Before he was Bones Jones, NBT (Next Big Thing), Jon Jones was a 21-year old armed with talent, desire, and the dreams of every young fighter in mixed martial arts – to be in the UFC.
And despite a spotless 6-0 record, when he set foot inside the Octagon for the first time to face Andre Gusmao at UFC 87 in August of 2008, it was more than just another fight.
“Being an MMA fighter, you put the UFC on such a high pedestal and you look at these guys like they’re super heroes and unbeatable,” said Jones, who since that night in Minnesota has been either blessed or cursed with the words ‘superhero’ and ‘unbeatable’ in many circles.
Jones scored a unanimous decision win over Gusmao that night, showing glimpses of the unorthodox and dynamic techniques that have become his trademark, and when his hand was raised, he knew he had arrived.
“Once I got my very first win and I hear ‘the winner is, Jonny ‘Bones’ Jones,’ a level of ‘Yes, I can’ came across me and it made me believe from that point on,” said Jones, and when he recalls that moment, you can almost picture him re-living it in his mind. “When I beat Andre Gusmao, I said ‘wow, I just won…a UFC fight.’ This is my home and I’m gonna make some upsets and win a lot more fights.”
Five months later came the upset when he defeated Stephan Bonnar at UFC 100, and victories over Jake O’Brien and Brandon Vera (which were sandwiched around a controversial disqualification defeat to Matt Hamill) came in a fast and furious fashion after that. Now, at 23, Jones is no longer a prospect with potential, but a fighter that has arrived as he awaits his Sunday assignment in San Diego against veteran Vladimir Matyushenko.
But according to the affable Jones, nothing’s changed in the last two years.
“Everything is exactly the same to be honest with you,” he said. “I try to keep myself grounded and keep myself around the same friends, and life is the same, it really is. There’s a little bit more publicity, but that’s something I expected when I got into the sport and my goal is to make it towards the top, so I realized that being towards the top more of it’s gonna come, so I try to just appreciate it, realize that it’s God’s blessing, and just keep it moving and keep things the same.”
It’s exactly what you want to hear from an athletic phenom at this point in his career, mainly because this is around the time when the talk and expectations can get overwhelming, and that’s not even mentioning the possibility of entourages and hanger-ons taking over what was once a promising career. Jones knows all about the pitfalls of fame though, and with his family and tight-knit team at Jacksons MMA in Albuquerque closing ranks, it keeps everything in perspective for him.
“It’s very important,” said Jones of keeping that perspective. “I’ve had a lot of opportunities now that I’m rising in the sport and I’ve turned a lot of that stuff down because I think it is important to stay home a lot and stay focused on your game.”
If it reminds you of the rise of a certain basketball player from Ohio who was tagged with the ‘can’t miss’ label early on, that’s no coincidence, as Jones takes some cues from the newest member of the Miami Heat, LeBron James.
“When I think of greatness right now, one of the first names that come to mind is LeBron James,” said Jones. “He’s absolutely phenomenal. And what makes me a big fan of his is his character and the way he carries himself. He’s someone I look up to in a lot of ways and I try to model myself after him as that new guy, that breath of fresh air, and a class act.”
And Jones is walking it like he talks it, which is not so easy in these days of media overexposure, but at the same time he doesn’t speak in clichés, but with a refreshing honesty, which is evident when he talks about the challenge Matyushenko presents.
“I respect Vladimir a ton and I look at him as a huge step-up in competition and a huge test for me,” said Jones. “I think he’s a great warrior and he’s everything when it comes to having a tough fight. He probably has some of the best wrestling credentials I ever fought against, he definitely has the best record I’ve ever gone against, and he’s the best fighter I ever fought. I think he’s better than Stephan Bonnar, better than Hamill, better than Brandon Vera. Technique wise and skill wise, I’m considering him the hardest fight I’ve had.”
It may end up living up to his expectations. Matyushenko is a brick wall who is a tough out for anyone in the sport. If Jones passes this test, it may not cause ripples among casual fans, but to hardcore fight game followers and his peers, it will signal a jump to the next level. And if he has to dig deep to pull out the win in a three round war, Jones’ stock may rise even higher, something he isn’t averse to.
“I’m always looking to finish the fight and looking for devastating techniques at all times, but if the fight goes three rounds, everything happens for a reason,” he said. “I’ve had times in wrestling matches where I would outclass the wrestler and purposely let the match go on longer just for the experience and the combat part of it. But if my fight with Vladimir goes three rounds, I think it will be good for me.”
And if it does, it won’t be because Jones was looking for some added time in the Octagon; in MMA, if you let someone stick around too long, that can cost you.
“It’s way too dangerous to do that in MMA,” he laughs. “That’s when you get knocked out.”
Again, Jones shows that even before reaching his 25th birthday, he’s got it all together. That doesn’t mean he isn’t having fun and being your typical 23-year old; it just means that when it’s time to work it’s time to work, and that while the stakes are getting higher with each win, so is his confidence.
“With every victory I’m becoming more and more confident and believing more and more that I can be one of the best in the world, and I’m also starting to believe that maybe I am one of the best in the world and I just don’t know it yet,” he said. “I have a lot of confidence and a lot of faith, and I’m in it to be the best and I’m expecting to be the best, and I can’t wait to compete against better and better opponents.”
First things first though, and that’s a date with Vladimir Matyushenko in San Diego. Yeah, it’s gonna be tough, but as far as Jones is concerned, it’s nothing he can’t handle.
“Beating Stephan Bonnar really made me believe that if I can beat a veteran like him, I can beat a veteran like the champion,” he said. “Now I look at all these fighters as just men, and every man can be beat. No one’s invincible.”