Jon “Bones” Jones is Sweet and Vicious
Posted By MJ On March 5, 2012 @ 2:45 pm In Cover Stories,Features
It’s a Saturday night in Denver, and in the Octagon, Jon “Bones” Jones is down on his knees. He has just successfully defended his UFC light heavyweight title, but he’s not celebrating. Instead, he crawls to the center of the canvas, sweat dripping down his nose, and sits there, silently staring out at the crowd. Considering the violence he has just unleashed — nearly asphyxiating Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, a mixed-martial-arts legend and former champion, who is lying prone on the canvas, covered in blood — it’s an odd, almost pious pose.
Sixteen thousand screaming fight fans have crammed into this dimly lit arena, but Jones, kneeling in the white-hot glow of the lights, can’t make out a single face nor hear a thing. He seems completely at ease, as if what he has accomplished is no surprise to him — which it isn’t.
“I visualized this,” Jones says later. “When I was, like, 20 years old, I had this voice-mail message that said, ‘Hi, this is Jon Bones Jones, the light heavyweight champ.’ I was speaking it into existence and carrying myself like I was the champion way before I was even in the UFC. It’s crazy that it all played out.”
This was Jones’ first title defense, and there will likely be more. In his first year of mixed-martial-arts competition, he won eight fights in 10 months, dominating regional competition and crushing every fighter put before him, regardless of style. He outpointed a Golden Gloves boxer, pummeled black belts in Brazilian jujitsu, and tossed around Greco-Roman wrestlers. He debuted with the UFC in 2008, and three years later, at age 23, he became its youngest champion. In 2011 he didn’t just beat three former champions — Jackson, Mauricio Rua, and Lyoto Machida — he took them apart, prompting UFC president Dana White (MMA’s Vince McMahon) to predict that Jones “could become the Michael Jordan of the sport,” White says. “If he can keep the hangers-on from fucking with his head, the sky’s the limit.”
Jones’ victory represents the beginning of a new era. Rampage — who entered the arena for the Jones fight with a thick metal chain around his neck, howling like a dog — once defined the UFC’s testosterone-fueled style, helping transform the UFC from a debt-ridden, bare-knuckled, almost-anything-goes fight league into a billion-dollar sport. Along the way, guys like Rampage and Chuck Liddell (best known for his Mohawk and a taste for porn stars) molded the appetites of the UFC fan base, creating what is derisively known within the tight-knit world of MMA as the “tits and tats” crowd.
That’s the crowd here tonight — sucking down 32-ounce Buds and screaming for blood — and they’re not sure what to make of Jones. Other fighters climb the cage when they win, or thump their chests and run around the Octagon. Not Jones. Unlike his predecessors, he also doesn’t date porn stars or act like a pro wrestler, refusing, for example, to clownishly stare down his opponents at weigh-ins.
“He’s not the stereotype, which some of the hardcore fans don’t like, but he represents where the sport is going,” says Jim Genia, author of Raw Combat: The Underground World of Mixed Martial Arts. “This guy is a real athlete. He could’ve been a professional basketball or baseball player. He just chose mixed martial arts instead.”
All of which may help explain why there are as many boos as cheers when Jones rises to his feet and accepts the gaudy gold-and-black UFC belt from White. He exits the cage moments later, smiling. A heavyset guy in a tight Ed Hardy T-shirt sitting five rows back suddenly stands up, beer sloshing from his plastic cup.
“Hey, Jon Jones,” he yells. “Fuck you!”
Greg Jackson’s MMA studio sits in one of the worst parts of Albuquerque, New Mexico. It’s among the most famous MMA gyms in the world, but you’d never know it from looking at the place. The windows are reinforced with iron bars, and the sign above the door, a fading hand-painted depiction of a boa constrictor, looks like the work of a middle-school student.
It’s a little after nine when Jones arrives in a black Bentley, the windows vibrating to Jay-Z and Kanye West’s “Niggas in Paris.” Jones grew up poor in inner-city Rochester, New York. Now he’s driving a brand-new $170,000 car.
Jones unfolds himself from the soft leather seat with a big grin and pushes his Gucci sunglasses to the top of his head. He’s wearing essentially what he’s worn since he dropped out of college five years ago: white tee, camo shorts, black leather Converses with the laces untied. He has a freakishly sculpted physique: 6-foot-4 with broad shoulders that taper down to a carved midsection and a narrow waist. The only thing about him that doesn’t look strong is his legs, which seem to have little, if any, muscle. Hence the name Bones. But even this physical quirk is a fighting advantage: Those legs keep opponents at bay with punishing kicks he can deliver from odd, unpredictable angles. Few of the guys he fights get close enough to touch his face.
He pushes his way past the doors and steps into the gym, a dingy spot reminiscent of the one Rocky retreated to after Clubber Lang kicked his ass. There’s a rickety metal fan rattling in the distance and the vague smell of disinfectant.
“This gym is full of champions in different disciplines,” Jones says, as he stretches out under two climbing ropes, “so every time I’m fighting someone, they are better at boxing or kickboxing. I’m just the best at putting them all together.”
This morning the 15 or so fighters spread out on the wrestling mats are practicing muay Thai, a technique that’s similar to kickboxing but includes grappling holds. Fighters fly in from as far away as Russia and Japan to train here; some live upstairs in a bunkhouse. In a few minutes, pairs will split up to spar: classically trained boxers versus former collegiate wrestling stars, judo black belts against experts in Brazilian jujitsu. This is Jones’ favorite part of training because it allows him to practice adjusting to the styles of different fighters.
Jones slips in his custom-made mouthpiece (it reads bones across the teeth) and steps into the cage with a UFC up-and-comer nicknamed “Cowboy,” a local kid who looks like he could moonlight as one of the meth dealers on Breaking Bad (which is set in Albuquerque). Jones is nearly a full head taller than Cowboy and a much sleeker athlete, dodging everything Cowboy throws with a fluid, almost effortless motion, and answering with precise jabs and kicks to the shins and thighs that would leave deep contusions if the two were going full speed.
Their trainer, Greg Jackson, says Jones is one of the most gifted athletes he’s ever worked with. “With a lot of guys, I’ll say, ‘Try this,’ and they’ll say OK, but before long they’re back to doing what they’ve always done,” Jackson says. “With Jon, he’ll try anything. He’s trained as a wrestler, but he’s learning muay Thai and Brazilian jujitsu and boxing. A lot of times, he’s coming to me with new ideas.”
Jones’ rapid rise to the top of the light heavyweight division comes as more athletes are participating in MMA than ever before. There are two large minor-league organizations in the U.S., Bellator and Strikeforce, and dozens of smaller promotion companies hosting fights nearly every weekend in rodeo arenas, high school gyms, and at casinos on Indian reservations.
“Think of mixed martial arts as an iceberg, and the UFC is the only thing sticking up out of the water,” says Genia. “Guys fly in for the UFC from Japan and Brazil. Those are viable leagues, but the UFC is where everyone wants to be.”
The UFC began in 1993 as a fight between a 415-pound sumo wrestler and a Dutch kickboxer. Today it is televised in 150 countries, packs stadiums from San Jose to Tokyo, and last year signed a $700 million deal with Fox to air fights in prime time. But as the sport evolves, it’s leaving some of its early stars behind. Three of the UFC’s biggest draws — Liddell, Randy Couture, and Brock Lesnar — all retired within the past year, which means the pressure is on Jones, the newest star in the UFC firmament, to fill the void. Before his bout with Rampage, the UFC staged something of a coming-out party for Jones, with appearances on The Tonight Show and Jimmy Kimmel.
Just how far MMA can inject itself into the mainstream is unclear, because no matter how hard the organization tries to shift the focus to marketable athletes like Jones, there’s no way to take the brutality out of the sport. Arms will be broken, blood spilled, 265-pound men will be choked until unconscious, and some people will turn away in disgust. In Jones’ most recent title defense, in December, he rocked his opponent, the Brazilian black belt Lyoto Machida, with a savage elbow to the forehead, then stood him up against the cage with what’s called a guillotine choke, a jujitsu move that is every bit as sadistic as it sounds. When Machida wouldn’t “tap out,” or concede the match by hitting the canvas, Jones clenched his teeth and squeezed until Machida’s arm went limp and his eyes rolled back in his head. When the ref finally stopped the fight, Jones simply dropped Machida on the mat and walked away. Good luck marketing that to Nike.
But they will try. Jones’ sparring session ends, and Cowboy steps out of the cage, frustrated that no matter how hard he tried, he could never get close enough to really hit Jones.
“He hit you with that cocaine punch,” a fighter named Carlos Condit says, referring to a strike so hard it “leaves your teeth numb.”
Jones laughs at this; Cowboy can’t help but smile. But Jones’ publicist, who these days rarely strays far from his side, shakes her head.
“Don’t put that in your story,” she tells me.
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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.
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