UFC champion Jon “Bones” Jones is a pastor’s son with a gift for violence. Can MMA’s fiercest new fighter be the good guy in a bad man’s sport?
Later that day, Jones gets into his Bentley and drives toward Albuquerque’s scraggly brown hills, where he lives, when training, in a gated community with his girlfriend, Jesse, and their two daughters.
“Albuquerque needs a lot of help,” Jones says as we pass a row of sun-bleached buildings on Route 66. He’s slouched down in his seat, his forearm resting casually on the wheel, scanning the sidewalk. He’s looking for a homeless person to give a takeout box of sushi that’s resting on my lap. “Here we go,” he says, spotting someone on the side of the road. He slows down, but when he gets closer, he realizes the woman is simply walking to her car.
“Wait a minute, she’s not homeless!” he says, laughing. “Can you imagine? I’m trying to be a nice guy, and she’s like, ‘You asshole, you think I’m homeless!’ ”
Jones has eagerly taken to the role of UFC good guy and seems to feel a responsibility to defy the stereotype built by fighters like Rampage, who dry-humped a reporter during a televised interview, or the pro wrestler turned MMA fighter Brock Lesnar, who, after defending his heavyweight title, proclaimed that he was going to go home and “get on top of my wife.”
Hours before his first title fight, Jones went to a waterfall in New Jersey with his trainers to meditate, something he says he does before every fight. Suddenly, a woman ran up screaming that she had been robbed. Jones and his trainers chased down the mugger, tripped him, and then held him until the police arrived.
“It felt so good. I was just so amped, high on life, like I just helped somebody,” he says. “You know when you give something to a homeless person you just feel like, ‘I’m doing the right thing.’ I felt like Superman — it felt way great. I was thinking, ‘Should I tweet this?’ Because a good deed you’re not supposed to talk about. But [my trainer] was like, ‘Jon, this is good for our sport. People should know what just happened.’ So I put the story out, and it was, like, a whole lot more important than the actual fight.”
The son of a Pentecostal pastor, Jones was a well-behaved kid, rarely getting into fights at school, but he and his two brothers went at it at home all the time. “They’d be throwing each other down the stairs, breaking the sofa, smashing lamps,” their father says. Jones says his toughness, like most of his scars, comes from those early days.
Both of Jones’ brothers were talented football players (Arthur Jr. now plays in the NFL for the Baltimore Ravens; Chandler, the youngest, is a defensive end at Syracuse and potential first-round draft pick). But Jones was too skinny and awkward for football. Instead, he wrestled, eventually attending Iowa Central, which is a junior college powerhouse. His freshman year, he won the junior college national championship and got a scholarship offer to Iowa State, one of the nation’s top collegiate wrestling programs. But the summer before he was set to begin at Iowa, he found out his girlfriend was pregnant. “It was like everything was gone,” he says. “Everything was out the window.”
Jones gave up the scholarship and moved home to upstate New York. Unable to find work — he was turned down for a job as a janitor at a local factory — he began bouncing at a bar. Looking for an outlet for his athletic abilities, he decided to give mixed martial arts a try and started training at a gym near his home, borrowing his girlfriend’s car to get there. Because his parents wouldn’t allow an unmarried couple to sleep in the same bed, he moved with his girlfriend into the unfinished basement at her mother’s house.
“All we had down there were two mattresses. It was this nasty, dark basement. I’d come home from training and load up these YouTube clips of UFC fighters and watch them for hours — study their moves. And then I’d stand up and practice what I had just seen. I’d kick a spot on the wall over and over until I got it right,” Jones says. “I remember one night after I’d had a couple fights and people were starting to talk about me. I was online and I got on this message board, and someone said, ‘This guy you’re all talking about, I’m telling you that he’s not going to be shit. A year from now, he’s going to get knocked out a few times and be back here, just a loser hanging around town.’ That message stuck with me. I don’t know who wrote it, but I still think about it. I wanted to prove him wrong.”
The swim team at Sandia High School is doing laps when Jones walks into the humid facility carrying a black gym bag. As he slips into his trunks and readies himself for the water, a girl with a pink cap and matching goggles one lane over can’t help but stop and stare. He resembles a giant next to the high school kids and is entirely out of place.
He straps himself into what looks like a giant black rubber band attached to the metal bleachers, puts some flippers on, and jumps feetfirst into the deep end, where he tries to swim against the resistance of the rubber line. It’s a part of his training regimen that he’s devised himself to build cardio and stamina.
“I want to change our sport with something positive,” Jones had told me earlier that day, “to brighten up people’s lives and get them to look more on the positive side about every little thing.”
This is precisely the sort of comment that polarizes UFC fans, many of whom don’t like self-righteous knockout artists. On message boards, fans call him an “arrogant bitch” and accuse him of faking the humility.
The truth is that Jones is racked with self-doubt. He begins every morning reading motivational quotes to get himself going, and he is haunted by the fear of getting knocked out while millions of people are watching.
“Sometimes I look back, and I want to be rude to people who didn’t believe in me. But that’s not what I do,” he says. “I try to treat everybody with love. But when I go home now, to the people who treated me like a loser, I’m, like, the hero of our whole town.”
When he’s done swimming laps, he towels off, and we head back outside to the gravel lot. A kid from the swim team comes up to him and asks if he can take the Bentley for a spin. Jones says yes, and they disappear together for a few minutes, driving around the block.
“My road wasn’t easy, by any means,” he says. “That’s why when people call me cocky, it’s, like, the biggest blow I can get. It’s like, ‘It’s not me! I’m sorry I’m coming across that way.’ I don’t think I’m better than anyone.”
Two weeks later, Jones calls me as he’s boarding a flight to do publicity for the UFC. We talk about the Rampage fight and why, when it was over, he sat down in the center of the ring.
“I heard this story once of this football player who, whenever he scored, just handed the ball to the ref. And I thought that was really cool, like, ‘This is what I do. I score touchdowns.’ I wasn’t trying to be cocky or anything, but that’s what I was thinking: ‘This is what I do. I defend my title.’ ”
I ask if it bothers him that the fans don’t seem to appreciate his greatness — that even though he’s beat a string of legends, they still boo and jeer him when he weighs in before a match and walks into the ring.
“I don’t hear them, to tell you the truth,” Jones says. “I can’t please everyone. Some people are going to love you, and some are going to hate you, no matter what you do.”
He tells me he has to go. His flight is leaving, and there are people waiting for him when he lands, appearances to make, interviews to do. The UFC expects a lot from him, and it’s not just about fighting — not even for him.
This article originally appeared in the March 2012 issue of Men’s Journal.