As he walked away, Mike Winkeljohn knew he was taking a risk.
The veteran mixed martial arts coach was facing down a kid with the cocksure attitude of someone holding pocket aces, and he was hoping he hadn't made the mistake of a lifetime.
Jon Jones was still years away from becoming the most dominant champion in UFC history, nearly a decade before spending more time in courtrooms than the cage. But he was most definitely the sport's top prospect—and he knew it.
The then-22-year-old wunderkind had already demolished three UFC veterans, including Stephan Bonnar of The Ultimate Fighter fame. He had his pick of any MMA team in the world and had chosen the gym Winkeljohn owned with the legendary Greg Jackson, who was ecstatic Jones had found his way to Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Jones was "a future champion," Jackson had told his friend. A few months after Winkeljohn lost his eye in a training accident, and with many of his best fighters migrating to a sister gym in Colorado, he and Jackson needed a guaranteed thing like Jones.
But still, on that day nine years ago, he had literally turned his back on a once-in-a-lifetime fighter.
Jones had sauntered into the gym an hour late for a scheduled appointment with Winkeljohn. The coach had moved on to his next session, but Jones still wanted to train.
"I said, 'No, you missed it.' He said, 'When can we?' And I said, 'I don't know.' And I walked away from him," Winkeljohn told Bleacher Report, still seeming slightly amazed by his own gumption that day. "That was a big gamble for me. What do you do? I wanted to set the precedent that I don't care what you think you're going to be in the future, you have to do all the steps here and work hard to be that guy."
Jones had been late, and rules were rules—principles and respect the only fungible currency in a sport where actual money is hard to come by. Winkeljohn was uncompromising, proud enough to walk away from an athlete with a brilliant future to prove a point. He was betting on the fact that this kind of martial purity and tough-love discipline had inspired Jones to travel nearly 2,000 miles to train with proven champion-builders in the first place.
And he was right.
"I don't think he's been late since, all these years," Winkeljohn says. "When he comes and works out, he works harder than anybody else. Hours and hours on all these moves that look unpredictable to everybody else. For the most part, they are repped over and over and over again. He watches a lot of film. I can't say enough about the guy's willingness to train, mentally as well as physically, for a fight."
From that rough beginning, a myth was born—a fighter so unstoppable that the only loss on his record was the result of an inadvertent illegal blow he delivered to a hapless foe in the midst of an epic beatdown.
Now firmly entrenched at Jackson Wink, with Brandon Gibson supervising his training, Jones has become everything Jackson predicted and more. As he enters Saturday's pay-per-view fight against Alexander Gustafsson for the UFC light heavyweight championship, his resume reads like a who's who of modern light heavyweight history, his victims former champions with nicknames like "Shogun," "Rampage" and "Dragon."
But it's not names on a list that require even his most ardent haters to reckon with him when discussing the best of all time. It's how those names got there. There's the sickening crunch of his elbow against Brandon Vera's skull, the way he casually dropped Lyoto Machida's limp body after choking him unconscious against the cage, his shin bouncing off Daniel Cormier's head in what should have been the toughest fight of his career—moments seared into memory with fire and blood.
It's not just that Jones has been unbeatable in MMA competition; it's that he's fought seven former champions (eight if you count current Bellator kingpin Ryan Bader), and no one has come particularly close to solving the puzzle he presents in the Octagon.
Well, almost no one.
Five years ago, Gustafsson, a relatively lightly regarded Swede, pushed Jones to his limit. Oddsmakers made Jones the prohibitive favorite, perhaps wary of a 2010 fight when Gustafsson was taken down and easily submitted by Phil Davis, a tall, lanky wrestler in the Jones mold. While Gustafsson was riding a six-fight winning streak, no one believed he could challenge Jones, least of all the champion himself, who has admitted to taking the fight lightly.
"For the first fight with Gustaffson, Jon was excited about defending his belt for the record sixth time," Gibson says. "But it wasn't the opponent who got him excited. Now, the opponent has him excited.
"Jon's definitely excited for Gustaffson (now). They have a little banter going back and forth, and there was some stuff at the face-off they did a month or so ago. Jon FaceTimed me immediately after, all excited. 'Man, I just put my hands on him and it felt good.' We see him investing in himself and in this fight. We're the hunters. Jon is going in there to hunt and take what he wants."
In their first bout, Gustafsson, not Jones, was the predator, forcing the champion to fight and claw for every inch. By the end, Jones' fabled fight computer had figured Gustafsson out, and he took the final two rounds on all three judges' scorecards to defend his championship. It was a victory borne of both will and brainpower, things his team believes make him the best to ever step into the cage.
"Even if you throw the unknown at him, once he's got your code and your pattern, he gets more dangerous as the fight goes on," Jackson says. "Like, in the first fight, when Gustaffson was throwing the uppercut and Jon was landing these spinning elbows around it? You can't teach that. The crackerjack timing of it, throwing the perfect counter at exactly the right time is his computer going to work. He does the right thing at the right time."
It was an epic win, one UFC fans recently voted the second-best in the promotion's history. But for a fighter as historically great as Jones, merely winning a competitive fight is as close as it comes to having a real, non-technicality loss on your record. It gives Jones something to prove and has driven him into a 12-week training camp, a full month more than is customary, to make sure he's ready for the challenges Gustafsson presents.
"His mind is right, he's training hard and he's obsessing about his opponent," Jackson says. "When he does all those things, that's when he's at his best. It's when he doesn't do those things that he can't fight free or be creative. When he's really driven in camp, usually he has a great fight. Because he's so comfortable being uncomfortable.
"For Jon, the battle is the fun part. You've got to get in there and figure it out. The more challenging it is, the happier we are. ... The most dangerous Jon Jones is the one who believes. Once he believes in a technique or a concept, he's a dangerous man. If you can get him to where he's done his homework and really feels comfortable, he's so dangerous."
The first Gustafsson fight, like most of the memories that established his legend, now resides in the distant past. When Jones won the title in 2011, the previous pay-per-view event had been headlined by B.J. Penn. That means he co-existed with MMA dinosaurs, despite being just 31 years old.
Worse, he's fought just four times in the past five calendar years, due to trouble of his own making—from failed drug tests to a hit-and-run arrest. It's cost the former champion years of his fighting prime.
Most recently, a suspicious drug test forced the promotion to move UFC 232 from Las Vegas to Los Angeles. For any other fighter, this would be an extraordinary event. For Jones, it's just another day in the life.
No matter how foolish his record and pedigree make it seem, when he steps into the cage Saturday, it's worth asking a basic question: Does Jones still have what it takes to be an elite fighter?
"I don't think he's going to lose what makes him special—his creativity, his fearlessness, his ability to adapt to an opponent and solve problems," Jackson says. "I don't think there's a shelf life on that kind of stuff. I don't think his mental process will be affected by the time off, and that's what makes him great. His computer is constantly downloading. He's watching, watching, watching. And that's what makes him dangerous."
"What sets Jon Jones apart from everyone else, is the fighting intellect, especially in the moment," he says. "He's almost always able to focus in on the moment and make the right decisions. I've always said, 'I don't think anyone can beat Jon Jones but himself.' He's that good."
Despite his mentors' assurances, this has only been Jones' third fight camp in the last three-and-a-half years, and his first since destroying Cormier in July 2017 in a fight that would later be ruled a no-contest after Jones failed an in-competition drug test. Perhaps as a result, he's pulled out all the stops. The team behind him includes the core coaches, wrestling specialist Izzy Martinez, grappling legend Roberto "Tussa" Alencar and a new boxing coach named Alfonso Soriano. Strength and conditioning gurus, a nutritionist and even a swim coach round out the crew.
"I think all this time away has made him realize how much he loves this game," Gibson says. "When you're competing three or four times a year, with all the commitments and obligations that come with that, sometimes that can take away from the sport and the competition itself. This break has helped him really evaluate the parts of this game that he loves. I think he's truly missed it, and that's shown in the focus and commitment he's put into this camp so far."
It's Gibson who makes the whole thing work, crafting a weekly schedule that has kept the gears turning and transformed what might have been a rusty fighter into a razor-sharp contender. Their relationship goes back to Jones' earliest days at the gym, when, despite being an established professional with UFC experience, he'd stick around for Gibson's class for amateurs, in large part to bum a ride home afterwards. The two rose through the ranks together, with Gibson growing into a sought-after striking expert and Jones becoming the top fighter in the sport.
"We always had a lot of fun together, just goofing off and trying to outfunk each other with martial arts moves," Gibson says. "Jon is one of those guys who tries to learn from anybody he can. He's always watching and has a very open mind about martial arts. But not always. Sometimes I'll send him a technique thinking, Jon is going to love this. And he'll give me the 'Eh.' Like a pitcher shaking off the catcher. But then sometimes, he'll come back to it a few months later and think it's brilliant."
The two have forged a close bond and, though Jones wasn't able to fight while working through issues associated with his most recent failed drug test (for the steroid Turinabol), the two never truly stopped training.
"After the second DC fight, Jon worked through a lot of his issues with martial arts," Gibson says. "I think that's why we all became martial artists. It can be a very positive thing. He'd call me up, and hitting mitts would be the basis for talking through other issues.
"It's a testament to the bond and brotherhood we have as a group. We're always there for each other through thick and thin, highs and lows. What kind of coaches would we be if we walked away from our students when things got tough? There's more to our coach-athlete relationship than just technical adjustments."
Of course, technical adjustments are also the name of the game. It's why Jones came to Jackson Wink in the first place and why he became great there, testing his fighting philosophies against the cream of the MMA crop and those aspiring to that status.
"The gym is like a laboratory," Winkeljohn says. "You can try these things, and if they don't work, you can kind of shelf them and find out how to use them later. If they do work, you're like, 'Oh, cool.' We are always experimenting with new things. ...
"We would tell people to use [the oblique kick] and they'd say, 'Yeah, coach, whatever, that's karate. That doesn't work.' Jon comes in to us, and we say, 'Try this,' and he says, 'OK, coach.' He was the first to use it nonstop and really use it over and over. That's just one example of many things Jon's done."
The technique has become a staple, not just of Jones' game, but of fighters across the sport. It's the kind of innovation Jackson and Winkeljohn are known for, both because of clever coaching and because they attract such gifted fighters. There's a hand-painted sign as you walk into the gym, part mantra, part boast and part statement of fact:
"Through these doors walk the greatest fighters in the world."
Of the 12 men occupying the mats on a Monday morning in December, two for sure fit that description. As they push each other into heavily padded walls and practice their ground-and-pound, one stands out immediately. Former UFC interim welterweight champion Carlos Condit looks the part, his chiseled body and dynamic movement all but screaming, "There's something special about me!"
Jones doesn't stand out quite so much at first glance. As he works methodically with a succession of partners that includes former UFC heavyweight Cody East, his movements are precise but not particularly impressive. It's only the way he carries himself that gives the game away, a casual confidence and swagger that draws the eye. Otherwise, Jones could be just another fighter in a gym full of them.
Jones is a good athlete, make no mistake. With two brothers in the NFL, the genetic potential for success is obviously there. But, to a man, his coaches dismiss the idea that it's his physical gifts that make him great. They know what that looks and feels like, having helped guide the great Georges St-Pierre to a Hall of Fame career. Jones is different, in some ways even scarier because he doesn't rely on the kind of gifts that will fade with time.
"Jon's not crazy strong," Jackson says. "He's strong, but he's not 'Oh, my God, this is the strongest guy I've been in there with' strong. He's not crazy fast. No one comes out of the cage saying, 'Did you see that? It was the fastest thing I've ever seen.' What you do see is soul-breaking consistency. He puts so much pressure on his opponent. No matter what, he's going to be in your face. He's on you, he's on you, he's on you. He doesn't fade. It's a mental thing. You're drowning in water, and you know eventually he's going to shove your head under."
It's this mental fortitude that wows the people around him every bit as much as his physical and technical prowess. On paper, Gustafsson is Jones' equal. The coaches all agree he's as formidable as fighters come. "Born at the wrong time," Jackson says.
Had he not been in his prime at the same time as Jones and Cormier, he could have been the champion for years. But Jones' team still believes Jones will emerge from the muck with his hand raised in victory.
"I like spending time with Jon in what are supposed to be moments of suffering," Gibson says. "Like, we were in the sauna cutting weight for his fight with Rashad Evans. It's grueling. We'd been in there for hours. The power went out and we were sitting there in pitch-black darkness.
"I like spending that time with Jon because he's so strong in those moments. There's never any weakness. There's never any wavering. It always shows me a lot about the character that Jon has. It reminds me, these guys can throw everything they have at Jon, it can go into the late rounds and at the end, Jon is going to be there, moving forward."
Is that a message for Gustafsson? Gibson smiles as he denies it. Not, he says, because he doesn't have confidence in Jon—but because he's not convinced that this time the bout will go the distance.
"I think Jon is looking for a finish," Gibson says. "He really wants to make a statement. Jon is going in there to take what he wants."
Jonathan Snowden covers combat sports for Bleacher Report.