Is UFC 135 headliner Jon Jones the best athlete in America today?
Give Jon Jones 10 pitches in the batting cage, and he might make contact twice. Toss him a basketball, and even if he catches it, he says, "I'm a 6-4 black guy who's never dunked." Jones practically had a genetic mandate to play football -- one of his brothers plays in the NFL and the other is a Division I starter -- but when he went out for his high school team in the Binghamton suburb of Endicott, N.Y., he was too slow to play wide receiver, didn't have the hands to play tight end and didn't start at defensive end until his senior year.
If this seems an unlikely description for one of the most dominant athletes in the U.S. today, well, maybe we've been defining athlete too narrowly. Jon Jones might not win sprints, but he breezes through 12-mile training runs in the high altitude of New Mexico's Sandia Mountains, where he often trains. He has almost freakish flexibility, a carapace of muscle and a wingspan comparable to a seven-footer's. He has a sixth sense of the geometry and physics of his sport, an uncanny ability to anticipate his opponents' moves, and a wiry strength that belies his nickname, Bones. Maybe most important, Jones possesses what he calls "the combat spirit." Even in pitched battles, he performs in a shroud of calm.
So while Arthur Jones, 25, plays defensive end for the Ravens, and Chandler Jones, 21, is an NFL-bound senior defensive end at Syracuse, 24-year-old Jon Jones is the most celebrated jock in the family. ("Not even close," concedes Arthur. "I'm 315 pounds, and I'm in his shadow.") Jon is the UFC light-heavyweight (205-pound) champion and the youngest man to hold a belt in the 18-year history of that organization. He's emerged from the cage unscratched after every one of his 14 bouts, winning one fight with a 270-degree spinning elbow, another with a guillotine choke, yet another with ruthless punches and more elbows. When Jones defends his belt in Denver on Saturday, his challenger, Quinton "Rampage" Jackson, will try to become the first opponent to so much as lay a hand on him.
Jones hasn't just established himself as the most dynamic mixed martial artist; he's also smashed cage-fighting stereotypes like a black belt splintering boards. Here we have a spiritual man who is versed in both meditation and military history, a champion fighter who resides in that pugilistic hotbed of ... Ithaca, N.Y. "We talk about fighters coming from all over, getting into [MMA] from all different angles -- well, look at Jon," says Dana White, the UFC president.
In high school Jones's best sport was wrestling. (Jon was such a poor football player, Arthur says, that the "only way he makes the NFL is if a water-boy job opens up.") Jon won a state title, grappled for two years at Iowa Central Community College in Fort Dodge and in 2008 received a scholarship offer from the dynastic Iowa State program. Then he learned that his girlfriend was pregnant.
He dropped out of school and returned home to the Rochester area to find work. He got a job as a bouncer and in a good week took home $300 after taxes. He interviewed for a custodial job at the Lockheed Martin plant and was turned down. A decade earlier he might have been stuck, but Jones stumbled on mixed martial arts, a shotgun marriage of wrestling, jiujitsu, boxing and kickboxing that had just come into vogue.
At a buddy's urging, he ventured into an MMA gym and was instantly seduced. Jones already had the wrestling background. He began training madly, watching instructional videos, going to Barnes & Noble and buying books on combat sports. He trained at the dojo, but he was mostly an autodidact, rehearsing and re-rehearsing moves at home until he'd committed them to muscle memory.
His father (a Pentecostal pastor) and his mother (an aide for the mentally challenged), already displeased that Jon had gotten a girlfriend pregnant and quit school, were appalled. When asked what their middle son was up to, they'd mutter something about "finding himself."
In 2008, after training for just a few months, Jones took his first pro fight. He made $200 for showing up and another $100 for winning. The same stone hands that had denied him a career in basketball or football served him well in his new sport. A few months after that he fought for $1,200. He knocked his opponent unconscious in the third round. "It was around then," he says, "that my parents thought maybe I was on to something, maybe I wasn't such a disappointment."
He might have learned moves and maneuvers quickly, but it took longer to face the reality that he was trafficking in pain. As a kid Jones rarely fought (he says, "I was in jazz choir, man!"), and when he did, it was against his larger brothers. (Jon gives away about 100 pounds to Arthur and 50 to Chandler.) In a jiujitsu match he fought just for fun, he dislocated his opponent's elbow. "You could hear it," he says, wincing. The two men screamed in stereo -- Jones's opponent because he was in agony and Jones because he was horrified by what he'd done.
Since then Jones has rationalized the infliction of pain as a cost of doing business, an unpleasant consequence of a job he loves. That's good, because he dispenses copious amounts of hurt. Jones won his fourth fight in 14 seconds. He's sent multiple opponents to the hospital. In his 10th fight he beat UFC veteran Brandon Vera so savagely that Vera required facial reconstructive surgery.
In the lone defeat on his record, Jones was disqualified for delivering a downward elbow strike, one of the few prohibited blows under the unified rules of MMA instituted in 2001.
Having outgrown his gym in upstate in New York, Jones decamped to Greg Jackson's gym in Albuquerque two years ago. Jackson, age 37, is as unlikely a top MMA trainer as Jones is a top fighter. The son of pacifists, Jackson rebelled as a kid by getting into fights and developing a fondness for military history and philosophy.
Mostly self-taught, he became a technical expert in MMA, but he also incorporated into his training the ideas of everyone from Genghis Khan to Stonewall Jackson. "Everyone has a breaking point," says Jackson. "A key is making sure yours is deeper than the other guy's."
Jones had always been spiritual. He grew up going to Pentecostal church services and singing in the choir. For years he practiced visualization, anticipating the success that would come both in fights and in his career.
"The fight would start, and I wouldn't feel nerves or fear because it already was so familiar to me," he says. "I'd been there in my head so many times." (Around the time of his first fight, he changed his e-mail password to UFCCHAMP.) He warmed to Jackson's unusual methods, reading about medieval battles and -- stealing a page from Lao Tzu -- attacking an opponent's strength.
"If your opponent breaks down what you're best at, mentally, where are you?" says Jackson. "Know yourself and known your adversary."
At Jackson's urging, Jones meditates multiple times a day. When he closes his eyes, what does he think about? "It can be anything," he says, "but a lot of times I'm in nature, as basic elements. I am immovable like a mountain. I flow like water. I am like fire to the touch ... Sometimes I feel more like a samurai than a traditional athlete."
When Jones was 12, his 17-year-old sister, Carmen, died of brain cancer. It racked the family, and her medical expenses strained an already tight budget. When Jon was in high school he went to a tattoo parlor to have CJ rendered on his chest in Chinese characters. At least that was the plan. His mother, already displeased, took him to a Chinese restaurant to check the calligraphy. They were informed that the tattoo did not represent CJ at all.
Uh-oh. Rather it was the characters for the phrase QUIET WARRIOR.
As permanent typos go, it was serendipitous. Jones speaks so softly that he seems fearful of waking someone nearby. He talks no trash and nearly pulls muscles bending over backward to praise opponents. (Naturally he's "filled with respect" for Rampage Jackson.)
As one of the top draws in MMA and the sport's youngest belt holder, Jones now earns mid-six-figures plus a pay-per-view bonus for each fight and, he claims, north of $1 million annually in endorsements, which include fight brands but also K-Swiss and Bud Light. (His Twitter account, @Jonnybones, has more than 140,000 followers.) Still, he is unapologetically cheap. No jewelry. No new car.
When he trains in Albuquerque, he leases the two-bedroom stucco house that he shares with his girlfriend, Jessie Moses, and their two daughters, 3-year-old Leah and 1-year-old Carmen; the cost is $1,000 a month plus four tickets to the fights. Asked about his biggest expenditure since he came into wealth, Jones pauses. Finally he says, "I paid for my uncle Morris's funeral."
Jones cemented his role as an MMA superhero last March, a few hours before his last fight. He and Jackson were meditating in a park near the arena in Newark, when they were interrupted by a woman crying out that she'd been robbed. Jones gave chase, and when he caught the thief, he threw him to the ground. Then, waiting for police to arrive, he administered a harsh lecture about the evils of crime. A few hours later he administered a harsh beating to his opponent, Maurício (Shogun) Rua of Brazil, scoring a third-round TKO to win the light heavyweight belt.
Jones doesn't just embrace the role of UFC Good Guy; he puts it in a kimura, or submission hold. Over a leisurely Thai dinner in Albuquerque, he offers some unsolicited thoughts:
On performance-enhancing drugs: "Once you take steroids to get ahead, you've quit in your heart. I know I can break you. Why? Because you're cutting corners."
On giving thanks to God: "Do I think He helped me land that left hook? Do I think He cares about me in a fight and not my opponent? No. But do I think He gave me the strength and good habits to help me do the right things to get this point? Yeah, definitely."
On his legacy: "I don't want people to say, I want to fight like Jon Jones. I want them to say, I want to be Jon Jones. I want to transcend the sport, to inspire people."
It's such statements that make Jones's critics roll their eyes and, inevitably, take to the various UFC message boards. The knock on Jones in some corners of UFC Nation goes like this: He's too young to talk like that, he hasn't paid his dues, he smudges the line between self-confident and arrogant. Rampage Jackson seized on this during a prefight buildup that went from tame to hostile almost overnight, when the 33-year-old challenger made the unusual allegation of Jones planting a spy in his camp. "You're the future of MMA, straight up," said Jackson, who played the role of B.A. Baracus in last year's remake of
Jones hears this and smiles. The quiet warrior will express himself when the octagon door clangs shut. He summons his inner mystic (a Pentecostal Buddhist?) and says softly, "God willing, the truth will come out."
As long as no one tosses him his belt like a football, he should hold onto it just fine.