Jon Jones rolled through 2011 like a violent storm, destroying everything in his path. | Photo: Sherdog.com
Jon Jones began 2011 as one of mixed martial arts’ people to watch, a fighter who could conceivably reach great heights if his focus and determination matched his talent. He ended it as a champion and author of one of the greatest years in the sport’s brief history.
“Man, what a year it’s been. I’ve grown like crazy in so many ways: man, father, athlete, business,” Jones reflected in a Dec. 31 post to his Twitter account. “I’m on top of things and I’m proud of myself.”
If anyone should be allowed to bask in his own glory, it’s Jones. Over the past 12 months, the Endicott, N.Y., native posted emphatic victories over Ryan Bader, Mauricio “Shogun” Rua, Quinton “Rampage” Jackson and Lyoto Machida. Three of those men were UFC champions, while the other was an unbeaten, top-10 light heavyweight. It would be understandable if Jones had faltered against competition of that caliber, but he never did.
“It was his year to take the next step,” says Greg Jackson, who began training Jones prior to his meeting with Matt Hamill in 2009. “2011 was the most important year of his career; not only for the championship, but how he grew as a fighter in every single fight that he fought. He grew and got better and stronger and showed more of his greatness, so I think it was a very important year.”
With that in mind, Jones is a slam-dunk choice for Sherdog.com’s 2011 “Fighter of the Year.” Fans will remember his consistent excellence on a fight-to-fight basis. Those close to him will remember that, but they’ll also remember a friend and teammate who kept things loose even as the spotlight grew brighter.
Calm and Collected
From a manager’s standpoint, it was a worst-case scenario. Just a few days out from the biggest fight of Jones’ career, and now Malki Kawa was on the phone, trying to figure out a way to tell UFC President Dana White that his client wasn’t going to show up for work on time.
On the other end of the line was Jones, selling the story that he had gotten into an argument with police and had been arrested. It was a joke, of course, but Kawa didn’t know that.
“It was quite comical, something I couldn’t even stay involved in because I couldn’t keep a straight face over the phone,” says striking coach Mike Winkeljohn. “They had Malki scared s--tless over the phone, not sure what he was gonna do.”
It was pretty much par for the course, as Jones never got overwhelmed by the moment during his historic run.
“It was just funny how Jon was able to play that with a fight right around the corner. It’s not an immaturity thing, but he was able to detach, relax himself and know that he’s got to stay relaxed before the fight and still have fun,” Winkeljohn says.
The bout with Bader on Super Bowl weekend was plenty of fun, too, as Jones elicited a tap from the former Sun Devil in the second round with a guillotine choke. Bader’s pedigree as an All-American wrestler at Arizona State University was supposed to give him a decided advantage on the mat. Overlooked was Jones’ time at Iowa Central Community College, where he captured a junior college national championship as a wrestler and earned interest from Iowa State University for his exploits.
“His wrestling is very good,” says Willie Parks, a teammate at Jackson’s MMA who once roomed with former UFC heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez at Iowa Central. “People underestimate his talent because in his fights you normally see his striking. When he wanted to dominate in wrestling in his fights, he did. I don’t think he’s been taken down, not even close. The guys get punished every time they try, which [also] happens in practice. He’s very long, he’s very strong. He put people out when he gets anything wrapped around them.”
The win over Bader was followed by a sequence of events that not even Jones himself could have imagined. An injury to former training partner Rashad Evans allowed Jones to get a shot at “Shogun” Rua and the light heavyweight title at UFC 128. His dominance over Rua in becoming the youngest champion in the promotion’s history was enough to earn the bout “Beatdown of the Year” honors from Sherdog. His antics in apprehending a thief during a meditation session prior to the fight added a superhero-like element to his persona.
While some began to question whether the man known as “Bones” was too good to be true, Jackson recalls wishing that Jones would have taken more of a hands-off approach at the time.
“You flip the switch in those situations, or at least I do. I remember getting really mad at Jon because he wouldn’t go away,” Jackson says. “He finally backed off a little bit after he tripped the guy. I remember thinking, ‘Jon’s gonna get hurt and cost him the fight,’ and me and [Mike] Winkeljohn can take care of business. I’m glad we did it, but I was really concerned for Jon’s safety.”
When he wasn’t catching criminals outside of the cage, Jones continued to improve his skills. Even with growing success, Jones remained a good listener and was able to apply different techniques learned in practice on fight nights. Nowhere was this more evident than in Jones’ first title defense against Rampage at UFC 135.
“He had never really thrown kicks toward people’s legs -- cross kicks for instance -- and [we] taught him to throw cross kicks before Rampage,” says Winkeljohn. “If you start doing that, he can’t come forward and it’s gonna frustrate him. He hadn’t really worked a lot of that, but Jon made it a big part of his game plan. He’s very adaptable that way.”
In that fight, Jones connected on 35 of his 43 attempted leg strikes, and Rampage was never able to fully display his knockout power before submitting to a rear-naked choke in the fourth round.
“He still listens to what Greg and Wink say, and that is really important,” says Julie Kedzie, a Strikeforce veteran who is also Jackson’s assistant at the gym. “If he continues to do that he’s going to keep the title for a really long time. From what I’ve seen, when people reach success, they want to add new things. The thing is, the people that got you to where you are successful are probably the people you need to still be listening to.”
Still the Same
When Jones signed with the UFC, he was the youngest fighter on the promotion’s roster. A relative novice to MMA at 20 years old, he began raising expectations with each Octagon appearance. By 2011, his star had grown considerably and it wasn’t unusual to have outlets like ESPN and Sports Illustrated accompanying the usual MMA media hordes as a Jones fight approached. Most 20-somethings would be adversely affected by that much attention, but those in Albuquerque say that for all his physical gifts, Jones remained humble and approachable.
“I’ve been here almost a year in January,” says Buddy Roberts, a 29-year-old light heavyweight who began his career training under Ken Shamrock. “The first time I got to go with him I was kind of in awe. When I got here he was the first guy to come up to me and ask to roll with him and to train. That just showed some of his character right there; I was the new guy in the gym, and he was the first one to come up and talk to me.
“He’s not a superstar. He treats everybody the same way, it doesn’t matter if you’re a UFC top contender or if you’re a journeyman. He treats everybody with the same respect.”
Brandon Gibson, a boxing coach at Jackson’s MMA, began working with Jones extensively prior to UFC 135. He’s seen the carefree side of the champion since he began traveling with him to events -- “I remember one night after a hard workout [at Grudge MMA in Denver], Jon was just dancing in the cage to Bob Marley for like five minutes, just in the zone,” Gibson said -- but he’s also seen Jones’ evolution into a leader.
“He takes a lot of pride in being part of Team Jackson’s,” Gibson says. “He definitely feels the brotherhood and the camaraderie of the gym. He’s risen to become one of the leaders of the gym along with Keith [Jardine] and Joey [Villasenor] for sure -- super involved. He has the best attitude, but along with that can really motivate people and through his own rise he can share a lot of experience and motivate the guys that are on that cusp of breaking into the big show.”
How About an Encore?
In his final bout of 2011, Jones survived a first-round test from Machida, absorbing the hardest punch he had taken in recent memory. In round two, Bones solved the riddle, breaking Machida’s will with elbows on the ground before choking him unconscious.
“All of [his opponents] gave something to Jon,” says Jackson, who likens his charge’s mindset to that of welterweight champion Georges St. Pierres. “And he showed how he’d get better each and every fight.” A less savvy person might have faltered before the obstacles that were placed before Jones. In addition to a murderer’s row of opponents, Jones had to handle fame, fortune and the obligatory backlash that came with it.
“A good year ago, I think Jon worried a little bit more about what people were saying. He finally figured out that most people that think bad things about you are jealous,” Winkeljohn says. “No matter what you do there are gonna be people that are gonna love you and people that are gonna hate you. All you can do is be the best person that you can be.”
Jackson’s MMA general manager Ricky Kottenstette housed Jones for the majority of the fighter’s first year in New Mexico in 2010. He too, can see the personal growth Jones has experienced in the past 12 months.
“I feel like this is the year he matured into a man, watching him responsibility-wise and everything with his fight career -- and being tested multiple times and having everybody attack him through the whole year but still stand on top,” Kottenstette says. “Then he comes out even stronger and finishes the year. It’s looking like next year is going to be even bigger than this year.”
That remains to be seen. It will be difficult for Jones to surpass what he has done in 2011. After beating Machida, he professed a desire to take at least five months off. He’s changed his tune since then, telling ESPN.com that he would like to defend his belt four times in the coming year.
“It would be hard to top that year,” Jackson says. “I’m not sure how you could win a title and defend it two times and beat legends, ex-champions.”
With Jones however, anything appears to be possible. Or perhaps another fighter -- with the right combination of skill and good fortune -- could equal it.
“I don’t see it coming soon, but of course there could be,” Winkeljohn says. “To match it you’re gonna have to find somebody that’s got a fight and then a title shot right after, maybe an injury. The odds are against it. I think it was just the cards were dealt that way for Jon that put him in position to be that guy. Most people would falter under that kind of pressure. Jon stood tall, dealt with it and came out on top.”