Jon Jones

2011 was a stellar year for the youngest champion in UFC history as Jon Jones rose to the top of the sport, and bagged Fighters Only’s “Fighter of the Year” award, 12 months after claiming the “Breakthrough Fighter” honor. We caught up with him for Issue 85 of Fighters Only magazine…

Jon “Bones” Jones is living the dream. After breaking through the ranks in 2010 to prove himself as a legitimate title contender, he stepped up in 2011, smashed a collection of former champions and elevated himself to the top of mixed martial arts’ 205-pound division. Labeled the future of MMA early in his career, it seems the future has now arrived.

The 24-year-old’s potential holds no bounds. In just four years he’s climbed to the very top of the fastest-growing sport in the world, and he insists he’s only just getting started. Despite a catalog of spectacular knockouts, unbelievable title tussles, slick submissions, and monumental moments, 2011 belonged to one man… It belonged to Jon Jones.

“It’s been a great year,” admits the UFC light heavyweight champion, who is desperately trying to mask a beaming smile. “I am honored the fans would vote me ‘Fighter of the Year.’ I have worked very hard to get to this point in my career, and for them to give me this award amongst the other great fighters in this category is very humbling. It was a lot of hard work and a lot of good times. There were a lot of stressful times, too, but it was a year for the ages.”

No doubt. UFC president Dana White insists it was the toughest year ever experienced by one of the organization’s champions, facing off against three former belt holders, never mind the fact that Jones only won the title at the start of the year too. And the laid-back man of the moment admits the achievement is not lost on him either.

He says: “It’s a great honor to hear that from the people who say it, and I think I’d have to agree. Beating an undefeated fighter and Ultimate Fighter winner in Ryan Bader, as well as three champions – ‘Shogun’ Rua, ‘Rampage’ Jackson, who said he had his best training camp ever. Then Lyoto Machida, who hired nine professionals, and he said it was the best training camp he’s ever had. So to beat these guys when they’re claiming to be at their absolute best, that’s the greatest honor of the whole thing.”

To go from “Breakthrough Fighter of the Year” in 2010 to edging out the longest reigning champion in UFC history, Anderson Silva, for the top honors in 2011 was a monumental feat, but perhaps signaled more than anything how Jones’ rapid rise has captured the imagination of the fans, who dictate the destination of the winners with an online vote. And as we have come to expect, with statue in hand, Jones is already looking to go one better.

“I feel like I’m still growing,” he admits. “To be ‘Fighter of the Year’ while I’m still getting started, I wonder if it’s possible to win the award twice? But this means a whole lot to me. I have a lot of critics, and sometimes you question how you’re looked at by the fans and wonder if they really appreciate what you do for them. I put my life on the line in there, and to have an award that they voted on, for ‘Fighter of the Year,’ it just means a lot. It lets me know that despite the critics, they do enjoy what I’m doing, and they do appreciate what I’m doing. That all means so much.”

It’s hard to imagine that a guy who only started training MMA four years ago and has since gone on to prove himself as one of the finest natural talents in the history of the sport would attract any kind of criticism, but Jones takes more than his fair share of flack these days, and it’s something he’s come to accept.

He adds: “It doesn’t hurt me at all. For the things that I’ve been able to do this year, the places I’ve been able to go, some of the restaurants that I’ve eaten at, some of the meetings that I’ve been in, and the people that I’ve met – if I can get all that and the only downfall is complete strangers writing things about me on chat forums? I can do that. It’s not like any of them ever say anything to my face. It’s a lot easier than people think.

“Most of my hate, believe it or not, it’s all on blogs. I don’t really check blogs. Most of the people that actually tweet me are looking for me to write back, so they always tweet nice things. I don’t really read a lot of the sites and MMA forums. People often write me and say, ‘It sucks that you get so much hate.’ It’s like, ‘I didn’t know I was getting so much hate because I don’t see that stuff.’”

His stance on the haters shows evidence of a man comfortable in his role as champion. One who has matured quickly and is enjoying life. “I feel like I’ve grown a lot,” Jones concedes. ‘My maturity level as a father and a fighter has grown. I remember when I used to be late to everything and not take things seriously. With all the media I’ve done, I no longer get nervous anymore. I’m on time to things. I take my health and my career and everything more seriously. I’ve just grown. I think the guy I am this year versus the guy I was last year is just night and day.”

As the smoke clears, then, from 2011, and with a hat-trick of legends lying in his wake, does any one performance stand out as being more significant than the other? Jones is quick to reply. “The one that stands out the most is beating ‘Shogun’ Rua. I’ve honestly never trained that hard in my life. It was a lot. It was the greatest moment of my life. I thought I was in a dream.

“But there were plenty of other challenges along the way too. The biggest challenge was keeping the fire to train as hard as humanly possible. Wanting to be the champion and being the champion are two totally different things, and I know that when you want to be the champion, you work hard. You train hard. You work hard. You do everything in your power, you do everything within your energy level to become a world champion.

“Being a champion, when I was getting ready to fight Lyoto, I was really afraid that Lyoto was so fired up to become a champion again that he would outwork me. I worked my heart out, and I know I did, but I thought Lyoto might be outworking me. I just didn’t know. When you only fight once or twice a year, you can take almost a year off and then come back and work your hardest. When you’re fighting for your third title in a year, you have all these questions like, ‘Am I getting complacent?’”

And is it that fear of complacency then that motivates Jones now. Is it fear of not training as hard as the other guy that will drive him on to even further success in 2012? “Absolutely. I want them to know that I’m the hardest-working guy in the light heavyweight division,” he booms. “I like to feel it. I want to believe it. Only in this last fight have I ever questioned myself. Obviously, it worked, because I showed up in better shape than ever. I was stronger than ever. My cardio was better than ever. Me questioning myself definitely worked because it ultimately ended up forcing me to work my butt off again. I just wasn’t positive if I had put in more than him.”

And as for 2012, the champion leaves no questions unanswered on his goals for the next 12 months… “I won’t be slowing down in 2012. My goal is to finish every fight in 2012 and be on the cover of the UFC video game. Those are some things I’m hoping will come true.”

Dana White on Jon Jones

Do you believe Jon is now the number-two pound-for-pound fighter in the world?

“I don’t know how you deny the guy anymore. He’s literally walked through everybody. He fought four times this year – probably the nastiest schedule in the history of the company. He’s incredible. I hate to talk too much about him because he’s so young. You don’t want to put that kind of stuff in his head that young, but he’s walking through serious, serious guys – and busting them up bad, stopping them, finishing them. You just don’t see somebody come in and wreck people like this guy.”

In March, you said the character tests are coming; how’s he handling them?

“So far, so good. The kid’s kept his personal life together, and you’re not hearing any crazy stories about him. He’s not doing mumbling, half-asleep interviews on TV. Chuck’s going to kick my ass for that one, but he’s keeping his personal life together, so, so far, so good. If this guy can keep his personal life together and continues to grow as a fighter, who beats this guy?”

Is he getting cocky?

“Let me tell you what, if I was kicking people’s asses like he is, I’d be getting cocky, too.”

Is it tough to market someone who has no real tests?

“The best thing that could happen to us is we end up with a Mike Tyson. Look at Anderson Silva. Anderson Silva is the most dominant fighter ever in UFC history. That guy has been in the UFC since 2006 and has never lost and destroys people. Now he’s becoming one of the biggest fighters – I mean, he’s so big in Brazil. He’s at almost one million Twitter followers. He might be over one million now. The last time I looked, he was close. He just continues to grow and grow and grow as far as recognition globally and his appeal to fans. Anderson Silva fights are fun. When you go there, you don’t know what’s going to happen.”

When was the last time Jones really surprised you?

“He always surprises me. The way that he put it to ‘Rampage’ surprised me. The way that he beat ‘Shogun’ surprised me. The way that he beat Machida. You saw an aggressive, in-shape, motivated Machida, and Jon Jones walked right through him. And Jon Jones took a good shot to the chin, too, from Machida.”

When will he stop surprising you?

“I don’t know. He’s got a long time to work at it. He’s only 24 years old. This guy’s got a long way to go.”

Does he remind you of Anderson Silva?

“Well, he has a different style. He has a real unorthodox style. Anderson’s Silva style is just like perfect. Anderson Silva’s style is what you see in the f**king movies. You know what I mean? He’s got that movie style of fighting. It’s beautiful. It’s like an art. Jon Jones has got a real unorthodox, over-powering and crazy style.”

Originally published in Issue 85 of Fighters Only.