The death threats and trash talk are fine—to borrow a phrase from Nick Diaz, it’s whatever—but the truly golden moment of this exchange emerges the instant Jones decides he’s going to go in on Cormier. You can see it as he fiddles his earpiece into place, a little grin creeping across his face before he opens his mouth and says: “Hey p---y, are you still there?”
And for a moment even Cormier has to laugh.
Whether Jones knew this recording would eventually become public or not, that one mischievous half smile tells us everything we need to know about how the light heavyweight champion is approaching this fight. With their mega-bout looming at UFC 178 on Sept. 27, it’s no accident the notoriously aloof Jones is picking this moment to abruptly lose his cool.
After spending years carefully painting a picture of himself as reserved and overly calculated, the Octagon’s 27-year-old fighting genius is suddenly throwing UFC PR reps through press conference sets in his haste to get to Cormier.
A guy who historically has been loath to even look his opponents in the eye during staredowns is suddenly eager to get all up in this one’s personal space, provoking on-stage brawls—shoes thrown, cellphones lost—and leaving the world to pick through the footage like it’s the Zapruder film.
This guy who normally greets his foes’ feeble prefight jousts with a shrug and a knowing sigh is suddenly off the rails. He’s tossed out his own playbook, or is at least significantly rewriting it in an effort to sell this fight or get in Cormier’s head—or a combination of both.
It’s a jarring contrast to the cloying, self-righteous Jones who more often than not has rubbed a lot of MMA fans the wrong way since winning the title in March 2011, but it’s not completely unexpected either.
Back in April, I noted that Jones appeared to be coming out of his shell a bit. In the wake of his easy-peasy victory over Glover Teixeira at UFC 172, he’d begun mocking the haters in Instagram videos he posted and quickly deleted. You could still see him carefully parsing his answers in interviews, but cracks were starting to show around the edges of his carefully constructed public persona.
Soon after Cormier was announced as a replacement for the injured Alexander Gustafsson last month, those cracks became gushers.
Jones turned a corner from sly, simpering backbiting to unabashed verbal warfare. While it seems off-base to say the champion has "gone full heel" (as is the unfortunate parlance of our times), it’s obvious he’s made the conscious choice to get in Cormier’s face—both literally and figuratively—in a way we’ve not seen leading up to his previous fights.
Granted, these two have history, and Cormier specifically called Jones out after a victory over Dan Henderson at UFC 173, but it feels like there is more at work here than simple bad blood or straightforward dollars and cents. Considering how exacting Jones has been thus far in his career, it seems unlikely he’d go as far as a public brawl just to prop up a pay-per-view buyrate or teach Cormier who’s boss.
Jones is nothing if not conscious of his bottom line, but I doubt he’d risk all the work he’s put into his image—not to mention those high-profile Nike and Gatorade sponsorships—simply because he and DC don’t like each other.
No, something else is obviously going on.
Perhaps for the first time in Jones’ six-year UFC career we’re seeing how he reacts when he feels threatened.
When he feels nervous.
It’s likely Jones knows as well as we all do that this Cormier fight is special. Provided the challenger’s injured knee is as much of a non-issue as he says it is, he shapes up as not only Jones’ most lucrative fight as 205-pound champion, but his toughest test as well.
Daniel Cormier: “I have been waiting for the man that is my equal for so long. Please be that guy, Jon Jones."— Marc Raimondi (@marc_raimondi) August 5, 2014
So far, Jones has manhandled nearly all of his light heavyweight opponents while barely breaking a sweat. He had a close call against Gustafsson last September but had approached their rematch with a confidence that said it wouldn’t be nearly as close the second time around.
Cormier, though, is a different animal. This is a guy who spent the first 13 fights of his undefeated career blowing past heavyweights. This is a guy who picked up Josh Barnett and body-slammed him. This is a guy whose Olympic wrestling credentials are a world beyond what Jones accomplished as a junior college All-American.
Jones is the top pound-for-pound fighter in the world for a reason, and it seems inconceivable that he would ever get outgunned in a 205-pound fight. But if you were going to dream up a current fighter who might be able to give him a run for his money, it would be a healthy, well-prepared Cormier.
It could be that Jones shifting into ultra alpha-male mode leading up to this fight is a product of his feeling vulnerable by Cormier’s sudden entry into the division.
In any case, what we’re seeing now is a beefed-up, edgier version of Bones we’ve never witnessed before, at least in public. In fact, it feels as though he’s finally showing us the guy he’d taken such pains to hide all those years.
Perhaps—if we’re very lucky—these next couple of months will reveal more than we thought we’d ever get to know about the guarded pound-for-pound great.
We might even get to see him sweat.