It doesn't take long when you sit down for your first Jon Jones fight to realize he's a little bit different than your average UFC fighter. While others mean-mug, flex, scream and smirk their way into the cage, Jones chooses a simple, yet decidedly unmasculine, cartwheel.
At first glance, it seems soft. You might ask yourself: What's wrong with this guy? Does he even want to bang? Is this a fight or a gymnastics recital?
Of course, when you think about it a bit, it's the most primal entrance of all. Jones is laying out to the world, and especially his opponent, the very attributes that make him special. From fingertip to toes, his enormous wingspan and height advantage are displayed with an arrogance so subtle and blase that we don't even question it anymore.
It's this reach, a physical gift Jones uses to his utmost advantage, that has allowed the champion to win seven consecutive UFC title fights. Jones, simply put, can reach out and touch his opponent with his feet and his hands while his foe is still swinging at nothing but air.
As you can imagine, this works to Jones' advantage. He dictates where he and his opponent are going to engage. If an opponent, like Saturday's victim Glover Teixeira, is able to get inside and muscle Jones up against the cage, he has some tricks up his sleeve there too, most impressively a pair of razor-sharp elbows and a host of judo- and Greco Roman-inspired trips and takedowns. And if an opponent is going to shoot for a takedown of his own, he better not miss. Jones' guillotine choke is deadly.
And if he ends up on top of you?
His ground-and-pound is the best the sport has ever seen, elbows coming so hard and fast that sometimes even he can't quite control the carnage.
With each subsequent fight, they disappear as Jones soaks in knowledge and experience. As Sports On Earth's Tomas Rios writes, it's hard to even find a weakness to begin game-planning against:
Step inside the pocket and he stakes out precise obtuse and acute angles that align with his optimal striking range. Sit back on a counter and Jones' sense of distance and timing is enhanced by his unmatched range. Move in for a takedown and finish on the ass-end of a physics equation that ends with the mean man beating you down. Jones does everything so well that strategizing against him begins with realizing there isn't even an obvious starting point.
Unfortunately for Jones and the UFC, which has lost its three biggest pay-per-view stars to retirement and injury, Jones' undeniable excellence in the cage hasn't translated at the box office. He's still a big star, one of the few capable of headlining a show without a strong co-main event. But no one will mistake his drawing power with that of Chuck Liddell, Brock Lesnar or Georges St-Pierre.
|Top UFC PPV Draws From 2011-Present|
|Georges St-Pierre||757,000||On a break|
|MMA Sentinel and internal sources.|
Jones remains a mystery to most MMA fans. While some journalists like Bleacher Report's Jeremy Botter have shown us glimpses of Jones' life, none have shown us the man. He's still opaque, something MMA Fighting's Chuck Mindenhall believes fans have a hard time with in a sport so accustomed to unprecedented access and availability:
Which in a roundabout way gets to the real storyline of any Jon Jones fight for the last couple of years: Perception. Just who is Jon Jones? Talk about a polarizing figure. We love Jones, we hate him, we love to hate him, and, most frustrating of all for his growing base of haters, there’s no denying him in the one domain that matters most -- fighting.
It's become clear, he says, that Jones can't really worry about how fans feel.
"I’ve gotten to the point now where I realize I’m not going to be a fan-favorite, and being loved isn’t necessarily – it doesn’t have to be," Jones told MMA Junkie's John Morgan. "Muhammad Ali was hated, and then he was loved at the very end. Floyd Mayweather was hated, and a lot of people are really coming around on him. So I’m just remaining positive and trying not to offend too many people along this way."
In some ways, though, the champ has only himself to blame. Jones has never let anyone in, which has left fans cold to his carefully managed stage persona. What he lacks, in a word, is authenticity. The straight-laced image he tries to desperately court sponsors with falls away the moment he is handed a live microphone, asked a straightforward question or handed the keys to his own social media account.
Last week, Jones hit the headlines for allegedly directing homophobic insults at a fan taunting him on Instagram. As usual in these things, the coverup became much worse than the original offense. Whether his phone was lost, hacked or hijacked by rogue members of his social media team, we may never know. But his credibility took a major hit simply because his story shifted so dramatically over time.
It's honestly a shame Jones can't seem to pull it together. Still just 26 years old, he is already the best fighter this sport has ever seen. Even the power of nostalgia isn't strong enough to convince anyone that Chuck Liddell had more than a puncher's chance in his prime. Jones is so good—scary good—that it makes the idea of anyone beating him on his best day feel slightly ludicrous.
Like it or not, mixed martial arts is still on very shaky ground in the United States. While it certainly appears it can be a cable staple for years to come, this sport's mainstream history is being written right now. Jones owes promoters, fans and himself more. He is, for better or worse, our best ambassador to the outside world.
It's time to start acting like it.