Jon Jones wants to make a point. He has just been talking about his finishing instincts, about how he can sense the weakness in a defensive shell, how the feeling of his opponent wilting under pressure instinctively causes him to turn up the aggression, and the conversation triggers something else entirely. This is how it works with Jones in fighting; everything is chained together, though sometimes linked in unexpected ways. This is how it is now with his mind, too, as his own words take him someplace unexpected.
This talk of finishing cannot help but set off some thoughts that have been percolating in his mind. Jones is an inveterate film-watcher. As he prepares his body, he does the same with his mind, studying and searching patterns that can be exploited during competition. For the last few weeks, his subject of study has been his UFC 165 opponent, Alexander Gustafsson.
The tall Swede is statistically similar to Jones in many categories, from height to reach to most surprisingly, takedown defense percentage, but Jones insists they are almost nothing alike. And nothing, he says, illustrates that more than a piece of tape he’s watched over and over during this camp. This is what he wants to talk about now, what separates champion from challenger, and in his mind, what always will. If you want to know about a finisher’s mentality, he seems to suggest, you have to examine them not just in triumph, but under duress. This is the connection his mind has made.
And under duress in the past, Jones says, Gustafsson wilted, tapping out to a Phil Davis anaconda choke with just five seconds left in the round. It is a clip that has cemented his thoughts on the division’s top contender.
"Under 10 seconds left, and he heard the [10-second clap] before he even got put in the squeezing part of the choke,” Jones told FOX Sports. “It was still getting set up when that went off. He tapped in under 10 seconds. That’s a huge sign to me that our mental level is on complete different pages."
From the time Davis gator rolled into the choke, it only took two seconds for Gustafsson to tap. Jones does not say what is otherwise understood. There is no need to point out that he survived a strained elbow in a deep armbar attempt by Vitor Belfort, or a dislocated toe against Chael Sonnen, and that he went on to win both title defenses handily.
The bout with Sonnen was his fifth UFC light-heavyweight title defense, and if he beats Gustafsson, Jones will have sole ownership of the divisional record. Right now, he’s considered a lopsided favorite, nearing 8-to-1 in some places. This despite Gustafsson’s gaudy 15-1 career record.
It’s the one loss that colors Jones’ thinking about Gustafsson, even though it came over three years ago, and even though Gustafsson took it as a wakeup call, teaming up with Davis to shore up his wrestling and keep his fights from hitting the ground. Jones believes that certainly could have led to technical improvements, but that a change in training camps or partners can’t address the underlying cause for his lone defeat.
"Getting choked takes at least six seconds before you start to go out," he said. "You can cut off all oxygen from the brain and it takes some time before you go out. With the 10-second bell already being rung, he gave up. I watched Phil Davis take his soul in under five minutes. That tells me a lot about what type of athlete he is, what type of warrior he is."
In other words, when push comes to shove, Jones doesn’t necessarily think Gustafsson will find a way to rally, especially if he’s in a place he doesn’t want to be.
To Gustafsson, the loss is no negative. In fact, he sees it as the main cause for his growth over the last few years. The way he sees it, some lessons have to come the hard way.
"That’s the best thing that ever happened to me, me tapping out," he told FOX Sports. "I don’t care about what Jon says, what he’s done or what he’s going to do. I tapped because I had to tap. I couldn’t breathe. I was finished. I lost that fight. But I now know what it takes to compete with top level guys, I now know what it takes from yourself to want to be the best. I’ve been sacrificing too much and working too hard to be one of those guys who just gives a good try, or is happy being No. 2. I’m not that one. I’m here to beat Jones and take the belt."
For a long time, Jones and Gustafsson declined to say anything about each other that wasn’t completely respectful. But that peace ended last week, when Gustafsson, in a Swedish interview, called Jones "immature," and "a little boy in a grown man’s body."
Asked why he opened up on those feeling so close to the fight, Gustafsson replies simply, "because they asked me about it."
"As a professional fighter and athlete, I have a bunch of respect for him, but I’m not a big fan of his personality," he said. "I see a little bit of him looking down on people. A little bit of arrogance. Stuff that bothers me. I don’t know him very well but of the little bit I’ve seen of the time we’ve been together, this is the picture I have."
That, in turn, gave Jones free reign to fire back. In a short time, it’s gone from mutual respect to poking each other from afar, and will soon escalate to it’s logical conclusion. To Jones, that’s fine, since that’s where it was headed all along. In fact, he is grateful that the facade no longer has to be maintained, and now they can return to the same antagonistic roles they would always be assuming on fight night.
"I really thank him for doing that," he said. "I’ve been very cordial with him, something I didn’t even really necessarily want to do. Him making it personal by insulting me personally is something I’m grateful for. I couldn’t care less to be friends with any other fighter in my division. It makes it easy for me. My studying will be intensified, my concentration, general focus, work ethic, aggression. Everything will be intensified. So it really doesn’t help him at all to insult my character.”