Bones was someone I'd wanted to feature for a while, and when he finally came through NYC—prior to UFC 159—the timing worked perfectly. He couldn't have been more cool and jovial, and, class act that he is, he gave me cage-side tickets to the match (vs Chael Sonnen, when he broke his toe). Brought on Eugene S. Robinson, author of Fight (Harper Collins), to write the piece.
PHOTOGRAPHY CEDRIC BUCHET
FASHION BRANDON MAXWELL
TEXT EUGENE S. ROBINSON
JON “BONES” JONES, THE 26-YEAR-OLD LIGHT HEAVYWEIGHT CHAMPION OF THE UFC (AND THE YOUNGEST EVER TO HAVE HELD THAT TITLE) IS BELIEVED BY MANY TO BE THE GREATEST FIGHTER IN THE WORLD, AND BY SOME TO BE THE GREATEST OF ALL TIME. LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, WHAT TOMORROW’S SPORTS LEGEND LOOKS LIKE TODAY.
It was a moment so significant it announced itself. It’s 2009, at a post-fight press conference for the premier combat sports league, Ultimate Fighting Championship, and what the press was conferencing about was the UFC 94 title fight. A tall, skinny, 22-year-old kid fighting in only his second ever UFC match, had just laid waste to one of the sport’s legendary bangers, Stephan Bonnar. Textbook definition “laying to waste,” as in Bonnar was thrown, spinning-elbowed, kneed, outclassed, outgunned—the ignominious victim of some Real Bruce Lee type of shit (if Bruce Lee was 6'4", 205 pounds with an 85-inch reach). Bonnar went from being the much-favored pick to a historical footnote while the world wondered how, what, and, most important, who. All questions that would need to be asked only once, and provided with the very same answer: Jon Jones.
Standing on the dais at the press conference, Jones was asked what he would do now that he’d arrived via an unexpected win over a serious competitor. Jones paused, and with a certain degree of quiet aplomb said, “Go back to Rochester and commune with nature.” It was the perfect punctuation mark on what he had just done in the cage, a sui generis moment that smiled at you like some sort of emoticon at the end of a sentence, saying “now it begins.”
Quick backgrounder for the cave dwellers: we’re not talking about boxing or fake pro wrestling or even wrestling. We’re talking mixed martial arts (MMA). A Frankensteinian mash-up of boxing, kickboxing, wrestling, Brazilian jiu jitsu, and a half dozen other martial arts disciplines. To top it off, all fights occur in “the octagon,” an eight-sided chain-link cage. It’s the fastest growing sport in America for men between the ages of 18 and 49 and has been featured in some form or another on CBS, NBC, Showtime, Spike, MTV, Facebook, and PPV. Cage-side you can spot fans as varied as the styles used in combat: Holly Hunter, Cindy Crawford, Anthony Kiedis, Mickey Rourke, Stanley Tucci, and a passel of pro athletes from other sports (Shaq is a longtime fan and practitioner).
Today, the 26-year-old Jon Jones is the brilliant glow coming off an already brilliant brand. After becoming the youngest champion in UFC history, in March of 2011, the upstate New York wunderkind boasts a record of 19 wins and one loss, that loss a universally voided blemish that came as the result of a disqualification (illegal elbows): Jones’s opponent was unmoving on the canvas at the time of his “win.”
“I feel like I’m dreaming,” says Jones while cruising around Los Angeles, doing the Hollywood stride as studios have come a’calling to see if this affable and movie star–handsome ass kicker has any more than ass kicking in him. (Early adopter Nike thinks so and has signed Jones to a global deal.) “Like, I’ll wake up and find that none of it’s happening.” Which is a thoughtful and understandable take on what life’s been like since his meteoric rise to the top. Not bullshit “meteoric,” where the guy’s been slaving away in obscurity and then is finally discovered. No, not that. Jones walked into his first martial arts school four months and six fights before he got the call from the UFC to show up. Which, if you’re doing the math, means that he fought his first fight mere weeks after stepping through the door of a gym.
As astonishing as that is (and it obviously fucking is), if you dig a little deeper you see something of a pedigre and preestablished tradition of winning. Not only was Jones a state champion wrestler and national junior college champ, but two of his brothers are in the NFL. But how did he actually do it? “YouTube,” he says. What? “I started watching YouTube videos,” Jones chuckles, not joking at all. “After training, I watched everything I could. Top guys mostly.” Not a prescription for greatness, no, but certainly a prerequisite for getting started. This is where the old fight game, where desire was the only real qualification needed, meets the new fight business, where fighters of Jones’s ilk are knee-deep in a collective understanding of their sport that wasn’t yet established for their predecessors.
But pundits and prognosticators are struggling to figure out what it means when you talk about fighters of Jones’s “ilk.” There are none, really, a fact made blatant as we witness the cavalcade of competitors stepping up and getting knocked down by Jones, with his wildly different, improvisational shit that makes what you’re seeing much more art, though no less martial. His creativity has already led to whispers (and likely eventual shouts) from certain quarters about “the greatest of all time.”
Eugene “The Wolf” Jackson, early UFC vet, defines greatness as “a function of time” and has yet to see this in Jones. “Even though,” he continues, “[Jones] has the thing that makes fighters great: the ability to zone out and zone in.” Jackson is referring to Jones breaking his toe in his last fight, with trash-talking Republican and convicted felon Chael Sonnen. After a first-round TKO, in the midst of the crowd’s chorus of boos, denouncing a possible early stoppage, the entire tone and tenor of the evening changed when Joe Rogan entered the ring to interview the champ and they both realized, at the same time, that Jones had broken his toe. The crowd collectively gasped, then erupted, when the 60-foot jumbotron zoomed in on Jones’s mangled toe, twisted at a 90-degree angle, the bone burst through his skin.
Jones just hadn’t noticed. He’d been too busy clubbing the overmatched Sonnen into probable retirement (seriously). There’s your zoned in. “I just got the stitches and staples removed from my toe,” he says. “I’m about two weeks from full-on training again.”
There’s also the refreshing sense that Jones is coming increasingly into his own, comfortably not giving a shit what anyone might say since anything he has to say can be said in the cage. “I’m focused on beating Tito’s record,” Jones says, referring to the former light-heavyweight champ Tito Ortiz’s record for most successful title defenses. “And after that? I think I’d like to try some heavyweight matches.”
Like a big kid in an increasingly large candy store, Jones, father of two and engaged to be married, is not burdened by either destiny or a sense of his place in it. His understanding is complex, but broken down into its basic elements, can be very simply put: “I find it amazing,” he says. “It’s all very surreal.”
Though all devils have advocates, our concurrence is total: it’s too early (and pretty much impossible) to close the betting window on Jon Jones now, but this fighter is without a doubt the greatest of this time, his time, in the world.
And when he next steps into the octagon to fight, this September, at UFC 165 (against the mighty Swede Alexander Gustafsson), the possibility of mind-blowing genius gets way more than probable for those with the discernment to recognize it. For the rest of the world: you might not like Guernica, but you’re going to be moved by it and Picasso’s awesome power anyway.
Yup. Just like that.
Amazing. Surreal. Indeed.