The baddest motherfucker on Earth and I are in a posh restaurant in a poor city with two guys he picked up at some point or another to shoot guns and drink beer with whenever he isn't elbowing people in the face, and we're laughing, the four of us, hearty guffaws that crash around the table. I'm telling them a funny story I heard during my week here in Albuquerque, about a fighter who was knocked out the first time he fought on pay-per-view, with all his friends and family watching at home. It starts with him sprinting across an eight-sided chain link fence, chin out, fists low, and ends with him coming to, his opponent crawling across the cool, gray mat like an alligator, and the ringside doctor shining a small flashlight in his eyes screaming, "Are you OK? Are you OK?"
"That sucks," the baddest motherfucker on Earth says. "That's no good."
Still chuckling, I decide to ask if anything like that ever happened to him.
"I got flash knocked out once," he says. He wasn't the baddest motherfucker on Earth then; he was just Jon "Bones" Jones, a 21-year-old kid with a smooth, unmarred face, warm, loud eyes, a 7-0 record, and an upcoming light-heavyweight fight in the Ultimate Fighting Championship. He was sparring with a fighter named Mike Massenzio—just some guy, really—who happened to be a southpaw, and happened to throw a punch Jones didn't see coming.
"The next thing you know, I saw white light and I was sitting on my butt," he says. "I was like, 'Ah, shit. You musta got me.'"
He runs his hands over his body like he's searching for bullet holes. We're laughing again, the baddest motherfucker on Earth and his two guys and me. It happens, and anyway, that was a long time ago.
Jones, now 27, is 20-1. His hair is cropped close and hinting at a retreat; a long, shiny scar tugs at an eyebrow, and the beginnings of a beard trace his sharp jaw. He's the seven-time defending UFC light-heavyweight champion, practically unbeatable, and already maybe the greatest fighter of all time.
Some day, who knows, if everything goes well and mixed martial arts survives its painful, ongoing transition from spectacle to sport, people may talk about him the way they talk about Bill Russell or Jim Brown. Right now, at this moment, he's a man without a country—disregarded not just by the mainstream for being at the apex of a sport it doesn't understand, but by that sport's hardest core fans for being a fake in ways no one can entirely pin down but everyone can sense. In every way in which it can be meant, no one really knows who Jon Jones is.
Right now, at this moment, he's plotting out his escape, which is, in a sport where men and women risk their quality of life every time they compete, the most difficult art of all. Almost to a man, fighters fight until they can't. Some need the money; for some, competition is a drug; for nearly all, there's a fear that comes with thinking about what a fighter is if he doesn't fight.
Jones already has a plan. He swears he'll be out by 35, while he's still young, handsome, and in control of his faculties. He wants to go into real estate and eventually own property all over, which is why he's just moved his fiancée and their three daughters from the comfort of upstate New York to New Mexico. His dream, though, is to be an action movie star, like Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson. The thing is that he makes the challenge of it sound a lot like fighting, or at least all the parts of it he isn't good at.
"Just really living a character and living a person that's not necessarily you," he says. "Just somebody giving you some lines and you reading it to somebody else and you really having to sell that story and sell those emotions."
Jones tries to sell the stories and the emotions of his fights—that's part of his job—but he often has a hard time doing so. His greatest weakness, which is also his greatest strength, is that he can't be anything other than what he is: ruthless, obsessive, narcissistic, and basically unconcerned with anything other than winning. He is, objectively, a weird dude. In my time with him, he only speaks passionately about two things other than fighting: FIFA and shooting guns. FIFA, on which he wagers pushups, is basically a way to stay busy. Shooting is something else.
The thing that gets him about his favorite hobby is not, he says, the implied violence; it's the preparation before the shot. When he's on the range, he has to take into account which way the wind is blowing, how far away the target is, and what kind of bullet he's using. He thinks about these things a lot.
When our waiter comes, Jones orders a Caesar salad, no croutons. He has to watch what he eats. He's just weeks away from the biggest bout of his career, against Daniel Cormier, a former Olympic wrestling captain with a perfect 15-0 record who's had it in for Jones for years. The most serious criticism of the champion has always been that while he's beaten everyone put in front of him, he's never faced anyone capable of pushing him to his absolute limit. Cormier may do just that. It has been whispered, quietly, that he, too, is unbeatable.
Fighting is, historically, a poor man's game, for with poverty comes desperation and an intimate understanding of pain. Jon Jones didn't grow up poor, but poverty is why he's here. New Mexico is one of the poorest states in the union, and Albuquerque is appropriately grim. The whole city is laid out from its highest point, all squat buildings dotting hills that stumble over each other before stopping abruptly at the feet of the red Sandias. In the southwest quadrant of the city, South Valley, everything is brown and old and dull, like a layer of dust settled long ago and never washed away; it feels here as if Albuquerque is slowly fading, near to becoming nothing more than another one of the ghost towns leading out to the high desert.
Albuquerque, N.M. Photo by Zack Frank/Shutterstock
Poverty in South Valley burns low and runs under everything, leaving the poorest whites, Mexicans, and Indians without so much as electricity or running water. People suffocate on nothing. The poverty these cultures share breeds hopelessness and a simmering anger, which in turn breeds racial contempt. People fight.
A lot of people got their ass kicked in the streets here over the years; many grew tired of it; a few decided to do something about it. A cottage industry of schools rose up, teaching necessary life skills: boxing, karate, wrestling, and eventually Brazilian jiu-jitsu. South Valley is the fighting capital of the country, a "palace of war," to hear Greg Jackson tell it. He grew up here, fighting his way through childhood. When he graduated high school in 1992, Jackson opened up a fighting gym, where he taught his friends a hybrid of kickboxing and wrestling of his own invention called gaidojutsu, "the way of the street." Shortly thereafter, he met Mike Winkeljohn, a kickboxer from Albuquerque, and the two became fast friends and partners. Today, Jackson-Winkeljohn MMA is one of the world's great fighting gyms.
It's located on a nondescript side street across from an empty lot. Only the vehicles in the packed lot and parked on the street—a red muscle car, a motorcycle, a Mercedes, an Infiniti, a couple of Ford Raptors—hint that there's anything unusual going on here. Through a door of mirrored glass is a small lobby with scores of newspaper clippings and signed photos quilting the walls, and through that is a hallway with assorted workout equipment. There's a stationary bike, a treadmill, scattered weights, a bench, and a tractor tire with a sledgehammer balanced in the middle. The hallway opens up into the gym itself, a modest space with a full-sized octagon in one corner, some heavy bags hanging from ceilings, and red mats from wall to gray wall. There's a musty smell, of musk and rubber and disinfectant. The morning session has already started. A James Brown track gives way to Rick James, and Jackson's voice cuts through the music. When I first lay eyes on Jon Jones, he's splayed out on the floor along with UFC stars Carlos Condit, Donald Cerrone, and others—about 20 barefoot men in various states of undress, all huddled around Jackson.
Fighters flock to this gym from Armenia and Orange County and everywhere in between, professionals and prodigies waiting for the call from the UFC, or Bellator, or World Series of Fighting, or the all-women's Invicta, or any number of professional fighting promotions.
"Today, we're learning basic elbows. Not like a basic woman," Jackson says, "but basic strikes."
In a white tee and shorts, he's grappling with middleweight Derek Brunson. As others look on, Jackson places his right hand on Brunson's arm, then rips down, breaking the fighter's grip on his shoulder. In a smooth motion, he pulls back up with his right arm and then rips across Brunson's face, stopping just short of his student's cheek. The important thing here, he explains, are the thumbs. Jackson spends about 10 minutes showing the fighters where to place their thumbs: not on the bicep, and not on the forearm, but in the crook. The rip doesn't work any other way.
The athletes break off into pairs, fan out across the room, and then, slowly and carefully, they begin to fight. They clinch, then one rips down, swipes across, and then grabs for a leg or follows up with an uppercut. Then they stop, and the active partner gets his arm ripped down in turn, and so on for five minutes, until the buzzer sounds, and they're gifted 45 seconds to swig water, grease their cheeks and foreheads, switch partners, and do it again.
Jones spars with Alistair Overeem, a veteran MMA fighter and former kickboxing champion. The Dutchman, nearly six and a half feet tall and 250 pounds, is cartoonishly muscled, with a brick wall for a stomach and traps that explode from his shoulders like rock formations before plunging again into the base of his skull.
Watching his muscles ripple and pop as he throws his bulk into Jones, Overeem looks indestructible. But Daniel Cormier has fought and defeated men just like Overeem, sometimes spectacularly, entrapping their legs with his while slipping a thick forearm under their chin, or knocking them off their feet with a single blow.
Jones stands almost as tall as Overeem, with a huge head dominated by a large, sloping brow and a surprisingly short, stout neck. He is definitely not skinny, with a wide torso, but he's noticeably smaller and quicker, moving more fluidly than Overeem on thin, delicate legs that don't seem to boast any calves to speak of.
During a break, he breathes far easier than Overeem, who's imprisoned by his own brawn. Instead of getting water, he reaches up to a pair of steady rings hanging from the ceiling and swings aimlessly while looking at his reflection in the wall-length mirror, like a child. I haven't even spoken to Jones yet, but I already feel the first dull twinge of fear.
The night Cain Velasquez knocked out Brock Lesnar for the UFC heavyweight title in 2010, Daniel Cormier, Velasquez's coach, training partner, and good friend, was there. So was Jon Jones, who, as he tells the story, walked up to Cormier backstage and introduced himself.
"Hey, what's up, man?" he said. "I hear you're a wrestler."
Jones, a college wrestler himself and a student of the sport, may as well have spit in his face. Cormier, 31 at the time, was a former Olympic wrestling captain, one of the toughest opponents Cael Sanderson ever had. Jones knew exactly who he was.
"I bet I could take you down," Jones told him; Cormier, feeling disrespected, nearly lost it right there. It was a hell of a thing to say.
As MMA has evolved, wrestling has established itself as the best base skill to have. The superior wrestler controls where the fight goes, and wrestlers start much younger than, say, boxers, so that from an early age, they're developing their sense of balance, core strength, and understanding of basic angles, leverage, and physics. Most of all, though, wrestlers are just tough. They compete, cut weight, overtrain, and get ground into the floor every day. They know pain and bone-crushing fatigue, and fight through it. Daniel Cormier embodies all of this. He's not a guy you try lightly.
Cormier was born in Louisiana in 1979. When he was seven, his birth father, Joseph, was murdered on Thanksgiving Day by his second wife's father, the first in a near-continuous series of losses Cormier would face through his life. Family, friends, teammates, and even his three-month-old daughter Kaedyn have all died tragically. He's just kept going.
After winning two junior college national championships, Cormier transferred to Oklahoma State. He was a stud, but there was one problem: He was the same age as, and wrestling in the same weight class as, Iowa State's Cael Sanderson. Maybe the greatest collegiate wrestler of all time, Sanderson, who left Ames with a 159-0 record, once said that if anyone were to have beaten him, it would have been Cormier. As it happened, in his two years in Division I, Cormier amassed a 53-10 record. Six of his losses were to Sanderson.
After college, Cormier went for the Olympics. He made the team, six weeks after Kaedyn's death in an automobile accident; the next year, he competed in the 2004 Athens Games, where he missed a medal by one match. Ahead of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, he was ranked the no. 2 wrestler in the world, and named team captain. While cutting weight, his kidneys failed. He had to pull out, and that was the end of his wrestling career.
He cried. He gained weight. Then, fighting saved his life. Cormier, poor and, for the first time in his life, purposeless, was invited to the American Kickboxing Academy in San Jose, Calif., one of the top gyms in the country. Short and plump, Cormier didn't look much like a world-class heavyweight, but he proved unstoppable. He won his first fight about a month after he started, and didn't even run into any serious problems until his 10th fight, against Josh Barnett, a very tough veteran submission wrestler, in 2012.
"When I was going through MMA, it was a sport, and it was fun," Cormier tells me over the phone. He's polite, talking in an uplifting, energized cadence.
Cormier greets me like an old friend; he calls me "buddy," and I hear myself call him "man." A gentle intensity comes through his voice, and a practiced warmth that comes from years of Olympic media training. He slides seamlessly between topics, talking to me about the youth wrestling team he coaches and how his training partners deserve the credit for turning him into one of the best fighters in the world. He even has some flattering words about Jones. It doesn't all sound entirely believable, but there's a reason why he was named the host of UFC Tonight this fall, and soon, I find myself holding on to every word.
"When I fought Josh Barnett," he says, "it's like every round I hit this dude, I punched this guy, and every round, he came right back like nothing happened. Still after me, still kicking me, still punching me, still surging forward, still marching."
Cormier dominated Barnett, but couldn't knock him out, and had no idea how to finish the fight with a kimura or leg lock. He tells me how he realized he had to be willing to do anything to win, even if it meant breaking someone's arm, or ripping an ankle from its socket.
"Does everyone have epiphanies like that?" I ask. "Because there's this common idea when you're watching a fight that, Oh, these guys are not like us."
"But we are," the Olympian says. It seems important to him that I believe him.
"We are just like you," he repeats. "I don't know if you may call it a normal person, because a normal person may be terrified to go inside of a cage. We're terrified."
He insists that all the emotions that I feel, he feels. He's just prepared for it.
Cormier believes in his heart that this is his time, that every tragedy he's ever suffered through has prepared him to be a UFC champion. Still, there's one thing he wouldn't and won't do: fight for his friend Cain Velasquez's heavyweight title.
"I appreciate what Cain did for me in this gym," Cormier once said. "He immediately walked over to me, said 'What's up, DC?' and started working towards me getting better. He never viewed me as more than a guy to train together and get better together. And because of that, I don't want to raise my hand to hurt Cain Velasquez in any way, shape, or form."
That's why Cormier—whose body once shut down during a weight cut, costing him his last chance at an Olympic medal—moved down a division this year. In a tuneup fight, he destroyed Pat Cummins, a former training partner. And after his second light-heavyweight bout, in which he tossed 43-year-old legend Dan Henderson around like a child before finishing him with a rear naked choke—there's video here—he took the microphone from announcer Joe Rogan.
"Jon Jones," Cormier called out. "You can't run away from me forever. I'm the kid at the wrestling tournament that's always in your bracket. No matter where you go, boy, I'm coming. You better hurry, because I'm getting better!"
"Did anything surprise you about this fight?" Rogan asked.
"No, just … I know nobody can wrestle me, so it doesn't matter. If I decide to take Jon Jones down 100 times, I'll take him down 100 times. This is my octagon. I'm the man."
The UFC made the fight, and in August, Jones and Cormier found themselves in Las Vegas at a promotional event, where they squared up on a stage filled with men from both their camps and event security. Jones lowered his head so their foreheads touched; Cormier reached up with both hands and shoved his neck. Jones charged and swung. Cormier fell back, stood up in the fracas, and, beside himself, threw one of his shoes at Jones. It hit a female reporter. Jones turned and roared, flexing for the crowd. It was awesome.
In every sport, rivalries sell; fans can get behind the idea that two parties have legitimate beef, and that the only way to settle it is through contest. It's a paradox of fighting that these beefs are nearly always contrived, partly because it's bad for a fighter to harbor ill will toward anyone; too much emotion can cause them to start too fast and gas out, or stray from their meticulous game plan in an effort to do real harm. But these guys truly didn't fuck with each other.
The brawl was one of the best things to ever happen to the UFC. ESPN immediately booked the pair on SportsCenter. Jones played the perfect gentleman, apologizing for his role in the fight and conducting himself like a good, wholesome dude. When the interview was over, this happened.
It was perfect—and it ever so mysteriously hit the internet right away. The hot mic granted a real, voyeuristic look at who Jones and Cormier were behind closed doors. Jones, long suspected to be an arrogant phony by MMA diehards, was caught on camera threatening a guy's life.
Jones has such a death grip on the light heavyweight division that there's almost a sense of resignation among his challengers, like they've been selected by the village to go fight the dragon. One after another, they enter the ring, are ripped apart, and their tattered remains are sent back to the rest. So Cormier's proud response was weird, especially if you had no idea that this dad in a plaid button-down scolding the baddest motherfucker on Earth like a schoolteacher was one of the most terrifying men alive in his own right, a former Olympic captain who trained with the UFC heavyweight champion as part of his daily routine.
Tension built as the summer crept into fall, and then, a month before the fight, Jones was sparring with Overeem when the lumbering heavyweight fell into his knee, tearing his meniscus. It was a minor injury as these things go, requiring only weeks to heal after surgery, but the bout was postponed to January.
This was, in truth, a godsend; Cormier had been planning to fight on a bad knee of his own, but the delay meant that the two unbeatable fighters would be close to their best when they finally clashed. Jones would finally get his chance to try and take Cormier down, and Cormier would finally get his chance to show Jones what that takes.
The sun is ducking below the mountains outside of the gym. Inside, most of the fighters are sparring or milling about, but Carlos Condit, the former welterweight champion, is on the mat, flat on his back, and in big trouble. His four-year-old son has successfully isolated his left arm and is now wrapping stubby legs around his bicep while pulling backward on his forearm with all his might: a textbook armbar. Condit, laughing, reaches over with his right hand and taps on his shoulder, submitting to his tiny foe. He rolls over onto his knees, but this time, the boy scrambles around his father, slips a supple arm from behind under his chin, locks up the choke and squeezes. Condit has to tap again. Other fighters look on, smiling and laughing. A few are wearing various swag to support their teammates: a "Karate Hottie" shirt, a couple "Killer Cub" hoodies.
All the fighters here, rich and poor and white and black and brown, get along casually, united by the same solipsistic pursuit: to attain an intimate understanding of how bodies and wills work, and, more importantly, how they break. Everyone here has abandoned a previous life for this one. Each trains at least twice a day; no one has a 9-to-5 job. Jackson, a self-taught philosopher, jokingly calls it the Jackson-Winklejohn School for Wayward Boys and Girls.
He tells me about this book he read, about American men and women who were inexplicably drawn to the Wild West, to places like the Rockies, California, and New Mexico. That was a long time ago; his theory is that with no physical frontiers left on the continent, the would-be pioneers are drawn to sports like fighting.
"They can't function in that normalcy," Jackson says. "They're more brave than their companions, than people they're around. So they have this unique thing of courage and talent, but they're like actors. They have a need to be watched, a need to be famous. They need approval. So sometimes that's family and environmental stuff, sometimes that's wired, and sometimes, it's a mixture of both."
Jones saunters into the gym wearing a smattering of apparel. He has on red running shoes from his one-time signature Nike line. He sits down on the stairs leading up to the cage, and pulls off his sweats to reveal short black Reebok trunks that slit open on the side, Muay Thai-style, to allow greater range of motion, and a gray MuscleTech shirt. Slowly he turns and joins Jackson in the cage for individual training.
They're working on their game plan for Cormier. This is a difficult, tedious undertaking, because on a macro level, as Jackson later explains to me while watching tape, most athletes fighting for UFC belts lack clear weaknesses. To me, there are no levels at all on which Cormier appears vulnerable, but Jackson dismisses that idea.
"You're looking at it like a fan," he says patiently. "You have to look at it like a math problem."
The key to success in MMA is often said to be transition—what happens in the split second after a fighter throws a punch. Does a Muay Thai fighter recognize the moment the shot is open, and turn seamlessly into a wrestler? How quickly can a wrestler overwhelmed on the ground turn into a jiu-jitsu practitioner, more dangerous off her back than most are standing?
To Jackson, fighting is a constant struggle for what he calls structure.
Jon Jones trains at Jackson-Winkeljohn. Photo by Minh Quan.
"A structure can be anything," he says. "It can be a figure four around an arm. It can be a hand and a bicep and a shoulder. You fight for these points. And once you have these points, these points give you options."
To Jackson, the octagon is a chess board, and each of a fighter's body parts a separate piece. Every fighter has tendencies. Identifying these tendencies in camp and learning how to counter them gives Jones a glimpse into the future, the smallest of windows to beat his opponent to a point, to create a structure.
"Your arms are in this position, and your foot is underneath his leg here," Jackson says. "And so that is a good structure. Or you cut an angle on your kickboxing, so when he comes up, you'll be able to crack him."
Fighting is equal parts art and science—geometry and imagination and physics and ingenuity and biology. And in motion, spinning and kicking and punching and feinting and shooting and dancing, really, fighting for points invisible to everyone but him and Jackson, pausing only to rest and talk with his teacher in low voices, suggesting different maneuvers and combinations, Jones is breathtaking.
If fighting exposes the limits of the human mind and body, Jones makes you consider what those limits really are. He dwarfs Jackson, and with his famed seven-foot wingspan he launches fists and feet from across the ring that cut through the air in crisp arcs. Watching him up close summons seemingly important questions, like whether he marks an evolutionary endpoint or the beginning of something else entirely. Everyone in the gym can hear the accuracy as each strike ends with a loud fwap! against Jackson's padded mitts. When he steps in to throw an elbow, Jones slightly unclenches his fist. Balling up the fists flexes the muscles, but leaving them open relaxes the forearms, unsheathing the sharp bone underneath that cuts into his opponents like a blade.
"Good, Jon Jones!" Jackson cries. "That's good!"
After the session, Jackson leaves the octagon to check on his other pupils as Jones leans up against the cage to catch his breath, threading his fingers through the fence for support. He looks down, and notices me for the first time.
"What's up?" he asks.
He walks around to the stairs of the cage, and I trail him, notebook in hand, as he folds his scarred legs beneath him and sits down on the stairs.
"You go to UNM?"
"Nah," I say. "I'm a journalist."
"Where you from?"
"Oh!" His eyes widen. "What part?"
"I live in Brooklyn now."
As he rummages through his sweats for his phone, I go on to explain to him that I'm here to write a story on him, that I've been negotiating with his manager and sidekick, Malki Kawa, for a couple of months now. I can tell Jones has never heard of me, but he squints, straining to jog his memory. After a second, he perks up.
"Are you guys the ones paying me to do this?"
I chuckle nervously. "Uh … no."
Jackson sees us talking, comes over, and puts a friendly hand on my shoulder. "He's one of the good ones."
Jones is intrigued, and says he'll text Kawa, but we can hang. After all, I'm from New York.
When I turn back toward the cage, Jones is still sitting on the stairs. He's alone; his drenched top is off, revealing a pouch of fat where his six-pack should be. It's the mark of a fighter still early in his training, who has not yet begun to starve himself in earnest, to cut off food and, finally, water, until he shrinks and tightens again into the baddest motherfucker on Earth. He reaches down, grabs two huge handholds of his belly, and jiggles. Then he smiles.
Jon Jones has always wanted to be more than a fighter; he's just never seemed to have any real idea what this would mean.
More than anything, fighters are avatars for the people who watch them, embodying fantasies of power and control. Very few people watch fights just out of appreciation for their technical aspects; what the public really goes in for are larger-than-life figures who are the men they wish they could be, or at least the men who do the things they wish they could do. This is why authenticity is so important in fighting, and why that behind-the-scenes video of Jones taunting Cormier was so incredible. The public doesn't necessarily have to like someone to make him more than a fighter—not too many people really identify with Floyd Mayweather—but they have to believe him. Jon Jones is, usually, pretty hard to believe.
The story a lot of fans tell if you ask them what their problem with the champion is has to do with the time he wrapped his Bentley around a pole in upstate New York in 2012. It wasn't so much that he was driving under the influence, or even that the self-proclaimed Christian role model had a couple of young women who weren't his fiancée in the car with him; it was that a couple of months earlier, when announcing an unusual deal in which the UFC itself would sponsor him, he had specifically boasted about how this very thing would never happen.
"They trust that I'll never make them look bad," he said at the time. "You never have to worry about me with a DWI or doing something crazy."
The issue, in other words, isn't really who Jones is; it's his insistence on presenting himself as something else, and his insistence that he's not doing this even as he is. (This is why the footage of him turning into a trash-talking psycho jock the second the red light went off has resonated.) When I ask him at dinner why he thinks he's hated, for instance, he claims that it doesn't matter.
"Ultimately, I gotta look at it this way," he says. "It's not my business what other people think of me. It's really not."
"You do care, though," I say.
"I care because I'm running a brand. So I have to care, but I can't care too much."
A man who starts talking about his brand when you ask why people who've never met him hate him is not a man you can believe.
The paradox is that he's at his most charming and his most humane in the moments in our conversations when the mask slips, or when he's at Jackson-Winkeljohn and doesn't feel the need to put it on at all. Earlier in the week, Jones, Derek Brunson, and I were talking about the differences between the mostly white churches in New Mexico and the mostly black ones of our youths, laughing about how long the latter's services are.
"When I start playing Angry Birds, it's time to go," Jones said. It was funny! And it was true! Then he started talking about his relationship to the Lord.
"Help me, Lord," Jones said, as Brunson and I laughed. "The devil's trying to test me this week, Lord. I thought I was all out of weed, but I found a nickel bag in the drawer, Lord."
The champion at the ESPYs. Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty
At dinner, though, when I ask why he hasn't quite connected with fight fans despite how undeniable he is, he dismisses plausible factors like race and the idea that his serial dismantling of the sport's legends may have caused some bitterness among their fans, and invokes his faith in very different terms.
"Whenever I talk about Christ out loud, or I tweet a verse, or say something in reference about Christ," he says, "a lot of people lash out and aren't very excited to hear about my love for Christ. A lot of people don't mind that I have love for Christ; they just don't want me to talk about it."
He sounds like he almost believes it, which is the thing: The more Jones tries to convince you of his humanity, the less human he seems. You can tell when Jon Jones the man slips on his mask to become Jon Jones the brand. He squares his body to you, leans forward, and furrows his brow when you ask questions. His cadence changes. He lies.
"I've always been straight edge, man," Jones says, when I ask him when he started drinking. He emphasizes the point. "I've always been straight edge."
"Come on, man. What are we even doing here?" I don't even bring up the accident, or that nickel bag the devil hid for him. Caught red-handed, he cracks up.
"Yo, Greg's funny sometimes. 'What have we even been doing this whole time?'" Then he hesitates. "No, I haven't always been straight edge, man."
A bit later, I ask him about his relationship with his fiancée, Jessie Moses. The two have been together since before he went to college; she's the mother of three of his daughters, and she's stayed with him through a lot of ups and downs. This October, a video of a naked Jones waving his ample dick around at a woman who is not Moses made its way online. ("I can be such a pervert sometimes," he says in the video. "You like that?")
"Uh, we're not talking about that," he says, when I ask.
That's fine; I want to know how he and Moses are doing.
"Phenomenal relationship," he says. "We're happy, man. We're happy. We're functional. We make a great team. She's a phenomenal mother, caretaker. I'm a phenomenal provider, father. Team Jones."
A pair of pretty waitresses come over. They banter for a time, Jones jabbing playfully as they blush and counter. Then he grabs one of their notepads and scrawls down his number, and they walk away.
If people take Jon Jones for a hypocrite, it's because he is one—maybe no more so than any of the rest of us, but enough so that he doesn't make for much of an aspirational figure, at least not in the way he'd like to. But of course for all his flaws he's not like us, because he's the best in the world at something. And every so often, when that's challenged, all the obsessiveness and even cruelty that make him so come out, and we see Jones, the man, who was never more fun, more believable, than when he was at his most incredulous and most conniving while speaking to Cormier. And we can relate to this Jones, because he's exactly what we all want to be—someone who doesn't try to be anything other than what he is. It just so happens that behind closed doors, he's someone who exults in being the baddest motherfucker on Earth.
It's like he doesn't even know any of this, though. When I ask him where his drive comes from, he answers, "My story." His versatility? "My story." Ask him what that means, and he can't really articulate it; it's just something he knows he's supposed to push.
The baddest motherfucker on Earth's story starts 2,000 miles from Greg Jackson's gym, in Rochester, N.Y. When Jones was 11, his working-class family moved across the state to Endicott, where they lived in a little white house in a nice neighborhood on the outskirts of a bad one. His mother Camille made a living in development aid, working such long hours that when she got home at night, she'd often make Jon rub her feet for an hour or more. His father, Arthur, was the oldest of 12 and the minister at a small storefront church, where every Sunday was a family reunion. Jon was the third of four; his sister Carmen was the oldest. Art was four years younger than her, and Jon just a year younger than him. Chandler, the baby, was three years younger than Jon.
With their parents working, Carmen looked after her brothers, who adored her. ("She looked kinda like Beyoncé," he remembers.) They were all forbidden, in a house kept under strict discipline, from venturing out of their front yard into the hood. For the first decade of Jon's life, everything was good. Then Carmen got sick. She had her brain scanned, and doctors found a tumor. Their father had to work, and so the Jones brothers had to help their mother take care of their sister. First, Carmen lost her long, beautiful hair; then she began to lose weight. Her brothers taught themselves how to cook to feed her; then they learned how to change her feeding tubes; soon, they had to carry her any time she left her bed.
"I was like a certified nurse by age 11," Jon says. "I knew what I was doing."
In 2000, Carmen passed. She was 17.
The brothers, devastated, banded together, and focused on what they were best at. Art was the captain of the football team, and Chandler was the best player on every team he ever played on, but Jon—everyone called him "Boney"—couldn't catch a pass and could barely dribble a basketball. His calling was wrestling. After practicing against Art—already 6-foot-3 and 260 pounds—other 189-pounders seemed puny to Jon in comparison. The two dominated, and their father would give them money based on their performances: $2 for a win, $6 for a pin. By senior year, Jon was ranked 11th in the country. In the year-end national senior tournament, he finished fourth.
Art would grow up to win a Super Bowl with Baltimore; Chandler finished among the NFL leaders in sacks his second year in New England. There was too much talent in the house for Jon to have had many opportunities to be one of the best at something. His parents, however, were much more concerned with their children reading scripture than their academic exploits, and his grades weren't great. So after graduating in 2005, Jon left his family and his girlfriend, Jessie Moses, in upstate New York, to head off not to one of the big traditional wrestling powers, but to Iowa Central Community College. In his first year, Jones won a national championship in the 197-pound division and led his school to a team title. He also met a girl, who became pregnant with his first daughter.
The next year, Jones transferred to Morrisville State College, a D-III school an hour and a half north of Endicott. If things had gone differently, maybe Jones would have transferred again, won a D-I championship, and made the Olympic team; or maybe he would've retired from wrestling after graduating and become a cop. But in 2007, Moses, who stuck with Jones, got pregnant with his second daughter. He was 20 years old, and already drowning.
Jones dropped out of school altogether, cutting his wrestling career short to work as a bouncer for $60 a night. He applied to be a janitor at Lockheed Martin and had almost accepted an offer when someone—barely an acquaintance, his name now lost to his memory—reached out to him on Facebook about training at a gym in the area. He decided to check it out, and immediately discovered that he was a natural.
In retrospect, Jones, with his wrestling background and a freak athleticism that didn't quite translate to more traditional sports, was an almost ideal prospect. He quickly developed a routine: He would go to the gym to learn the basics of fighting, come home, and continue his training through YouTube.
The story goes that Jones would watch anime and pro wrestling, and that he was already so naturally attuned to fighting that he could translate moves from characters like Goku and Triple H into techniques that would work in real life. It plays into a theory that Jones was born with mental wiring that other fighters lack, a sense of spatial awareness that allows him to pull from sources other fighters can't access and translate the abstract into the real.
I ask Jones about it. He really does watch anime; Dragon Ball Z's his favorite. And YouTube really was a learning tool. But.
"Nah," Jones says. "I wasn't throwing no fireballs or nothing in the living room."
From the time he started training, Jones knew just how good he could be. He dreamed of retiring undefeated; he wanted to be not just the best, but the flashiest; and he wanted everyone to acknowledge how good he was. He wasn't content with being a star on fighting's terms. He wanted to be a mainstream star.
To get anywhere near that point would take a lot of work and a lot of dues-paying. His first fight team, BombSquad MMA, worked out of a tiny gym in Ithaca. He trained there against men he outweighed by 50 pounds, and when he got home, he went online and watched the greats—Fedor Emelianenko, José Aldo, Anderson Silva, Georges St-Pierre, Urijah Faber. He watched his idol, Muhammad Ali. He watched seminars from taekwondo and kung-fu masters.
"I'd take these great fighters, and I'd study these guys," Jones says. "I would study the best, the most flashy, the guys that had that flair, the guys that had that wow. I'd study those fighters, and I made up my mind that I'd be all of those at once."
Jones and Moses were expecting in July 2008, and he needed money. With fighting outlawed in New York, he took his first bout in April, for a local promotion in Massachusetts. His opponent was Brad Bernard, a podgy, pink, winless barroom brawler from New Hampshire.
There wasn't much to it. Bernard sucked. More importantly, Jones sucked. He moved like a newborn deer, all knobby knees and elbows. But he was officially a professional fighter. He fought and finished four more men before July 11, when Moses gave birth to their first daughter, Leah. The next day, he fought Moyses Gabin in Atlantic City. He'd vastly matured in the few months since the Bernard fight, integrating high kicks, spinning back kicks, front kicks, and elbows into his striking. It was awkward as hell, but he could do it.
In the first round, Jones broke Gabin's nose with a punch. In the second, Jones bludgeoned Gabin up against the cage with a flurry of punches, then pulled back. Gabin sighed, and fell back against the fence. Jones's eyes widened; he shuffled his feet, Ali-style, and threw another combination. Gabin turned and took a knee. Jones shuffled again, then stood over him, dropping shells until the referee intervened. Jones turned, blew a kiss to the crowd, and walked back to his corner like he was returning from a stroll in the park.
"Ladies and gentlemen," the announcer cried. "At one minute and 58 seconds of round two, the winner by TKO is Jonny Bones a.k.a. Sexual Chocolaaaaaate Jones."
Shortly after, Jones, 6-0, got a call. It was the UFC. They thought he was the best prospect they'd seen since Georges St-Pierre, and they wanted to know if he could take a fight in a few weeks.
Greg Jackson and I are in his office, sunken into his worn leather couch and huddled over his iPad. We're watching the most difficult fight Jon Jones ever had.
Jones has only been tested twice in his career. The first was against Vitor Belfort in fall 2012, when the challenger grabbed Jones's arm, swung his left leg over his neck to isolate it, and cranked. For a long 20 seconds, the arm looked sure to break. Jones's elbow actually dislocated.
"I just worked too hard to tap out, man," Jones later told me. "I was so passionate about winning and breaking records. Having it all go away just by tapping … it just didn't feel right."
"What if Belfort broke your arm?"
"It would've just been what it was."
The second time Jones was ever in trouble was a year later, when he fought Alexander Gustafsson in a five-round war. This is the fight Jackson and I are watching. It's muted; instead of the regular announcer team, Jackson is talking me through it.
"He fights real similar to DC," Jackson says.
"Gustafsson does?" I'm dubious. Gustafsson appears to be Daniel Cormier's precise opposite in every way. The willowy Swede is a boxer who stands 6-foot-5 and sports an 81-inch reach. "How so?"
"Entries, exits. You can't look at macro," he says. I'm looking at the fight like a fan again. After a few minutes of watching the two fighters clash, Jackson quizzes me. "How did he get away from Jon each and every time?"
I venture a weak guess. "Wheels around?"
"He put both hands in the air high so you couldn't throw any hooks, and he turns sideways," Jackson says. "By putting your hands up, it takes away both of their hooks, and then you move sideways so he can't hit you with straight punches. He does the exact same thing Cormier does."
Jones is stronger and the better wrestler, but Gustafsson has the speed advantage. Again and again, he circles Jones, then rushes the champion in a flurry of punches. By the time Jones is ready to counter, Gustafsson has already lifted his arms over his head and pivoted away.
"He's staying away from Jon, staying away from Jon. Look how he's staying away. Literally running from him. And then when he decides, he'll come straight on." Jackson watches the screen intently. "See? Like that? Bang bang! Then he's gonna move side to side."
It's lunch, between the morning and evening sessions, and the gym is quiet. Jackson is still wearing the gray shirt he wore to morning sparring. "RISE AND GRIND" is written on the front, and "EMBRACE THE GRIND" on the back in orange and black, the colors of Oklahoma State. It's Cormier's shirt, and when Jones walked in for training, he took notice.
Jon Jones trains at Jackson-Winkeljohn. Photo by Minh Quan.
"You know if I get that shirt off you, I'm burning it, right?" Jones called out once Jackson got close. Jackson actually considers Cormier a good friend, but he just smiled, feigning ignorance.
"It's just a shirt."
As I watch the Gustafsson fight, I'm thinking about how earlier, Jones had almost boasted about how when it comes to pure boxing, he doesn't actually hit very hard. ("I got no punching power," he said, holding his arms behind his back, rocking side to side while staring down an invisible opponent, and then throwing an uppercut. "But it looks pretty.") Some pop would come in handy when, three minutes in, the challenger grazes the champion with a straight right, opening a gash on his brow that will bleed into his eye for the rest of the fight. A minute later, Gustafsson torques Jones to the ground—the first time he has ever been taken down in his career.
Jackson and I watch as Jones takes the second round. When he returns to his corner, his mouth is open, and he labors as he tries to gulp down mouthfuls of air. Gustafsson takes the third, mostly by evading Jones, who spends the round bending at the waist and shooting on the quicker Gustafsson without laying cover fire. And then the Swede runs out of energy.
"Gustafsson's not moving as much now," Jackson says to me as the fourth round starts. "The problem with that type of game plan is you have to have wicked endurance."
In the fourth, it comes: a spinning elbow that sends Gustafsson reeling. In his greatest moment of need, the champion turns to his signature technique, a move he first perfected in Ithaca.
The move doesn't finish the fight, but it's decisive. Over the final two rounds, Jones presses forward and uncorks a barrage of strikes, eventually winning a close decision.
"He just doesn't get tired," Jackson says. "That's his athleticism. He's not super fast or anything like that. He just doesn't get tired."
After the evening jiu-jitsu session, I drive back to my hotel. I'm dozing off when Jones calls, beckoning me back to the gym. He wants me to watch a private boxing session with Jackson-Winkeljohn's striking coach, Brandon "Six Gun" Gibson.
"I fight at night, so I practice at night," he says.
When I walk in, Bob Marley is playing over the loudspeaker and Jones, already dripping in sweat in a black, sleeveless hoodie, is in the ring with Gibson. They're dancing; Jones exhales sharply as he slings combinations, and his fists cut through the air before landing on Gibson's pads with sharp fwap! fwap! against his coach's mitts. Suddenly, the two stop.
"Ahhh," Gibson moans loudly, taking off his mitts.
Jones smiles as he looks over at me. "Dislocated his finger," he says, smug, as Gibson tugs at his middle finger.
"Part of the job," says Gibson. Then he laughs.
Gibson grew up Albuquerque. He fought professionally, and learned kickboxing under Winkeljohn until a broken leg ended his career; then he started training fighters at Jackson-Winkeljohn. Before long, he developed his own striking style. Now he works with all the fighters in the gym, leads classes in the head coaches' stead, and travels nearly every weekend to corner fights.
Round after round the two spar. Jones shimmies his shoulders like a running back, sidesteps, and sinks a lead hook into his coach's padded underbelly. When Gibson advances, Jones lifts a knee as if he's kicking, stopping his opponent short. He fakes a shot, bending low, before changing levels and uppercutting wickedly into Gibson's hand.
He uses the fakes to freeze his opponents, to transition from defense to offense and back again. He's always fluid, always moving. Jones starts with feints to disrupt his foe's rhythm and timing. In his fighting stance, Jones extends his long arms across the ring at his opponent, keeping him at bay with the threat of putting a finger in his eye. Over the course of the session, the two work on exotic chains of punches, kicks, elbows, and knees. During one break, Gibson calls me into the cage. "Wanna see something cool?" he asks.
He hands me a gridded sheet of paper that closely resembles an NFL playcard. During fights, Jones's corner calls out striking combinations with code words combined with numbers, which represent what they've worked on in sessions like these. The relationship between Jones and his corner requires supreme trust. Often, when Jones tries a spinning elbow or a flying knee, that call comes from the corner.
Jones and Gibson fight for eight five-minute rounds in total. When they're finished, Jones sits down on the stairs and the conversation moves to Cormier. I want to know what makes him different.
"He doesn't present anything different," Jones says. "I think he does present the highest level of wrestling I've ever been against. But different?"
He has a point. Cormier is direct, and his combinations are nowhere near as sophisticated as Jones's. The problem is that in fighting, there's a counter for everything, and the perfect counter for height is speed. Jones has never fought an athlete of Cormier's caliber, anyone who moves nearly as quickly as he does.
"He's a fast son of a gun," Jackson later tells me. "He's a great athlete. When that guy decides to step on the gas, he'll go right past you."
Jones is taller and longer, but Cormier is faster; Jones is the better martial artist, but Cormier is unmatched at wrestling, Jones's base skill; Jones has won against better competition, but Cormier hasn't shown a single flaw. It's a close-run thing, in theory.
The champion is confident, though. I'm not sure I've ever met anyone so sure of anything as he is that he's going to win in my life.
"It's a new emotion," says Chael Sonnen. We're talking about what it feels like just before a bout, as fighters makes their way from the safety of their locker room to the cage.
"It's not an emotion anyone can feel unless they've been to war," he says. "It's fear. It's anxiety. There's almost no excitement."
He talks about how fighters on every card wrap their hands, pull on their gloves, and leave the locker room vowing that this is their last fight, the last time they'll walk toward their own death. Win or lose, they're back training the next week. Fear isn't the thing; it's overcoming the fear. It's addictive. Sonnen, who lost 14 times in his career, tells me that he's wanted a rematch with every single fighter who has ever beaten him, except for one: Jon Jones.
It was Sonnen's fault. Through a convoluted series of maneuverings, Sonnen—an outstanding wrestler turned pretty good and eventually disgraced middleweight fighter—managed, in 2013, to secure a light-heavyweight title fight against Jones for which he was in no way qualified, and which he promoted with a campaign of low-grade race-baiting. This did not go unnoticed in Jones's camp, and when the time came, the champion seemed less intent on beating Sonnen than on humiliating him. For the entire first round, he threw Sonnen around like a child, attacking so ferociously that he didn't even notice when he nearly tore his own toe off. All the challenger could do was curl up in the fetal position and wait for it to end.
By the time he tore Sonnen apart, Jones had long since established himself as the baddest motherfucker on Earth. In the first round of his second fight in the UFC, Jones grabbed Stephan Bonnar's leg, spun, and landed an elbow to Bonnar's temple that lifted him off the ground; it happened so fast that Bonnar thought a fan had hit him from behind with a bottle. Six months later, sporting a new "Philippians 4:13" tattoo on his right shoulder— I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me—he choked out Jake O'Brien on preliminaries of UFC 100, the biggest show in the promotion's history. Georges St-Pierre, defending his welterweight championship on the card, pointed Jones out to his coach, Greg Jackson, who invited him to Albuquerque to train with GSP and former light-heavyweight champion Rashad Evans. Jones and Moses were expecting their second child, Carmen, but he accepted and flew to New Mexico for the first time. He and Evans became close friends.
Over the next year and a half, Jones honed his skills at Jackson-Winkeljohn, and by the beginning of 2011, his record stood at 11-1. That's when Jones embarked on the greatest calendar year in the history of fighting, an annus mirabilis that, if anything, may have been too brilliant.
In February, he toyed with undefeated Ryan Bader, outwrestling the two-time D-I All-American easily and submitting him with a guillotine in the second round. After the fight, longtime UFC color man Joe Rogan climbed into the cage and announced that Rashad Evans—the next challenger for the light-heavyweight title—was injured, and that the promoters wanted to match Jones against the champion, Mauricio "Shogun" Rua.
The Las Vegas crowd roared. Behind Jones, Winkeljohn raised his arms in triumph, screaming, as Jones collapsed to his knees.
"I feel great! God is so good," Jones said. "I feel so great. Hats off to Endicott, New York. I'm going for a world title, baby! Let's do it!"
Evans left Jackson-Winkeljohn not long after this. By taking the title fight, Jones was implicitly agreeing to eventually fight Evans. It was a kind of betrayal—the same kind, a lot of diehards have noted, that Cormier refused to deal out to Velasquez. What mattered to Jones, though, was that six weeks after he'd fought Bader, he found himself facing off against Rua for the light-heavyweight title. Rua's brother carried the belt out to the octagon, and Jones saw it just before the fight; it was all he needed. He demolished the champion.
Fans could hear the damp thuds of Jones's shots landing in the upper deck. Even as referee Herb Dean jumped in to break up the fight, Rua was tapping out. A few months shy of his 24th birthday, Jones was the youngest world champion ever.
His first challenger was Quinton "Rampage" Jackson, himself a former champion. Rampage was cool as hell. He was black; he had a swagger; he wore an eight-pound industrial chain for a necklace; before fights, he'd lean back and howl like a wolf. Jones looked up to him.
When the fight started, Jones crouched down and crabwalked to the center of the ring with one hand on the ground. It was weird; the challenger looked rattled. Then Jones shot on him and pushed him up against a fence.
"Oh, that crawl," Jones says to me, laughing. He thinks he picked it up from Evans, or maybe Anderson Silva. "It just felt so right, you know? The first time I crawled into the octagon I just felt like an animal, you know? Like a creature, like I wasn't quite human."
Jones spent three rounds kicking the shit out of Rampage's legs from distance before choking him out. Rampage was chiefly a boxer who made a living knocking out bad motherfuckers; he didn't land a single power shot to Jones's head.
To close out the year, Jones fought Brazilian Lyoto Machida, who was a problem, another former champion who was famous for integrating arcane, anachronistic techniques that were thought to be forgotten to history. The harder you tried to hit him, the sillier you looked. The first round was the first Jones ever lost.
Midway through the second, though, Jones hit Machida with a straight left that dropped him to the canvas. Dazed, he fought his way to his feet, but the champion noosed an arm around his neck, clasped his hands, and squeezed. For long, horrific seconds, Machida was pinned between Jones and the cage, his arm trapped at an angle over Jones's. It looked as if he was fighting. He wasn't. Jones let go of Machida as casually as he would a bag of groceries, and the challenger collapsed face-first to the ground, unconscious. Jones walked away without even looking back.
Jon Jones finishes Lyoto Machida at UFC 140. Via the UFC
Jones started the year by beating his closest contemporary and finished by disposing of three of the baddest motherfuckers the world has ever seen. This is when people started trying to put into words what they were witnessing, even rationalize it. They talked about the champion with a mix of hushed awe and disgust. Here was a fighter who was more gifted, better-trained, and more creative than anyone else, and who on top of everything else wanted it more. Here, also, was a fighter who was crushing all the heroes of the past generation, and whose creativity and desire led him to use not just techniques that no one else could, but that no one else would. He was hacking at opponent's legs, using side and front kicks on and around the knees even if it meant jeopardizing livelihoods. He was aiming elbows at eye sockets. He was fighting, generally, as if he meant it. More than that, he was doing this all while presenting himself as a moral paragon. People began to talk about whether Jones was even fair. Sympathetic commentators like Joe Rogan didn't help, tending to reduce him to the sum of his physical attributes, talking about how he was just too big and too tall, his 84-and-a-half-inch reach just too long, and how no one could get near him—an unfair proposition, one might say.
"Jon Jones's reach is impossibly irrelevant," Sonnen says. "But we're going to pretend reach matters? Any insinuation that if you shrunk his arm and legs, he'd lose, is wrong. You'll hear things like footwork. There's no such thing."
To Sonnen, inside-fight talk comes down to a simple fact: big draws fight only two or three times a year, but make for the most compelling stories. Because they don't actually do anything worth talking about most of the time, commentators and fight writers have to fill space by talking about things like reach and height and footwork, partly as a way to keep from reiterating the obvious, and partly as a way to keep away from the void at the heart of MMA.
One of the the things that makes fighting unique is that—less because of any warrior's code than because of the sport's mechanics—it rarely makes sense, in theory, to concede. As long as there's time on the clock, a fight can be won with a single strike or sweep, or lost with one mistake or moment of hubris.
For this reason, fighting is about hope. Sometimes, bouts end in knockouts; other times, a fighter blacks out; occasionally, a fighter is temporarily paralyzed with, say, a punch to the liver, and collapses. More often, fighters break. They lose their will to continue. They lose hope.
"You do make a decision," Greg Jackson says. "There are lots of times in fights where you're like, I could tap. I'm really tired, and I'm choking blood, and I can just give up and let this guy beat on me, or give him an arm or whatever. Those decisions do happen."
Jon Jones became the baddest motherfucker on Earth by making the baddest motherfuckers on Earth give up. He makes them lose their will to fight. He makes them surrender. Everyone can get finished, and most do, and this is why some might find it within themselves to laugh at times they've been knocked out. But even the saddest tomato cans pride themselves on not giving up. It's why so many fighters, losing consciousness while tied in a hold with nowhere to go, will struggle until they sink into the abyss rather than tap.
Jones very rarely finishes his opponents flat-out; nine of his 15 UFC fights have been stopped, but he has yet to knock someone out cold, and he's caused only one to lose consciousness. He does something worse: He takes away their pride. He breaks them. It's a cruel irony, but the most terrifying thing about the champion may not be the beating he puts on you, but the prospect that it won't end quickly and mercifully. This is what Sonnen means when he says that the only thing that matters about Jones is that when you fight him, you're going to get hurt badly. And as they learn it first-hand, his opponents realize they can walk out of the cage any time they'd like. All they have to do is give in.
There are people who will tell you that, even if they haven't fought yet, Jones-Cormier is already one of the best rivalries in MMA history—maybe the best. It's not just that these are the two best in the world, or that they make for a great technical matchup, or even that they truly can't stand one another. There's something else at play here.
"What makes this rivalry?" Sherdog's Jordan Breen asks me. "From the minute Jones says, 'Are you still there, pussy?' Cormier's entire reaction is incredulity."
It's a fight between two men who break everyone, each faced with an opponent who doesn't break. Each truly can't believe the other even thinks he can win. Each believes, basically, that the other is a fraud—and maybe it's not hard to understand why.
Jones and Cormier are negatives of one another, each perfectly representing what the other's life could have been if things had turned out just a little bit differently. Jones's career is a miracle of failing upward. He was a star prospect wrestler who never worked hard enough to get into the right schools, had to retire early, and stumbled into MMA as a way of fixing a screwed-up life. Now the father of four's a millionaire, a champion, already planning his escape.
Cormier, on the other hand, did everything right. There's a consensus that the Olympian is a "benevolent, beautiful man," as Breen describes him—a man who sacrificed his own dream of winning the heavyweight title rather than betray his friend, who says that he sees his late daughter Kaedyn sitting on the top of the cage, cheering him on every time the door locks behind him. But he never won at Oklahoma State, never medaled at the sport's highest level, and after fighting his way out of poverty is only now experiencing his first brush with stardom. He's fought for over two decades, and has almost nothing to show for it.
This is Cormier's last chance. A win would allow him to finally claim, after all these years, that he's the absolute best. It would change his life. For Jones, there's something much more abstract at stake. It's the chance to prove that he's something more than an arrogant hypocrite or a dragon swatting down lightly armed and courageous heroes by taking the closest thing he has to an equal and breaking him. It's his chance to make people believe him.
The only thing standing between Jones and transcendent stardom is Cormier. Should he beat his greatest rival and beat Gustafsson again, Jones will have entirely cleaned out the sport's marquee division, in which case he'll move to the heavyweight division to take on superfights before, perhaps, leaving the sport entirely. From here, the future all seems so clear. You can imagine people years from now looking over his record, and seeing what is now and may remain his one loss, and trying to figure out how an unbeatable fighter was beaten.
So I ask him at dinner one night, and his eyes shift and his mind inverts and for a split second, the baddest motherfucker on Earth isn't in Albuquerque anymore. He's 600 miles away, five years in the past, in Las Vegas, inside an eight-sided chain link fence with a man just a few strides away who in seconds is going to walk right across the cage in front of the referee, God, and everyone and attack him, again and again, until the fight is stopped or Jones goes horribly, mercifully limp.
His opponent, Matt Hamill, is a bad motherfucker. He won the NCAA D-III national championship three straight years in college and won two medals in the 2001 Deaflympics, and has a 7-2 record as a professional fighter. Thick-necked, with beady eyes set below a low, leathery brow, Hamill looks and fights a bit like a rhino.
Before long, Jones slams his opponent to the ground with enough force to rip a shoulder out of its socket. Then, sitting on Hamill's chest, Jones unleashes a barrage of elbows. Some get through, and twin rivers of blood pour from the bridge of his nose onto either side of his face, pooling in his eye sockets. Hamill, born deaf and now blind, is helpless as he's ever been.
Jones looks at referee Steve Mazzagatti, eyes pleading for a stoppage, but he's ignored. Exhausted, he switches back to tired, almost half-hearted punches. Hamill can only lift an arm away from his body into the air to block the onslaught; still, the referee refuses to intervene. Jones looks at him one last time, then tucks his right arm into his body, lifts his elbow straight into the air, and aims it straight down onto Hamill's face.
"That's an illegal elbow, Jon! Stop! Stop!" Mazzagatti cries, finally diving in to separate the two as Jones looks up in surprise. "You can't do that elbow. Stand up."
Mazzagatti grabs Jones's arm like a father handling a mischievous child and guides him over to the judges for a scolding and one-point deduction. Hamill remains flat on his back, arms splayed on either side. He tries to get up, kicking his feet into the air, but can't. The referee walks back to the center of the ring, bends over to peer at him, then waves his hands. The fight's over.
There's commotion as coaches and cameramen flood the octagon for the decision. After a short deliberation, announcer Bruce Buffer has it. "Ladies and gentlemen," he says, "referee Steve Mazzagatti has called a stop to this contest. Due to intentional elbows, there's been a disqualification of Jonny 'Bones' Jones. Therefore the winner is Matt Hamill!"
Five years later, Jones grimaces slightly at the memory.
There's a theory, traded by knowing sorts to this day, that because Hamill dislocated his shoulder, he could protect himself with only one arm. And because Jones's ground and pound was so brutal and relentless, Hamill couldn't risk reaching out to his side to tap out without getting his face caved in. So he verbally submitted, but only Jones could hear. That's why Jones kept pausing and looking up, practically begging Mazzagatti to call the fight. But the referee's stubbornness forced the fighter to take the decision into his own hands.
It makes sense. Sometimes, faced with an opponent who is getting beaten badly but won't break, dominant fighters will intentionally end the fight with, say, a punch to the spine. Maybe the illegal elbows—in truth, no more powerful or dangerous than elbows from any other angle—were an act of mercy. It's a nice theory, in the way it suggests that Jones, a Christian, the son of a preacher and a development aid worker who generally fights almost without conscience, at least once found something bigger than himself in the cage, and in the way its existence suggests that for all the people who want to write him off as a hypocrite and a fake, there are at least some people who want to believe it.
"No," he says. It was nothing like that; he was so inexperienced, he didn't even know the elbow was illegal. He was heartbroken. He'd always dreamed of retiring undefeated.
We move on, and then I ask him.
"What's it like to walk in a ring?"
"It's the best feeling ever, man," he says. "It's like the realest moment ever."
I'm sitting here, in this posh restaurant in this poor city next to the greatest fighter to ever live, because of what I perceived to be commonalities. We're both young and black, and have been athletes most of our lives; I thought, in our own way, we both reveled in competition, just as I thought, in our own way, we were both tough. But I realize, listening to Jones, that I've never believed in anything as much as he believes in himself.
Excited, he starts speaking faster.
"When you walk into a cage, there's no hiding," he says. "There's no hiding who you are. If you worked hard, it's gonna show. If you're a pussy, it's gonna show. If you're scared, it's gonna show. If your cardio's not right, it's gonna show. It shows. If you got heart, it's gonna show. So it really shows right then and there what kind of man you really are, what you're really made of."
The baddest motherfucker on Earth spends the majority of his time hiding, lying, pretending to be something else. But fighting reveals things. When he steps into the cage, he leaves his mask behind, and everything is stripped away until all that remains is who Jon Jones really is.
"Are you scared at all?" I ask.
"No, I'm not scared."
He moves on again, and we talk for awhile. By the time I pull him back, his Caesar salad is long gone.
"Are you afraid of anything?"
"Nah, man. I'm not scared of anything." He pauses, curious.
"What are you afraid of?"
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