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Not quite: Jon Jones on the edge of expectation before facing Cormier at UFC 182

Looking at the paradoxes of the UFC's 205lb champion and pound-for-pound king before UFC 182 on January 3rd in Mandalay Bay, Las Vegas

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Who is Jon Jones? The idea that you don't know the answer to this question is fairly ridiculous given the website where you're reading this article, but humour me. For the sake of experimentation, let's take him out of context and start again from first principles.

Appearance: he's black, in his mid-to-late twenties. Six feet and four inches tall and partway between gangling and just plain big. Sometimes muscled, sometimes almost pudgy. Evidence of on-again, off-again exercise might imply that he's something like an actor, but he's not quite handsome enough, nor cut in the chiselled and vascular vogue which Hollywould recently pulled back from the ‘80s.

An athlete, maybe? This is more plausible, but his physical structure seems wrong for the NFL or basketball. He carries mass in his thighs and shoulders, and his shins and forearms taper down to a slenderness which stops just short of comical or delicate. He's too heavy for a marathon runner, and not explosive enough to be a sprinter.

Closer in, you might read the touch of ragged swelling that makes a cauliflower ear. Just a little, because a young man's vanity ensures it's no more than that. A scar is notched through his right eyebrow. Extra muscle weight carried in the gluteus and quadriceps is a telling marker, because here is the basal engine, the commonality which drives great mixed martial arts competitors regardless of size or body type.

So, Jones is a fighter. This is acceptable, if unlikely somehow. He doesn't particularly look like a man who is one of the best in the world at beating people unconscious; prising bones and ligaments to tearing points; at strangling men with a locked forearm, squeezing their arteries to starve their brains of blood until their eyes roll back in their head.

Animate the stilled visual, lend Jones's mannerisms and personality to the representation described, and only deepen this sense of improbability. Expectations of fighters and champions are of irresistible confidence in one form or another: either an overwhelming charisma, or a steely centrality that lets surroundings flow around them while they remain unaffected. Instead, Jones is reactive, with a slight recoil when he processes new information when his eyes widen up and he sits very slightly uncomfortably elsewhere from what is expected.

In interviews he talks in a soft, managed baritone, carefully framing his words, rarely envigorated by the crackling urgency or animal vitality of someone who makes their living at competition's bloodiest edge. In unguarded moments he has a smug-complicit, slightly sheepish smile, a tendency to pull class-clown faces, and a goofy laugh.

Instinctively, intuitively, you do not expect him to be the best fighter in the world. The greatest ever? Forget it. "Mixed martial arts" is young, and the weight of its history is light, but it still has to be too heavy to be draped over those coat-hanger collarbones. His birdlike shins would just buckle, and snap.

Passed over by the vacuum cleaner

He was raised in Rochester, New York, the second son of what would become an athletic dynasty, bookended by elder brother Arthur and younger brother Chandler. Future NFL stars. American football is the quintessential US sport: the clumsy, rich, lonely kid of a country sitting in its own backyard, dressing its toys up in expensive battle armour and throwing them at each other in slow and elaborate battles. It's a vacuum cleaner which picks up the big and the fast and the strong.

It passed the young Jon over, although he did try out as a linebacker at Union-Endicott High School.The way his skinny limbs jutted out of the armour got him dubbed "Bones Jones," and he was not a success. "He wasn't the best player...he couldn't catch a cold. They tried to find a position for him to play," said Arthur in an interview with MMAJunkie. Jon became a defensive tackle, because "It was the only position where I could not screw up too bad".

Jon moved into wrestling, where he did much better. He won the 185b state championship, and had hopes of going to Iowa or Iowa State, strong wrestling schools. Instead, lacking the necessary grades, he went to Iowa Central Community College. There he competed on the NJCAA level, and won a national championship in 2006.
He and his roommate Joe Soto were both bitten by the jiu-jitsu bug, but Jones's actual path to mixed martial arts is a little shrouded: he transferred to Morrisville State College in New York to study criminal justice, then dropped out. His long-term girlfriend was pregnant, the two of them living in his father-in-law's basement, and Jones was close to becoming a janitor for Lockheed Martin. Then he took some pro MMA bouts. One last crack at a future in athletics.

Six fights and just four months later, he was called up to the UFC.

The light light heavyweight

The first and most obvious impression when Jon Jones steps in the cage is how big he is. He looms over most other 205 pounders, but the towering silhouette seems light, somehow. There aren't many fighters who project such a specific combination of frailty and power. It's like a theatre prop, a huge wooden puppet manoeuvred by pulleys and ropes, and in its movements and swings there's something superficially intimidating but slightly beyond the tangible.

The first time I saw him fight was on a recording of UFC 94, on the preliminary undercard. His sophomore UFC fight, and the last time in his career that he was the underdog. He was fighting Stephan Bonnar: tough guy; long-time vet; runner-up of the first season of the Ultimate Fighter; half of the then-recently and generously crowned "best fight in UFC history". If you watched Jones come out, you probably thought that he was going to get killed, particularly when he was billed as a wrestler. World-class wrestlers don't look like Jon Jones.

Instead he glided around the cage while Bonnar doggedly followed him. Jones's first strike was a spinning back kick. He made Bonnar cartwheel with a trip, landed a suplex. The crowning moment came when Jones came up from the clinch, whirled, and smashed Bonnar in the back of the head with his elbow. It immediately catapulted the older fighter face-first into the canvas. Bonnar made it to a decision loss, but the strike itself remains on the UFC's PPV-opener highlight reel.

In his next fight, Jones tapped out Jake O'Brien, and then he changed camps in 2009, joining the powerhouse gym headed by Greg Jackson and Mike Winkeljohn. There, he took off. He lost his only fight to Matt Hammill on a bizarre technicality after dislocating the wrestler's shoulder and raining down elbows. Brandon Vera was apparently thinking about how unimpressive the new guy was right at the moment where Jones dropped a single elbow which literally broke Vera's face, cracking off a triangular chunk of cheekbone which floated, untethered, in the bag of skin around his skull. Vladimir Matyushenko was obliterated in a chaingun barrage of elbows. Ryan Bader was young and undefeated, and looked lost and confused within seconds of stepping in the cage. When he was tapped out in the second round, it was almost a mercy. Jones destroyed Shogun Rua to take the light heavyweight belt, simply annihilated him in one of the most brutally one-sided championship bouts the UFC has ever seen.

By this time, something of a fan backlash was in effect. Stories of him signing autographs as the champion before actually winning the belt, of proudly snitching on weed smokers in high school, did not endear him to many. But, there was also the press conference after he took the belt when he gave an anecdote about taking down a purse snatcher before the fight, and was effortlessly likeable and charming. Watching it, you thought: "You know what? He's going to be OK."

But he wasn't, not quite. These moments became the exception, and not the norm.

He developed a championship style, largely based around kicking opponents in the leg and stiff-arming them if they got close, which didn't go down well. He dominated challenger after challenger. The idea that the impossibly rigid image that Jones held up in front of himself would dissolve over time, that he'd click with fans, just didn't quite come to pass.


Black and fake

To this day, MMA struggles with perceptions as a predominantly white sport, in fans if not necessarily in participants: "NASCAR, and Ultimate Fightin'." The biggest draws in MMA (Georges St. Pierre; Brock Lesnar; Chuck Liddell) have been white. So racism is always close to hand. It's easy to write that Jones's struggles to connect are because he's a young, black athlete with a bit of an attitude who is dominating a historically caucasian bubble.

Racism is pungent stuff. It's accusatory and polarizing, and it crushes out subtler flavours when handled recklessly. However, there is still a fundamental question to be asked: are there racial elements in the Jon Jones story? Well, yeah. Sure there are. Take Rashad Evans. One of the men on the ledger of Jones's title defenses. Before he was Jones's rival, he was his training partner. Before that, he was his predecessor.

Evans was also young, successful and black. He won the second season of the Ultimate Fighter. When he came up through the UFC he was a brash young man with a chip on his shoulder. In addition, he was -and remains- particularly thoughtful, articulate and self-aware, in a way that few athletes are. He knocked out white fan-favourite Chuck Liddell, turning an entire arena to dead silence, and then he knocked out white fan-favourite Forrest Griffin to take the light heavyweight championship.

There aren't a lot of similarities between Evans and Jones. Evans is average-sized, Jones is tall, Evans is straightforward, Jones is goofy. Evans was often described as a boring fighter, but that argument can't be shared with Jones. They did share their most common criticism: being "fake." Or, sometimes, "cocky".

It's hard to argue that there aren't specific models of behaviour laid out for minorities, and that when someone walks across the boundaries, it doesn't sit well. Moreso when the man in question does something quite as dominant and physical as beating people up for money. He's quiet and conciliatory, but can also be violent and full of swagger? I don't like it. Something like that shouldn't be real. It's fake.

I don't think it's a coincidence that the tag-line used for Jones by Nike at one point was "Not Quite Human", because that is, largely, what black athletes in particular are expected to be.

At least for his part, Evans is much better liked now than he was back then. In part this is because he clearly more comfortable with who he is, and in part it's because people have had time to get used to him. But it's also because he's not undefeated any more. Being undefeated, at the top of the sport, is an amplifier. With no barriers to contain them, personality traits are lent power. They grow to enormous sizes, magnified by attention and fear. Racism does something similar.

In the end, the intertwined nature of race, success, and expectations can have effects as simple as a twist on the volume dials of outrage: if a hypothetical Jon Jones was white, he'd probably receive criticism of a broadly similar type to that which he receives today. There wouldn't be as much.

It's not the full story, obviously.

The two Jons

Sometimes, watching Jones, I think: what if Superman wasn't the perfect specimen of Kryptonian physique and morals? What if he was awkward and weird and out for himself, like most people are? He'd still be faster, stronger than anyone else around. In the young environment of MMA, Jones is an immigrant from the alien world of genuinely elite athletes, from a family where he wasn't the best, or even the second best.

Arthur himself pointed it out:

"For the record, I've never lost to him... they jumped me one time, my two brothers. It took two of them. Maybe he took me down once on the wrestling mat, but that's about it. But no, he's never beaten me. Serious."

And you can just hear the defiant, little brother "nuh-uh" in Jon's response:

"Not true! I've beaten him once or twice. He won't admit it, but I have."

But even this image of the weakest athlete of an athletic family is reductive, careless, because MMA (and MMA alone) is Jon's yellow sun. He was no good at football. There's the famous youtube video where Jones, a six-foot-four professional athlete with a wingspan of seven feet, fails miserably to dunk a basketball.

So, a young man brought up in the kind of obsessive, strict, brutally competitive environ where he and his brothers would wrestle every day, but who probably never really anticipated being the best in the world at anything, finds himself in a place where he is perhaps the greatest in the world, at it's most infamously violent sport.

It sometimes seems like Jon created an image for himself here. A blend of someone who could be the greatest, and the mask he had to project while growing up in a strict religious household. The snitch, the good Christian, the respectful, impossible champion.

This sense of disconnection has never gone away. In an interview with Sports Illustrated after he took the belt, he talked in the first person plural, as though there were literally two Jons:

"Right now there's a big hype around me and right now they're trying to take advantage of all the situations and opportunities that are out there and take advantage of this energy that's surrounding our careers, and that's what we're doing."

The projection often jars with the way that he actually acts, of course. There was the DWI where he rammed his Bentley into a telephone pole with two women in the car with him, shortly after pronouncing that he would never, ever get a DWIThere have been the hacked nude snapchats, the persistent rumours that he doesn't live his life the way that he says he does. There was the time when someone (maybe Jones, maybe not) posted an angry, homophobic rant at a Swedish fan, using Jones's instagram account.

If this was Jones, then it was a strange thing to do. Weird and pointlessly petty. Up until that point, he'd largely avoided confrontation with his opponents. Attempts to rile him from fighters like Rampage Jackson or Evans had mostly glided off the waxy, unreactive surface of Jones the Champ.

Getting furious with fans over the internet? Throwing unreasoning homophobic slurs at them? That's not what champions do. It's beneath them.

That's what fans do.

There are a great many egocentric fighters, but there's something very uncentered about Jon Jones's egotism. Sometimes it feels a lot like Jones is -in a genuine, aspirational sense- a fan of himself. That he's separated the respectful champ to such a degree that he actually looks up to him, that he supports him with the kind of blind, unreasoning faith that fans tend to have, like a fourth Jones brother.

To this day, he continues to say things like:

"I don't think it's really healthy for the world to see their champion -- for the world to see UFC's champion -- saying I would kill someone."

Which leave people scratching their heads in puzzlement.


There isn't a more contextually loaded concept in combat sports than the term "heart". A fighter who shows heart is one who gets up, who refuses to be beaten down. It implies goodness and love... but it's not where that drive comes from. It comes from a place of pure selfish egotism. A single-minded focus on winning at all costs. Ask any athlete if they push through tough spots visualizing their children, or their wives, or the kids at the orphanage, and they'll tell you that that idea is complete garbage. Or at least the honest ones will.

I think that most people understand this, deep down. In the same way that we can instinctively parse complicated physical equations, we know the psychological reality of what "heart" is... but it doesn't seem like something Jones would possess. The disconnected nature of Jones seems like it would be fragile. The raw material of willpower transmitted through to the nodes of his personality would be corrupted by some lossy compression, or the pipelines themselves would be broken. He'd break. You know it.

With the exception of an armbar against Vitor Belfort, the first time Jones was tested was against Alexander Gustafsson at UFC 165. "The Mauler" is a lanky Swede who is quick, powerful, and has an absolutely unbelievable capacity for absorbing damage. The bout was marketed based on the fact that Gustafsson was tall. Like Jones! Routine title defense.

Within seconds of the fight starting, it was anything but routine. Gustafsson shucked off a Jones takedown. He landed a takedown of his own, the first time in Jones's career that he'd been thrown off his feet. The faithful acid of Jones's low kicks started to wear away at the challenger's legs, but Gustafsson kept hitting him back. A seam in the Swede's glove unzipped Jones' brow.

As the fight went deep, Jones's lower lip swelled grotesquely. Punches from Gustafsson started to cloud the air with blood. Three close rounds. Joe Rogan thought they all might have gone the way of the challenger. For the first time in his career, Jones needed to come back.

In the fourth, the champion whirled. The spinning elbow crashed straight into Gustafsson's forehead and suddenly the Swede was fighting for balance, the invincible chin cracked. Jones stalked him through the closing seconds of the round and throughout the next, lashing out with headkicks and punches. He took the decision, and then went to the hospital.

It was a revelation, in two distinct ways. Firstly, it showed that whatever drives Jones is extraordinarily strong, tough, difficult to break, whatever else you might think about him.

Secondly, it revealed a real truth about Jones and his style. When someone is hurt and pressed in that kind of way, you see who they really are. They go back to the first things they learned, their jab, their hook, their cross. It reveals what their fundamental building blocks are.

It's tempting to see the spinning elbow, that signature strike from UFC 94, as being some kind of symbolic finishing move (and if Jones's life ever gets made into a film, it surely will be). More than that, it showed that deep down, the crazy strikes and the flashy bullshit... they weren't something grafted onto Jones's style, they weren't him showing off. They were who he was at the core.

In a interview, long ago, he said:

"I hear people saying things like, ‘He's going to get caught one of these days trying to do that flashy showboating.' I really don't mean to showboat. The people close to me realize that's just who Jon is; that's just how he fights."

and it was true. Completely, unbelievably true. Wherever else that he might have faked it, he had never lied in the cage.

The rival

"I'm a fierce competitor and he's a fierce competitor, and we both know what's ahead of us and that's real competition, good competition. You need to take on a certain attitude to be able to meet that challenge and to do your best, so we've both got our game faces on, and, unfortunately, those game faces are ugly."

Memorable rivalries are something which defines popular champions. Rampage Jackson and Evans were Jones's biggest selling fights, and these were men who had struggled their way up the mountain. Each man briefly grasped the UFC light heavyweight belt which Jones would eventually define as his own, but both took tough losses and brutal setbacks. There are few MMA knockouts as infamous as Jackson hanging through the ropes like a caught manatee, or Evans' wall-eyed and sightless sprawl when he lost the championship to Lyoto Machida.

Getting over these kind of failures must be difficult. Perhaps you tell yourself that this is something that happens to everyone, and that even this awful, unthinkable brand of humiliation is a price to be paid for success. Still, you have to accept that in some ways, that you'll be defined by that loss

There must be bitter Salieri gall to be had in fighting and losing to a man who is younger and blithely talented, one who cruised to the top of the sport in three years and just never seemed to have to pay the toll of failure.

Daniel Cormier is defined by failure, and is as diametrically opposed to Jon Jones as you can get. Where Jones is tall and gangly, Cormier is barrel-chested, almost squat. Jones is still young, still the goof, still the party animal. Cormier is all adulthood, all business, fiercely focused on family and friends and the relationships he has at his gym.

He started off in Northside High School, in Louisiana. Not a top wrestling school in any way, shape or form. The young Daniel Cormier came there on a football scholarship- NFL once again proving its dominance. He transferred into the wrestling program simply because he loved the sport.

BE's own Coach Mike summed up Cormier's career:

"Daniel held an absolute stranglehold on the United State's 96kg weight class in freestyle wrestling for more than half a decade. He represented the USA at world level championships an incredible six years in a row, winning four World Team Trials, and two Olympic Trials. In the 2004 Olympics he made the semifinals and eventually finished in 4th place in a star-studded weight. At World Championships he placed in the top five twice, winning a world bronze medal in 2007. In 2008 he looked poised to win an Olympic medal, but apparent weight mismanagement cost him a chance to compete and placed an unfortunate end on a stellar wrestling career."

When Cormier came in drastically overweight and tried to cut, his body simply shut down on him, closing the dreams of his sport off to him forever.

I wrote about Chael Sonnen a while ago, and how he'd always seem to try and warp the narrative of whatever happened to him into some form of forward momentum, and about how the focus on pressing onwards, come what may, seemed a particular extension of the wrestler mentality. In a similar manner, Cormier seemingly takes past failures and uses them as a kind of propellant.The fundamental difference is that while Sonnen bends and reshapes faults and moments of collapse, Cormier uses his moment of failure as self-chastisement. There's no transformation, just a kind of sharpening- the Olympics logo is tattooed on Cormier's calf, but the lapse is kept so keen that you'd be forgiven for thinking you can see those same marks cut deep into Cormier's back. Open wounds in the shape of five interlocking rings.

In a moment of candour with Fox Sports, Cormier said:

"Nothing will replace the Olympics. As a kid in 1996 I watched Kurt Angle, I watched Tom Brands, I watched Kendall Cross all win Olympic gold medals and my goal from that day was to be an Olympic champion and I worked towards that for a long time. So even winning the UFC championship won't replace that, but it will actually be for the first time if I can do everything right and compete and win the championship, that I won't have gotten in my own way,"

His first words to heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez when he came to train at American Kickboxing Academy, the place saved him from depression after the Olympics: "You can't take me down." Those words are the very definition of who he is. A proud wrestler, to the end. Words which Jones unintentionally, and perhaps foolishly, echoed back to him when they first met.

It's easy to see that characteristic smile slowly spreading across Jones's face as he said to Cormier: ""I bet I could take you down." And that, simply enough, was that.

For his part, Jones can see Cormier in a different light to all the other men he beat in his championship run. They were all either his contemporaries who came up alongside him, like Gustafsson or Bader, or they were men who had established careers before him. There was never much heat between Jones and Gustafsson, or even between Jones and Jackson or Evans. Not in the same way that there is now.

Cormier's run in Strikeforce got started with the win over Jeff Munson, and he came to prominence after beating Bigfoot Silva. Predictably, he still attracted some of the traditional tiresome criticisms during his rise ("fake!"); the old friction between the prescribed boxes and actually possessing a personality. This has died away as he's gotten closer to his shot against Jones. In a neat trick of occlusion, his perceived falsehood is obscured by the greater light of the champion's.

All this, his time in the MMA limelight, has come entirely during Jones's title reign. For the first time, Jones can look at an opponent and say: who does this guy think he is? For the first time, he's looking at another fighter and seeing him not as a predecessor, or a peer, but as an upstart. The fan of Jones can look at Cormier, and demand why this short, fat guy is getting all the attention.

They do not like each other very much.

The interregnum man

There's a definition of an "interregnum" as a time without trajectory, when the old is dying and before the new is born. Jon Jones is the face of the UFC in its own interregnum, occupying the space between the first flare of fad popularity and its potential establishment as some kind of legitimate sporting enterprise.

The organization has taken in a deep breath, inhaling as many fighters as it possibly can, and maybe more than that: regional champions, prospects, Europeans, Russians, Koreans, and more, trying to fill the schedule for an endlessly spinning year-round carousel of fights on pay-per-view, cable and the internet. Profits are down. Zuffa's credit rating has been downgraded. A lawsuit alleging anti-competitive practices rolled into action at the close of 2014.

Media and fans are watching mistrustfully and trying to figure out whether the next breath resolves into a healthy and rhythmic respiration or choking collapse.

This what Jon Jones is the representative of, his success and the UFC's inexorably tied together. The unsurety, the idea that all the check-boxes that we had for the future of the sport (good fighters putting on good fights; a place in the mainstream), and those that would make a transcendental athlete (respectful; exciting; a bit controversial)... that they might not be enough. It all becomes part and parcel of that thick seam of fear that runs under the surface of a lot of MMA writing nowadays.

For his part all Jones really has to do is to keep winning, keep on knocking down the contenders with that grimy, savage, weird style. The stiff-arms and the kicks at the knee, and the spinning elbows and lead head kicks, like it was thrown together in a schoolyard by some kid with dreams of being the best in the world. Big Brother Jones assembling a style piecemeal from the vindictive bitterness of how boys fight and the high-octane flash of how they wish that they could.

How long does it last? Mixed martial arts is still being defined, in a way, but its component sports are based around technical realities like leverage and mass and the shortest distance between two points. These are not imaginary orthodoxies to be broken at will: Jones is probably, for example, not a particularly good boxer. If Cormier gets in past Jones's reach then he is someone talented enough and close enough to the peak of wrestling to show just why world-class wrestlers don't look like Jon Jones.

What's expected

The article started off with a thought experiment, so why not end with one? What happens if the upset happens? After the crowing and the excited write-ups, when the light heavyweight division settles into its new configuration, it could end up with Jones being more popular. There will be those who claim that they disliked him before, but that they're fans of the "new" Jon, the challenger: he's just more real now, more humble.

Of course, it won't be true. Instead, it will be more that he'll have been closed off, given barriers to overcome, and those who want to support him will feel more like they're pushing against something, and less that they're just lifting without resistance into a void of limitless potential. Courage can be recontextualized without perceived invincibility, and his strange nature will be safely contained by failure, the vectors of his personality no longer propagating off into infinity.

However, on the other hand, Jones remains the favourite, and for good reasons. For for all the talk of fakeness, the narrative of the good family man versus the arrogant youngster (which is at least partially true), Jones has found something more real than Cormier has. He sucks at dunking a basketball, he couldn't play football, but this is what he was made for. Under the pressure-cooker combination of a media and a sporting organization which don't appear to like him very much, behind the baffles and masks and personas, Jon has found a niche for which he may be perfectly suited. Perhaps someone like Cormier, for whom mixed martial arts was always a second choice, is simply incapable of taking this away from him.

So, imagine a Jones win, where the champion squeezes through the tightening bars of convention and retains his belt, and then Joe Rogan comes up to congratulate him. The arena is packed, the crowd under the wheeling digital adverts of the Mandalay Bay is happy and receptive, warmed and reassured by the exhaled breath of this smaller interregnum's resolution.

Jones gives his victory speech. He's respectful and grants Cormier his dues, and the crowd laps it up. Then a slight flicker across his face. That smile, satisfied and somehow extrinsic, recognizing what he's done from the outside. He says something which is almost (but not quite) right for the situation.

Some of those watching Jones's next step towards being crowned the greatest ever can hear something like the echo of static feedback. A faint buzzing dissonance between what is, and what they feel should be, and an unseen and almost unheard part of them asks why he can't be more what they expect.

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