Round five. It’s time to unleash the beast.
In Greg Jackson’s gym in Albuquerque, New Mexico, that means a call for 6-foot-5, 250 pound Tyler “The Beast” East. UFC light heavyweight contender Jon Jones has just finished four hard rounds of sparring in preparation for his UFC 128 showdown against Mauricio “Shogun” Rua, so his reward for the fifth round is the powerful heavyweight prospect, and he’s been told to make “Bones” work.
“This kid swings,” said Jones with a chuckle. “And he swings every punch with horrible intentions. He throws hard right kicks to the legs and to the head, and when he punches it’s literally like fighting Goliath. He really makes me feel like I have to survive.”
Yes, Jones has been forced into survival mode. Despite walking through each of his pro opponents and making good fighters look ordinary, in the gym, the upstate New Yorker is pushed to his breaking point daily.
“This feeling that he (East) gives me, no one has ever given me in an MMA match outside of maybe Stephan Bonnar when I got really tired and I didn’t really know what I was doing,” said Jones, referring to his three round decision win over the Ultimate Fighter season one finalist in 2009. “But for me to have a whole playbook of tactics now and the cardio and wrestling to back it up, this kid still puts me in deep water and the coaches unleash this beast on me only when I get tired. This kid comes in and tries to rip my head off. Then I go up against Joey Villasenor, he has that uppercut and that overhand right, and my team is just brutal. They’re truly vicious, so when I go through a practice, it’s a whole different level than anything I’ve ever experienced in a fight.”
As painful as it sounds, that’s the good news for the 23 year old Jones. The bad news is that in Rua he’ll be facing an opponent unlike any he has ever seen before. That’s why Rua is the UFC light heavyweight champion and long seen as one of the best 205-pounders in the world, even when he was tearing through Japan’s PRIDE organization in the years before he set foot in the Octagon. But “Shogun” is no stranger to Jones. In fact, in his beginning days in the sport, his days were filled with nothing but the fighting dervish from Curitiba.
“There was this girl, Michelle, and she used to car pool me to practice back in New York,” recalled Jones, who began training in mixed martial arts in 2007, two years after Rua won the PRIDE middleweight Grand Prix at the age of 23. “She had been training way longer than me and she was a huge Shogun fan. She was absolutely obsessed with Shogun (Laughs), so every day I’d meet her at Wegman’s grocery store and she would have a different DVD for me to watch and she wouldn’t give me another DVD until I returned the first one because she knew I would lose stuff, and the DVDs always were Shogun.”
“Watch these,” she would tell the budding pro, “they’re a great way to learn how to fight. Obviously you can’t use some of the kicks to the face and stuff, but watch these fights.”
Jones did and it was an eye opener.
“I always thought he was vicious, brutal, and mean,” said Jones in an admiring tone. “He was kicking people in the face, aggressive, and he was the first person I watched. I thought hopefully I’ll fight him one day, and it came to pass. I never looked up to Shogun though. He was just the first fighter I got into once I got into the sport. Second came (UFC middleweight champion) Anderson Silva and once I caught a breath of him, I totally forgot about Shogun and totally become obsessed with Anderson Silva. But I just remember, wow, this guy Shogun, he won the PRIDE Grand Prix championship and he’s only 23. That motivated me and showed me that it’s all possible.”
If anyone has proven that, it’s Jones, but it comes with a disclaimer. He’s shown that soaring to the top level of the sport in four years is possible, but it’s not something you’ll want to try at home. Jones may just be a once in a generation talent, and his track record shows him doing amazing things with an ease that’s frightening. He beat Bonnar in just his second UFC fight, tore through Brandon Vera and Vladimir Matyushenko with extreme prejudice, and even in his lone loss against Matt Hamill, he was disqualified around 15-20 seconds after the fight should have been stopped in his favor as a TKO.
But the fight that convinced most skeptics was his February defeat of Ryan Bader. It’s a victory that many glossed over due to the events that followed in the Octagon, as Jones was offered his shot at Rua’s title on the spot after teammate Rashad Evans was forced out due to injury. And that’s unfortunate because it showed how dangerous a fighter Jones had become. He took Bader out of his game early and continued to press until he submitted the previously unbeaten fighter in the second round.
“I knew that I’d have an advantage in the striking department,” said Jones. “I honestly thought the wrestling department would be more even. I wanted to own the wrestling as well and I thought that would be where my challenge came, so I went into the fight embracing the challenge of getting into a good wrestling match and a good fight, but I ended up outclassing a Division I All-American wrestler, which is a huge confidence booster for me in my wrestling abilities. It lets you know that my wrestling is not just a fluke, that my technique and skills are solid and it reassures me that if I had continued to wrestle that I would have been up there with some of the top guys on the collegiate level for those years.”
Jones was a junior college national champion for Iowa Central Community College in 2006, but if there’s one thing that lights a fire under him, it’s people questioning his credentials on the mat, especially when he squares off against fighters assumed to have better wrestling, like Bader, Matyushenko, or Hamill. No really, this is what pushes Jones’ buttons, and he’s the first to admit it.
“I just feel as if I have a little chip on my shoulder because I believe in my capabilities and my wrestling, and I believe that a lot of the D-1 guys, they look at us junior college guys as like ‘yeah, you’re a national champ, but it was only junior college,’” he explains. “And in my opinion some of the toughest wrestlers in the world came from junior college and I think a lot of junior college wrestlers could beat Division I wrestlers. In my case, I knew I was just as tough as anyone who went to D-1 and got recruited straight to D-1, but I just didn’t have the grades to prove it. So beating Olympic level Matyushenko and guys like Bader and taking those guys down fairly easy, it does something inside of me and tickles my heart to know that what I predicted was true. I didn’t really become all I could be in wrestling. I was sidetracked, but when I get takedowns on phenomenal wrestlers, it means a lot to me because my dreams got ended pretty short.”
Well, he probably still has some eligibility left…
“I probably do, but I couldn’t imagine sitting on a college campus right now and then going home and changing diapers and then going to MMA practice,” he laughs.
Now that would be a story.
“I’d probably be an interesting kid to have in your class.”
That’s for sure, and it’s this competitive intensity, mixed with a dynamic style, the ability to laugh, and a quick wit that has made Jones the talk of the MMA world. He’s been called “The Next Big Thing” ever since he debuted in the UFC against Andre Gusmao in 2008, and nothing following that bout has diminished that standing. Longtime UFC ring announcer Bruce Buffer even commented earlier this year that Jones could very well become the Muhammad Ali of the sport. Now that’s throwing a boatload of pressure on a fighter yet to win a world title, but Jones embraces such talk.
“I was really honored and flattered,” said Jones. “Bruce is a guy who’s been around the game for several years and he’s seen a ton of talent and potential go through the door, come in, and go out the next day, and for him to say that about me, I was honored. Hearing things like that just motivate me to do better in interviews, in training, with the fans, and do everything to make things like that accurate. It’s just motivation and I’m honored that he gave me that kind of compliment because that’s what I’m looking for – I’m looking to be remembered and I’m looking to be great at something. Compliments like that reassure me that my hard work is paying off and that people are noticing, so I tell myself don’t worry, just keep working.”
More importantly, Jones is well aware that the reason Ali made such a worldwide impact wasn’t just because he could deliver when the bell rang (which he did), but because he was willing to put his neck on the line to stand up for something. In recent years, high-profile athletes like Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods have been more concerned with protecting endorsement dollars, refusing to take stands like 60’s greats such as Ali, Jim Brown, Bill Russell, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. So when asked if he’s willing to step up if necessary, young Mr. Jones didn’t hesitate in his response.
“Absolutely,” he said. “I think being remembered for standing for something is a lot more important than just for a cool move that you did. Right now I’m standing up for Christ, and if I find something that I’m passionate about as I learn more about myself and the world, I definitely want to step up and help. Being great is one thing, but being remembered is another thing. To be great, magnificent and remembered, you have to stand for something and change the world in a way. I want to change the world. Ali stood up for the Muslims and for not going to war and he made an impact. People don’t remember Bruce Lee as “that Asian guy.” No one cares that Bruce Lee was Asian, they love him all over the world, and I want to have that same impact. I don’t want me being African-American to ever play a difference in anyone’s mind. I don’t want anyone saying ‘I like that black fighter.’ I want people to love me because of me. I’d rather be known as that Christian fighter or that peaceful fighter or that fighter that’s spreading positivity and kindness and confidence and way more than tactics. It’s important.”
And if Jones wins this Saturday night, he may very well become the most important figure for the sport moving forward. But there’s still a fight to be won, and a tough one at that. Rua, despite what the oddsmakers might believe, is no underdog. He’s a seasoned vet who has already done what Jones is attempting to do. He’s also achieved longevity fighting against the best the game has to offer, and if his knockouts of Chuck Liddell and Lyoto Machida aren’t convincing enough, consider that he’s entering a fight healthy for the first time in a long time. Yet the biggest ‘what if’ for Jones is how he will react if he gets tagged by a legitimate knockout artist like Rua. Will he do that funny dance? Will he be able to dust himself off and recover? They’re all unknowns to us, but not to Jones.
“My answer to that is that I’ve earned the privilege of not showing that to anyone,” he said. “For everyone who says I’ve never been hit and is wondering how I’ll react to it, the reason why I haven’t been hit is because I’m literally obsessed with what I’m doing and I’m in the gym every day, three times a day, six hours a day. And when you dedicate your life to it, hopefully you guys will never see me do the chicken dance. That’s the way it works. But for people who are wondering how I’ll react, I’ve been hit several times throughout practice and I react just fine. I’ve been dazed in wrestling – I remember a few times in high school I would throw people and land on my own head and almost knock myself out, but I kept wrestling through it. So I’ve seen those white flashes before and I’ve always fought through it. If it happens in this fight, I’m definitely prepared to fight through it and I know I can fight through it.”
It’s the voice of youth, of confidence, and possibly of the future of mixed martial arts. But he’s not being cocky, he’s just a firm believer that what is conceived can be achieved. He’s thought about this fight every day for the last six weeks, and now it’s just one day away. So how does Jones-Rua play out in the mind of the challenger? The response is almost a stream of consciousness ramble, but to the man who needs to understand it and execute at Prudential Center on Saturday night, it all makes sense.
“I envision me going out there, fighting my fight, keeping my hands high, exchanging punches with him, taking kicks, and kicking him right back just as hard,” said Jones. “I can see myself taking him down at will, even worse than I did Stephan Bonnar. I could see myself submitting him on the ground, I could see myself being way overwhelming and just way too much on top. I don’t think he’s ever fought someone who’s gonna throw leg kicks at him, and basically anything he can do, I feel that I can do better. I’m young, I’m hungry, and Shogun’s smart and a great fighter, but I just feel that there’s nothing he can do that I can’t. I can throw an overhand right, I can swing for the fences, and I can throw a leg kick just like he can throw a leg kick. There’s really nothing that he has that I don’t besides a black belt, and when it comes to that black belt, I want to show that hard work and dedication and just believing can overcome any type of black belt.”
“I envision this fight going my way on the ground, standing, and definitely in the wrestling category.”
It’s time for Jones to show if he can shake up the world.