Jon Jones: Race, Religion and the UFC's Transcendent Star

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Jon Jones: Race, Religion and the UFC's Transcendent Star
Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones doesn't try to hide his palpable ambition behind a veil of false modesty. The youngest champion in the promotion's history, Jones, 25, already has his eye on the UFC record for consecutive title defenses in his weight class.

It has long been the sport's marquee division, and was once home to legends like Chuck Liddell and Randy Couture. The current record holder, UFC Hall of Famer Tito Ortiz, defended the title five times in a row.

That's no small feat in a sport that can see victory crumble into bitter defeat in the blink of an eye. Small gloves (about one-third the size of those used in boxing) and a dizzying array of offensive techniques make it hard for anyone to sustain success at the highest level of mixed martial arts competition.

Jones, however, has made it look easy, defending his championship four times in just under two years.

Each defense has been against a former champion in the division, and each opponent has been beaten soundly.

Except for a momentary lapse against Vitor Belfort at UFC 152, he's never even looked vulnerable, dominating the best fighters in the sport like they were rank amateurs.

With a win over Chael Sonnen Saturday night at UFC 159, he will tie the record. He fully expects to pass Ortiz by the end of the year. And as scary as this is to consider for future opponents, his career is just getting started.

But it's not the goals he's set within his sport that make Jones such a transcendent athlete. Those are almost a given, accomplishments just waiting for the clock and calendar. Jones is bigger than that—bigger even, he hopes, than his entire sport.

"I want to dominate and be that guy," Jones told ESPN last year. "I want to be the Michael Jordan or Tiger Woods of this sport."

Michael Jordan. Tiger Woods. 

On its face, the comparisons seem ludicrous. Jordan and Woods are arguably the greatest players ever in their respective sports.

Is Jon Jones?

While it's early, the answer seems to be a definitive "yes." And in some ways, Jones is on a different level. Before Tiger, there was Jack Nicklaus. Jordan was the best basketball player on earth, but you could still see David Thompson and Julius Erving lurking in his DNA.

Jones doesn't really have that kind of ancestry. Who else in MMA has combined such diverse skills in such an impressive physical package? He's the first of his kind.

We don't compare him with anyone. In 50 years, he will still be used as a barometer for rising prospects the way ballplayers are still compared to Jordan years after his final retirement.

Jordan and Tiger, however, are more than just the best in the world at what they do. Both are global icons, recognized around the world and sultan rich from a series of sponsorship deals that have extended their reach way beyond the realm of sports.

Via Twitter.

It's not coincidence, though, that Jones mentioned Jordan and Woods.

Those weren't names he pulled out of thin air. Both are synonymous with Nike, the clothing and athletic shoe company that signed Jones to a contract last year. They unveiled Jones' first signature sneaker last week, a limited release available in just two retail locations and in small numbers at Nike.com. According to his management, the shoe sold out online in just two minutes.

The Nike deal is just part of a promotional effort that has been ongoing for more than two years. The UFC has long recognized the young fighter's vast potential, making a point to push him in the mainstream at every opportunity.

Jones is a great representative for the sport in the broader media. He can charm a talk-show host when he's in the right mood. His boyish good looks and professional posture belay the "monosyllabic brute" stereotype that many still associate with cage fighting.

But among hardcore fans and industry insiders, people who have seen and interacted with Jones over the years, the enthusiasm isn't quite so marked. Although it's hard for many to articulate, something just feels off about the young champion.

Former teammate Rashad Evans called him "fake." Light heavyweight contender Dan Henderson shared similar sentiments on The MMA Hour:

I think it all has to do with being genuine and the fans sense that: when you are and when you're not. I'm pretty much who I am all the time and I don't know if they get that impression from him.

The fighters' claims validated a feeling that had nagged some fans about Jones, whose behavior rarely matched the image he presented in the press. Actions trump words, though, and those who talk the most about their own personal sainthood often have the most to hide.

Jones, in many ways, is a mess of contradictions.

Philippians 4:13 ("I can do all this through him who gives me strength") is more than just words to Jones. It's a phrase that brings meaning to his life, providing a personal philosophy important enough to the young fighter that he had it tattooed on him. Yet the devout Christian is nevertheless the father of three children born out of wedlock.

A proud role model, he patted himself on the back in April of last year, telling the media that his sponsors "trust that I’ll never make them look bad. You never have to worry about me with a DWI or doing something crazy.”

He was back in the news barely a month later, this time being arrested on, you guessed it, a DWI charge after running his Bentley into a telephone pole. Two 25-year-old females were in the vehicle during the 5 a.m. crash. Neither was Jones' fiance.

Further investigation into his driving record revealed a 2011 police stop at Fantasy World, a notorious strip club in Albuquerque, N.M., where Jones trains at the famous Jackson-Winkeljohn gym.

On its face, that's typical athlete behavior, not even remotely shocking in today's sports landscape. But Jones had built a public image for himself that made these revelations shocking. He set a standard that he couldn't live up to.

Jones' failure to connect with MMA fans runs deeper than a few boneheaded mistakes, though. You're expected to make mistakes when you're in your 20s. It's part of growing up, whether you're a celebrity or not.

It's not what Jones has done that troubles MMA stalwarts. It's what he is.

Jones, by his mere presence, invalidates an ethos the MMA community has built over the last 20 years. Fighters, we've been told over and over again, are just regular guys. They've rarely been standout athletes in the conventional sense.

Beyond a handful of Olympic wrestlers, the athletic background of the standard MMA fighter is likely to top out as a high school-level football player or wrestler. Even today, most fighters would be laughed out of the NFL combine and come up way short in the individual metrics we use to measure strength, speed and agility.

Every MMA fighter, in a sense, is David Eckstein, the scrappy middle infielder who was much beloved by the baseball press for his intangibles more than his skills.

Jones in action.

Not Jon Jones.

He's a real, world-class athlete. His brothers are both NFL players. His gifts of agility, lightning reflexes and reach don't guarantee him success and his work ethic and devotion to the art is unquestioned.

But he sure makes it look easy at times.

Physically, Jones is standing on third base before other fighters even step to the plate. There's a certain amount of resentment that comes with that realization.

Fans can dream of being Forrest Griffin, the former champion who made his way to the top of the ladder with a combination of gumption, grit and insanity. Your average fan knows better than to dream of being Jon Jones.

Race, also, looms large. While other African-American fighters have excelled in the sport's short history, none have been positioned as the face of the UFC brand.

Sonnen, consciously or unconsciously, laid race on the table in the pre-fight buildup to Saturday, calling Jones "boy" and an "entitled, bratty kid." These racial code words are still powerful in a society in which, as Jones noted to the media this week, "everyone is a little racist behind closed doors."

So the boos rain down. Even in his home stomping grounds, even after throwing a pair of his brand new Nikes into the stands, they echoed throughout the Prudential Center as Jones entered the weigh-ins. Fans made their displeasure known, embracing the villain, the charlatan, the challenger who didn't even belong on the same stage as the best fighter in the world.

That Sonnen is a plodding wrestler known for his courage and will should come as no surprise. He is the past, but Jones is the future—one he hopes his sport will one day be ready for.

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