Heading into UFC 165 on Saturday night, Jon Jones was tied with UFC Hall of Famer and MMA legend Tito Ortiz for the most light heavyweight title defenses in company history, with five. However, Swedish stand-up artist Alexander Gustafsson had plans of his own and if Jones was going to earn his record-breaking sixth title defense, “The Mauler” was going to make sure he would have to go through hell and back to achieve his goal.
In front of the raucous Canadian faithful inside the packed Air Canada Centre in Toronto, not only did Gustafsson unleash his own version of MMA-hell on “Bones,” but both fighters, in the process, earned the adoration and respect of all across the MMA landscape, in what will surely go down as one of the greatest title fights in UFC history.
Round one opened with Gustafsson taking the reigns almost immediately. The Swede stalked the youngest champion in UFC history with a purpose and displayed a beautiful array of combination punching and cage control. As Jones looked to create distance with lead leg kicks and popping jabs, the 26-year-old challenger plodded forward with unrelenting focus and determination.
As the opening frame wore on, a distinct look of concern loomed over the face of the champion. It may have not been “worry” necessarily, but it was certainly a visual that fans of the New York-native had never seen before.
Gustafsson employed a textbook lead left hook that he used to control and counter the champion almost at will. Each time Jones managed any semblance of offense, the Swede managed to stymie the aggression with quickness.
By the end of the round Jones was bloodied with a deep gash over his right eye form the onslaught of combination punching by the challenger. Not only did the young European manage to best Jones in the stand-up department; round one also saw Gustafsson earn an impressive takedown on the reigning kingpin of the light heavyweight division – the first takedown “Bones” had suffered in his entire career in the Octagon.
Round two was a close round by all accounts. As Gustafsson attempted to use the blueprint from round one, Jones began to use his reach and ripped off a few successful body kicks, and one devastating head kick to the chin of the Swede. As Jones worked his stand-up arsenal, the challenger continued the onslaught of combination punching and lead left hooks. Midway through the frame, Jones had attempted five takedowns in what was surely a reaction to The Mauler’s unrelenting stand-up attack… with zero coming to fruition.
The second stanza ended with Gustafsson landing a thudding hook that put an authoritative stamp on a wildly exciting round.
Round three was more of the same as the two strikers engaged in stand-up exchanges every few second. Gustafsson continued to use his combination punching in the round, and worked a very effective lead uppercut, that jacked the jaw of Bones on more than one occasion. As the round came to a close, Jones landed a ripping body kick to the side of the challenger that left him in visible discomfort. However, Gustafsson managed to gain his composure and fought off the pressuring Jones as the horn sounded.
The next two rounds were indeed the “championship rounds” as a bloodied Jones – who spent the prior three rounds being out-wrestled and out-struck – mustered up one of the more amazing momentum-shifting rallies in recent MMA memory.
Round four opened with a straight left from Jones that immediately stopped Gustafsson in his tracks. He then followed with a right hand that was sent sharply down the center of Gustafsson’s guard, backing the challenger up. Gustafsson then began to pressure back with his now signature flurries, lead left hook and well-timed uppercuts. With two minutes left in the round Gustafsson was leading Jones in head strikes at an 88-18 clip – an amazing stat when considering how stellar Jones has been during his entire UFC career.
Even more impressive was the fact that, up until this point, Gustafsson had also stopped all nine of Jones’ takedown attempts.
As the seconds ticked away, the fight was close, but it was obvious Gustafsson had the lion’s share of violence to his credit.
And just as the final minute approached in round four, the entire fight changed as Jones unleashed one of his signature spinning elbows to an oncoming Gustafsson. With that one elbow, Jones sent his opponent reeling on weak footing against the cage. Gustafsson’s eyes glazed over as the Jon Jones we have all been accustomed to seeing began to eye the kill.
A weakened and exhausted Alexander Gustafsson stumbled away from the elbow, as Jones followed up with a succession of standing elbows and punches. Jones followed the challenger as he retreated back into the cage, and ripped knees to the face of Gustafsson from the Thai clinch.
The round ended with Gustafsson in obvious trouble, and Jones taking real momentum for the first in the entire fight.
If Jones was going to retain his title, and in the process break Tito Ortiz’s record, many though he would need a stoppage – as a handful of pundits had Jones down three rounds to one.
With both men cut, battered, and in the midst of the fight of their lives, they met in the center of the cage for their final five minutes of championship glory.
Gustafsson had seemingly recovered from the beating he took at the end of round four, and was back to using his lateral movement and combination punching. With both men tiring, “Bones” spat a glob of blood onto the mat, as Gustafsson plodded forward. Jones looked to use his kicks, both high and low, to slow his pressuring opponent.
Midway through the fifth, Gustafsson began to tire – so much so, that at one point he dropped his hands to his sides in complete exhaustion. With that, Jones took advantage of the slowing Swede and reeled off consecutive head kicks that rocked the challenger. This round also saw Jones earn his one and only takedown, on his tenth and final attempt.
With the final seconds rapidly approaching, Jones unleashed a flying knee to seal the deal, and hopefully, at least in his mind, put a stamp on the fifth round, and in the process winning the fight.
The anticipation waiting for the official scorecards to be read was unlike any in recent memory. Debate ran rampant across the MMA universe. Was it 3-2 for Jones? 3-2 for Gustafsson?
Whatever the case, almost everyone unanimously agreed that the UFC 165 main event was the front-runner for the Fight of the Year in 2013.
The scorecards read 48-47, 48-47 and 49-46 for your winner “and… STILL UFC light heavyweight champion, Jon ‘Bones’ Jones!”
As UFC announcer Bruce Buffer announced the winner, the MMA world exhaled in unison.
Jon Jones is still the best in the world. And after tonight, he will have the signature fight on his resume to prove it… sentiments that the record breaking champion echoed post-fight.
“I’ve been asking for a dog fight for a long time, and tonight I got one,” said the 26-year-old champion.
“Hats off to Alex, that was by far the toughest fight I’ve ever had.”
For Jones, retaining the belt and breaking Ortiz’s record was a huge feather in his already growing cap. But the main event at UFC 165 was about something more than wins and losses for Jones; it was about showing the world that he has what it takes to be a champion for many years to come.
“I got to exercise my warrior spirit tonight,” he said. “That was more important than the victory in my opinion.”
When asked if there was any urgency to finish the fight in the later rounds, Jones didn’t shy away from an honest assessment.
“You know, I knew the rounds were really tough,” said Jones. “It’s safe to say I had some desperation. I was trying to stay focused. Alex was definitely game. He definitely has a chin on him.”
Post-fight a dejected but composed Gustafsson took to the mic to praise the greatest champion in 205-pound history.
“It’s just an honor to fight the champ,” said the challenger. “And he is the champ for a reason. I will learn from this and come back much stronger. I’m just starting my career and have plenty more fights to come.”
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