Jon Jones attempts to retain his UFC light heavyweight title for the third time this Saturday night when he faces former training partner Rashad Evans in the main event of UFC 145...
Jon Jones hasn’t broken. You may have expected him to. You couldn’t fathom that a kid who became the youngest champion in UFC history in March of last year could keep it together under some of the most intense scrutiny a mixed martial artist has received in this era.
Chuck Liddell? He was already well-established in life and his career when fame hit. Brock Lesnar? The WWE prepared him for dealing with anything his time in the public eye would entail. Jones? How could a 24-year old possibly take a sport on his shoulders and maintain his poise when so many were trying to take him down, while at the same time putting the pressure of linking his name with the likes of Muhammad Ali and Bruce Lee on his back?
But he made it. After taking a championship fight with Mauricio “Shogun” Rua on six weeks’ notice and winning that fight at 23, Jones defended his title with submission wins over two more legit stars in former titleholders Quinton “Rampage” Jackson and Lyoto Machida, capping off a year in which he went 4-0 with four finishes, foiled a robbery attempt on the day of the Rua fight, and went from being “the next big thing” to “the big thing.”
On Saturday, he faces another challenge in a bout against a former training partner in former world champ Rashad Evans. The lead-up to the bout has been heated, not surprising given the way Evans split from the Jackson’s MMA camp where the two first became friends, and it’s tested Jones’ resolve in an entirely new situation. Sure, Rampage trash talked Jones a bit leading up to their bout, but it was nothing like this. The exchanges between the two have been very personal, and while Jones wasn’t drained by the process, he has grown tired of the barbs.
“I’m not tired of talking about Rashad,” he said a couple weeks ago. “I’m tired of the whole drama of the fight. I can talk about Rashad all day; it’s a part of the fight game and you gotta talk. But the drama part of it is getting old, like him calling me fake but really never having a real reason why I’m fake. It’s kinda lame now. It’s like ‘come up with something new, bro. Talk about my skill set, but don’t keep calling me fake and then when I ask you why I’m fake, you’ve got no reason. Or when I ask him why I’m cocky and he says ‘oh, because you believe in yourself and you think you’re not gonna lose.’ That’s corny. I’m the champion and I do believe in myself. Come up with a good one at least.”
Jones could address that last comment to the fans who have opened fire on him ever since he began tearing through the light heavyweight division. Many mistook his confidence for cockiness, when all he was doing was stating what every fighter should state: that on fight night, he had every intention and every belief that he was going to win. Eventually, he started to win over the doubters.
“On my Twitter page and stuff, and when people talk to me in person, they always say ‘Jon, I think you have a great attitude,’ and I think it’s the attitude of a winner,” he said. “Your extreme confidence is your biggest weapon. It’s nerve racking to your opponent when you know that the guy you’re facing feels no fear for you. There’s respect obviously, a hundred percent, because I train all day, every day and study all day. If I didn’t respect the fact that I could lose the fight, then I wouldn’t train. Cockiness is ‘I don’t have to train, I’m already the champ.’ That’s cockiness, that’s silliness. But what I have is extreme faith and I think a lot of people are starting to get it.”
And Jones is starting to get it too. At first, he would take unwarranted criticism to heart, whether it came from the fans or the media, and while superstar athletes in other sports are largely insulated from dealing directly with their fanbase and from most in-depth queries from the press, in MMA, the fighters are ultra-accessible to the media and regularly interacting with their fans. So watching Jones adjust to life in the spotlight has been a fascinating process, not just for us on the outside, but for the champion himself. And he’s learned plenty in just a little over a year.
“There are several different things that I learned from being where I’m at,” he said. “One of the things I’ve learned is how different people’s minds work. You can say one thing and some people love it and some people truly hate you for it. So being in the position that I’m in, I’ve learned how diverse the world truly is, and how many different mindsets there are. It’s something that can’t be caught in a college course, being in the public eye and having hundreds of thousands of people that you can talk to every day through Twitter or Facebook. I’ve also learned to have skin like an armadillo. You really got to let things roll off your shoulder. I’ve heard it all and none of it bothers me anymore. And the biggest thing is that I’ve kept my team close to me. I’ve kept the people who I felt really cared about me and loved me really close to me to the point where we’re not a team anymore – we’re a legitimate family, and that’s been awesome, and I think that’s the biggest reason why I haven’t gone crazy with how fast things have moved in my life, and why I’ve been able to control it.”
Having life outside the Octagon under control has allowed Jones to focus on everything he needs to do to keep the belt inside of it. And while Evans is a decided underdog according to oddsmakers heading into Atlanta’s Philips Arena, Jones is well aware that he will have one of his stiffest challenges to date when he looks to retain his crown for the third time.
“What I’m most excited for in this fight is to prove that I learned more training with him than he learned training with me,” said Jones, 15-1, but when he makes a statement like that, it’s not really one hundred percent truthful, because if you really want to see what gets “Bones” the most excited, just bring up the topic of wrestling. It’s a trigger that has been drawing a fevered reaction ever since his 2009 bout with Matt Hamill. In the lead up to that fight (which was Jones’ only loss, albeit via disqualification), some said that the up and comer was going to have some difficulty with the wrestling of “The Hammer.” All that did was fire Jones up to prove those naysayers wrong, and he did just that, regardless of the end result.
In the weeks and months leading up to Saturday’s UFC 145 main event, the same talk has been whispered, with the former Michigan State Spartan, Evans, expected to be the first man with the wrestling skill to put the former JUCO national champion, Jones, on his back. Just a mention of it and the Endicott, New York native will bristle, but all you’re doing is releasing him for chapter and verse about what is obviously his favorite aspect of MMA. So Jon, do you have the same mindset heading into this fight, wrestling wise, as you did before the Hamill bout?
“It’s the same mindset,” said Jones. “The difference is, with (Evans’ last opponent, former NCAA Division I champ) Phil Davis and Rashad, they had these huge egos and they made it more of a wrestling focus to the point where they were both probably going to wrestling practice every day. My difference is that I have a ‘screw that’ attitude. The attitude is, say his wrestling may be better than mine. I want to believe ‘screw that,’ I’m not gonna allow you to take me down. And if you do take me down, I’m gonna get right back to my feet and come right back at you. It’s not like if you take me down I’m pinned and the match is over. No. If you get me down, I’m gonna get back to my feet and we’re gonna have to fight. And I’m not gonna go down easy. I’m gonna make him work for every takedown he may possibly get. And I think between my youth, work ethic, and cardio, I think him trying to take me down could be his downfall because I refuse to be outworked.
“But the ‘screw that’ attitude is that I’m gonna take him down as well, and I’ll never give anybody a clear advantage in martial arts to where I’ll sit here and say ‘oh man, he’s a black belt, so I’d better stay off the ground with him because I’ll get tapped out.’ Or I’ll never say ‘oh man, Shogun and Rampage are so amazing at kickboxing and boxing that I’m intimidated and I better stay away and not strike with them at all.’ Or I’ll never say ‘Rashad Evans has a great double leg, so I better stand real low and purposely try not to get taken down the whole time.’ No, I’m gonna go out there and put it all on the line and maybe he’ll get me down or maybe he won’t. Maybe I’ll get him down or maybe I won’t. But I totally think that I have some of the best wrestling in the light heavyweight division, and I’m gonna back up those words and prove it. In this fight, there will not be a wrestling mismatch. You will not see Rashad Evans vs. Phil Davis. I will not be dominated in the wrestling category. I have a lot of pride in my wrestling and I believe that I could have been a great Division I national champion just like Phil Davis was. I just never had the opportunity to prove it.”
That was because Jones left school to get a job when his girlfriend got pregnant with the couple’s first child, a responsible act that should let you know all you need to when it comes to his character. Yet while everything obviously worked out pretty well for Jones and his young family, as he soon discovered fighting, there is still that ‘what if’ in the back of his head when it comes to wrestling, and every time he gets the chance to face off with someone who may be more accomplished on paper, he gets even more amped up.
“When I had to drop out of school, I felt like such a failure,” said Jones. “I felt like I didn’t finish the mission. At the time, being a Division I national wrestling champ was my biggest goal and aspiration. And because I dropped out of school, I never got to finish that goal. So becoming a UFC world champion really filled that void and proved to me that I can be at the highest level. And that’s why wrestling Jake O’Brien meant so much to me, because he went to Purdue. That’s why wrestling Ryan Bader meant so much to me, because he went to Arizona State. To prove to myself that I could compete with Division I level wrestlers, it really tickles me and it really gives me an extra edge. In this fight, I’m gonna prove that not only am I a better mixed martial artist than Rashad, but I believe that I’m a better wrestler. And not only do I know that I’m better at Greco than him, but I feel as if I’m better collegiately, and I’m gonna prove it.”
Jones laughs, knowing that he just issued an impassioned soliloquy on wrestling and its meaning to him both in his life and in this fight. And at that moment, you know that he isn’t cocky. He’s just a young man on top of the world and on top of his sport, and he’s talking from the heart. And just like one of his former opponents, Brandon Vera, once told me, if you make bold statements, you have to then take responsibility for them. Jon Jones is on board with that.
“You’ll look really silly if you say all these things and you can’t back it up,” he said. “And a big thing is, I never really offend my opponent. You don’t hear me going out and saying things about him. I’m not putting anyone else down. I’m saying that I believe that I’m gonna win in there, I believe that maybe he had a better wrestling career than me, but that I’m gonna work hard and train hard on my defense and not even be taken down. It’s all positive reinforcement and reassurance, it forces you to fulfill your own prophecy through hard work and training, and that’s a powerful, powerful thing.”