LAS VEGAS — Before he won the UFC championship in one of the most dominant performances ever seen in a title fight, Jon Jones didn’t have to worry about what Dana White referred to as “the cling-ons.”
On that March night in 2011 in Newark, New Jersey, Jones obliterated Mauricio “Shogun” Rua, one of the game’s elite fighters, to become the youngest UFC champion. After that, as Jones and his team celebrated the victory and exchanged hugs and high fives, the UFC president sounded an ominous warning.
Jones put on a vicious and brutal display in stopping Rua, and then charmed the large media contingent afterward with a story of running down a mugger before the fight.
He had a megawatt style and a charming manner. A few fights before, he regaled the media after decimating Stephan Bonnar with stories of learning moves by watching videos on YouTube. It was pretty obvious that the guy who’d made his promotional debut at UFC 87 as a late injury replacement would become one of the biggest draws and greatest fighters in the sport.
Heading into his light heavyweight title defense Saturday against Anthony Smith at T-Mobile Arena in the main event of UFC 235, it’s safe to say he’s accomplished both of those goals.
Most experts believe he’s the greatest mixed martial artist who ever set foot in the cage. He’s fought all comers and won in a one-sided manner nearly every time, making Hall of Famers look like stumblebums.
And he’s sold enough tickets and pay-per-views that he’s become a millionaire many times over.
The Jon Jones story is worthy of a movie, but a lot of it would deal with untoward things that are a result of White’s 2011 warning about the “cling-ons” becoming true. To White, the cling-ons are those who hang around famous athletes, not so much to help them improve and reach the peak of their potential, but to grab a piece of the good times, to revel in the spotlight and leech onto their fame and money.
Often, White said, the cling-ons will drag the athlete down.
The cling-ons had their impact on Jones, no doubt. There are the drunken driving incidents and the failed drug tests and all manner of outside-the-cage issues that easily could have been avoided.
Jones, though, didn’t avoid them and said during an exclusive interview with Yahoo Sports that he got caught up in being a star and a celebrity at a very young age.
“Dana’s been around the UFC since the very beginning and he’s seen a lot of successful men come and go,” Jones said. “He knew what he was talking about. Maybe it’s my personality type, the way I like to be amongst people. I like to have fun and be silly and maybe he saw that being a downfall for me before I did. He was right.
“I definitely enjoyed being a 23-year-old multimillionaire driving around in a Bentley. Growing up a poor kid, you just never knew any of that stuff would happen. When it did happen, I think I did what probably 70 percent, 80 percent of men would do in that situation. And that’s just live it up.”
Jones was remarkably candid during the nearly 30-minute interview with Yahoo Sports, in which nothing was out of bounds. He answered questions about his drunken driving arrests and his mother’s passing and his drug-test failures head-on with an insight he hadn’t shown frequently before.
His publicist watched from a distance and wasn’t thrilled by all the discussion of his issues. But it’s not like those issues could be hidden, or that people don’t know about them, and Jones handled himself beautifully as he confronted the issues directly and pledged to improve.
People will forgive all sorts of things easily if they believe you’re truly remorseful and sincere about apologizing. They can see through you, though, when you try to pull a public-relations stunt and say what you believe people want to hear.
Only time will tell if he’s truly changed, but he seemed more willing to accept responsibility than ever before. He’s 31 now and showed a maturity and an understanding that was lacking previously. That authenticity could help drive fans back to his side.
In the summer of 2010, a few months before he’d become the champion, he met a reporter at the food court in a shopping mall in Las Vegas, barely noticed by the shoppers strolling by. He spoke with reverence of then-middleweight champion Anderson Silva, who at the time was regarded as the greatest fighter in the sport’s history.
There’s little doubt that Jones has far exceeded Silva’s accomplishments in the cage, but as a result of the positive PED tests and the other unsavory incidents, it’s like there is an asterisk beside him always to remind people that he’s screwed up.
But at 31, he’s nowhere close to the finish of his career. He showed that at UFC 232 when he regained the title by stopping Alexander Gustafsson in Inglewood, California. He struggled with Gustafsson the first time they met in what became one of the great fights in UFC history.
Jones would later say he was so confident of victory that he didn’t train and was partying throughout camp.
In December, he showed the difference by preparing diligently. It was never in doubt as he blew Gustafsson away and stopped him in the third round.
He wants to make up for lost time and fight once a quarter. Doing that will keep him in the gym and away from pursuits that several times nearly derailed his career.
It’s going to be hard to avoid the temptations, because the richer he gets and the more famous he gets, the more he’ll be pulled in the wrong direction.
He has to have the moral conviction to say no, and stick to his decision. He’s said in the past he would do that and failed to keep his word.
On this day, though, it seemed different. Listening to him speak, it felt not so much he was reading lines fed to him by a publicist but speaking from the heart.
And if he can convince the public he’s sincere, there’s no limit on what he may be able to do.
“I feel like my troubles have humanized me in a way that lets people know that, ‘Hey, listen, no matter how many crappy things are said about you, no matter how many crappy things you’ve done, there is always tomorrow,’” Jones said. “We look forward.”
We look forward to Jones’ career going forward without the cling-ons, without the drunken driving arrests and the anti-doping test failures, and one in which he fights the biggest fights and continues to demonstrate his remarkable talent.
For the first time in a long while, it seems like there is a better-than-even chance that occurs.
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