He would grow up to be the baddest man in the world, but first Jon Jones, light heavyweight champion of the UFC, was a little boy about to get his bike stolen. He stood beside his older brother Arthur, who would one day become an NFL defensive end, neither of them understanding the motives of the two kids from their violent Rochester, N.Y. neighborhood who coveted their brand new bicycles.
The boys from down the street suggested a game of hide-and-seek. They told Jon and Arthur to put their hands over their eyes and start counting. When the brothers' hands came down, the kids and the bikes were gone, leaving behind two devastated boys who ran to their mother in tears, convincing her to drive the streets until the stolen bikes were finally found in front of a house.
"My boys were little church boys," Camille Jones says now. "They didn't know better."
On Thursday, her youngest son, Chandler, is expected to be picked in the first round of the NFL draft, making her family the toughest in sports, with two defensive linemen and a champion MMA fighter. And yet she remembers when her boys barely went outside. She and her husband, Arthur Jones Jr., wanted it that way. The neighborhood was too rough. The boys weren't allowed to go to the park, to the store or to sleepovers at friends' houses. Much of their childhoods were spent together inside their own house or at the Lamb of Life Church, where Arthur Jr. was the pastor.
"We liked being church boys," Jon says.
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Camille laughs into the phone. Three years ago the family was anonymous, with two kids playing football at Syracuse and another trying to make it in MMA. Now she has a champion fighter and two professional football players. There's just no telling when fame is going to knock on the back door.
"My husband has the biggest chest and is strutting about with the biggest head in the world right now," she says.
Every day after school, the Jones brothers would burst through the door of the family apartment, toss their bags to the floor and wrestle. The apartment was on the second floor of a duplex in Endicott, N.Y., where the family moved not long after the bikes were stolen. Another family rented the first floor. Both shared the basement. And pity the neighbors on the first floor, for every afternoon brought the thumping of bodies crashing against couches, over tables, off the walls.
Pictures fell. Things rolled on the floor. The boys' older sister, Carmen, was tough, a second mother in a way, disciplining them while Camille was at her job taking care of mentally and physically disabled children. But what to do with three laughing, rolling, fighting boys who seem intent on destroying the apartment?
The woman downstairs once told Arthur Jr.: "Those boys better be wrestlers because they are costing me a lot of money with everything they are breaking."
Eventually the father found some heavy strips of foam that he put on the basement's concrete floor and the boys moved their wrestling down there. Sometime later, they replaced the foam with heavy mats discarded by a school. The mats sprawled over the Jones' half of the basement into the half controlled by their downstairs neighbors. But the neighbors didn't mind. As Arthur Jr. recalls, the people downstairs were just happy the banging above them had stopped.
"We fought over everything," Arthur III remembers. "We fought over a piece of chalk, whether the light was on or off, if the TV was on or off. It was constant competition. I think we broke all the furniture in the house."
But the real problem wasn't the three boys careening through doorways, it was the father who joined them. A successful high school wrestler himself, Arthur Jr. jumped into the scrums, tossing his sons around, trying to pin them to the mats. For years, he challenged Chandler, "running like a tiger" at his youngest child, knocking him flat. They'd tussle for a few minutes before he'd let Chandler win. That is until Chandler was about 12 and actually could win.
Arthur stopped wrestling with his kids after that, though Arthur III's fiancée, Sunny Zupanic, says she still sees the father initiate a wrestling match with one of his sons.
"He's definitely one with the boys," she says.
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Life was always harrowing with the Joneses. When the family moved from Rochester to Endicott, Arthur Jr. used to put a young Chandler on his lap and drive his truck into the woods on fishing expeditions. It seemed safe enough but things were forever happening. Like the time Jon fell into the pond while fishing and disappeared beneath the water. Camille, then pregnant with Chandler, leaped in after him, heading straight for the hand she could barely see beneath the surface.
Or the day Arthur Jr. nearly capsized a fishing boat as a wave knocked the bait and tackle boxes to one side, causing the boat to wobble precariously. He managed to balance it, but not before nearly knocking his family into the water.
"I was terrified," he says. "But I didn't show any fear."
Along with the Bible, this was the lesson he taught his kids. Never show fear. Those daily bouts in the basement and their parents' resolve came to shape them. Jon and Arthur III wrestled in high school. Both became state champions. Chandler lost interest in wrestling as he got older and picked up basketball. He and Arthur III fell in love with football.
"I always tell people I had the biggest advantage in the world: my brothers," Chandler says.
All were becoming sports stars, with football recruiters calling for Arthur III and Chandler and Jon making a wrestling career for himself. Perhaps Arthur Jr.'s favorite memory of Jon in high school came in the semifinals of a state wrestling tournament in Albany. Jon's opponent had him on his back, then jumped on top of him. For more than 40 seconds, he was trapped, resisting the other wrestler's attempts to stick his shoulders to the ground. He twisted and strained, trying to find a way up.
"There was so much tension, the whole arena was watching," Arthur Jr. says.
Eventually, Jon did rise and won back enough points that he eventually took the match – and later the state championship.
"That was one of the greatest nights I had in high school," Jon says. "I had to show a lot of heart."
As Arthur III and Chandler moved through high school and on to Syracuse where they became star defensive linemen, each leaving school a year early for the NFL, Jon went to Iowa Central Community College with the idea of transferring to Iowa State and wrestling there. He dabbled in MMA, dropping into a local bar one night where fights were held. When his opponent learned he was a college wrestler, he dropped out, thus giving him the idea he might have a future in the sport.
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Jon's college girlfriend became pregnant and he needed money, so he dropped out of school, went to an MMA gym and began to train. After one session, some of the other fighters wanted to know where he learned his skill. Where had he been practicing? When he told them he hadn't, they were amazed. Nobody walked in that good, they said. And suddenly Jon knew he'd found a place of his own.
"I found I had a knack for combat," he says.
Not long after, he joined the UFC, beginning the rise that led to his winning the light-heavyweight championship last March, only weeks before the Baltimore Ravens drafted Arthur III in the fifth round.
Last Saturday Jon defeated his former sparring partner Rashad Evans in a highly publicized fight to keep the title, just days before the family will watch as Chandler is picked in the draft that begins Thursday.
"We learned to love each other and depend on each other," Jon says. "We had such a strong background that it made us a strong family. We're so close now."
They don't talk much about Carmen, the sister who helped raise them. Carmen was the oldest and everyone says the most responsible. She meted out the discipline. She kept order in the house. She made her brothers do their homework. But she was also the nurturing one. When something bled, Carmen fixed it. When they were scared or cold or tired, Carmen held them.
Then she got sick. Cancer, the doctors said. It was in her brain.
She died just before her 18th birthday, leaving a hole that each Jones boy fills his own way. Camille notices that Jon weeps when he is asked to discuss his sister. Arthur III gets choked up and searches hard for words. Chandler, the littlest, the one who Carmen doted on the most, says nothing. It's been more than a decade and yet the pain is still too deep.
"It's the most horrible thing that can happen to a parent," Camille says. "There is nothing to compare to losing a child."
Perhaps out of instinct she calls Sunny and Jon's fiancée, Jesse Moses, her "daughters." When she calls for Arthur III or Jon and reaches one of the women, she always says, "Hello, baby, it's mom, is your fiancé there?"
"It was cool to have had a sister," Jon says. "I pray to her sometimes and I tell her to watch over me. I'm not sure if she's watching over me or not and I don't know how that affects my career, but I know I miss her."
There was going to be a party at Arthur Jr. and Camille Jones' house Thursday night. They have long since moved from the duplex in Endicott to a house not far away. The new house is spacious. But not big enough for all the people who say they are coming. The NFL Network is sending a crew. So is ESPN. And UFC.com. Television stations have called from nearby Binghamton.
Suddenly the big house felt small, so the party has been moved to Jon's place not far away. Jon, who already has two children with Moses, has a media room in his house. And what else do you do with a media room but fill it with media?
Chandler wasn't supposed to be picked this soon. Early projections had him going Friday in the second or third round. But in the last two weeks, his name has jumped onto first-round lists. Some draft experts even have him going in the middle of the first round.
Camille thinks she knows what happened. Chandler played only about half the season because of a lingering knee injury. He wasn't as effective as he could have been. Then when teams got him into meeting rooms and talked to him, she just knows they loved him. He's always so talkative and friendly and unlike many of the other players. And it doesn't hurt that everyone now knows his two older brothers.
Who could forget?
"We really have a blessed, unique family," Arthur III says. "We're one of a kind."
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