For the first time, Jon Jones had a peer, an opponent able to match him not only in reach and height, but in skill level and grit. Minute after minute, round after round, Alexander Gustafsson did exactly as he promised, backing up the UFC light-heavyweight champion, refusing to yield to his takedown game, forcing him to find new reserves of energy and strength, and building the tension.
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It became clear from the first seconds that it was going to be this way. Gustafsson proved it when he became the first man ever to put Jones on his back with a takedown, and he never let up in his chase of the title until the final bell. For 25 minutes, it was a prizefight, an exceptional, closely contested classic that recalled the days of boxing’s 1970s wars, with the champion and challenger taking each other closer to the edge than most would ever dare of going.
By the time it was over, Jones’ right eye was a bloodied mess, Gustafsson was nearly too exhausted to stand and the fight world was on edge, waiting to hear who had won.
The result drew a mixed reaction from the crowd, which started out pro-Gustafsson and grew in his favor as it became clear he would mount a serious challenge. Despite the protest, according to FightMetric, Jones out-landed the challenger 134-110.
“I’ll tell you what, I’ve been asking for a dogfight for a long time,” Jones said afterward. “And I finally got what I was looking for. It’s a blessing in many ways. I proved a lot to myself but I’m not satisfied. I’ve got to do a lot of work in the gym to stay on top of my game.”
Gustafsson made no protest of the decision, accepting it with grace, but seemed to voice a prelude to a rematch, something few outside of Glover Teixeira’s camp would object to.
“It’s just an honor for me to fight the champ,” he said. “He’s the champ for a reason. I will learn from this and come back stronger. I’m just starting my career, and I have tons of fights to do it.”
The bout will no doubt draw serious Fight of the Year consideration, and afterward, UFC president Dana White could not deny that he was intrigued by the prospect of an immediate rematch. However, a few factors will play into the decision. The biggest are the health of the fighters, who both missed the post-fight press conference to visit a local hospital. Jones was noticeably limping at the conclusion of the bout and immediately left to seek medical attention while Gustafsson was at the arena about an hour after the fight but left to visit the hospital just as the post-fight press conference was getting underway.
Even White seemed a bit shaken by the moment. He revealed that the cageside doctor had concerns about stopping the fight due to Jones’ cut, but that the champ implored him to continue.
"Not that I can talk to this, but I believe that this was one of those fights where both guys felt like they were going to die," he said. "You feel like, ‘I don’t know if I can continue. I don’t know if I can keep doing this. I don’t know if I have one more round in me,’ if they even knew what round it was. It’s why you’ve got to respect what happened here tonight so much.
Both fighters had several moments of success. Gustafsson bloodied Jones’ right eye early and worked on it throughout the course of the bout. Jones, meanwhile, came closest to a finish, rocking Gustafsson in the fourth with a spinning back elbow. He looked for a knockout in the corner but a wobbly Gustafsson managed to survive the onslaught and continue on.
As previously mentioned, Gustafsson also managed to become the first fighter ever to put Jones (19-1) on his back, accomplishing the feat with a first-round takedown. All night, he was able to neutralize Jones’ wrestling game, forcing him to go 1-for-11 on takedown tries of his own. While Gustafsson (15-2) stayed busy, it was apparently Jones’ significant strikes which pulled out the win.
By the time it was over, Jones’ record sixth title defense was almost an afterthought. Even though some in the crowd booed him, Jones showed everything you would want in a champion, including the ability to respond through adversity.
"Jon Jones has displayed nothing but heart, toughness, skill and unbelievable talent since the day he walked into the UFC," White said. "This is a guy not getting credit for what he accomplished. He walked through murderer’s row to get that belt and continued through those same types of people in every defense of the title. In the history of the light-heavyweight championship, nobody’s ever faced the opponents [he has]. Not Tito [Ortiz], not Chuck [Liddell]. Nobody."
Completely overshadowed in the electricity of the main event yet again was the brilliant bantamweight Renan Barao. Even before he stepped in the cage, Barao said he felt like the division’s best, despite the “interim” tag attached to his title. Each time he goes out and performs as he does, he will find fewer and fewer dissenters. Barao romped to another win in the night’s co-main event, taking his amazing unbeaten streak to 31 straight after knocking out Eddie Wineland.
The finish was spectacular, coming courtesy of a spinning back kick that floored the challenger. Barao needed a few ground strikes to finish it off, but the sequence sent a buzz through the Air Canada Centre crowd.
"I don’t practice that very often,” he said afterward. “I always try that. This time, it worked."
Earlier this week, UFC president Dana White said that this would be Barao’s last interim defense no matter what. Linear champ Dominick Cruz will either return at the start of the year, or be stripped of the title, so Barao will either face him and have a chance to win the belt outright, or be named the champion if Cruz cannot return.
Barao is now 31-1 with one no contest.
In the evening’s pay-per-view opener, Khabib Nurmagomedov scored his most significant win to date, shutting down and shutting out Pat Healy in a unanimous decision win.
In his last bout, the 25-year-old Nurmagomedov set a UFC single-fight record with 21 takedowns, but against the gritty Healy, he rode his unorthodox striking combos to the finish line, out-landing the veteran 107-38 in significant strikes. The win makes him 21-0 overall and 5-0 in the UFC.
Afterward, Nurmagomedov said he wanted a UFC lightweight title shot. He’s probably not quite ready for that leap — and anyway, both Josh Thomson and T.J. Grant are queued up as challengers — but there’s little question that his charismatic presence, perfect record and UFC streak will soon put him into the conversation of contenders, especially after dominating the No. 10-ranked Healy.
“The kid’s exciting, he’s talented, and I think tonight he showed everybody what he’s got,” White said. “We’re probably going to do big things with this kid. I love this kid.”
In the night’s most noteworthy upset, Francis Carmont utilized his grappling and wrestling edge to grind his way past No. 7 middleweight Costa Philippou.
Carmont was 5-for-5 in takedowns, allowing him to spend over 12 minutes of the fight on the ground, in top position. That led him to out-landing Philippou 89-15 overall, and though few of those shots were impactful, it made scoring the fight easy for the judges, who gave it to the Canadian 30-27, 30-27, 30-26. It was the sixth straight UFC win for Carmont, now 22-7.
Rounding out the main card, Brendan Schaub choked out Matt Mitrione with a D’arce in just 4:06 of the first round. The two had traded barbs in the weeks leading up to the fight, but Schaub controlled things the whole way. After a flurry that backed Mitrione to the cage, Schaub scooped him and slammed him to the mat, and snuck in the choke as Mitrione tried to scramble his way back to his feet. Mitrione refused to tap, and instead, the referee had to pull Schaub free after Mitrione went limp.
After a rough stretch of two straight knockout losses, Schaub has now won two straight to improve to 10-3, while Mitrione has now lost three of his last four.
Jon Jones def. Alexander Gustafsson via unanimous decision (48-47, 48-47, 49-46)
Renan Barao def. Eddie Wineland via TKO, Rd. 2 (0:35)
Brendan Schaub def. Matt Mitrione via technical submission (D’arce choke), Rd. 1 (4:06)
Francis Carmont def. Costa Philippou via unanimous decision (30-27, 30-27, 30-26)
Khabib Nurmagomedov def. Pat Healy via unanimous decision (30-27, 30-27, 30-27)
Myles Jury def. Mike Ricci via split-decision (29-28, 29-28, 28-29)
Wilson Reis def. Ivan Menjivar via unanimous decision (29-28, 29-28, 29-28)
Stephen Thompson def. Chris Clements via KO, Rd. 2 (1:27)