The UFC light heavyweight champion has managed to stuff a career's worth of drama into just a few short months in the lead up to his fight Saturday with two-time Olympian Daniel Cormier, a fight that will, finally, bring one of MMA's greatest feuds to a close.
The bad blood started years ago with Jones' offhand claim he could take Cormier to the mat. Cormier, a proud wrestling legend, was not amused. That was the beginning. But the two were separated, at the time, by a weight class and by promotional boundaries. Nothing came of it except simmering anger.
That was just the beginning, the first step in a journey that would peak with Jones asking Cormier, "Hey p---y, are you still there?" between breaks (note: language in video NSFW) during a SportsCenter appearance when the two men thought the cameras had stopped running.
For Cormier, one of MMA's true nice guys, it's been an out-of-character foray into the world of trash talk and burning, uncontrollable anger. For Jones, a master of mind games, it's just another fight, just another blood feud in a career full of them.
All this theater and the subsequent conversations in the MMA world about whether or not Jones is "fake" or a "hypocrite" simply distract from the question we should be asking each time he fights: Are we watching the best of all time compete in the cage?
The answer, resoundingly, is yes.
|Jon Jones vs. The Light Heavyweight Legends|
|Mauricio Rua||March 19, 2011||TKO|
|Quinton Jackson||September 24, 2011||Submission (rear-naked choke)|
|Lyoto Machida||December 10, 2011||Submission (guillotine choke)|
|Rashad Evans||April 21, 2012||Unanimous Decision|
|Vitor Belfort||September 22, 2012||Submission (Keylock)|
When you see Jones in the cage, you're looking at the culmination of a 21-year journey that started with Ken Shamrock vs. Royce Gracie at UFC 1 in 1993. Back then, a fighter like Gracie could excel with a single skill set, in his case the superlative Brazilian jiu-jitsu his family helped spread to the world.
Four years later, when Frank Shamrock was the face of the UFC, things had evolved significantly. The top fighters had a working knowledge of several arts and excelled in at least two diverse areas. It was still recognizable as the sport Gracie built, but bouts between first-generation fighters and their successors (like Kazushi Sakuraba and Matt Hughes) showed the modern athlete was on a different level.
Ten years ago, when the UFC first burst onto the scene on Spike TV, Chuck Liddell became the UFC's lead attraction with a potent combination of takedown defense and knockout power. Game plans were rudimentary. Two men met, one fell down, everyone went out to the bar.
Jones, and his predecessors like Georges St-Pierre, have helped the sport evolve yet again. It's not enough anymore to be good in two areas. The top stars and champions must be able to compete successfully at kicking distance, in punching range, in the clinch and on the mat. There is no room for weakness—and Jones doesn't have a significant one.
Jones, of course, is far from perfect. No fighter is. He was pushed to the limit by Alexander Gustafsson in 2013, forced to reach into his soul for the heart and courage to overcome the Swede's precision punching and persistent leg kicks and lateral movement.
While many point to his struggles in that fight as a sign of weakness, I see it differently.
Fighting is one of the few sports where an athlete is exposed to the world, his strengths and weaknesses obvious to all. There's a naked honesty to cage fighting, an ability to cut right to the chase, to see what a man is made of in a way few other pursuits can.
Jon Jones passed that test against Gustafsson. Cormier is a formidable opponent. His wrestling and rare athleticism will allow him to challenge Jones the way few have. When he does, however, we know Jones won't break easily. He's been cast in the fire already—and emerged a stronger fighter.
When you discuss the greatest of all time, many things come into play. At 27, Jones doesn't yet have the weight of historical accomplishments to measure up to other legends like St-Pierre, Fedor Emelianenko or Anderson Silva. That will come with time.
In the moment, however, as he walks into the cage at UFC 182, Jones is the best fighter MMA has ever produced. In a sport that only reached legal drinking age last November, it's silly to think that will always be true. But, right now, his combination of skills, physical tools and mental toughness make him the ultimate fighter in the ultimate sport.