NEW YORK CITY – While it was little more than dumb luck and logical matchmaking that led to UFC 128’s upcoming headliner between Mauricio “Shogun” Rua (19-4 MMA, 3-2 UFC) and Jon Jones (12-1 MMA, 6-1 UFC), it couldn’t have worked out any better.
Proof? Today’s UFC 128 pre-event press conference at Radio City Music Hall in New York City.
Adoration for each fighter was so split that fans turned the event into a raucous free-for-all that’s likely to be a precursor to a a wild Saturday night.
The coming-out party for Jones, a late replacement for injured Rashad Evans, may be the result of a patchwork booking, but here in the Big Apple, it feels tailor made.
Today’s pre-event presser was open to fans, who were lined up hundreds deep – in the rain – hours before the doors even opened. They struck the match once inside, and opening speaker Joel Rivera – New York City’s Council majority leader – lit the fuse with a passionate speech in which he stumped for MMA and its legislation in a state that currently bans it.
In fact, that’s why Saturday’s event and Rua’s first-ever UFC title defense come at the Prudential Center in nearby Newark, N.J. It’s also why Jones and UFC president Dana White have tirelessly attacked the New York media circuit ahead of Saturday’s pay-per-view event, which will pour millions of dollars into the New Jersey economy.
But for Jones, a native New Yorker, that state line make little difference. For all intents and purposes, this is a New York fight, and the 23-year-old – who’s pro-MMA career isn’t even three years old – has a small army of supporters ready to sing his praises. (Hell, even the oddsmakers have tapped him the favorite.)
But that’s fine with the champ, who already had defeated the MMA kingpins such as Quinton Jackson, Antonio Rogerio Nogueira, Alistair Overeem and Ricardo Arona before Jones had even graduated high school. He much prefers fighting the flashy and crowd-pleasing Jones than a grinder such as Evans, whose booking with Rua initially brought about little fanfare.
“I think Rashad Evans is a guy who maybe likes to control the fight more and maybe stall a little more and play it safe,” Rua said through translator and manager Eduardo Alonso. “[However] Jon Jones is an exciting fighter that looks for the finishes and brings a hard fight, and that’s the type of fight everyone likes.”
If the magnitude of the bout and the obvious respect from Rua (arguably the 205-pound division’s best fighter) is a lot to take in, Jones isn’t showing it.
“I’m just enjoying the ride,” he said. “I’m definitely grateful to be sitting where I am today. I realize it’s a dream come true, and I’m enjoying the whole thing.
“I realize that I’m fighting here in New York state, and I want to share myself as much with the New Yorkers as much as possible.”
Such comments further ignited the hundreds – likely thousands – of fans at today’s press conference. While Jones is the local favorite, Rua’s had a solid (and vocal) throng of his own supporters, including one fan who proudly displayed a forearm tattoo of the champion’s former home: PRIDE Fighting Championships. For every Jones cheer, a jeer followed. For every random mid-presser shout-out for the challenger, the hardcores answered with chants for the champion.
For two fighters who have so split local fights fans, they actually have a quite a bit in common. Jones is every bit the blue-chip prospect Rua was when he was in his early-20s, and he had a small army of similar crazed fanatics who also were comparing to him a legend of the time (Wanderlei Silva).
But while they share a quick ascent in their pro careers, Rua said the similarities end there.
“We’re very different fighters, style wise” he said. “You can only compare our careers in the sense that we were rising at a young age. … Otherwise, we’re very different fighters.”