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Jones covets Lesnar fight, but plans future at light heavy

March 3, 2019
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Jon Jones, right, fights Anthony Smith in a light heavyweight mixed martial arts title bout at UFC 235, Saturday, March 2, 2019, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)
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Jon Jones, right, fights Anthony Smith in a light heavyweight mixed martial arts title bout at UFC 235, Saturday, March 2, 2019, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)

LAS VEGAS (AP) — Even Jon Jones realizes any discussion of his long-term future in the UFC is tempered by the fact that Jones hasn’t been able to stay in the cage and out of trouble for any lengthy stretch in the past seven years.

But after two dominant wins in nine weeks, Jones (24-1) has settled back into his customary spot atop the light heavyweight division and his sport’s unofficial pound-for-pound standings.

After trouncing another overmatched 205-pound opponent at UFC 235 on Saturday night, the champion looked into his future and insisted he is content to keep cleaning out his division instead of moving up to heavyweight.

“All these younger fighters should get their opportunity at a world title,” Jones said after controlling every round against Anthony Smith. “When you’re in my position, who am I to deny people?”

Jones would make one big exception, however.

If Brock Lesnar wants another crack at mixed martial arts, Jones would bulk up to heavyweight to accommodate the professional wrestling superstar.

“I figure if you’re going to make the gamble, you might as well go extremely big,” Jones said. “Go big or go home. A Brock Lesnar fight (is) extremely high risk and extremely high reward. I don’t really see myself versus anyone that could bring in the numbers me and Brock could bring in.”

Although that superfight is among the biggest events that the UFC could stage in the broader sports landscape, it won’t happen immediately, according to UFC President Dana White.

After Jones’ win over Smith, White affirmed his plan to match Lesnar first with heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier whenever Lesnar decides to return to the sport, perhaps later this year.

“I think that Brock and Cormier want that fight, so I owe Cormier a lot,” White said. “Cormier wants that fight, and if he wants it, he’s going to get it.”

Jones has shown little interest in fighting any other heavyweight, and he repeated that preference after beating Smith. So if Jones stays at light heavyweight, his next fight is likely to be against Thiago Santos (21-6), the musclebound 35-year-old Brazilian currently on a four-fight winning streak after stopping Jan Blachowicz last month in Prague.

Santos is a talented, dangerous fighter, but Jones would be a heavy favorite once again.

“I’m excited about the future of the light heavyweight division,” Jones said. “I’m going to have to take on any comer, and the confidence I had as a 23-year-old facing Shogun Rua has only grown. Nobody said my job was going to be easy, but I’m here to make it look easy.”

Jones’ victory over Smith was his entire career in microcosm: Jones was clearly superior, yet he nearly gave it all away with a mistake.

Late in the fourth round, Jones cracked Smith’s head with a knee that landed while Smith’s palm was on the canvas, technically making it an illegal strike — one that would have been legal in, say, California, but not in Nevada due to the sport’s geographically fractured rules.

The fight was stopped while referee Herb Dean reviewed the blow and allowed Smith to recover. Smith could have claimed he couldn’t continue fighting, and he likely would have been handed the UFC light heavyweight title by disqualification.

“It was nerve-wracking,” said Jones, whose only career defeat occurred when he was debatably disqualified for a prohibited strike against Matt Hamill in 2009. “I was just hoping that it wouldn’t go down like that. I had flashbacks of the Matt Hamill fight, and I was just thinking, ‘Oh my goodness, please tell me it’s not going down like this.’”

The challenger decided to fight on after Dean deducted two points from Jones, and the champion cautiously finished off his win — after apologizing to Smith following the fourth-round bell.

“He showed the heart of a lion,” Jones said. “He could have done it the easy way and took that option out, but instead he stayed in there. I owe him a beer.”

Smith left the cage without winning a round, yet his confidence was unshaken. He is convinced he can fight his way back to another shot at Jones.

“That’s a beatable man,” Smith said. “Jon didn’t do anything I didn’t expect him to.”

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