Thursday, March 17, 2011 | 2:05 a.m.
NEW YORK — The UFC light heavyweight championship belt still rested in front of Mauricio “Shogun” Rua at the UFC 128 press conference at Radio City Music Hall on Wednesday afternoon.
It’s worth noting because so many have already handed the title to his challenger, Jon Jones, in their minds. The 23-year old Jones fielded questions about what it will feel like to become the youngest UFC champion Saturday night in Newark, N.J., and even the first opponent he could defend the belt against.
Although this fight marks the return of Rua after a 10-month injury layoff for his first UFC title defense, the attention is unanimously on the other corner.
“I understand it,” Rua said through a translator, “because he’s been winning all his fights decisively. He’s doing great so far.”
Rua, 29, has remained calm and understanding of a situation that would throw other fighters into a fit of trash talking and pointing out their own credentials. It doesn’t bother Shogun when Jones says, “it’s my time,” or when oddsmakers evidently agree and make the contender a near 2-to-1 favorite.
Rua could easily point out that Jones hasn’t fought the highest caliber of competition or that he heard similar doubts entering his two bouts with previous champion Lyoto Machida before controversially losing a decision in the first and winning the rematch.
Instead, Shogun leaves it for others to explain why he shouldn't be counted out. UFC President Dana White is the chief among that group.
“He’s been fighting for 10 years and when you look at the list of guys that he’s not only fought but beat, it’s a pretty distinguished list,” White said. “There’s no doubt about it: Shogun Rua is one of the nastiest fighters in the sport.”
To become a PRIDE middleweight tournament champion alone, Rua had to beat the likes of former UFC champion Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, current Strikeforce champion Alistair Overeem and Antonio Rogerio Nogueira in one five-month stretch in 2005.
Jones is familiar with all of those fights and more of Shogun’s career. He studied Rua when he first started learning mixed martial arts three years ago.
Jones said he stopped looking up to Shogun when he found out they were going to fight but still thought the Brazilian wasn’t receiving the respect he deserves heading into UFC 128.
“The fact that I’m the favorite, I think that’s baloney,” Jones said. “I think the reason I’m the favorite is because oddsmakers are very smart and they probably think I’m going to lose.”
“He has a right to be the favorite on the betting line because of his performances and what he’s earned,” Rua said.
Perhaps Shogun gets the buzz surrounding Jones because he’s gone through it in his own career. Like Jones, Shogun was only 23 when he received a title shot and ultimately won.
He practically lists off the reasons why Jones could follow in his footsteps — saying Jones has a reach that is hard to prepare for, striking that's imaginative and wrestling that's second to none. Rua even mentioned he had trouble finding sparring partners who could emulate Jones’ style and match his 6-foot-4 height.
None of this means Shogun is intimidated. It’s quite the opposite.
“I will fight everyone,” Rua said. “I will fight anyone. I won’t let the event or promotion down. I’ve always fought the best in my career as a champion and Jones is a great fighter.”
Shogun graciously signed autographs for a few rows of fans at Radio City Music Hall, while hundreds made their way to the other side of the stage where Jones stood. Shogun appeared not to pay attention when the cheers for Jones were twice as boisterous.
One important fact is still in Rua’s favor.
“It’s his belt,” White said.