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Jon Jones: Championship Year Three Begins

"It’s a mental sport and I’m just starting to believe more and trust that I can win." - Jon Jones

UFC light heavyweight champion Jon JonesIt doesn’t seem like it’s over two years since Jon Jones last walked into the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey. It almost feels like yesterday that the upstate New York native foiled a mugging in the afternoon of March 19, 2011, then finished off his day with a TKO of Mauricio “Shogun” Rua that crowned him the UFC light heavyweight champion.

Then again, almost nothing is conventional in a traditional sense when it comes to Jones. He came into the UFC with just six fights in 2008, having learned striking moves off youtube. Six fights later he was the star of the future in the sport, but that future turned into the present when he took the Rua fight on six weeks’ notice and became the youngest champion in UFC history.

Four successful title defenses have followed, with each name – Jackson, Machida, Evans, Belfort – representing a former world champion and a legit star in the sport. That’s a two year span that ranks among the best ever, but when you hear Jones describing the whirlwind, you get quite a different take on it.

“Over the two years I think I’ve gotten more comfortable,” he said. “I don’t find myself being as nervous as I used to be. I’ve learned to focus on just the training and trusting myself. I’m starting to not really doubt myself anymore. I’m realizing that I’m pretty good at fighting, and that’s the result of the hard work and the time spent studying and training. I don’t spend as much time being a mental wreck leading up to the fight as I used to.”

Pretty good at fighting?

A mental wreck leading up to fights?

Those are two seemingly bizarre comments from the 25-year-old champion. Those who are pretty good at fighting don’t have wins over five world champions and several legit contenders on their resume. And as far as being a mental wreck leading up to fights, that’s not just an honest and revealing comment, but probably an accurate one if you look at where he’s been since turning pro in 2008. How does someone walk into the sport, have so much success, and then face off against the best the game has to offer without feeling a little intimidated at times? Jones has pulled it off though, and after two years on top, he’s starting to find his groove, not just physically, but mentally.
“I’m always in my head,” he said. “It’s a mental sport and I’m just starting to believe more and trust that I can win.”

On Saturday, he has every intention of doing it again when he faces Chael Sonnen in the main event of UFC 159 at the Prudential Center. For many, the result is a foregone conclusion, with detractors saying Sonnen, a two-time middleweight title challenger, doesn’t even deserve a title shot, let alone having the ability to beat the seemingly unbeatable Jones. The champion isn’t approaching the bout as an easy payday though. In fact, his motivation is similar to one he has had throughout his pro career. To prove to world-class wrestlers that he had the stuff to not only compete with them, but to dominate them.

“Yeah, definitely,” said Jones, a former junior college national champion who abandoned the possibility of a Division I wrestling career to enter MMA and support his family. “A big part of my motivation in this fight is to prove to myself that Chael can’t outwrestle me. Chael’s a guy who has great confidence in his wrestling, he banks on his wrestling, and I want to take that from him. I want to take everything from him and leave him nothing. A lot of people go out there and feel inferior to him and they start the fight backing off right away. I’m gonna go out there and I want to try and meet Chael right in the middle of the Octagon, not back up at all, and meet him with some punishment.”

Just getting Jones on this topic opens up the floodgates of analysis from someone who isn’t just a competitor in the sport, but a fan and a student of it. And he’s done his homework on Sonnen.

“I looked at Chael’s record, and the only two wrestlers that he’s really beaten were Bryan Baker and Trevor Prangley,” said Jones. “I don’t think people even know that. I think Michael Bisping did a great job against Chael in the wrestling category in their fight, and he’s not a wrestler. I’ve also seen Chael get thrown by Demian Maia, and something that give me great confidence is watching him get taken down by guys that never wrestled. That is something that hasn’t happened to me in my UFC career, and then also knowing that he has the most takedowns in history, but he hasn’t been taking down legit wrestlers. If I focused on taking down all my opponents, then I would have a lot more takedowns. But I look at it differently – it’s not as important in my game as it is in Chael’s game.  So I give him credit for his takedown ability, but at the same time, who has he taken down? I fought a lot of elite wrestlers; he hasn’t fought any.”

It’s clear that if Jones was lacking motivation for this fight, he’s not showing it, and truth be told, there is plenty on the line for him. First, with a win, he will tie Tito Ortiz' record for most UFC light heavyweight title defenses. But more notably, given Sonnen’s pre-fight trash talk and goading, “Bones” has plenty of incentive to produce an emphatic victory on Saturday night. He looks at it in a slightly different way though.

“I treat Chael Sonnen and all my opponents like a final exam,” he said. “You know you have this test coming up, and you have to do everything in your power to prepare for this test. So I study, study, study, and I’m literally on the internet as much as I’m in the gym because I like to know everything about my opponents.”

This weekend, Jones’ third year as champion begins in the place where the journey started. And the way he sees it, the finish line isn’t even close yet.

“It (being champion for two years) was just sheer excitement until I realized that (UFC middleweight champion) Anderson (Silva) has been doing it for six years,” he said. “So I’m proud of myself, but at the same time I’m not satisfied. For Anderson to have been doing it for so long is so extraordinary and so amazing, and it gives me strength to know that I can keep going and keep doing this for many more years.”