UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones is one of the most controversial fighters in mixed martial arts.
He is a study in contrasts. He often appears humble and respectful. I spent a day with him in Albuquerque, New Mexico, last month as he prepared to defend his title against Glover Teixeira, and he continually called me “sir.” When I pointed out that such manners were a rare thing these days, Jones told me it was a product of the way his parents raised him and his two brothers, Chandler and Arthur.
“My mom and dad taught us to never express ourselves negatively to adults. And now, even though I’m 26, if you are older than me, you get a please and thank you,” he said. “It’s something that I take seriously.”
On the other hand, there is the version of Jones that is reviled by the fans. The one that is embroiled in various social media controversies and mocks fans for claiming he’s a dirty fighter. The one that took the blame for the cancellation of UFC 151 when he refused to fight Chael Sonnen on short notice.
Jones is a personality split down the middle. He wants to be liked by the fans and speaks often of being a role model and a man who can help the UFC’s continued push into the mainstream. And yet there are moments where he just can’t help himself, when he opts to fire back at his critics rather than taking the high road.
We all behave the same way; it is in our nature. The difference is that we don’t do it under the glare of a public spotlight.
Daniel Cormier, a top-contending light heavyweight who will likely earn a long-awaited bout with Jones if he beats Dan Henderson next week, thinks Jones should embrace the dark side. In wrestling parlance, Cormier believes Jones should stop being a tweener and go full heel.
“If I was Jon Jones, being that people seem to want to dislike him, I would go 100 percent Floyd Mayweather Jr.,” Cormier told MMA Junkie. “He wins all the time, and people dislike him, but they always tune into see him.
“People want to believe Jon’s not being 100 percent real with us. They’re thinking that we’re seeing kind of an act, so give them you. If they believe you’re a complete ass, then just be an ass.”
Cormier makes an interesting point. Mayweather built his empire and became the richest man in sports by taking his natural personality, infusing it with a bit of character development and then dialing everything up to 10. He became loud and arrogant and brash. He flaunted his wealth and the things it allowed him to do. He showed us his matching fleet of supercars: black ones in Las Vegas and white ones in Miami, purchased for the ludicrous reason that it helps him know which city he's waking up in.
Fans hated Mayweather. They still do. But they tune in every time he fights, regardless of the opponent.
“Money” Mayweather, part gimmick and part real life, turned Floyd from a very good boxer into the biggest draw in the history of pay-per-view. People who never watch boxing plop down $70 for the chance to see him get humbled. It never happens, but that doesn’t stop them from opening their wallets and giving him their money.
Can Jones become the UFC’s version of Mayweather?
He has the skills. He is the best pound-for-pound fighter in the sport and has run roughshod over the light heavyweight division. Those who dislike Jones desperately want someone to beat him, but outside of a classic fight with Alexander Gustafsson last year, nobody has come close. He is, quite simply, head and shoulders above the rest of his competition.
And he has the personality. Jones is image-conscious and prefers to keep a tight leash on the way he is presented to the public, but we have seen flashes of his arrogance. There is nothing wrong with arrogance; we expect our highest-level athletes to be cocky. We want to see someone who is miles better than everyone else—who knows he is miles better than everyone else and doesn’t mind telling us that.
For the most part, Jones keeps this part of himself bottled up and hidden away.
Should Jones embrace his inner heel?
It all comes down to this: Jones doesn’t have to be a bad guy. And that’s good, because he isn’t a bad guy. He doesn’t even have to pretend to be a bad guy when the cameras are on. But he should let that arrogance and cockiness, the stuff that comes with being the best fighter in the world, shine through. In fact, he should turn up the volume. He should discuss his greatness. He should flaunt his wealth and his life and all of the things that go along with being the best.
Why? Because there is nothing he can do to convince the fans who already dislike him that he’s actually a good guy at heart. They’re on the opposite side of the fence, and they’re staying there. Adding to their numbers, and creating an intense fire in their bellies to see Jones lose, will catapult him into an entirely new stratosphere of fame and fortune.
And at the end of the day, isn’t that the point of prizefighting? Being known as respectful and skilled is all fine and good, but those traits don’t pay the bills the same way arrogant and dominant do.
It’s time for Jones to embrace and amplify his inner heel and then laugh all the way to the bank.