Do you remember the Saturday two and a half years ago when Jon Jones became a superhero?
The buzz at the Prudential Center in Newark as UFC 128 got under way that evening had to do only tangentially with the main event championship bout. In the weeks of anticipatory hype, there had been much fanfare about this opportunity for Jones to become the youngest champion in the promotion's history. But early on the fight of the night that was thrust to the back burner, as was any discussion of the buzzsaw tear Jones had been on, in which he'd won six of his seven UFC fights, the sole smudge on the résumé being a dubious disqualification in a fight in which he'd been as dynamic as in his victories.
The most recent win had come just six weeks earlier. And immediately following that thrashing of previously unbeaten Ryan Bader, Jon had been informed, while he was still in the octagon, that he was being given a shot at the light heavyweight belt. The challenger for the following month's Mauricio "Shogun" Rua title defense had been scheduled to be Jon's teammate, Rashad Evans, but an injury in training sidelined the ex-champion and sent the matchmakers scrambling. Jones, at barely 24 years old, was being handed the opportunity of a young lifetime. A wonderful storyline. But that wasn't what was resonating as fight night unfolded.
What was reverberating around the arena during the prelims was this question, asked with all due incredulousness: What the hell was Jon Jones thinking? When word got around that "Bones" had been involved in foiling a robbery in a nearby New Jersey community earlier in the day, heads were shaking. That's dangerous business, way more so than prizefighting, where your opponent is checked for weaponry before the two of you step into the octagon. How crazy was it for "Bones" to get involved in something so fraught with peril on the biggest day of his young career? Why wasn't he in the host hotel, where most fighters hunker down until it's time to make their way to the arena?
Lost amid the commotion surrounding this episode of Law & Order: UFC was the impetus for Jones's visit to the park in Paterson, hometown of Allen Ginsberg and Lou Costello. The soon-to-be-champion had gone there with his trainers to sit beside a waterfall and meditate. Such a Greg Jackson thing to suggest to one of his fighters, right?
"Actually, it was my idea, although Greg was totally supportive," Jones (18-1) said this week, as he prepared for Saturday night's title defense against Alexander Gustafsson at UFC 165 -- an undertaking that he'll set out on only after spending time earlier in the day in some natural environ in or near Toronto. "It's become our tradition -- Greg Jackson and Mike Winkeljohn and my team. I don't remember if it began with the 'Shogun' fight or one before that. But on fight day I told the coaches, 'Hey, I need to go take a walk, get away from everything.' So we went and found a quiet place to get in a meditation. I need that."
Fight week can be hectic, to be sure, with so much going on, so many commitments, especially if you're a champion. Since capturing the belt in March 2011, Jones has defended it five times, the first four against a murderer's row of ex-champs. If he beats Gustafsson (15-1), he will own the UFC record for most light heavyweight defenses. Jon also is now his sport's consensus pound-for-pound king, with Anderson Silva having been knocked from the top of the mountain. The money is bigger, from both fight purses and endorsements. The pressure is on.
So it's understandable that Jones would feel the need to "re-center myself," as he says, "and simplify things." But why not just find a tranquil spot in the hotel? Isn't that what the "Do Not Disturb" doorknob hanger is for? "I spend so much time in my hotel room during fight week that I can feel like a prisoner there," said Jones. "I need to get out and breathe some fresh air. Our tradition is to look for a beautiful place in nature in every city we fight in." No matter if it takes a while. Jones and his team have been known to drive an hour or two to find the right spot. This is where the Jedi master in Jackson comes into play. "I'm sure a lot of trainers would see this as a distraction," said Jones, "but Greg is all about the power of nature, and about me using it to connect to my own power."
This is esoteric stuff, but the 26-year-old Jones talks about his mental game like it's the most essential ingredient in the stew. His inventive striking, his overwhelming wrestling, his lengthy and sinewy physique can take him only so far, he would say, without the self-belief that fuels his greatness. "When I'm sitting in that meadow or beside that waterfall on fight day," said Jones, "I'm thinking about being superhuman -- super fast and super powerful. I'm focusing on personal greatness as a possibility. This is what I need. I won't leave until I find my zone and start to feel really at peace. When I'm done, every time, I have a big smile on my face. I feel so refreshed."
This is the feeling the champ carries with him as he makes his way back to his hotel and eventually to the arena. He maintains that mindset as he awaits his turn to compete, even as the scene around him inevitably becomes more hectic as the hours -- and the prelims -- pass. There are cameras in his face. Drug tests to be taken. A few hands to shake. "I'm at peace with it all," said Jones. "The time I spent in nature earlier in the day keeps me calm. I feel like I have my armor on, ready to go, ready to go do anything."
It is this fight-day ritual, along with the serenity of Jackson's frenzy-free cornering between rounds once the fight has begun, that makes Jon Jones feel the part of a superhero. "No panic, no doubts," said Jones. "I feel empowered."
It's no wonder the man is a crimefighter.