Why you should care
Because greatness is clearly not everything.
I watched him walk to the cage. Skinny Black kid from New York. It was Jan. 31, 2009, when he was a mixed martial arts fighter with some local junior college juice trying to make a name for himself. And he was going to try to do it fighting Stephan Bonnar, more affectionately known as “the American Psycho” for vibing like Christian Bale’s impossibly clean-cut lunatic from the film of the same name.
I was shooting the shit at a sports bar while watching the Ultimate Fighting Championship 94. I didn’t know anything about the skinny kid. But having just published a book on fighting, no one could tell me much of anything about anything fight related. So, I was biding my time.
Until the fight started and Jon Jones became JON BONES JONES.
Which is to say he beat Bonnar like a bad habit, tossing him around the cage with aplomb. Alhough this fight went to a judges’ decision, it was a crushingly unanimous one that left everyone swiveling on their barstools. “Did you see that?!?”
Yeah, we did, and when Jones hit the post-fight presser and was asked what he was going to do after a highlight-reel-worthy performance like the one we had just seen, we think he said, “Maybe just go off hiking. And commune with nature.” I say “think” because it was a moment to end all moments. Spinning elbows, flying knees, high-amplitude takedowns that left Bonnar, and us, shaking our heads trying to figure out how we could have gotten so much so wrong.
But still, as his manager drove and Jones and I chatted, I couldn’t help feeling the haters were wrong. Maybe.
Front office at the UFC had seen the same thing and in true promoter fashion? The game was ON. Two more fights in that calendar year, one win and one loss to an unconscious opponent: Jones drew the “loss” on account of an illegal elbow. But while 2010 saw him fight just twice — both wins — 2011 saw Jones fight four times against a murderers’ row of opponents, and by the end of that year he was the UFC light heavyweight champion.
And then it got hard.
Not in the quality of the opponents, also known as “cats he just whupped,” but outside the eight-sided ring, or octagon, where he made his living. Real TMZ kind of stuff: car accidents, cop trouble, courtroom appearances, a suspension and ultimately losing the belt he had worked so hard to earn.
But just before that I talked to him.
I was doing a piece on Jones for VMan magazine, an offshoot of the fashion-fueled V magazine. It was 2013, and Jones had just beaten Chael Sonnen and suffered a gruesome toe break in the process. He had won fans who saw him calculate that a toe with a bone sticking through the skin would get the match stopped unless he beat Sonnen immediately, and so he beat him, immediately. He also had lost a few fans, specifically in New Mexico, where he was training at Jackson Wink and irking locals. They had been feeding me info, on the sly. Call it my 24-Hour Jon Jones News Channel. And the news was usually sketchy.
But still, as his manager drove and Jones and I chatted, I couldn’t help feeling the haters were wrong. Maybe. The man had IT. Smart, funny, self-effacing in the right measure, and bold in the same sort of measure.
And then: “Well, that’s the kind of danger that an opponent like Chael represented …,” I said, and had meant because Jones had been hurt. Not that Sonnen had a chance in the world to win (Sonnen later said of his fight with Jones: “It was like being in there with a bear”).
“He wasn’t any kind of danger,” said Jones. And it wasn’t what he said, it was how he said it. You were suddenly reminded of what he did for a living: making grown men unconscious and immobile.
He recovered and we went back to talking about the fight game. Later, after coming off a suspension, he beat Daniel Cormier in short order. And in just as short order? He was under investigation for using performance-enhancing drugs. In the he-did-it-no-he-didn’t sweepstakes, compelling arguments were mounted on either side, but Jones was dangerous, with or without steroids.
And not just in the octagon. Because when the mask slipped, what there was to see was cold, unforgiving and knowing exactly what it means when it’s your time and how, precisely, it feels when the gods choose you. We talked for almost an hour and he said all the right things at the right time, but his disdainful dismissal of Sonnen, while part of the game, stuck with me.
Which is when I remembered that Hercules and his labors were in fact punishments gifted by the gods on account of Hercules flipping out and killing folks. Now, usually at the end of an interview, I’d challenge the fighter I was interviewing to a fight. Just for “fun,” and the coterie of tough guys I’ve fought and been beaten by is long.
“Well, thanks for taking the time to talk to me, Jon.” Pause.
“No problem, any time. You need anything else?”
Run away, live and train another day. Now, while we wait to hear if Jones’ career will be ruined by a four-year suspension for steroids, I find myself wondering if to be truly great, you must embrace that greatness back. I don’t know, but I’m pretty sure we’ll soon find out.