Jon Jones, the deposed UFC champion who fights for the interim light heavyweight title against Ovince Saint Preux on Saturday at UFC 197, has been the best mixed martial arts fighter on the planet for more than five years. Since destroying Mauricio Rua for the UFC light heavyweight title in 2011, he's fought and beaten eight of the top bruisers in the sport. Quinton Jackson, Rashad Evans, Daniel Cormier and Lyoto Machida are among the Hall of Fame names on his resume.
But despite his runaway success, Jones was cheating himself, and history, by fighting at less than his best.
In a sport where training is defined by the amateur wrestler's grind, Jones could barely be bothered. Blessed with physical gifts and a brilliant tactical mind, and abetted by the smartest trainers in the world at Jackson-Winkeljohn's in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Jones was able to beat the best of the best at about 50 percent.
"Jon's been pretty open about this—he wouldn't train at all in the offseason," trainer Brandon Gibson told Bleacher Report. "He'd show up to the gym after a couple of months on his couch. Jon used to show up to camp and we'd spend four of the weeks getting into shape. That would leave us with just three weeks of fight-specific training. Then we'd be on the road for fight week. We'd be super crunched for time every fight."
"I'm really doing the right things to compete at my best, and it's scary when you give your best, because you are totally putting yourself out there," Jones told Rolling Stone's Mike Bohn (warning: NSFW language). "Being a smoker and being a drinker and a party boy, I always used to think, 'If this guy beats my ass, I really know there was a different level I never tapped into. He didn't beat me at my best.' Now I really am giving my best, and it leaves you to be vulnerable."
His trials and tribulations, most self-imposed, have been well-documented over the last year. Less often discussed is something that should terrify prospective opponents for years to come. Because while Jones was working hard to become a better man, he was also spending valuable time becoming a better fighter.
"We've been able to work on so many skills and techniques in the last year," Gibson said. "We didn't know when he was going to fight again. I just said, 'Jon, let's you and me, as brothers, hit the pads and do what we do best.' We just came in Sunday nights, cracked pads and had fun. It was our opportunity to try cool ninja s--t, stuff that we've never done before."
The best fighter in the world, after half a decade on top of the sport, is finally getting serious. And a big part of that growth occurred not in the famed training room but down the road 10 minutes at a plain unadorned building with little to announce it as the home of champions, except for a stack of enormous tires outside.
Zia Strength Systems doesn't look like the kind of place where you'd find a millionaire, elite athlete. It's a hole-in-the-wall in Albuquerque and, run by Jordan and Matt Chavez, is a serious weightlifter's paradise.
Their website's mission statement leaves no room for ambiguity. "This is a serious gym with loud music, strong people and a whole lot of weight being thrown around," it reads in part. "... Our gym is definitely not a health or social club."
It isn't a place for conversation. In fact, it's strongly discouraged, especially when someone is working out. This is a place for moving weight. Great, heaping piles of it. For a fighter who was looking to escape the pressure of being "the great Jon Jones," it was perfect.
"He came in here, he wasn't 230 with abs. He was 220 with no abs," strength trainer Jordan Chavez said. "So he probably put on, easily, 15-20 pounds of muscle, lost about 15 pounds of fat."
The pictures that showed up on social media stopped the MMA world in its tracks. The Jones who emerged from Zia looked nothing like the fighter who was nicknamed "Bones" because he looked so frail next to his brothers (Arthur and Chandler, both NFL players).
Instead, he resembled what he'd always been—a world-class athlete. The Chavez brothers, playing off his established nickname, even started calling him "Meat." But this was more than cosmetic work. Jones found himself at Zia because, after eight years in the cage, his body needed some help.
"There were guys in the gym at Jackson's, he told me, whose physical strength he felt," Gibson said. "It motivated him to want to become physically stronger. And he did it. He put on a lot of size and strength."
Working with just three basic movements, the bench, squat and dead lift, Jones was able to make monumental changes in a short amount of time at Zia. Coming into the gym, Jones had barely lifted since high school. The Chavez brothers diagnosed weakness in his hips, hamstrings, glutes and lower back.
They had a lot of work to do.
"He was like a fish out of water, but he's such an amazing athlete that he picks it up a lot quicker," Jordan said. "You'll notice how good of an athlete someone is by how quickly they're able to activate the proper muscles to start working out. So as soon as I saw him, we started working it, within about a week you already saw tremendous improvement. Even like day one his form was already better from the start to the finish of our first day.
"And then from there it was just a snowball effect. He was in here four days per week religiously, and just from there he was able to make such tremendous progress just because he was dedicated and focused."
In workouts that averaged about an hour-and-a-half, the two brothers set about rebuilding the core of one of the top fighters on the planet. In his first week he dead-lifted 275 pounds. A few months later he almost cleared 625 pounds. And he did it all without bulking up to the point he couldn't make the light heavyweight class limit of 205 pounds.
"There's two different ways, you can grow it or you can strengthen it. That's mainly what we were doing with Jon," Matt said. "If you look at Usain Bolt, fastest man in the world, he does the same stuff. He strength trains, he squats heavy, and he dead-lifts heavy. People don't realize that. And does that make him slower or too bulky? Absolutely not. You know the main thing is you build the strength in that muscle."
The effect on his fighting, Gibson says, has been impressive. Already a terror hitting pads and sparring, Jones was able to mix it up with even the strongest fighters in the camp.
"If Jon was heavy lifting during training camp, I wouldn't like it," Gibson said. "But Jon lifting in the offseason? It's awesome. It would be different if he threw on 20 pounds a few weeks before the fight. He got bigger seven months ago, and we've eased into all his martial arts techniques. His neural pathways are used to this new size and strength.
"Jon, Wink (coach Mike Winkeljohn) and I went to get some work in the other night. I was watching Wink and thinking, 'Damn, that must hurt Wink so bad.' Two seconds later I'm right back in there. ... Seven weeks before this fight, he was in the best shape he's ever been in. We've had fun playing with his new strength. People were worried about his size, but his weight's on point. He's just stronger. And better than ever."
Jonathan Snowden covers combat sports for Bleacher Report.