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Will Youth Be Served on March 19?

23 years and eight months. If Jon Jones defeats Mauricio “Shogun” Rua in the newly made main event of UFC 128 in Newark, New Jersey on March 19, that’s all it will have taken for the light heavyweight phenom to win a UFC championship belt.

23 years and eight months. If Jon Jones defeats Mauricio “Shogun” Rua in the newly made main event of UFC 128 in Newark, New Jersey on March 19, that’s all it will have taken for the light heavyweight phenom to win a UFC championship belt.

That’s better than Carlos Newton and Josh Barnett, both of whom won their UFC titles at the age of 24, as well as current featherweight boss Jose Aldo, who took the WEC championship at 23 but was awarded his UFC belt last November at 24.

In this sport, that means something. Because while other sports celebrate youth and regularly produce All-Stars and phenoms in their early 20’s, mixed martial arts has never been a young man’s game. Sure, there will be shooting stars like Jones, BJ Penn, and Vitor Belfort, but for the most part, this is a complex game that takes years and years to even come close to mastering.

And even the wunderkinds, like the aforementioned Penn and Belfort, had to take their share of lumps before reaching the top. Penn, at 23, lost his first title shot to Jens Pulver in 2001. Belfort, at 20, got his first taste of defeat against Randy Couture in 1997 and it would take him seven years to get revenge and a world championship. Even today’s top guns – Anderson Silva and Georges St-Pierre - tasted the sting of defeat before winning their titles at the age of 31 and 25, respectively. As UFC Hall of Famer Matt Hughes put it, “if you’re undefeated, you’re fighting the wrong people.”

But then there’s Jones, who only began training in MMA in 2007, and has since compiled a stellar 12-1 record that has a loss on it in name only. When he was disqualified for an illegal elbow against Matt Hamill in 2009, he was dominating the fight and, in reality, nine out of 10 referees would have stopped that fight and awarded Jones the TKO victory several moments before the DQ took place. And while the “1” remains in his loss column, he took the defeat with grace, well aware that it was anything but that.

The Hamill fight is just one example of what Jones has been doing to quality fighters since his Octagon debut in 2008 – he’s turning them ordinary. Stephan Bonnar, Jake O’Brien, Hamill, Brandon Vera, Vladimir Matyushenko, and Ryan Bader have all gone down to defeat against Jones and the New Yorker has won these fights without getting hurt by punches or kicks, without being put on his back and held there, without having to defend a debilitating submission, and without having to dig deep to pull off a miraculous comeback.

Yeah, he’s made it look easy. So after submitting Bader in their UFC 126 bout last Saturday night, it was no surprise that he accepted a championship fight against Rua on six weeks’ notice after his teammate Rashad Evans was forced from the bout due to a knee injury.

“I’m not scared of this at all, let’s do this,” said Jones, beaming with the precociousness of youth. “Shogun’s great. I grew up watching Shogun, but I’m not worried about him. I’ve got six weeks to train, and it’s gonna be me against myself in this training camp, and we’ll see what happens in my title shot.”

Also responding without hesitation was Rua, who, at 29, is now a seasoned veteran of the sport.

“As a champion I have to fight everybody,” said the Curitiba, Brazil native. “In all of his fights he’s winning convincingly and he’s the guy who deserves to fight for the belt the most right now.”

And if anyone knows what it’s like to be young, gifted, and tearing through everyone in his path, it’s Rua. Just 21 when he made his debut in Japan’s PRIDE organization, Rua did have one submission loss on his record (to Babalu Sobral), but as soon as he stepped between the ropes to fight and stop Akira Shoji in October of 2003, it was clear that he had the raw talent to be something special.

He would win 12 of 13 bouts in PRIDE, with the only loss a fluke TKO due to injury against Mark Coleman in 2006 (later avenged in the UFC). His shining moment was a four bout run that saw him defeat Quinton Jackson, Antonio Rogerio Nogueira, Alistair Overeem, and Ricardo Arona to win the 2005 Middleweight Grand Prix, and despite the world-class talent in the UFC, there were many who considered Rua to be the premier 205-pound fighter in the world, a state of the art mixed martial artist who would remain on top forever.

Of course, we know what happened next. Rua, plagued by knee injuries, would lose his UFC debut to Forrest Griffin and look less than stellar against Coleman before righting his ship with a knockout of Chuck Liddell in 2009 and then engaging in a two fight series with countryman Lyoto Machida that culminated in a 2010 knockout of “The Dragon” that earned him the title he wears today.

Some would say those setbacks have made Rua a better fighter, more dangerous, and again, capable of reigning atop the division as long as he wants to. Others believe that once Jones steps into the Octagon in the Prudential Center on March 19th, the coronation of the sport’s greatest ever will be a mere formality. That’s the beauty of watching a dominant athlete who appears to be at the top of his game, with no one able to stop him. We said it about Mike Tyson, we said it about BJ Penn, and 20 years from now there will be someone else who receives such lofty praise.

But fights aren’t won and lost on internet message boards or in heated barroom debate. They’re settled in competition, and one day, Jon Jones will meet his Waterloo in the one fighter he can’t hurt and who can hurt him, the one who won’t take no for an answer. That fighter may be Shogun Rua, who has learned that being invincible is nice, but that it can be more satisfying to come back from adversity and show that knowing you’re human just may be the strongest motivational tool in terms of making yourself a better fighter.

Whatever side you’re on, it looks like March 19 is going to be one of those days fight fans will talk about for years. Will it be too much too soon, or is Jonny Bones Jones right on time?