Lost in the increasingly deserved hype of MMA savant Jon "Bones" Jones is any possibility Mauricio "Shogun" Rua can successfully make his first defense of the 205lbs UFC Light Heavyweight title this Saturday after a 10 month layoff due to another knee injury.
The vast majority of coverage is focusing on who Jon Jones will fight next especially if it's on-again off-again Team Greg Jackson Newest-Best-Friend-Forever Rashad Evans. No one seems to be giving Mauricio Rua a chance. The long layoff and knowing how rusty he can look based on his fights with Forrest Griffin, Mark Coleman and even against Chuck Liddell combined with the roll Jones is on - injury free and in fighting shape after blowing out top prospect Ryan Bader just 6 weeks ago - leads many to believe this weekend's fight is a mere formality in crowning an uncrowned champion who's been heralded since the fight was first unexpectedly announced.
What no one wants to say is how much of a leap in competition this will be for Jones. Jones has been built steadily and gradually and he's passed with flying colours at every turn. Bader was thought to be his toughest fight yet: a powerful wrestler undefeated himself who also had youth on his side. In the grand scheme of things though Bader was only just Top 10 in an infamously stacked division, and he ultimately showed he was still a one dimensional fighter that remained a neophyte in other areas.
Shogun despite being out for 10 months is still regarded as the No#1 fighter in the world at his weight. Shogun is easily the best striker in his division barring the occasional dabble Anderson Silva has made at Light Heavyweight. On two occasions Shogun solved the Machida puzzle (despite what the first result 'officially' said) and was the first to do so when every other fighter up to that point had failed.
But not only that and something else people aren't mentioning - he's got a very good ground game. While everyone Oohed and Ahhed at the often spectacular ways Jones has thrown his opponents to the ground before finishing them off no one has commented how rudimentary these fighters were off their back. Bader is young to the sport and so young to Jiu Jitsu and Submission Grappling. The other wrestlers such as Brandon Vera (a wrestler before a striker), Matt Hamill and Valdimir Matyushenko likely made the classic mistake of assuming they would be the ones on top and neglected the bottom game when preparing for Jones, or anyone else generally.
BJJ Blackbelts though know the benefit of being able to defend themselves on the bottom and create openings where they can attack with either a sweep, escape or submission. Several years ago when Pride was still running and Shogun took on the dynamic wrestling of Kevin Randleman, the NCAA champion got an immediate takedown but was nearly swept and put into immediate danger with various leglock attempts such as heelhooks and toeholds before a fight ending kneebar did its job. Randleman and the rest of Hammer House are notorious for their submission susceptibility but it's hard to imagine Jones as early as he is into his MMA career to be more than Blue Belt level, perhaps possibly borderline Purple Belt level. Will it be enough to handle a very active guard game that comes from an experienced Black Belt who most importantly knows how to fight on the ground in an MMA setting? Coming from the trial-by-fire Chute Boxe environment and emerging as its top gladiator often says more about a fighter with a Black Belt then one transitioning into MMA for the first time despite having Gi or No Gi championship accolades. Shogun's Black Belt was forged in the furnace of Brazilian Vale Tudo style Jiu Jitsu.
Shogun had been preparing for Rashad Evans, a wrestler who has developed reasonable Boxing that he has utilised to some degree of success. Jones' striking is more dynamic and unorthodox but is still being refined and his variety of ways to take you to the ground will likely make it an inevitability against everyone he faces. While Shogun had been working his sprawl against the predictable shots of Rashad Evans he may not have been working defensively from the clinch where Jones is dangerous; at most I'd imagine he'll have been working on an offensive game from the signature Muay Thai Plum. But I'd be shocked if he hadn't been working on the ground to at least get back to his feet against Evans or force an error he can take advantage of with a submission hold, something he should have a higher rate of success against what is still essentially a rookie in Jones. In the last 6 weeks Shogun will have had to adapt how he prepares and trains for a different opponent but at least it's not a matter of starting from scratch. Less focus on sprawling, more on being defensive and offensive off his back while maintaining his level of striking.
I expect Jones to win on Saturday as I just can't favour fighters who have long breaks between fights especially when coming back to face a lethal opponent. Had this fight happened 3-4 months after Shogun officially beat Machida I and a few others would pick Shogun to retain his belt.
If Shogun wins however, we shouldn't be surprised either.