NEW YORK — The longer Jon Jones talks, the more the truth seeps out. This is a complex man, even if he is often painted in broad, superficial strokes. The labels given to him are legion, both positive and negative: gifted and brilliant on one end, cocky and fake on the other. At 26 and riding the wave of a three-years-and-counting championship reign, he’s heard it all by now. The routine stuff beads off his back, but some of it still seeps into his head. Some of it he must admit is even right.
For the longest time, Jones took one of the tags as an insult. For people to call him arrogant? That was a slap to the face, a repudiation of his work ethic and achievement. But as he’s grown, matured and examined what’s gotten him this far, he’s come to terms with accepting that an undying self-belief has always been a key element of success.
Jones is a fan of winners. He roots for, and studies, people like LeBron James and Bernard Hopkins, and teams like the New York Yankees, and looks for common traits. And he’s come to the conclusion that when you’re chasing greatness, it starts with a simple decision to be great. Mindset must predate accomplishment. And once you tell yourself that and start living it, there’s no turning back. It becomes interwoven into your DNA, and part of your identity.
I am arrogant to some degree, but it’s obviously only when it comes to talking about MMA, where literally, I do the wildest stuff.
"I think I am. I think I am a little arrogant," he said on Monday. "I think it’s really important. The thing about me I say all the time is, I notice that I’m full of myself and I am arrogant to some degree, but it’s obviously only when it comes to talking about MMA, where literally, I do the wildest stuff. I don’t think I live like a celebrity at all. All my friends are normal people, normal dudes who do the most normal stuff all the time. But when it comes to MMA, there is a big chip on my shoulder. There is a way that I look at myself, and I think it’s really, really important. It’s something I’m not really apologetic for. As I get older and as I win more, I start to embrace it even more. The biggest thing is not to be apologetic for it. I realize it’s a big part of the reason I’m able to perform out there. The moment I let fear seep is the moment the fights start getting closer and closer. So yeah, I think it’s important to be an absolute believer and have that confidence."
His belief was only strengthened by the fight that put his reign in its greatest jeopardy. Last September, Jones was locked in battle with Swede Alexander Gustafsson. By all accounts, he was down on the scorecards heading to the championship rounds. Until then, Gustafsson had landed the more significant strikes and stuffed all six of Jones’ takedown attempts. The title was slipping away.
Yet when you ask Jones how he escaped with the belt in tow, the thing he points out is not some technique or adjustment. It was his mind.
It’s like, what makes Gustafsson great? Because he had a close fight with me? What else has he really done to prove that he’s great, you know what I mean?
"It was the fourth round and I literally looked up at the clock before hitting him with that [spinning] elbow, and when I looked up at the clock, I realized, ‘I may be losing here. Let me win. Let me win,’" he said. "I simply won. I simply started winning. I think that’s something champions have."
Seven months have passed since then, and even as Jones prepares to fight Glover Teixeira at Saturday night’s UFC 172, there remains a vocal contingent that suggests that Gustafsson deserved a rematch, and more, that Jones is ducking him.
The sentiment bothers Jones, who during a one-hour interview, circled back to the topic several times. He views Teixeira as perhaps the most complete fighter he’s faced, a package of knockout power, solid wrestling, black belt jiu-jitsu and strong conditioning. He went so far as to call him a "legend." But far more time was spent returning to the topic of Gustafsson and a fight that has blossomed into a rivalry, even from afar.
"I think it’s funny when people say I need to beat Gustafsson again to prove my greatness," he said. "It’s like, what makes Gustafsson great? Because he had a close fight with me? What else has he really done to prove that he’s great, you know what I mean? Styles make matchups."
Yet Jones has solved every style thrown his way, from legend Mauricio Rua to power puncher Quinton Jackson to hybrid Rashad Evans to karate stylist Lyoto Machida, who was the subject of a midnight revelation the night before the fight, when Jones watched tape and saw a propensity for Machida to throw nearly all of his power strikes from the left.
That strategic approach is what tends to get lost with Jones, overshadowed by his size and reach. But Sunday night, he was up until 4 am watching film on Teixeira despite having an early wakeup call in the morning. It’s a process he’s likely to repeat throughout the week. He says that during fight week, he tends to see things more clearly, making him ravenous for more information.
This man is fighting Jon Jones this weekend, though many fans would have preferred a Gustafsson rematch.
"I like to joke sometimes that Jackson-Winkeljohn, it’s like Venice in the 1800s as far as the music scene or Florence in the 1400s with a gathering of minds," said Jones’ striking coach Brandon Gibson. "We’re a salon that encourages these types of ideas, and I feel what separates Jon from so many other fighters is his creativity, and his passion and desire to be an artist. But it’s also amazing to watch him break down film with the coaches. To watch him get dialed in and focused. He’ll pause it, rewind, put it in slow motion. I think it’s helped him succeed because he knows opponents so well and those small tendencies and habits, and when to look for openings."
Even before that, success came so easily to Jones. He was in the UFC within months of making his pro debut, the youngest champion in UFC history at age 23, and went through a record five straight former UFC champions during one stretch of his career.
The backlash came alongside of his remarkable achievements. For a time, the negative reaction bothered him, but now, he says, a large part of him has stopped caring about that. Still, though, largely due to his analytical mind, he wants to understand it, often asking reporters and others their opinion on the whole phenomenon.
A few high-profile situations haven’t helped, even when they’ve been beyond his control. In 2012, he was slammed by UFC president Dana White when he declined a short-notice bout against replacement Chael Sonnen, a decision that led to the cancellation of a show for the first time in company history. Why he bore the brunt of responsibility in the eyes of many has never been explained; to them, his was just a selfish action, as if the champion doesn’t have the right to proper preparation.
More recently, just last week, Jones was involved in a social media situation where an Instagram user posted screen shots of Jones allegedly using homophobic slurs against him.
Speaking publicly about it for the first time, Jones said that the responses came from someone employed by a social media company he’s used to increase his online presence, and that the offending party has been fired.
"What the guy actually said to me wasn’t even worth coming back at him," he said. "I’ve been called a n***** before on social media. I had one guy say my kids deserve to be molested on social media. I’ve had guys insult me for having a white fiancee and threatened my family’s life. So I’ve dealt with some real social media s***. I’ve had real-life stuff happen to me, so for somebody to say I lost to Gustafsson isn’t even worth getting my attention."
It is just another distraction for Jones, something else for his detractors to pick at him over. A while ago, it would have eaten away at him. He acknowledged that in the past, he viewed himself as a "pretty average dude," with a "ton of insecurities growing," but he’s been on top long enough that he’s gotten past that. More importantly, he embraces his confidence as a key part of his craft.
Whether it’s Teixeira challenging him, or Phil Davis, or Daniel Cormier, Jones gets that gleam in his eye when discussing his own place in the fight world. Everyone else is at least one notch below him. He’s comfortable enough to say that now, which is why the mention of Gustafsson as his realest threat seems to amuse him and get his mind working.
"He’s not a champion at all," he said. "I’ve won the belt seven times. He got tapped by Phil Davis and lost to me fair and square. This guy gets so much praise. Having a close fight with me was the greatest thing he’s ever done. And I think he’s like living off of that and feeding off of it and loving it. It’s a defeat. It’s still a defeat. The guy’s driving around on a new motorcycle with a new Rolex like he’s the champ. It’s like, ‘Dude, you lost. You still lost.’ You have so much pride for coming close to me. I would be pissed off if I was him."
This week has had a strange vibe where Davis’ words have been fixated on Jones, and Jones’ words have been fixated on Gustafsson. Anthony Johnson and Teixeira, who are Davis’ and Jones’ opponent, respectively, are sort of like the odd men out until fight night. But that’s OK, because Jones isn’t planning to run off anywhere, which means he’ll have plenty of time to get to every last contender and let them know how much better he is than them. A win over Teixeira would give him his seventh consecutive title defense, three shy of Anderson Silva’s all-time record. He wants to surpass it, maybe even destroy it. The detractors? They no longer matter quite the same way.
Jon Jones is arrogant when it comes to fighting, and he’s OK with that. Now he just has to keep backing it up.
"Having the fight with Gustafsson, I got a taste of what it would be like if I actually lost," he said. "Hearing things like, ‘You suck,’ I ask myself, how can I suck after beating almost every legend in light-heavyweight history? But hearing this negative backlash from having such a close fight has motivated me to not ever lose. It’s like, if people can talk to me like this for having a close fight, imagine what guys who lose hear? It’s a different level of motivation I’ve gotten through having such a close fight."