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Jon Wertheim: Jon Jones begins climb back to top of UFC
1:43 | MMA
Jon Wertheim: Jon Jones begins climb back to top of UFC
Tuesday April 19th, 2016

Jon Jones stands 6'4" but he’s never dunked a basketball. He has two brothers in the NFL—Chandler (a Cardinals’ defensive end) and Arthur (a Colts’ defensive tackle)—but when he went out for his high school team in upstate New York, the coaches told him: You’re too slow to play wide receiver; try tight end. When the coaches then saw that his hands were worthy of a geology exhibit, they switched him to defensive end. He didn’t make first-string until senior year.

Now, at age 28, Jones might be the most dynamic athlete in pro sports. He’s agile, strong, fit and has a sixth sense for anticipation. And after floundering in team sports, he found his niche as an MMA fighter. In 22 pro fights, he has lost only once. And that was by disqualification. He became the youngest champion in UFC history when he won the light heavyweight belt at 23; he has spent the better part of his career as the best pound-for-pound fighter in the promotion.

Jones has been less skilled at sidestepping trouble. In April 2015 he was stripped of his belt and removed from the official rankings following his arrest on felony hit-and-run charges. In September he was sentenced to 18 months supervised probation and may have the felony removed from his record if he meets certain court-ordered conditions. (More on this below.) But now Jones is back, ready to reclaim his spot as the brightest star in the UFC cosmos.

On Saturday night in Las Vegas he puts his nearly undefeated record on the line at UFC 197. He was supposed to face his nemesis, Daniel Cormier, who became light heavyweight champ on account on Jones’s extra-Octagon issues. When Cormier pulled out with a shin injury, Jones drew a replacement opponent, Ovince St. Preux, a former Tennessee linebacker.

While Jones can’t properly win back the belt, he can win back some fans and his place within the sport. Before the bout, he spoke with SI.com.

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SI: You got yourself a fight, even if it’s not necessarily who you were preparing for. What is that adjustment like for you? 

Jon Jones: Oh, the adjustment’s been fine. You know, it’s a little curveball. I try to look at interesting fighters like this as opportunities to grow. I try to be excited by the challenges. You know, since the fight’s been changed, me and my coaches, we’ve spent even more time together, you know, thinking about what we need to do, what adjustments we need to make. We’re making the appropriate changes. We just have to kind of work overtime to be comfortable with our new strategy. 

But this isn’t the first time we fought southpaw fighters. We fought really high-level southpaw fighters in the past. Lyoto Machida, one of the trickiest puzzles, in my opinion, in light heavyweight history. Just an amazing karate style. So unorthodox. We figured him out. Had blazing speed. Huge knock-out punches. Great Jujitsu. We figured him out. 

SI: Would you rather fight someone [i.e. Cormier] (did you say this?) where there’s a little personal tension?

JJ: I get fired up when emotions are involved. I think it pulls a little bit of extra out of me. But when there’s no backstory, no disrespect, I’m still pretty fired up. My legacy’s on the line every time I go out there. In my mind, I’ve never lost a fight. I’m crazy enough to believe that maybe I’ll never lose a fight. ... But, whatever, no drama. Yeah, I guess emotion really isn’t necessary for me to go out and perform well. 

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SI: You’re not putting a ball in a hoop. You’re not crossing the end zone more times than the other team. There’s real pain and real physical damage that’s on the line when you go in there. What is your relationship with competing? I mean, how does that [differ] to you from what your brothers do?

JJ: Yeah, well, you know, there’s a lot of dangerous sports. You know, my opinion, football is the most dangerous sport there is. After that I’ll give it to probably boxing. Then there’s some other extreme sports out there, motocross where you’re really risking your neck every time you go out there and do it. You know, that BMX stuff when they’re flipping dirt bikes, all that, that seems dangerous to me. 

In a fight, you got to know that there’s a strong chance you’re going to get hurt. But at the same time, you know, most of the injuries you sustain in fighting are not career-ending injuries. So the worst injury I’ve ever seen in a fight was with Anderson Silva when his leg snapped in half. You saw how he came back from that. He’s fighting still. 

SI: Do you feel pain in there?

JJ: You know, fortunately I have never felt any pain that I can remember. I guess the worst thing you feel in a fight is being out of shape. There’s no worse feeling than being in front of a guy with six-pack abs, muscles popping out of his shoulders, veins popping out of his arms, and you know he’s swinging for the fences, in front of all your friends and family, and you can’t breathe. You can’t breathe no matter how much moves you know. You start to panic. You start to feel a drowning sensation. It’s the worst feeling in the world. I experienced that.

SI: When?

JJ: It was before the UFC. It was before I made it in the UFC. I had a fight. I was out of shape. I’ll never forget how helpless I felt. 

I ended up winning the fight. I made a promise to myself I’ll never show up to a fight out of shape. 

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SI: Are you an athlete?

JJ: I am an athlete in every sense of the word. Athlete, martial artist. 

SI: A few years ago you told me you had to think about that one because you were having trouble dunking and you were having trouble catching footballs. You’re an athlete now?

JJ: Oh, right, right. Well, I still never dunked a basketball. I still would probably catch maybe four out of 10 throws across the field. 

But, you know, some of the things I’m able to pull off, my coordination when it comes to fighting, I don’t know how to say I’m an athlete for sure. Or maybe I’m not that athletic. Maybe I just spend a tremendous amount of time practicing this craft, how to develop some talent. 

SI: What have the events of the last year or so ... what’s been the impact of that on your fighting?

JJ:  I would imagine it’s been a good thing.

SI: Why?

JJ: I think the reason why I was starting to take so many risks, I’ll say, was because my appreciation for my job and my position was starting to slide. You know, I just started taking it all for granted. I started to not really care as much. 

You know, when you’ve been to the top, you get comfortable, and you know what it feels like to be a champion, to have nice things and all that. You know, it’s just not as appealing as it was coming up. 

I felt like I made it. To have it all taken away, it created a—it gave me a sense of urgency. It gave me a hunger I hadn’t really felt in years. Right now I’m hungry to prove that I’m just as good as I was when I left. I’m hungry to prove that I’m still the champion for all those UFC fighters that we’ve gained since I’ve been gone who really don’t know this Jon Jones guy.

I’m hungry to show that I’m better than I was when I left, not only the same fighter but a better fighter. So I have a hunger and desire, passion, that’s been reawakened. That’s what this last year has really given me. 

SI: How much are you paying attention to what’s going on in the sport more generally? Are you thinking Ronda [Rousey] is on top of the world, Holly [Holmes] beats Ronda. Are you paying attention to all the kind of plot lines?

JJ: Yes and no. I never really follow it as kind of a regular thing. I mean, I’m aware. I’m aware. But I’m not sitting there, you know, watching interviews, buying into the hype of all these people. I’m watching because their names are all over the place, but I’m not like all into it. 

I got pretty involved with Ronda and Holly because Holly is my teammate, so I’m very supportive of her. Outside of that, I’m just really not even that huge of a UFC fan. If you go on my Instagram or Twitter, you will notice ... people that I’ve actually met and hung out with, you know, I’m not like a huge UFC guy.

SI: What do you weigh today?

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JJ: Right now I’m 216 ... I was 240 about three months ago. Now I’m 216. So I’ve lost over 20 pounds in three months. I’m just a different machine than I used to be, where now I’ve taken my diet more serious than I ever have in my life, and I’ve gotten way small. My physique is just completely different to the way it used to be. I appear to be a lot bigger than what I am. If you see me now, they think I weigh, you know, 225, 230. I’m really only 216. I changed my physique a lot. I’m really proud of that. I’m excited to see how, you know, it changes things from that side. 

SI: What is the definition of success for you in this fight?

JJ: Success for me is to go out there and dominate. I’ve always been a guy that has strived for dominating, not only winning. I’ve dominated a majority of my opponents. Very few people I only win against. Most of the time it’s pretty one-sided. That’s success to me. I need to finish this fight. I need to finish this fight. I need to dominate the fight. I’d be pretty upset if ...

SI: Just another decision?

JJ: If it goes to a decision, yeah. Only reason being is the guy’s ranked No. 6, and I respect him tremendously. I just feel in my heart that he—I feel like I’m the better fighter. 

You know, a guy like DC [Daniel Cormier], he has a tremendous record. He’s only ever lost to me. So if that fight goes to decision, it’s like, you know, you can expect it. In this fight, you know, I have a higher standard for myself to actually finish this guy based on his career and his past performances. I believe this is a fight I should finish. If I don’t really finish it, I’ll be grateful for the win, but I’ll feel I didn’t do my best. 

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