By Zach Arnold | September 27, 2011
Kazushi Sakuraba and Jon Jones. One fighter is a legend who Frank Shamrock thinks will die in the ring. The other is hyped as the ‘future’ of MMA (he’s the ‘present’) who will be an insanely favored fighter in all upcoming bouts. If he can beat Rashad Evans and dispatch of someone the caliber of Dan Henderson, you almost don’t want to say it… but he could be a new generation Fedor only with a much stellar résumé at the rate he is going.
Sakuraba lost to Yan Cabral this past weekend at Saitama Super Arena under the DREAM banner. The fight result was minimally covered in the Japanese papers, largely out of respect to the poor guy and the fact that DREAM’s support in the mass media has tanked. It’s almost as if the fight didn’t exist in the mind of many fans in hopes of turning a blind eye to the current train wreck. Jones, meanwhile, cemented his status as a true ‘ace’ in the UFC while dethroning a big name from PRIDE’s past. Rampage had made his name in Japan by fighting Sakuraba and there was some cruel irony in seeing both men go down the way they did this past weekend. At least Rampage is in better physical shape than Sakuraba.
So, when I listened to Mauro Ranallo and Brett Okamoto talk about how Sakuraba has been allowed to hang around the business still, it was depressing:
BRETT OKAMOTO: “(In sports like baseball and football) There are better guys coming up, younger guys coming up that force you out of the sport. In this sport, that doesn’t really happen. You can stay around as long as somebody’s willing to try to make money off of you. Unfortunately, that’s what’s happening with Sakuraba. I think we’re all in agreement that he shouldn’t be fighting any more and it is just a drawback of this sport because it’s not something you really necessarily see in other sports.”
MAURO RANALLO: “No, and I don’t think you should necessarily see it in MMA and I guess this is speaking to the larger picture that if you are still forced to roll out Kazushi Sakuraba in high-profile fights or trying to milk any more out of a cow that has been milked dry for many years now, then I think that’s a larger indictment to the organization (DREAM) and fact, a culture, an MMA culture that I’m so firmly entrenched in and I’ll always remember with great reverence the 31 trips to Japan for PRIDE. But now, a short few years later in 2011, the entire industry there is on life support and I think it’s just a matter of time before, you know, either the plug is pulled or they rebuild and try to find, you know, the next stars. Because in Japan and I think the UFC will discover this as well even though the UFC’s a dominant MMA brand globally and all you have to do is put in the UFC and in certain places to get the draw, we’re learning in North America that you need to cultivate the stars, put together the fights the fans want to see. But in Japan in February (Saitama Super Arena)… Yoshihiro Akiyama, three losses in a row. He’s being moved down to Welterweight. We got Rampage Jackson coming off a loss but wanting to fight fellow PRIDE alum Mauricio Shogun. Takanori Gomi losing again, in big fashion, on Saturday. But where are they going to get the nationalistic draws? One thing we know about the Japanese culture is that they are just that, very nationalistic. They want to support their own and I just don’t think it’s going to be, you know, smooth sailing for the UFC in Japan and I think for the Japanese it’s going to be a long time before the glory days are restored, if they ever are again…”
One of the premises that fans always want to see with their favorite fighters in MMA is hope. Hope that they win. Hope that they can still stay competitive. There are lots of fans who are true diehards for fighters who are past their prime and then someone like Dana White comes along and makes a decision on behalf of the fighter when he can’t make any more money off of them.
In the case of Jon Jones, you no longer have to use the word ‘hope’ or ‘potential.’ He’s accomplished. He’s establishing a path and a track record as a champion. How long that reign lasts is anyone’s guess but the safe money is to say ‘long’ over ’short.’
I was listening to Mauro’s interview with Jon’s striking coach, Mike Winkeljohn, and Mike is a unique interview to say the least. He’s informative, honest, and brings a point of view. Given how awkward Jon Jones can be in the media (similar to Satoshi Ishii), it’s hard to measure what he is really like as a person. Here’s how Mike describes Jon Jones as a personality:
“Jon is, he is that humble guy, he does help the other guys in camp. People don’t see that. I can’t believe some of the press he gets and people think he’s arrogant. He’s just confident. He’s a kid that I’ll say, “Jon, I want you to front kick him this way” or “Jon, I want you to throw this kick or that kick” or we’ll show him a move where to go on the ground or whatever and he goes out and tries it out right away in sparring and he believes it and he makes it work, he believes in himself and that’s as high of a quality as a fighter goes, he’s a believer and he’s not nervous about it in a sense that he doesn’t second-guess himself. He just goes for it and so I think it’s played out a little bit. Of course, he’s an anomaly with his length and what he can do out there in the cage and he’s got such a good wrestling base that’s made for MMA. People try getting underneath him and he’s going to just toss them for it with his length and bring them over the top. But he learns real fast, he’s a great student of the game, he studies constantly, we watch a lot of tape together and we put our heads together and he performs.”
In past interviews featuring Greg Jackson, he will often talk about structuring a game plan for a fighter and allowing a certain amount of creative room for a fighter to navigate… but not too much. Which is why I thought this interview exchange was somewhat enlightening:
MAURO RANALLO: “Do you give him freedom to become creative and adlib inside the Octagon? How much did we see of that on Saturday (against Rampage), if so?”
MIKE WINKELJOHN: “Oh, quite a bit, you know what, we let him ad-lib within certain parameters. The game plan was definitely break Quinton down, let’s break his legs down, let’s break his body down, let’s slow him down and stay away from his big bombs and then anything you want to do, Jon, you’re going to be capable. You’ll be able to shoot in and take him down after you’ve broken him down and it played out that way, so I’m real happy with what he did. We made some mistakes and Jon hurt his foot with an inside leg kick. Jon doesn’t that experience, yet, from fighting. If you think about his time standing up in the cage, we’re talking a few rounds, a few minutes where he’s actually doing stand-up. He doesn’t have that kind of experience. Some of these guys have had many fights, numerous fights in kickboxing. Jon just comes from a wrestling background so all this is new, so he’s still trying to figure out all the striking out and doing really well with it.”
MAURO RANALLO: “How would you rate his fighter IQ?”
MIKE WINKELJOHN: “He’s as smart as anybody I’ve ever worked with the cage. He listens and he understands and he sees things a couple of steps ahead. I’m sure he’d be a good chess player if he decided to.”
MAURO RANALLO: “There is precision and technique, the spinning elbows, the kicks to the patella tendon. Do you see any similarities between him and Anderson Silva or does that come up at all when going through game plans with him or how do you see him as a fighter compared to others that you’ve worked with?”
MIKE WINKELJOHN: “You know what, I think with Anderson, Anderson is probably the best as far as the eyes going, watching an opponent and then knowing he can strike a certain time and put them on their ass. That’s what Anderson does and I think Jon’s getting there with his strikes. I think Jon’s much better, way past Anderson as far as wrestling skills go. With his stand-up I think Jon brings many more strikes to the table than Anderson has, a lot more variety. We’re just not there on a knockout type of shot, we’re going to get there pretty soon. We hurt Rampage many times during that fight with strikes, but we’re going to get there. We’re going to get those things fine-tuned. It’s just going to take just a little bit longer and we’ve only just begun. The future is definitely bright for Jon.”
MAURO RANALLO: “What do you think about his learning curve right now? Where do you think he is?”
MIKE WINKELJOHN: “Oh, I think he’s there. You know what, down the road there’s no doubt he’s going to get some weight on and go to Heavyweight but he’s got a lot to do at Light Heavyweight. I don’t think Anderson would probably want that fight with Jon Jones. I think, you know, Anderson would use his length and pick his shot against people. With Jon coming in at so many different angles from a long range, I definitely don’t think that’s a good fight for Anderson. I think we’re here to stay in the Light Heavyweight division for a while and build a legend, something that hasn’t been done in a little bit of a while. The Light Heavyweight division has had a lot of turnover.”
With much fan speculation growing about whether Anderson Silva should face Jon Jones given that it seems a GSP/Anderson fight is unlikely to happen, Rashad Evans seems to be off to the side. Yes, he’ll be fighting Jones next but it’s an uncomfortable kind of situation. You have hardcores who think UFC is scripting and manipulating the way it’s being presented, you have fans wondering if there is a real feud at all, and then you have the casual fans who largely think Bones is going to wreck Rashad. Not just beat him, but humiliate him in that 7-to-1 kind of favorite way.
MAURO RANALLO: “What happened, from your perspective? Why did it turn out all the way it did and do you feel it’s nothing more than maybe a misunderstanding at the end? Maybe even after the fight, win or lose, do you think Jones and Evans will ever patch things up or will the antipathy will continue to grow as we near the title fight afterwards?”
MIKE WINKELJOHN: “They came to camp, I wouldn’t say that they were the greatest friends, they just trained together a little bit. It’s just one of those things. It sucks for Rashad in that he was going to fight the title, he didn’t get the chance, and Jon took it so I’m sure there’s some sour grapes there and I don’t blame him. At the end of the day, everyone wants to be champion, teammate or not. That’s what everybody wants to do. I don’t blame him in the slightest. I’d want to fight for the title, everybody does. You have two great fighters trying as hard as they can to beat the crap out of each other, find out who’s the best, and then afterwards I think the respect will come and they’ll go forward hopefully with a lot of money in their pocket and even more fans.”