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Fighting:

Jon Jones seems like an unlikely fighter, but inside the UFC cage, he’s ruthless

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Jack Dempsey / AP

Jon Jones, left, of Endicott, N.Y., kneels in the center of the rink after submitting Rampage Jackson, right, of Irvine, Calif., during the fourth round of their UFC light heavyweight title bout, Saturday, Sept. 24, 2011, in Denver.

Jon 'Bones' Jones

Jon Jones, the Ultimate Fighting Championship light-heavyweight champion, working out at Jackson-Winkeljohn Mixed Martial Arts gym in Albuquerque, N.M., April 16, 2013. Jones is 17-1 in mixed martial arts, but his critics say that his success has come too easily and that many of his recent victories have come against opponents who are in decline. Launch slideshow »

Jon Jones’ signature move, the spinning elbow, is a relatively high-risk martial arts strike that he delivers toward an opponent’s head with no regard for his own safety. It’s the kind of maneuver that can make a highlight show — for better or worse.

To create the necessary torque, Jones, the UFC light heavyweight titleholder, must turn his back on his opponent for a split second before spinning his torso through the contact zone with tremendous force. Imagine being hit with a ton of bricks shot from a cannon.

Yet, in a sport where, despite the enormous physical toll, the difference between winning and losing is often a momentary mental lapse, Jones’ audacity seems incongruous with his personality, which is thoughtful, measured and risk averse. All he needs to do is telegraph the spinning elbow once and it is lights out.

By any measure, Jones is a walking and occasionally flying contradiction: a friendly, well-adjusted 25-year-old who looks at his feet during prefight staredowns and who writes on Twitter: “I wish I could find more friends from high school on Instagram. Hit me up, homies.”

Although Jones contends, “I don’t enjoy hitting people; I enjoy outsmarting them,” and frequently uses chess as an analogy, there are far more accurate representations of his strategy and tactics. And most of those involve bruising.

His record is 17-1, including eight knockouts and six submissions. His loss was a disqualification after he repeatedly elbowed his opponent on the crown of the skull, which sounds both difficult and painful. If it is chess he is playing, then it is full-contact chess.

On YouTube, highlight videos of Jones’ knockouts and submissions proliferate. With all of the tactical maneuvering and standard early-round feeling-out process boiled away, what is left is a series of violent assaults. One video shows Jones, sitting astride an opponent, using his elbows to pound the man’s face until his eye sockets bleed. In another, he chokes an opponent into unconsciousness after, in UFC parlance, “loosening him up” with a flying knee to the chin. Although Jones’ face betrays nothing as he rains blows, it is a primal and vicious display, and the opponents appear helpless against his repertory of kicks, punches and elbows.

The Jones from the videos soon begins to look like a cross between Clubber Lang of “Rocky III” and Wolverine, the Marvel Comics superhero.

“He’s a truly scary individual,” Dana White, the UFC’s president and one of its owners, said of the 6-foot-4, 205-pound Jones, who has an 84-1/2-inch reach, the longest in UFC history. “He throws everything at an opponent — spinning back fists, spinning elbows, spinning back kicks — all that nasty stuff that is really tough to defend against. And he is still so young and only getting better.”

The roots of Jones’ athletic talent and drive can be traced to the wrestling ring in the basement of his family’s Rochester home. His father, Arthur, a Pentecostal minister and former all-city wrestler, built it for his sons, Arthur, Jon and Chandler.

“Dad found some spongy material somewhere that was soft enough to wrestle on,” Jones said. “The sponge had blood all over it, sweat all over it, stained up with everything.”

Growing up in a house where secular music and cable television were forbidden as instruments of the devil, the Jones boys could not have sleepovers, go to parties or even leave the house after sunset.

“While other kids were at summer camp,” Jones said, “our camp was every day at home, tussling in that basement.”

Arthur, now 26 and a Baltimore Ravens defensive lineman, was the most natural wrestler, prodigiously strong and coordinated, even as a child, and able to move his brothers around the ring at will. Chandler, 23, a New England Patriots defensive lineman, was lightning quick and a gifted multisport athlete.

Jones was a gangly, headstrong adolescent; the weakest but most determined athlete of the three, he earned the nickname Bones, not for being menacing but for being skinny.

“Well, he wasn’t the best football player to begin with,” Arthur said. “And one day, he showed up at practice with these big shoulder pads, big elbow pads, with those skinny little chicken legs.”

Chandler finished the story, “He looked like a bag of bones, and so he became Jonny Bones.”

Jones did not have as much early success as his brothers.

“I have tons of pictures of myself as a kid with my medals,” he said, “and they were never gold medals.”

Yet, he has an opportunity to become one of the greatest mixed martial artists ever, with a talent ceiling so high that it is still considered abstract by many experts. He has signed Nike’s first global deal with a mixed martial artist. It includes apparel, footwear and a “Bones Knows” logo. And Jones may soon move up to the heavyweight division and camp there for a decade. All this for someone who has been fighting professionally for only five years and who two years ago became the youngest UFC champion ever.

On Saturday, Jones will be facing an opponent who few think will pull off the upset: Chael Sonnen, who has an unremarkable 28-12-1 record. The loquacious Sonnen, 36, is also Jones’ opposing coach this season on “The Ultimate Fighter,” a reality television show on FX that pits two teams of mixed martial arts fighters.

On Fuel TV’s UFC show, Sonnen recently ridiculed Jones’ intelligence.

“If Jon Jones, a potted cactus and a slice of pizza from my oven were all on ‘Jeopardy,’" Sonnen said, “Jon Jones would not make the final round.”

Jones, well past the point of diplomacy — and two months into a grueling camp in Albuquerque, where he is training six days a week — sounded as if he wanted to wring his opponent’s neck, using uncharacteristically crude language.

“When I fight someone who’s not a good person, I want to beat him,” he said. “He wants a championship belt? Fine. It’s just not going to be my belt.”

The fact that it became “his belt” after such a brief time in the sport is the stuff of UFC legend.

After winning the light-heavyweight title from Mauricio Rua in March 2011, Jones faced a gantlet of former UFC champions in succession: Quinton Jackson, Lyoto Machida and Rashad Evans, all with different styles and presenting unique challenges.

UFC 148

Champion Anderson Silva smiles while Chael Sonnen is attended to after Silva scored a second round TKO during their fight at UFC 148 Saturday, July 7, 2012. Launch slideshow »

“He just ripped through legends,” White said.

Jones’ critics, on the other hand, usually advance a simple theme: too much, too soon, too easy. Jones, they contend, becomes bored during fights and his intensity wanes, which will eventually catch up to him. They argue that every quality fighter he has beaten has been on the back nine of his career.

Perhaps soon Jones’ precocious talent will run up against a more experienced mixed martial artist who will put Jones in a position he is unaccustomed to – on his back, in a defensive posture, where his vast reach may be a liability instead of an asset. (The most common name mentioned is the UFC middleweight champion Anderson Silva, whom Jones outweighs by 20 pounds.) Five years in the game and unbeatable? Unheard of, in mixed martial arts or, for that matter, any other full-contact sport.

An impressive start

As the 185-pound state wrestling champion from Union-Endicott High School in Endicott, N.Y., Jones set his sights on the college wrestling powerhouses Iowa and Iowa State. Unable to qualify academically for those universities, he attended Iowa Central Community College, a five-time national junior college team champion, hoping to gain attention.

But after Jones won the 197-pound national junior college championship in 2006, he transferred to get a jump-start on a career as a police officer. He registered at Morrisville State College back in upstate New York to study criminal justice.

In the middle of his sophomore year, Jones’ longtime girlfriend, Jessie Moses, became pregnant with their first of three daughters, Leah, and his priorities shifted. He left college in 2007 five credits short of his associate’s degree, took a job as a nightclub bouncer and was close to accepting a full-time janitor’s position at Lockheed Martin for the health benefits.

At that point, fate, in the form of social media, stepped in. Someone on Twitter, who remains a stranger to Jones, saw his profile picture and offered the name of a local gym that trained mixed martial arts fighters. On a whim, Jones dropped by the place, Bombsquad MMA in Cortland, N.Y., and began practicing for his debut fight, which took place in April 2008.

That timeline was not compressed for dramatic purposes.

“It’s the God’s honest truth,” Jones said, laughing. “I had no real intention of being a UFC fighter, and this guy just threw the idea out there and I went with it.”

Jones was so impressive so quickly, with a 7-0 record in four months, that UFC offered him a bout as a replacement fighter against the undefeated Andre Gusmao in August 2008. Jones quickly accepted.

The most telling aspect of the fight was not Gusmao’s inability to hurt Jones. Nor was it Jones’ haphazard performance, which included flashes of brilliance followed by lapses in concentration, which resulted in his inflicting two low blows. It was the growing admiration of the longtime UFC announcer Joe Rogan as the fight unfolded.

“I’ll tell you what: Jon Jones has a ton of potential,” Rogan said during the television broadcast. “For a kid who only has nine months of mixed martial arts training, it’s impressive. I expect to see great things from him.”

That was also the night Jones came to the attention of Greg Jackson, the head trainer at the Jackson-Winkeljohn Mixed Martial Arts gym in Albuquerque.

“I didn’t even know who Jon was,” Jackson said, “but I came away thinking that he was very athletic, very creative and doing some things that you don’t see many fighters do, and so I was extremely impressed with him.”

Soon after, they began working together.

Life outside the ring was also moving at breakneck speed. Jones’ daughter Carmen, born in 2009, is named after his sister, who died of brain cancer in 2000, before her 18th birthday.

“It affected all of us tremendously,” Arthur said.

He and Jones have tattoos in tribute, and she is never far from their thoughts.

“I feel like it was like a sacrifice,” Chandler said. “That her death led to our success, almost.”

The footlong tattoo on Jones’ chest reads “Philippians 4:13.” It is his sister’s favorite Bible verse: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”

That lesson came in handy when Jones was involved in an incident on his way to fight Rua for the light heavyweight title.

At a traffic light in Newark, a woman ran up to the vehicle he was riding in, saying that a man had broken into her car and stolen her GPS unit. She pointed out the thief, who was hurrying from the scene, so Jones, Jackson and Jones’ striking coach, Mike Winkeljohn, chased him. Jones ran the man down, swept his legs out from under him and prevented him from leaving until the police arrived.

“Afterward, Jon said: ‘You know what? I don’t want to tell anybody about this,'" Winkeljohn said. “But he called his manager and told him the story, and by the time we got back to the hotel after the fight, the world knew.”

The next big draw

The Jones brothers are now millionaires, but in many ways, they are still back in their parents’ basement, pushing one another’s buttons. Or maybe they never really left it. During the NFL offseason, Chandler can often be found training with Jon, and Arthur visits frequently. They are still competitive in everything, including number of Twitter followers and control of the cable box.

“Every time we see each other, it’s not like, ‘Hey, what’s up?'" Chandler said. “It’s more like Jon giving me a charley horse to get the remote.”

Arthur added, “Oh, we still get into it, always wrestling and fighting over something.”

What makes mixed martial arts popular in the United States — the Tarantino-esque violence and occasional blood spatter — is also what is holding it back. UFC would probably counter that boxing has had more than its share of grisly encounters, and that is true. Boxing, however, does not take place inside a steel cage. Depending on the audience, UFC provides the best and the worst optics imaginable. In a few states, New York included, live mixed martial arts events are illegal.

But now the sport has Jones, who reflexively uses “ma’am” and “sir” when greeting people and who speaks of his responsibility to his fans and the sport with uncommon reverence.

Click to enlarge photo

Jon Jones, of Endicott, N.Y., celebrates after beating Rampage Jackson, of Irvine, Calif., to retain his UFC light heavyweight title, Saturday, Sept. 24, 2011, in Denver. Jones won the fight with a knockout in the fourth round.

“I don’t believe a champion is the biggest, baddest, meanest dude in the world,” he said. “I think the champion is like a warrior; it’s like the head knight or lead samurai: humble men of integrity, respect and honor that treat people kindly.”

Not that Jones is perfect. He is still capable of behaving irresponsibly, as evidenced by his crashing his Bentley into a utility pole in Binghamton, N.Y., and being charged with driving under the influence last year.

“I’m just like everybody else, for the most part,” Jones said. “Make a mistake, then learn from it.”

Although Jones is not the typical mixed martial arts fighter, UFC is using its promotional muscle to make him its next big draw. White can talk a dime out of a parking meter, but even he might not be able to turn Jones into a master of sound bites. If he can sell a 12-loss fighter like Sonnen in a pay-per-view bout against someone who has come through his career virtually unscathed, White can probably conjure a way to overcome Jones’ equanimity.

The simple truth, and the most whopping contradiction of them all, is that in a sport filled with tough guys, Jones is perfectly comfortable with who he is: a mild-mannered Clark Kent who every few months has to walk into a cage and play Superman. He says publicly and repeatedly that he does not relish inflicting pain. And no matter how that is spun, it is still not helpful in the selling of a sport built on animosities, real or manufactured.

And when he does hurt someone?

“Yeah, I don’t think Jon really loves that experience,” Winkeljohn said. “He’s got no problems once the cage door is shut, but I’ve never seen him behave like that in the gym.”

Winkeljohn recounted an instance when a new sparring partner landed some blows on an unprepared Jones. He did not immediately respond to the breach in training etiquette. The next day, trainers and fighters braced for some form of retribution.

“Instead, what did Jon do?” Winkeljohn said. “He faked something and jumped up in the air and brought the knee up right to the guy’s face and stopped on a dime, as if to say: ‘That was a mistake. Don’t do it again. Now, welcome to the team.' That’s Jon Jones.”

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