Major League Baseball Hall of Famer Yogi Berra once said "half this game is 90% mental." The old adage is comical in a literal sense, but it has meaning. No matter what sport you've played in the past, you've undoubtedly heard coaches talk about how important the mental part of any game is. It couldn't be more prevalent in the lead-up to the main event showdown between champion Jon Jones and challenger Quinton "Rampage" Jackson at UFC 135 on Saturday night.
Jones has been the focus of what can only be described as a sociological study driven by each and every one of us. It started with the sordid details of his falling out with former teammate Rashad Evans, and the verbal sparring session that ensued. Some fans made their minds up about Jones at that moment. "He's a backstabber, a phony", said some fans. Evans continued to spit venom at Jones, telling anyone and everyone who would listen that Jones was putting on a facade. Interestingly enough, many fans felt there were telling signs that Jones was "faking" it.
The verbal assault by the masterful Quinton "Rampage" Jackson this week has been even more revealing. In almost every interview and face off between the two fighters, Jackson comes off as the real deal while the perception that Jones is a fake continues to gain steam. "Spygate" added fuel to the fire, and Jackson consistently laying blame on Jones for the situation isn't helping. Furthermore, many fans have noticed that "something" seems to be off with Jones in those interviews. I can't say that I don't agree.
It's difficult to pinpoint exactly what that something is, but I tend to focus on the exaggerated reactions and fumbling answers when met with Jackson's effortless quips. It's almost as if Jones is jealous that it comes too easy to Jackson. In other instances, Jones is visibly uncomfortable, indicating he is either holding back a true emotion or deeply insulted by playing this game with Jackson.
The latter thought hits a rarely touched upon subject: race. As community member Brian Hullaby opined yesterday, there is a sense that Jones gave up a certain amount of his "blackness" to become more mainstream among fans, and Evans and Jackson have taken offense. That's what they mean when they say he's being a fake or a phony. It's hard to fault Jones, however, when his past has been filled with racism from his own race. Those wounds don't disappear overnight, and Jackson's frontal assault is bringing up bad memories of those days.
For most fans, none of that matters. They aren't watching this sport to become emotionally invested. They don't care if Jones can't take a few verbal jabs from Jackson. This is fighting after all. They want blood, sweat, and tears.
I don't buy that for a second.
Those reactions stem from the topic being incessantly driven into our skulls over the past two weeks. In reality, becoming connected in some way with a fighter is an emotional investment that has lasting effects on how we consume the product. We become deeply passionate about those involved, thus increasing the sport's enjoyment. If you are maintaining a constant interest in the sport without any emotional investment, you're lying.
You can understand then why Jones' identity is such a major topic. Fans want an emotional investment, and it became easy to get interested when the drama revealed itself publicly. There's a reason why reality TV and live events dominate the ratings on television. We love drama, and both Jones-Jackson and Jones-Evans fulfill that requirement.
It is what it is. Cliché enough for you. It's true in this case. Jones is who he is, a young, understandably immature man who has been thrust into the limelight. A meteoric rise as Mike Goldberg might say. He wants to present a wholesome image, an image that he believes a mainstream audience will eat up. At least that's what we believe anyways.
Our obsession with revealing that he isn't that person to anyone who will listen is a witch hunt that doesn't really matter. In reality, the blame game and the accusations have created more hype around this fight than what the actual truth would have.
Why are we so obsessed with the search for Jon Jones' identity? Why must we reveal what he is holding back? It's difficult to even fathom a reason why, if any. Perhaps he has a bad side he doesn't want to reveal. Maybe he doesn't want to stoop to a level that he sees the same as the bullies who called him "gay" in high school for wrestling in tights. Maybe he isn't holding back at all. The Jon Jones we are seeing is the real Jon Jones. Whatever the case, choose a side to invest in and wait to see what happens. Enjoy the ride.
Both fighters are invested just like us in this fight, why ruin it by overpowering the pugilism with subjective squawking. An answer may never reveal itself, even if Jackson somehow destroys Jones on Saturday night. Jones may go through his entire career with the same lingering questions. Will finding the answer really change anything? We will root for him, or against him. We'll still buy a pay-per-view regardless. Let the truth come out in time. For now, let's just enjoy the show.