure, but also an aging fighter who turns 42 shortly before UFC 151 – and Jones’ future will be murky.
This is Jones’ fourth defense of his belt. His prior fights have all been against reigning or former UFC champs, and Jones has hardly broken a sweat. He is consistently named (along with living legends Anderson Silva and Georges St. Pierre) as one of the top pound-for-pound fighters in the world. He’s one of the first UFC fighters to land the mother of all endorsement deals, with Nike. He’s spoken about in groundbreaking terms, said to be a new and unique style of mixed martial artist, and even compared (way, way, way too prematurely) to Muhammad Ali.
He’s the hottest thing the UFC has going, and if he beats Henderson, there’s no clear picture of what will be next for Jon Jones.
Take rematch after rematch? Move up or down a division? Wait for another all-world talent to develop in the 205-pound division? This could be as much a problem for the ascendant Jones as it could be for the UFC, which is trying to ride Jones’ son-of-a-preacher image all the way into the mainstream of American sport, his recent DUI arrest notwithstanding.
UFC president Dana White has said former champ Lyoto Machida, who Jones beat in UFC 140, will take on the winner of Jones-Henderson. Jones, citing the poor pay-per-view buys on his first Machida fight, seems reluctant to go in for a second go-round with Machida. But beat Henderson, and Jones will have defeated everyone who’s anyone in the light heavyweight division.
Barring an unlikely move to the heavyweight division to take on a Junior dos Santos – or an even less likely matchup with middleweight champ Silva – Jones will look to be banging around in a division that he’s already cleaned out, and with no end in sight.
On a conference call with reporters on Tuesday, Jones and White seemed bent on selling the dubious narrative that the tough-chinned, heavy-handed Henderson is a worthy opponent for the unbeatable Jones.
“He’s been on a tear,” White said of Jones. “He’s beat a who’s who of the sport the last year and a half. If he went out there and wrecks Dan Henderson that would be the most impressive feat yet. Nobody has ever knocked out Dan Henderson.”
The UFC has had a handful of disappointing pay-per-view buys this year. Speculation is that the pay-per-view buys on this fight will be closer to the Machida fight than to Jones’ most recent title defense, the UFC 145 matchup against friend-turned-foe Rashad Evans that made a great fight, a great storyline, and great business, with a reported 700,000 buys.
“Obviously the animosity between Rashad Evans and Jon was a big deal, but the real fact of the matter was people thought Rashad had Jon’s number,” White said. “If anybody thinks Dan Henderson can’t win this fight, they’re out of their minds … Fans who really know the sport know Dan Henderson is a true threat to Jon Jones.”
The promoter doth protest too much. You can’t blame him: White wants to sell this fight. But Vegas bookmakers have Jones at around a 7-1 favorite. Even Jones himself has seemed to look past Henderson in interviews leading up to this fight, as if he’s already plotting for that murky future.
“Dan Henderson is a great warrior, and he’s proven a lot in this sport,” Jones said Tuesday. “I’ve talked past Henderson a little bit too much this training camp. I kind of regret it. Dan Henderson is a monster, he’s a lion. I don’t want to talk past him anymore.”
Look past the formidable Henderson too much and Jones’ future will become clearer: He’ll get overconfident, he’ll get popped with one of those famous H-bomb overhand rights, he’ll fall to the mat, and he’ll have to force his way back up the light heavyweight ladder, looking for a rematch.
In a weird way, that could be what’s best for Jones and for the UFC. The hottest thing going gets taken down a notch. The light-heavyweight division suddenly becomes interesting. The invincible Jones becomes flawed and human. The UFC (and Nike) won’t have to create new storylines and new challenges for Jones. Instead, he’ll have a very real challenge in front of him in trying to regain the belt.
On Tuesday, Jones didn’t apologize for his business savvy in the sport, such as how he pays attention to pay-per-view numbers. He said this is the same as what any successful UFC fighter does. They’re in this to make a good living in a short period of time, and then, as Jones said, retire with an intact brain.
“My original goal was to be successful in my parents’ eyes,” Jones said. “My brothers are both in the NFL, and I was the college dropout of the group. I have a long line of family members that needed to borrow money from their parents. I don’t want to be that person. I joined this sport because I wanted to make it … (But) it became more than money. It became the warrior spirit.”
With Jones’ success as the face of this sport, the money will continue to take care of itself. But it’s that warrior spirit, that need to conquer all comers, that Jones and the UFC will need to focus on. Lose that and Jones as well as the UFC will have lost their most precious commodity.