TORONTO — It’s been a tough year for the pound-for-pound kings of mixed martial arts.
First middleweight champion Anderson Silva lost his title, caught clowning once too often in the cage. And on Saturday, light-heavyweight title-holder Jon (Bones) Jones — his successor as the top pound-for-pound fighter on the planet — was pushed to the limit by 8-1 underdog Alexander (The Mauler) Gustafsson at UFC 165.
Some fear that welterweight champ Georges St-Pierre, currently No. 2 in the pound-for-pound rankings, could also be in a long — or short —night in November when he faces top 170-pound contender Johny (Bigg Rigg) Hendricks, a former NCAA champion wrestler with a sledgehammer for a left hand, at UFC 167.
Such is the beauty of mixed martial arts, where there are so many ways to win and lose. And champions wear the biggest targets on their back.
There was little beauty in Saturday’s main event, other than marvelling at the amount of punishment two superbly conditioned and trained athletes can absorb.
It was like watching a time-lapse video of two bodies breaking down. Fascinating but brutal.
Jones rallied to win a stirring five-round decision, with the judges scoring it 48-47, 48-47 and 49-46 for the champion.
A busted-up Jones had to plead with the ringside physician not to stop the fight after four rounds, according to UFC president Dana White.
Most gave Jones either rounds two or three plus four and five.
Neither fighter made it to the post-fight news conference at the Air Canada Centre. Both went straight to hospital, with Jones bundled directly onto a waiting gurney.
The two had been released come mid-morning Sunday, with the challenger leaving ahead of the champion.
Both men looked like they had been in an accident as they waited for the result to be announced after 25 action-packed minutes. They could hardly stand up.
Gustafsson had a bloody ear, a contusion under the eye and a glob of Vaseline on top of a cut high on his temple. Jones had a bandage above his right eye, mouses below both eyes and his post-fight speech came through bloody, swollen lips.
“Not that I can talk to this either, but I believe that this is one of those fights where both guys felt like they were going to die,” White told reporters after. “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’ve got one more round in me.’ If they even knew what round it was. One of those kind of fights.
“It’s why you have to respect what happened here tonight so much.”
Critics will point to the fight as everything that is bad about the sport. Fans will talk about it for years, debating whether the challenger actually won.
Chances are the UFC will look to profit from a rematch.
Brazilian bruiser Glover Teixeira (22-2) is officially in the on-deck circle for the next 205-pound title fight, but the No. 2 contender may agree to wait his turn, knowing that another sapping Jones-Gustafsson donneybrook might aid his chances when he eventually fights the winner.
At six foot five, Gustafsson is one inch taller than Jones. And his 81.5-inch reach is only three inches less than the champion’s UFC-leading wingspan.
Still few gave him much of a chance against Jones, who has fought a “murderers’ row” of opponents in recent years, according to White.
Jones’ five previous title defences came against four former champions and Chael Sonnen, who has fought for both the middleweight and light-heavyweight belts.
You can argue that most were on the downward side of their career but still his dance card was stacked.
Prior to Saturday, Jones had lost just one round in his 13-fight UFC career. And he had never been knocked down or taken down. His one loss in 2009 was in reality a win — he was disqualified for a downward elbow strike after leaving Matt Hamill broken on the canvas.
Hamill needed shoulder surgery. Brandon (The Truth) Vera needed facial reconstruction from Jones’ ground-and-pound.