LAS VEGAS – As far as fight bookings go, UFC 128’s upcoming headliner between UFC light-heavyweight champion Mauricio “Shogun” Rua (19-4 MMA, 3-2 UFC) and replacement fighter Jon Jones (12-1 MMA, 6-1 UFC) didn’t exactly follow a traditional path.
After learning original opponent Rashad Evans is out six to eight weeks with a strained ligament in his knee, UFC president Dana White and matchmaker Joe Silva sprung to action.
And as White told reporters, Rua agreed to the proposed fight right before Jones’ UFC 126 co-main-event bout with Ryan Bader. Ten minutes later, after a second-round submission victory, Jones also jumped on board.
“We did the deal literally, I don’t know if you saw, but earlier, we told ‘Shogun’ that, ‘Hey, listen, if this kid wins, we want to put him in there for the fight,'” White told reporters after UFC 126, which took place at the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas. “We talked for a while about it. Right before Jones and Bader came out, him and his team accepted the fight.”
Jones, of course, was left in the dark about the added stakes of the fight. The fast-rising 23-year-old prospect was expected to have his hands full with Bader, an undefeated contender and winner of “The Ultimate Fighter 8.”
But Jones easily stuffed the former Arizona State wrestler’s takedowns, controlled the action on the mat, and ultimately secured a fight-ending guillotine choke at the end of the second round. It was another dominating performance for arguably the sport’s brightest prospect.
“Literally after he won, I walked up in the octagon and told Jon, ‘Do you want to take this fight?'” White said. “He said, ‘Yeah.’ That’s literally how the fight was made tonight.
“This kid has enough pressure already. He’s going into this big fight with Bader. You don’t want to sit there and go, ‘Hey, if you win this fight, how would you like to fight ‘Shogun?” This whole thing just sort of played out. It literally played out beside the octagon right before Bader and Jones walked out.”
So what if Jones had lost? Was there a back-up plan?
“There was not,” White flatly said.
UFC 128 takes place March 19 and airs on pay-per-view. The New York-based Jones will have a home-field advantage of sorts; the event takes place at the Prudential Center in nearby Newark, N.J. Any remaining tickets likely will go quickly.
But up until Saturday afternoon, White wasn’t sure whom Rua would fight at the event. Throughout the past week, reporters spoke to sources who indicated Evans might be forced out of UFC 128, but confirmation never came. As it turns out, White, too, was hearing the uncertainty.
“I was driving to the arena at like 2:30 this afternoon when I found out Rashad was out for sure.” White said. “He had a sprained ligament. He had it looked at in New Mexico, and then we always fly the guys out here to see our doctor, Dr. (Steven) Saunders, and he agreed. He gave the exact same diagnosis. He has to take six to eight weeks off, and he has to wear a brace. Hopefully he won’t need surgery.”
Of course, Jones knew about Evans’ injury. The two fighters train together at Greg Jackson’s camp, after all.
Jones said he may have campaigned for the title shot once it became available, but the 23-year-old admittedly was surprised that UFC officials already were leaning in that direction.
“I did hear about about Rashad, but I had no clue my title shot was coming,” Jones said. “Would I have asked for it? Sure. My goal is to be considered the best fighter in the light-heavyweight division. One of the reasons I look up to (UFC featherweight champion) Jose Aldo so much is because he’s a 23-year-old world champion too, and he’s doing great with it. I feel as if it’s my time.
“My confidence is very high, and I’m already in shape. I’ve got six weeks to make myself even better, and that’s what I’m excited about.”
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