Jon Jones is the pompous UFC light heavyweight champ, a corporate shill and the man responsible for the first canceled event in UFC’s modern era.
Harsh? Certainly, but the 25-year-old who will attempt to defend his title against Chael Sonnen on Saturday at UFC 159 at Prudential Center in Newark, NJ, said he knows that’s how he’s viewed by a good portion of the sport’s fan base.
“I was pretending a lot,” a candid Jones said this week. “I was trying to be super articulate when I was talking and clean-cut. I wanted to be the perfect guy to be sponsored by Nike, the perfect guy to be the poster boy for the UFC. A lot of people read right through that.”
Jones said that manufactured image has changed because of two events: His stint as a coach on "The Ultimate Fighter" and last year’s driving while intoxicated arrest in Binghamton, NY.
“I got the DWI and people got to see, ‘All right, Jon Jones got so drunk he crashed into a pole.’ ” Jones said. “They got to see I can be an idiot at times. They got to see I could be a snotty-nosed kid at times. It showed that I wasn’t this clean-cut pretty boy. It proved people right who thought I was being fake.
“Now that I had the situation happen to me, I’m totally freed by it. I can say what I want. I can be who I want. I’m still trying to be a good person and be a role model, but I’m doing it more authentically now. It feels good to just be me.”
That was on display during the recently concluded season of "The Ultimate Fighter." He’ll never be the boisterous center of attention that his rival Sonnen is — both in the Octagon on Saturday night and as a coach on TUF — but Jones said he was able to share a different side of himself on the reality show.
“I won some respect from a lot of people,” Jones said. “I think a lot of people don’t understand who I am as a person. To be filmed for six weeks, I felt as if they have a better understanding of who I am. … People got to see how goofy I can be.”
However, that wasn’t the case at the TUF Finale two weeks ago. Jones looked disinterested during a televised interview as Sonnen talked away, leading some to believe that Sonnen had gotten into Jones’ head.
“I’m not really that distracted by Chael,” Jones told FOXSports.com. “It’s pretty much his job to talk. That’s how he got this opportunity in the first place. I’ll just do my thing.”
Sonnen has toned down the trash talk plenty since he called Jones a traitor for not fighting him at UFC 151.
Dan Henderson, Jones’ original opponent, injured his knee just days before the event, and Sonnen had volunteered to be the replacement. Jones’ camp said there wasn’t enough time to plan for a new opponent, so the UFC was forced the cancel the Las Vegas event, slated for last September, entirely.
“The way UFC 151 went down didn’t hurt my feelings at all,” Jones said. “It just opened my eyes. I got to understand how the fans and the media work. At the end of the day, I never signed on to fight Sonnen. In the long run, I think people will respect me more for standing my ground and not being pushed over.”
A victory by Jones — the youngest champ in UFC history when he won the title in March 2011 at age 23 — will give him five successful title defenses, a mark that matches UFC Hall of Famer Tito Ortiz in the light heavyweight division. It will also give Jones the outright record for the longest winning streak in the division; Jones is currently tied with Lyoto Machida (eight wins in a row).
“The competition Jon Jones has had to face the last year and a half as the light heavyweight champ is far tougher than what Tito had to face when he was champ,” UFC president Dana White said. “Tito has that record because he was here for so long. Jones has done it in about two years. I don’t think you can compare the two.”
Tito was viewed more favorably by the MMA fans, although Jones said his image is improving incrementally.
“I’ve had people say, ‘I’m not sure if I like you, but you’re not too bad,’ ” Jones said. “That’s a cool response from people.”