LAS VEGAS — We expect a lot of Jon Jones; an awful lot.
Perhaps, honestly, we expect too much.
It’s easily understandable why, though. Never has there been an athlete quite like him in mixed martial arts. From the first time he stepped into the Octagon as a 21-year-old replacement fighter at UFC 87, Jones’ immense talents have been obvious.
He debuted on the undercard of a show that featured the legendary Georges St-Pierre in the main event and future heavyweight champion Brock Lesnar on the undercard. Imagine a show today with those three competing on the same card.
It was more than just his wondrous ability to inflict damage that drew us to him. Oh, sure, nobody before or since has used every part of his body to the same great effect as Jones. UFC president Dana White pointed out at the UFC 239 postfight news conference following Jones’ split decision over Thiago Santos on Saturday that Jones uses his elbows like others use their fists.
Several times, Jones threw spinning elbows at Santos that missed by, as legendary ex-Pittsburgh Pirates announcer Bob Prince was wont to say, a gnat’s eyelash.
The crowd booed throughout the main event, which was as predictable as it was mind-boggling. Santos and Jones entered the cage after an incredible card in which there were a remarkable string of vicious finishes. Jones came in after Jan Blachowicz broke Luke Rockhold’s jaw with a left hook; Jorge Masvidal authored the quickest knockout in UFC history by nearly decapitating Ben Askren with a knee in just five seconds; and Amanda Nunes knocked Holly Holm out with a kick to the head.
“On a night where there were record-breaking knockouts and knocking out people who had never been knocked out in MMA before, I think the fans wanted to see all that crazy s---,” White said of the booing during the main event.
Expectations for Jones haven’t been high simply for his performance in the cage, though. When he came along, he seemed like the chosen one, the UFC’s Jordan, its Mike Trout.
From his earliest days in the UFC, he was the guy who could, should and would be the one who would become the face of the sport. He defined what it meant to be a fighter: He was skilled in every aspect of the game, magnificently conditioned and incredibly smart. He used to joke that he would study YouTube to learn how to fight, but Jones has an amazing fighter IQ and reads the game as well as anyone.
But he had that brilliant smile and that ability to engage an audience. On the night in Newark, New Jersey, in 2011 when he became the youngest champion in UFC history, he told a story at the postfight news conference of running down a mugger earlier in the day.
He relayed the story brilliantly and had the media eating out of his hand.
That night, though, as great and as dominant as the victory over Shogun Rua was, White warned about the perils to come. He predicted greatness for Jones if Jones could avoid what he called “the cling-ons,” the hangers on who don’t care so much about the fighter as they do about using him or her to enhance their own position.
He had more than his share of pitfalls; he wound up in jail during his title run, ran afoul of USADA several times and had his title stripped. A couple of days before the fight, he was talking about the difference between himself in 2011 when he won the belt and now after he’s been through a series of trials and he hit the right chord.
“2011 Jon was a lot wilder; a lot younger; felt invincible,” Jones said. “I don’t think I was as appreciative. Today, I know I’m very human. I’ve made a lot of mistakes and today I know you can lose it all. So what I do differently is I do everything to keep it all.”
In the cage, where he’s so brilliant and almost touchable, he looked vulnerable on Saturday for perhaps the first time. In 2013, he struggled with Alexander Gustafsson before rallying to win, but he admitted he’d only trained for a week and didn’t take Gustafsson seriously. When he did take him seriously, in their rematch at UFC 232, Jones finished him impressively in a bout that was never close.
Santos injured his left knee in the first round and, despite fighting courageously the rest of the way, wasn’t at his full capacity. By the middle of the fight, the impact of Jones’ kicks was making it difficult for him to balance on his right leg, the so-called good one.
But Santos never stopped trying to win and Jones continued to engage him. The gulf between them in grappling seemed wide, and with Jones’ wrestling expertise, he could have easily taken Santos down and probably finished him on the ground.
Jones, though, chose to fight a stand-up battle, the style that Santos preferred, and still came out on top. As the fight wore on, he knew he could take Santos down and make the fight easier, but the pride of a great athlete wouldn’t let him do it.
“Honestly man, I think my pride was a little intact,” Jones said. “I felt like if I were to be the one to shoot, it would mean he was winning in the kickboxing department. I think I can be honest enough to say that. I think my pride is intact. It was a very challenging match on the feet. I didn’t want to give him the satisfaction of having to take him down, so I stood there and I stayed ultra-focused for 25 minutes to avoid those powerful shots and land my own. I won where he’s strong.”
This was his third fight in just over six months, and he plans to fight again in December. He hasn’t fought twice in the same calendar year since 2013 and he hasn’t fought four times in a 12-month span since Sept. 24, 2011, to Sept. 22, 2012, when he defeated former champions Rampage Jackson, Lyoto Machida, Rashad Evans and Vitor Belfort.
His biggest issue has been avoiding out-of-the-cage problems. He was asked a fascinating question at the pre-fight news conference, and he gave a compelling answer that says a lot about his personal growth and maturation.
“I think I’m a bad guy who’s trying to be good,” he said. “Just because religiously, we’re all sinners. We’re born into sin. It’s our nature to sin. It’s a decision to try to do the right thing when no one is looking. I think all of us as humans, none of us are s--- and it’s our choice to be more than that. I have to say I lean closer to being an imperfect human who’s trying to do the right things and be good.”
Jones has had more than his share of incidents, but he’s also paid the price. But he’s been held to such an incredibly high standard that few in the fight game have ever been held to, that it’s almost impossible for him to succeed.
Like the other seven billion or so on this planet, he’s a flawed human. But he’s an amazing talent and it’s clear that he finally has accepted the responsibilities that go along with that.
He’s not perfect, but neither are any of us. Even in the fight, he wasn’t perfect on Saturday, and that’s the one thing he does better than anyone who has ever lived. So how can we expect him to be perfect in the way he handles himself away from his job.
He’s making obvious efforts to improve, inside and outside his sport.
And when it comes down to it, it’s all that can be asked of anyone: Try to do the right thing, acknowledge when you’ve done wrong and don’t make the same mistakes again.
From that standpoint, there is a lot to admire about the 2019 version of the greatest MMA fighter who ever lived.
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