The lives of professional fighters are filled with uncertainty. Their successes and failures play out in the public eye for all to see.
When the cage door closes and the battle of wills begin, it becomes a matter of opportunity. One walks away victorious, the other defeated, the outcome sometimes determined by only the slightest of margins.
What happens under the bright lights is what the fans are left to debate, but rarely are they given a glimpse into what it takes to make the walk to the cage in the first place.
This is what the climb looks like. This is The Fighting Life.
In the world of sports, greatness is a term used sparingly. Extraordinary performances and highlight-reel moments roll across television screens and burrow themselves into our collective memories, but when an athlete develops a consistency for achieving the unthinkable, something special begins to happen, and before our very eyes, a star is born.
In mixed martial arts, that fighter is Jon Jones. Over the past two years, the New York native has launched into the stratosphere on a meteoric rise that has not only taken him from prospect to champion, but thrust his name into the conversation of being one of the greatest mixed martial artists of all time.
Where most young fighters earn their stripes grinding their way through divisional pictures and building the slow buzz of expectation, Jones blazed his way to the very top of the sport, shattering the concept of potential every step of the way. The 25-year-old accomplished these feats in such rapid fashion, it was difficult for those watching to pinpoint exactly where his trajectory changed gears. But after Jones defeated seasoned veteran Stephan Bonnar at UFC 94, he knew something extraordinary had begun.
“I realized things were going great right away when I beat Stephan Bonnar,” Jones said. “Stephan is a guy who had a big name in the sport and was highly respected. I was a nobody going into that fight. For me to beat him showed me there was something different going on, and upsetting a fighter who was beyond me in that moment was special. “
Immediately following his dominant performance over the TUF alum, the buzz surrounding Jones began to build. Over the next year and a half, that noise became amplified with every outing, as “Bones” destroyed every opponent put in his path, manhandling and crushing a collection of proven veterans in the sport.
Jones emerging victorious would have been impressive enough in itself, but the fashion in which he was making typically gritty fighters fold and appear as if they had no business being in the same cage with him quickened his ascension into the divisional elite.
In what many in the MMA world refer to as the best single year of any mixed martial artist in the history of the sport, Jones established himself as the most dominant champion the weight class had seen since Chuck Liddell, and so began the talk of legacy for the Greg Jackson-trained fighter.
“It was a phenomenal year,” Jones explained about his run in 2011. “It took a lot of hard work, but it was a lot of fun. But because I was having so much fun I guess I didn’t realize how much work I had put in. I wouldn’t take it back for the world, and hopefully I can duplicate that year in the future.
“Legacy is definitely something that is always on my mind, and it is a big reason why I fight. I’m already the champion, so I don’t fight to be the champion. I fight to be remembered. I fight to conquer records. I’m here to fight and to challenge myself."
With a dominant championship run well under way, the glare of the spotlight focused directly on Jones’ shoulders. In a culture where the successes and failures of high-profile athletes are consistently under the microscope, being in a position such as the one Jones finds himself occupying comes with an immense amount of pressure.
For as much praise as the young champion has received for his work inside the Octagon, the negative backlash for missteps in the realm of his personal life has presented challenges perhaps more daunting than those he’s faced inside the cage.
While Jones continues to navigate the ups and downs of notoriety and stardom, he’s embraced the journey and lessons learned by staying grounded despite circumstance.
“The position I’m in comes with pressure, but it is pressure I enjoy,” Jones said. “I realize in order to do anything magnificent or to accomplish great things it is going to be tough. There is going to be a lot of pressure. You can’t expect it to be easy, and I’m very aware of that. I embrace the heartache, all the hard work it takes to carry those things, and the pressures that come along with it.
“The biggest thing is to remember to be myself. I need to remind myself to have fun with it and to remember people are going to watch for different reasons. Some people are going to watch, really admire, appreciate and have fun with the sport. Other people are looking for downfalls and ways to criticize. You just have to respect both views. You have to continue to be you and let people be the judge.”
While the year Jones experienced in 2011 was one for the record books, his performances in 2012 have been nothing to scoff at. In April, he put a long-simmering feud with former teammate Rashad Evans to rest by defeating the former champion at UFC 145. Jones was then slated to face former Strikeforce light heavyweight champion Dan Henderson at UFC 151, but after “Hendo” withdrew due to injury and the entire card was ultimately canceled, Jones once again found himself the target of criticism.
In the chaos of the UFC 151 situation, former middleweight contender Chael Sonnen attempted to fill the vacancy left by Henderson’s injury. While Jones initially rejected the bout and would go on to defeat Vitor Belfort weeks later at UFC 152, a rivalry was born between Jones and Sonnen.
The biggest point of contention from Jones’ perspective was that Sonnen was lobbying for a title fight that Jones believed had not been earned. The 205-pound weight class is one of the organization’s most talent-rich divisions, and Jones saw giving Sonnen a title opportunity as something that could devalue the title he proudly holds.
Jones ultimately agreed to a bout with Sonnen, but his position on earning the opportunity to compete for championship gold hasn’t changed.
“Chael Sonnen just so happens to be an opponent that makes the fans happy right now. I’m going to give the fans what they want whether it makes sense rankings-wise or not.”
To add to the growing buzz surrounding the fight, the UFC tapped Jones and Sonnen to be the coaches of the 17th installment of The Ultimate Fighter. While the thought of Jones having to deal with Sonnen’s trash talk for six weeks set the MMA world abuzz, the champion once again chose to embrace a different angle of the situation.
“Coaching TUF has been a great experience,” Jones said. “To meet seven new athletes and to care about someone else’s career in the prime of my own has been unique. To genuinely set myself aside, focus on others, and making someone else that next best guy has been different for me because I’m a very focused and driven guy and not one to put that focus on other athletes. I focus on what I need to do, and to put that focus on others and assisting them has been a blessing.”
There is no doubting the star power Jones possesses, but at the same time, it is easily lost that he is a 25-year-old man making his way through the world. Jones’ talent will ultimately decide whether he obtains the greatness he seeks, but his maturation through the trials and tribulations of life will dictate his ability to fulfill the expectations set upon him.
By all accounts, he is the future of the sport. He is the chosen one who has the ability to take MMA and the UFC to the mainstream masses. Whether this is a vision Jones can make a reality remains to be seen, but if there is one thing MMA fans have come to understand about Jon Jones, it's that once you think you’ve seen the best of his capabilities, his next performance will make you realize you haven’t seen the best of him yet.
Duane Finley is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.