Jon “Bones” Jones has emerged as the sport’s top pound-for-pound fighter. | Photo: Dave Mandel/Sherdog.com
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- On a rainy New Mexico morning, as the final hard practice of his training camp concluded, Jon Jones sat on the top step of the entrance to the Jackson’s Mixed Martial Arts cage and held court for members of the local media. While the names and voices had changed from the UFC 165 conference call held just days earlier, the prevailing theme behind the questioning remained largely the same.
What do you think of the comparisons between yourself and Alexander Gustafsson?
What is it like to finally face someone your size?
Why are some fighters better able to utilize reach than others?
Jones patiently addressed all of the queries, his answers carefully practiced and rehearsed.
“The key to my next fight is just to utilize great footwork, creativity and aggression. Just go out there and compete the way [I have] been trained to do,” he said. “We all know that it’s going to be a challenge: a great fighter, a young fighter, a hungry fighter. At this level of fighting, everyone’s gonna be that way. We’re just excited to try and figure out another great puzzle.”
About the only distraction for the 26-year-old light heavyweight champion came when a teammate absorbed a wicked kick to the liver during a spirited sparring session just a few feet away. As the young fighter writhed on mat, howling in agony, Jones paused, taking a break from his Reach 101 lecture to offer counsel.
“Use this as a training experience. Try to calm your mind down, get your body back together,” he said. “Focus on your mental strength. Get it all back together. Be a warrior.”
Eventually the fighter returned to his feet, perhaps emboldened by the words of encouragement as well as his own resolve. The round resumed at its previous level of intensity. Jones was not quite satisfied.
“Take it down,” he advised the combatants.
What went unspoken was this: there would be other rounds, other battles, other days. It was but a small glimpse inside Jones’ burgeoning role as a leader of one of mixed martial arts’ most famous teams. The fighter who drew his attention was not a household name, but the champion’s concern was genuine. Oftentimes, Jones’ best work is done behind the scenes, away from the bright lights of the Octagon. Where outsiders see a gifted athlete who is too often a little more pleased with himself than they would like, those inside the camp are exposed to a far different persona.
“Jon’s one of those guys that if you don’t know him, you have a lot of assumptions,” said Israel Martinez, who has been Jones’ wrestling coach since his first 205-pound title defense against Quinton Jackson in September 2011.
To wit: shortly before he left for Toronto, the site of his UFC 165 headlining bout against Gustafsson on Saturday, Jones hosted a dinner for the entire Jackson-Winkeljohn team at Pappadeaux, a popular seafood restaurant chain. All told, approximately a dozen fighters and coaches showed up to dine on Jones’ dime -- and plenty more were welcome.
“If 30 people would have shown up, that would have made him even happier,” said assistant striking coach Brandon Gibson, who added that Jones’ generosities have also included purchasing equipment -- everything from headgear to gloves to mouthguards -- for everyone on the team, as well as spreading the wealth from his Nike contract by handing out Swoosh-covered apparel to his gym brethren.
When a 22-year-old Jones first walked into the New Mexican dojo prior to facing Matt Hamill in 2009, the team had a different identity than it does now. A veteran group, led by the likes of Keith Jardine, Joey Villasenor and Rashad Evans, to name a few, represented the most prominent and influential figures in the gym. At the time, Jones’ primary job was to grow and develop. As his skills have expanded, so have the duties accompanying his lofty perch. According to striking coach Mike Winkeljohn, it is something Jones has readily embraced, both in and out of the cage.
“What Jon Jones does around camp is mentally show the guys the toughness that is needed to make it to the top,” Winkeljohn said. “He’s become more of a leader around the camp, as we’re having a turnover of our older fighters and our new fighters are starting to rise to the top.
“I always hear stories about how all of a sudden things were paid, bills were paid, doctor’s bills were paid, different things were taken care of,” he added. “I know who it is. People don’t understand that about the guy. He actually cares about others quite a bit. He just doesn’t talk that way and act it.”
Jones never did finish his reach tutorial. The champion’s track record -- five 205-pound title defenses, five wins over former champions and a spot atop many of the sport’s pound-for-pound lists -- is a product of far more than sheer size or wingspan anyway. No, not everyone can have Jones’ measured reach of 84.5 inches, an Ultimate Fighting Championship record, but not everyone blessed with physical gifts ascends to the top of his chosen athletic profession. Being a physical marvel is one thing. Translating those tools into tangible results is another matter entirely.
It is yet another concept that many observers are still unable to grasp when it comes to a man seemingly capable of dominating the sport for years to come. Jones’ rangy frame certainly enhances his performance, but it is not why he is successful.
“[People] think he’s just some gifted animal that God created to dominate the fight world,” Martinez said. “They don’t understand that this guy trains three to four times a day. He diets hard. His life is pretty serious. I think people just automatically think his reach is why he wins, but the
real reason he wins is because he’s focused.”
Gustafsson first appeared on the champion’s radar during his victory over Thiago Silva last year. It was then that commentator Mike Goldberg offered incessant Jones comparisons as the 6-foot-5 Swede cruised to a unanimous verdict by keeping his aggressive Brazilian opponent at arm’s length throughout their UFC on Fuel TV 2 encounter. If you had never seen Jones in action, at the broadcast’s conclusion you might have assumed the he and Gustafsson were one and the same.
The perception that Gustafsson matching Jones’ physical stature translates into a more competitive fight in the Octagon has gained momentum since then. The promotion’s ad campaign for UFC 165 has focused intently on the heights of the headliners, and many a forum has filled with discussion that Jones’ status is a direct result of his size. In the minds of the uneducated, only a move to heavyweight would level the playing field.
“They all weigh in the same,” Winkeljohn points out. “Big deal. Mike Tyson was short, and he knocked everybody out. It’s just that Jon understands how to use his tools.”
Jones may pretend to ignore such talk, but the fact that the Jackson’s MMA product asked to be paired with “The Mauler” shortly after he defeated Chael Sonnen at UFC 159 speaks otherwise.
“It’s the UFC’s job to promote with something,” Jones said. “It’s factual [that] we are both two really tall guys. We both have very similar builds. One of the stories of my career has been the fact that I’m so much bigger than everybody else. This is a great fight for me to break a record, and a great fight for me to prove that this record is earned and really had nothing to do with my physique. This is going to give my mind more credit.”
The same UFC 165 commercials touting the height of the two fighters also make no mention of Jones’ reach advantage. According to FightMetric.com, “Bones” has an eight-inch edge over his opponent. During the conference call, Gustafsson clarified that his reach is actually 81.5 inches -- a three-inch difference. No matter which figure is actually correct, Jones will not be the only one forced to make adjustments come fight night. Gustafsson is also not accustomed to facing someone equally -- if not better -- equipped than he to strike at range.
“There’s no doubt he’s the tallest and longest Jon’s fought to this date, whatever his damn reach is,” Winkeljohn said, “but it [also] goes that way for Gustafsson fighting Jon, so they both have to look at things a little different.”
When Chris Weidman stunned the MMA world by knocking out Anderson Silva at UFC 162, many rankings systems, including the UFC’s, catapulted Jones past welterweight king Georges St. Pierre into the top pound-for-pound spot. It was a reward for running roughshod over what has long been considered the sport’s premiere division. Silva’s loss also raised questions regarding Jones’ own vulnerability. During “The Spider’s” 16-fight unbeaten run in the Octagon, he had to combat boredom, indifference or both on more than one occasion.
If those factors could eventually catch up to Silva, might Jones, with an ever-expanding itinerary that includes UFC-mandated appearances and tours, meetings with movie studios and countless other obligations, get caught overlooking a hungry adversary? After all, the Endicott, N.Y., native has only encountered adversity in brief spurts thus far: a dicey round first round against Lyoto Machida at UFC 140 and a Vitor Belfort armbar at UFC 152. Consistently an overwhelming betting favorite -- he is as high as -1000 against Gustafsson -- it would be easy for Jones to become complacent.
“I think there’s always a small concern that Jon might take fights lightly, but he has this drive in him to be the best ever,” Winkeljohn said. “That’s great; you have to be that. You have to be confident in yourself. It makes people mad, but that’s what makes you great, is that you believe in your skills. I think Jon’s always trying to aspire to be better than ever.”
If he defeats Gustafsson, Jones will have defended his title six times, the most in the history of the UFC’s light heavyweight division. He currently shares the record with Tito Ortiz. Earlier this year, Jones said that once he surpassed Ortiz, he would begin to consider possibilities outside of his weight class. However, Silva’s loss has put the super fight talk on hold, and discussions of a divisional relocation now seem premature, as well. Glover Teixeira has already been promised a shot at the Jones-Gustafsson winner, and Daniel Cormier looms as another eventual entrant into the light heavyweight title picture.
For now, faced with an opponent he cannot look past, much less see over, Jones is content to remain grounded in the present.
“I don’t allow myself to look into the future too much. My job is to defeat this challenge that’s ahead of me and focus on doing it the best I can,” he said. “There is no Glover fight if I don’t go out there and perform the way I need to perform.”
There has always been more to Jones than meets the eye. Now, he may finally have an opponent who allows him to prove it.