Today in MMA history: Jon Jones batters 'Shogun' to become youngest champ in UFC history

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Today in MMA history: Jon Jones batters 'Shogun' to become youngest champ in UFC history


jon-jones-shogun-rua-ufc-128-3© MMA Junkie

(Editor's note: This story originally published on March 19, 2018.)

If you want to tell the story of the time Jon Jones became the youngest champion in UFC history, you have to start with the dog. Its name was B.J., a seven-month-old German Shepard mix, and it was a somewhat recent acquisition for Jones when he showed up in Newark, N.J., for his crack at Mauricio Rua’s UFC light-heavyweight title on March 19, 2011.

The kinds of places Jones was going that week – fancy hotels, TV show sets, hotel ballrooms converted into UFC workout spaces – are probably not the sort of places where you’re supposed to bring your dog.

Still, there he was in the lobby of Penn Station Hilton on St. Patrick’s Day, dodging fans and drunks and leading this dog around on a leash, smiling like a man who was enjoying the extra privileges that come with being a star, confident that no one would dare tell him he couldn’t bring a dog in here.

But the whole star thing was still new to Jones back then. He was just 23, slightly less than three years removed from his professional debut in a sport he was now on the precipice of conquering, and an injury to a teammate had opened the final door.

It had been a whirlwind couple months for Jones. In February he easily dispatched Ryan Bader via second-round submission on the undercard of UFC 126. He was still in the cage celebrating the victory when UFC commentator Joe Rogan told him the news. With Rashad Evans pulling out of his title fight against champion “Shogun” Rua, the UFC wanted Jones to step in a little over a month later.

That was just fine by Jones, who seemed to view even his teammate’s misfortune as just another inevitable step in the divine plan to put a UFC title around his waist. It was all working out exactly like it was supposed to, and the MMA prodigy who shouted out Bible verses after his effortless victories couldn’t have been happier about it.

For the light heavyweight duo of Jones and Evans, however, this was the beginning of the end, the first signs of a fracture that would soon lead to a split.

Ever since Jones had first come to the Jackson-Wink MMA gym, where former champ Evans was the top man at light heavyweight, these persistent questions had gnawed at both of them. Would they fight each other some day? Was it inevitable, with Jones rocketing up the ranks and Evans always hanging around at or near the top?

Evans assumed the role of mentor. His advice to the younger Jones: Don’t even entertain those questions. Don’t let yourself start talking about it. Shut it down before it even starts, just like Evans had done with longtime friend and training partner Keith Jardine. Refuse to discuss it even as a hypothetical.

Jones listened, for a time. But soon it became increasingly clear that he wasn’t going to be content to play the role of the student for very long. He saw himself as a champion – and soon. When a knee injury took Evans’ title shot and made it Jones’, it only seemed to confirm for him that he was a special fighter, a chosen one. All he had to do was show up in Newark and beat a man whose fights he’d grown up watching and studying.

Mauricio "Shogun" Rua and Jon Jones at UFC 128 weigh-ins.

But it must be said that, even then, the champion wasn’t the man he used to be. Time had been cruel to “Shogun.” Six years earlier he’d won two fights in one night, knocking out both Alistair Overeem and Ricardo Arona to win the PRIDE FC middleweight grand prix at Final Conflict 2005. That put him in the conversation whenever the topic turned to the world’s best 205-pounders, but his transition to the UFC was a rough one.

Rua struggled to bounce back from injuries and regain his earlier form, and he lost his UFC debut to Forrest Griffin in 2007 and then barely bested Mark Coleman in a performance that made both men look worn and spent. But a knockout win over a fading Chuck Liddell in 2009 helped put him back on the right track, and after losing a controversial decision to then-champion Lyoto Machida in his first UFC title shot, Rua rebounded with a first-round knockout win in the rematch.

Still, Rua was an old 29 when he showed up to defend his belt for the first time. Evans would have been a stiff enough test, but Jones? He was bigger, stronger, faster and younger. Making the media rounds before the fight, the young challenger bragged about his fresh, injury-free body. He could jump up in the air, do a cartwheel if he felt like it, and unlike the champion his joints didn’t creak like an old ship stuck in the ice. Wasn’t that nice?

"You know what, I thought 'Shogun' was cool when I was younger because he was a 23-year old PRIDE champ, and I love Jose Aldo because he's a 23-year old UFC champion,” Jones said before the bout. “I'm definitely not afraid of it. I know it's very possible. Right now, I just need to keep the people close to me that's always been there and realize that there's going to be a lot more distractions coming my way, but I'm prepared for it mentally. And I promise myself that I won't allow myself to fall by the wayside. I'm way too close to my dreams to slow down or start doing anything dumb, and I won't do anything dumb. I'm going to win this fight.”

Jon Jones before his fight vs. "Shogun" Rua at UFC 128.

The event was set for Newark, largely because it was as close to New York City as the UFC could get at the time. The sport wouldn’t be legal and regulated in the Empire State until 2016, but the Prudential Center was just a short train ride away for the roughly eight million residents of the five boroughs, which would have to be good enough for now.

At the same time, it was impossible not to notice that this wasn’t exactly Manhattan. Earlier in the week, UFC officials reminded fighters that Newark probably wasn’t a city they wanted to go wandering around alone in at night, even if they were professional tough guys. As if to solidify that point, Jones made headlines the day of the fight by chasing down and apprehending a man who he said he saw breaking into a parked car to steal a GPS.

As if the young challenger didn’t already have enough of a Superman vibe going on, now he was fighting crime on the same day he was set to fight for the title. It wasn’t exactly a positive omen for Rua.

The ill portents carried over into the fight itself. Rua showed up in the cage that night looking solid and focused, clearly in better shape than he’d been for his early UFC fights, but it only took a matter of seconds for Jones to remind him that there was a significant gap between them when it came to athleticism, as well as sheer youthful exuberance.

After a tentative touch-up in the center of the cage, Jones hammered Rua with a jumping knee to the body, then backed off and showed his range by extending his leg seemingly from one side of the cage to the other for a couple of quick kicks. Within 30 seconds of the fight’s beginning, Jones was mixing up wild spinning attacks with forceful trip takedowns. Rua was falling behind and starting to look increasingly lost.

After getting pelted with elbows on the mat for most of the opening round, Rua worked to his feet against the fence, paying the price with knees to the body and a long left hook from Jones that wobbled his legs.

“He’s just having his way with ‘Shogun,’” UFC commentator Joe Rogan said after that one-sided first round.

Jon Jones batters "Shogun" Rua during their fight at UFC 128.

It only got worse in the second round, and Jones finally landed the spinning back elbow he’d been looking for in the first. Rua was bloodied and slowing down, swinging wide punches from the outside as he struggled to get in close against the lanky challenger, and then getting tagged by lefts when he stayed at distance

“My goodness,” UFC commentator Mike Goldberg said just before Jones took Rua down again and brutalized him some more on the mat. It was more or less all that needed to be said about a title fight that was increasingly resembling an instance of elder abuse.

The end came, finally, in the third. After getting hammered with punches and elbows while stuck on his back in the early part of the round, a dazed and battered Rua staggered to his feet, retreating toward the fence as Jones closed in. The right side of his face was swollen. He took deep, labored breaths as he raised his arms to cover his face.

Jones dove in with a left hook to the liver, followed by a knee to the head. Rua collapsed in a heap, meekly tapping the mat as referee Herb Dean stepped in to stop it.

“It is all over!” Goldberg boomed. “Jon Jones is the youngest champion in UFC history!”

Jones walked slowly to the center of the cage, long arms out at his sides, then let himself fall to his back before sitting up cross-legged in the cage, seemingly unsure of what to do next.

“And it wasn’t even a struggle,” Rogan said. “Incredible. That, ladies and gentlemen, is the future. He is the present, and he is the future, and he might be the greatest talent that we’ve ever seen in the UFC.”

But almost as soon as Jones had finished shouting out his coaches and his savior in his post-fight interview, the UFC was ready to focus on the next fight. Rogan had just finished interviewing Rua, who congratulated Jones on the win, explaining simply, “he was better than me,” when suddenly there was Evans, looking dapper in a finely tailored suit as the crowd booed him and the smile disappeared from Jones’ face.

“He’s taught me many things, and it sucks that I have to do this,” Jones said when Rogan told him that Evans was first in line for a crack at his title. “But this is my dream.”

After leaving the cage that night, Evans declared himself “done with Jackson’s,” making official the split with his team and teammate that had been slowly boiling for weeks.

But for all the drama over that matchup, it would take one more year and two more successful title defenses for Jones before they finally ended up in the cage together.

By then, Jones wasn’t the kid whose dreams came true anymore. Instead he was the dominant champion, the king of the light heavyweight class. As Evans and everyone else would come to learn, the only person who could stop him was Jones himself.

For more on the UFC's upcoming schedule, check out the UFC Rumors section of the site.

"Today in MMA History" is an MMAjunkie series created in association with MMA History Today, the social media outlet dedicated to reliving "a daily journey through our sport's history." 

Story by Ben Fowlkes: MMA Junkie

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