Often, people in the sports world claim that the proof of success lies not in an athlete’s abilities on paper, but how they implement those abilities in real-time situations. When these situations require them to define their value, and they perform above and beyond their abilities, they define themselves as the absolute best at their profession. These “absolute best” types only come around every once in a few years, but once they showcase their skill-sets, the world gets a first-hand look at why they represent the apex-level of competition in any sporting event.

Next Saturday’s UFC 165 fight card features such fighters. For a complete comprehension how the four reached the top of the card, look not to what they can do on paper, but how they executed their game plans in order to reach their respective champion/challenger positions.

UFC light-heavyweight champion Jon Jones blended a natural athleticism with a diverse skill-set and implemented each one of his techniques in order to defeat five former UFC light heavyweight champions, as well as former middleweight title contender Chael Sonnen. Now the 81-inch reach of Alexander “The Mauler” Gustafsson stands in his way in the evening’s marquee matchup.

Underneath the most intriguing UFC light heavyweight bout of Jones’ career lies arguably the toughest bout in the career of UFC interim bantamweight champion Renan Barao. Undefeated in five UFC fights, Barao makes the second defense of the interim title against inaugural WEC bantamweight champion Eddie Wineland, who scored a two-fight winning streak in 2012 and looks to cash in his chips in his first bout of 2013.

For Wineland, more is at stake than stopping Barao’s current 20-fight winning streak or taking his title. Although Wineland hails from Indiana, he views the trip to Toronto’s Air Canada Centre as a the end of a long journey of working his way back to a title shot. Despite the champion’s success inside the Octagon, Wineland put in his time, and now he aims to take the crown jewel of the UFC bantamweight division all for himself after claiming Barao’s interim bantamweight title.

“This is a homecoming,” Wineland told the media Tuesday, via a conference call in support of next Saturday’s card, “I’m going to put it all on the line and I plan to take that belt back to Indiana with me. It’s been the culmination of what I’ve been working for for the last 10 years. I’ve just reset myself mentally. Physically I’ve always been there. I just said I’m not going to get beat no matter what. His win streak is amazing.

“He hasn’t fought me yet. He’s just another man who puts his pants on one leg at a time. There’s no reason why I can’t beat him.”

Still, Wineland faces a difficult challenger in the defending interim champion. Armed with an underrated Muay Thai arsenal and some of the most dangerous Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu offense at 135 pounds, Barao’s current UFC run features a dominant five-round win over former WEC featherweight champion Urijah Faber and a submission win over touted prospect Michael “Mayday” McDonald. A win over Wineland officially marks a second successful interim title defense, but in Barao’s mind, it marks the second successful defense of the undisputed title that he intended to take from still-champion Dominick Cruz himself.

“Dominick [Cruz] has been out for a while,” Barao said through a translator, “it’s going to be two years now. No disrespect to him, but from the moment I won this belt, and I have defended it once, I considered myself the champion.”

Whether or not Barao will claim the real thing depends on a win, but even if Wineland beats Barao, don’t expect that “interim” tag to stick to the bantamweight crown for long. Cruz remains out of action until 2014, but none can promise that he will prove ready to go by the time 2014 hits. If he can’t compete against the winner of this bout, however, expect UFC CEO Lorenzo Fertita and UFC President Dana White to make a call of their own.

“I certainly hope this is the last time we’re doing the interim title,” White said. “We’re expecting Cruz’s return at the beginning of the year, and if he can’t return at the beginning of the year, then we’re going to have to make a decision.””

In most minds, the decision involves stripping Cruz of the belt and promoting next Saturday’s winner to the status of undisputed UFC bantamweight champion. The UFC, on the other hand, hopes their decision will involve the long-awaited bout between the winner of next Saturday’s bout and Cruz. Only time will tell if that bout will surface at long last.

In the meantime, all eyes focus on Gustafsson and his quest to dethrone Jones. The promotion did not lie to fans when they billed the Swede as the only man with any shot of matching Jones in size, as he actually will stand taller than Jones, meaning his leg length will step one foot further in keeping Jones at bay if he implements it properly. However, any questions about his reach disadvantage against the champion’s 84.5-inch reach remain mere misconceptions.

“My reach is not 76.5 [inches],” Gustaffson said, “it’s 81.2. I just wanted to mention that…it’s not always about reach; it’s about footwork. It’s about being fast, getting in and out. I’m really making sure I’ve done my homework there. I’m super motivated.”

Still, for all of what the fight looks like on paper, it takes the greatest deal to shake up Jones, who stands as not only the current No. 1 pound-for-pound fighter in MMA, but also the most composed UFC world champion at the moment. After all, Jones already fought the best and will continue to defeat the best that the UFC offers at 205 pounds. Any skeptics who need further proof of what Jones does when push comes to shove need look no further than the bodies he defeated and the manner in which he made every effort look effortless, even when they touched (or didn’t touch) his face.

“With me, I’ve gone through some fights where fighters have only punched me once,” Jones said, “I mean, I fought [Quinton] ‘Rampage’ Jackson, and he hit me, like, twice in the whole fight. Lyoto Machida was able to touch my face twice in the whole fight.

“I’m fighting against the best guys in the world, and a lot of them never even get a chance to punch me in the face throughout the fight. So I just believe I use my timing, my rhythm, my distance a lot better than him. I think the proof is in the pudding.”

Photo: UFC light-heavyweight champion Jon Jones (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)

About The Author

Dale De Souza
Staff Writer

Dale De Souza is a 22-year-old kid straight out of Texas, who grew up around Professional Wrestling but embraced the beauty of Mixed Martial Arts and Combat Sports at a young age. Dale is a Featured Columnist at Bleacher Report MMA, a writer at The MMA Corner.