Commentary

Stars aligned for wunderkind Jones

Updated: March 15, 2011, 11:14 AM ET
By Franklin McNeil | ESPN.com

NEWARK, N.J. -- For all that Mauricio Rua has accomplished in mixed martial arts, it's almost unfair that he should be an underdog in his first UFC light heavyweight title defense.

But fate has dealt the champion a devastating blow. Rua puts his title on the line Saturday night at UFC 128 in Newark, and it is expected by oddsmakers and fans alike that he will leave the Octagon empty-handed.

The man who will battle Rua has every physical tool to neutralize any game plan he might seek to implement -- size, speed, strength and supreme athleticism. Jon Jones has an offensive style of fighting never before seen in MMA's light heavyweight division. He delivers strikes from every angle imaginable, and can take an opponent down in a flash.

But it's not just Jones' physical ability that has him favored to dethrone Rua. Fate also appears to be on the side of the prodigy.

There's no better explanation as to how Jones has come to earn his title shot than to dismiss it as the aligning of the stars.

Saturday night was supposed to be the return of his teammate Rashad Evans' moment on MMA's grandest stage. However, a knee injury suffered during training camp forced Evans -- the former UFC light heavyweight titleholder -- to withdraw.

Jon Jones & Rashad Evans
Mike Roach/Zuffa LLC/Getty ImagesRashad Evans, right, admits it's Jon Jones' moment to grab the spotlight.

Evans was preparing to reclaim his title late last year, but an injury sidelined Rua for several months, putting the bout on hold. Looking back, Evans now admits it was not meant for him to be champion again at this time but instead is Jones' moment to shine.

"I don't believe the spotlight is mine or anybody's [but Jon Jones'] to own," Evans told ESPN.com. "It's [Jones'] time to be in the spotlight, to win the belt."

Jones' fate was sealed in early February when he submitted highly touted Ryan Bader in the second round at UFC 126. Moments after the win, Jones (12-1-0) was informed of Evans' injury and that he would get to fight Rua.

The timing for Jones to land this title shot could not have been more perfect. Jones was a primary sparring partner for Evans as he prepared for Rua. It was Jones' job to doppelgang for Rua, simulating his movement and replicating his strikes.

I don't believe the spotlight is mine or anybody's [but Jon Jones'] to own. It's [Jones'] time to be in the spotlight, to win the belt.

-- Jones' teammate and former UFC light heavyweight champion Rashad Evans, on Jones' chance to shine

If ever there was a time for Rua not to face Jones, it's Saturday night.

"It [imitating Rua to help Evans prepare] will help me a lot," Jones told ESPN.com. "I have watched a lot of Shogun's fights, and I have seen a lot of his tendencies, a lot of things that he's been doing since his Pride[FC] days -- in his jiu-jitsu part, in his bottom game, in his striking game. I see a lot.

"While I was preparing Rashad, I was mimicking Shogun: his stance, his steps, his punches and kicks that he throws the most, the hand that he uses the most. I've been watching the guy too, since I was young. I've really started to understand what he throws and why he throws it. And we will see that when I come out there: a calm, a sense of knowing what I'm into and what I'm doing. I'm really excited."

Jones has seen himself fighting and winning the title from the moment he entered UFC. Jones could not have seen that the champion he'd face would be Rua, but when the moment arrived Jones knew he would be more than prepared to succeed.

His road toward Saturday was perfectly mapped out.

"I was brought along at a good level," Jones said. "The biggest step up was Stephan Bonnar, fighting him only six months into learning how to fight, that was a big jump up. Outside of him, everyone else was gradually getting me better and better.

"The biggest thing that did was improve my confidence. It definitely helped get me prepared to fight Shogun."

[+] EnlargeJon Jones, Stephan Bonnar
AP Photo/Eric JamisonLet's go for a ride: Stephan Bonnar, top, helped kick off Jon Jones' march toward a title in the Octagon.

Though fate appears cemented in Jones' corner, the champion has maintained a positive attitude. Rua (19-4-0) is not about to throw in the towel, nor will he concede that it's Jones' destiny to become UFC light heavyweight champion Saturday night.

He believes having Jones named as a late replacement could prove advantageous to him.

"They [Jones and Evans] are similar opponents in many ways, because they are very good strikers and wrestlers," Rua said. "I had to change my sparring partners for this fight, but I didn't have to change too much.

"They are two sides of the same story. I'm pretty tranquil about it because I'm fighting a very good fighter like Jon Jones. I have been training hard and know I am prepared for the task."

And despite having been sidelined for 10 months, Rua believes the long layoff will serve him positively. Why not? He's been in this situation recently.

"It doesn't really bother me," Rua said. "When you look at things, it's almost the same [time] as between the first Machida fight and the second Machida fight."

As for being the underdog in his first title defense, Rua has no issue with it.

"He's been winning all of his fights easily; he is the rightful favorite for this fight," Rua said. "But I don't care. It serves as motivation for me."

Franklin McNeil covers MMA and boxing for ESPN.com. He also appears regularly on "MMA Live," which airs on ESPN2. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/Franklin_McNeil.