one more day
NEWARK, N.J. – Mauricio “Shogun” Rua says he wasn’t trying to prove a point Thursday during a spirited workout in front of the media, a little more than 48 hours prior to his light heavyweight title defense against budding star Jon “Bones” Jones in the main event of UFC 128 Saturday at the Prudential Center.
He still did make his point, very loudly, even if he wasn’t trying to do so.
Rua is a 2-1 underdog and has been almost shunted aside by the media in the buildup to the fight, as Jones, the UFC’s 23-year-old phenom, has essentially been given top billing.
It was Jones, he of zero championship fights, whom the UFC opted to devote a separate, prime-time special on, not Rua, the reigning champion.
It was Jones, who was still in high school in Endicott, N.Y., when Rua won the Pride Grand Prix by defeating Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, Antonio Rogerio Nogueira and Ricardo Arona in 2005, who drew the most attention at Wednesday’s final news conference at Radio City Music Hall in New York.
And it was Jones, whose addition to the card in February as a late replacement for the injured Rashad Evans, who sparked a flurry of ticket sales that quickly sold out the arena.
If anyone forgot that Rua is a world-class talent and as dangerous as they come, Rua gave them a very audible demonstration in a conference room at the Hilton Penn Station on Thursday.
He threw rapid-fire combinations at the mitts, the sound resonating in the crowded room like an automatic weapon firing bullets.
Pop! Pop! Pop! Pop! Pop! Pop!
Then, Rua began a drill that involved kicking the bag that sounded like a series of explosions every time he made contact.
Boom! Boom! Boom! Boom!
Rua just shrugged when asked if he was bothered by the perceived slights – “He has been winning his fights in great fashion and this is a natural consequence of that,” Rua said – but Rua’s manager, Eduardo Alonso, believes it has made a change for the better in him.
Rua is, indeed, annoyed at “Bonesmania,” Alonso said, but he has used it to his advantage.
“I think it does (bug him), but the good thing is, it bugs him in a good way,” Alonso said. “It brings out his competitiveness and his motivation to prove something to everyone. He’s a very competitive guy. He gets pissed off and wants to prove a point.”
Rua had been expecting for nearly a year to fight Evans. Evans defeated Quinton “Rampage” Jackson at UFC 114 last May and, when Rua injured a knee, opted to wait until Rua was recovered from surgery rather than taking an interim fight.
But during a routine training drill in February, Evans injured his own knee and had to pull out. Rua had been working out in preparation for Evans, but didn’t have the sense of urgency that Alonso felt he needed. When Jones was given the shot, that all changed.
Jones is, in a way, “The Chosen One.” He’s a good-looking, charismatic guy with a knack for saying the right thing at the right time and for bringing fans out of their seats with his unorthodox moves.
An extremely confident Jones began signing autographs with the tagline, “Champion 2011.” And though he frequently professed respect for Rua, he also made it clear he thought Rua was there to be had.
“He can be broken mentally and physically, mainly mentally,” Jones said. “That’s part of what I am going to do to him. I’m going to show that the Mark Coleman fight (at UFC 93) wasn’t a fluke, that the Forrest Griffin fight (at UFC 76) wasn’t a fluke, that he didn’t come unprepared.”
Suddenly, the highly competitive Rua had a reason to ratchet up his training and his intensity.
“When a guy is so talented as Shogun is, they tend to get lazy,” Alonso said. “Against Rashad, as a team, we were a little more accommodating. It’s not to say Rashad is not a great fighter, but we’d been thinking about him for a year. But then, when they changed it to Jones, it was like, ‘Hmm. There is motivation. We have to work.’ We all got pumped. It’s really for the best for him. He’s focused and he started to train much more. He’s very motivated and the team united.
“We had some problems, personal problems within the team, health issues within families, and it was tough. But this brought us back together. Shogun performs best when he’s an underdog and that’s why we’re feeding this whole thing that Jones deserves to be the favorite.”
Those who made Jones the favorite probably didn’t see Rua blistering the bag with kicks Thursday. He’s had three surgeries on his left knee, including one in June that forced a postponement of a title defense against Evans, but it looked 100 percent on Thursday.
UFC middleweight contender Demian Maia, a long-time friend of Rua’s, said he has never seen Rua as physically fit as he is for the bout with Jones. Alonso hired Eric Haddad to work on Rua’s strength and conditioning and the results have been astounding.
Maia said he got a chance to see it first-hand and it left him shaking his head.
“Everybody went out and talked about what Jon Jones could do and how good Jon Jones is and Shogun I think was bothered by that,” Maia said. “He’s a professional and he’s accomplished a lot. I think he pushed himself so hard so he would be at his absolute peak and be able to put on a performance that the people will remember.”
Rua is one of the most popular fighters in the world, particularly among long-time fans, though it’s only recently that he’s begun to get a high profile in his native Brazil. Alonso said that, despite the perception of Brazil as an MMA hotbed, it hasn’t been until only recently, through the UFC’s marketing efforts, that the sport has begun to catch on there in the mainstream.
As recently as a year ago, Alonso said, Rua could have walked down a busy street in Sao Paulo, the country’s largest city with a population of around 8 million, and gone unrecognized.
In the last year, as the UFC has expanded its marketing and public relations efforts and brought the sport to television, interest in MMA is growing quickly and Rua is suddenly becoming a star. He’s sponsored by BVA, a large bank in Brazil, and representatives of a national supermarket chain in the country who are interested in sponsoring him will attend Saturday’s bout.
He was mobbed at a news conference in Rio de Janeiro to announce a UFC show there and has made several appearances on various shows on Global, the country’s largest over-the-air television network.
A win over Jones would go a long way toward firming his status as one of his nation’s elite athletes. The low-key Rua, though, isn’t worried about much other than doing his job.
“Surely, if I win this fight, I’ll take one more step forward in my career,” Rua said. “In the end, I understand that Jon Jones has been winning his fights decisively and earning all this hype behind him. But I’ve set goals for myself and I’m going to do everything in my power to reach those goals. … If I do exciting fights, everything else takes care of itself. The important thing is to go out there and win and put on the best fight I can. That’s what I will go out to do, no matter who I am fighting. Fighting someone with all the attention of Jon Jones is good, but I have to stick to my approach that brought me to where I am.”