Thursday, Sept. 22, 2011 | 7:30 p.m.
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DENVER — Jon Jones tore off parts of his training gear, added his signature and tossed the makeshift souvenirs into a rabid crowd of fans at Thursday’s open workouts.
The fans jockeyed their way to the front as items like Jones’ gloves bounced off as many as three sets of hands before an ecstatic onlooker came down with them.
It was almost as if someone had pressed “rewind” and shown a scene from the Mandalay Bay Events Center seven months ago before UFC 126. That was a month and a half before Jones reached mixed martial arts’ pinnacle by winning the UFC light heavyweight championship.
From his prefight routine to the way he carries himself, however, Jones says the belt hasn’t changed anything.
“I just expect more from myself now,” Jones said. “Everything else is the same.”
But even Jones can’t deny his image has undergone a radical transformation heading into Saturday’s main event against Quinton “Rampage” Jackson. Jones was mixed martial arts' version of an underground rock band striking it big with a major label contract.
Everyone around loved him on his way up the 205-pound weight class, but many of those people have turned on Jones now that he’s at the top. He’s gone from a self-described “golden boy” of the UFC to a polarizing figure because of feuds with Jackson and former teammate Rashad Evans.
As much as Jones promises he’s done nothing differently, his perception has changed. A handful of accusations from Jackson helped make it that way.
Jackson revealed another beef during the workouts, which took place at his home MusclePharm Gym. The former champion wouldn’t go into specifics, but he said Jones “bad-mouthed” his boxing coach.
“The kid has no respect for anybody and he needs to be humbled,” Jackson said. “That’s the only thing that’s different from any other fight. Sometimes you fight people and they know their place, but this kid obviously doesn’t know his place.”
Both Jones and Jackson could be right. Maybe Jones always possessed the cockiness his opponent sees, but it didn’t become public until he received the increased scrutiny that comes with a championship.
UFC President Dana White has his doubts. White worked closely with Jones before and after he could wear an extravagant golden belt around his waist and noticed no personal changes.
But the shift in Jones’ status is undeniable.
“All the big guys are gunning for him now,” White said. “The questions will be answered over the next year.”
The light heavyweight belt is the UFC’s most traveled waistband over the last four years. Jackson, Evans, Forrest Griffin, Lyoto Machida and Mauricio “Shogun” Rua all held it for less than two defenses before Jones.
Jones will have to beat the majority of that group to prove he’s one of the greatest pound-for-pound fighters in the world. Line them up, Jones said.
He would rather just fight and not constantly face questions about his reputation and how others view him.
“I don’t want to be the future,” Jones said. “I don’t want to be the guy who makes no mistakes and does no wrong or the guy who can’t swear in interviews. I’m just me. I’m a snotty-nosed 24-year-old who got good at fighting and now everyone cares what I say.”
If Jones still doesn’t have everyone convinced he’s the same person, he might point to how he spent his time after becoming the champion. He “didn’t do anything” to celebrate the momentous achievement.
He traveled the country for about a month to help the UFC with marketing efforts and took care of some business obligations. Jones then took about eight weeks off to rest an injured right hand.
He spent time with his girlfriend and two daughters before returning to Greg Jackson’s training camp in Albuquerque, N.M., where he says he’s still a little brother to most of the fighters.
He said working with such a talented roster kept him humble. If anyone scoffs at that suggestion, well, Jones won’t let it get to him.
“I’m starting to realize everything goes away,” Jones said. “There’s nothing you should lose sleep over, no matter how bad it seems while it’s happening. It all goes away.”