Jon Jones may well go down as the greatest mixed martial artist to ever do it, but for all of the god-given talent this young man was blessed with, his demons so often got the better of him, causing his truly remarkable rise to be put on hold.
Today marks the sixth anniversary of Jon Jones’ historic UFC 128 title-winning performance over Shogun Rua, a victory that made him the youngest UFC champion of all time. For many, he represents the single most complete fighter the sport has ever seen but despite all of the battles he has won inside the octagon over the years, the internal struggle between Jon and his demons has been one that may well end up depriving us of one of the most truly excellent martial artists of our time.
On August 9th, 2009 at UFC 87 a long, lanky light-heavyweight by the name of Jonathan Dwight Jones made his promotional debut as a relative unknown. At 6’4, just as he would with nearly every one of his opponents in the future, he towered above the man tasked with welcoming him to the octagon, André Gusmao.
At 21, he had entered the game of MMA with 6 wins-by-finish in the space of 3 months and despite his complete inexperience on the global stage, was signed to fight on two-weeks notice against the aforementioned Gusmao. Jones’ background was in high-school and briefly in collegiate wrestling, but just prior to his pro-debut he chose to drop out of college in favour of pursuing his mixed martial arts dream.
He fought André Gusmao that night with just 4-months of MMA fights in his past and for those in attendance and those watching back home, it was a truly remarkable sight to see in action.
Jones, with little-to-no background in striking, threw spinning elbows and back-kicks without hesitation, with his complete and utter lack of fear something was nothing short of baffling when you consider his youth and lack of proper training. Jones himself has said on many occasions that he had learnt these techniques by watching footage on YouTube but for a new-comer to the sport, he handled himself with a level of calm confidence that earned him instant ‘prodigy’ status among the MMA community.
His wrestling and Greco-Roman takedowns were astonishing, of course, but there was something about the way in which he so recklessly threw himself into every shot that just forced you to sit up and take note. In one fight, Jones had already marked himself as a future great. To go back and watch that debut matchup now is a real treat for those who have lived through his fine career.
Jump forward two years and five (six really, if you discount his DQ loss to Matt Hamill) flawless victories later and at 23, Jones had worked his way towards a title-shot. I feel like his debut stood as a real indicator of his unquestionable talent for the sport of MMA but when he stepped into that octagon at UFC 128 to face the champion Shogun Rua, ‘Bones’ proved he was nothing short of a once-in-a-lifetime competitor.
Of course, Jones ran through the legendary Rua, dominating him in each and every aspect of the contest before TKO’ing him midway through the third round. History was made by the young American and to this day, he stands as the youngest champion the UFC has ever seen.
Success is something that can corrupt, however, and for Jon Jones, his legend-killing title-reign saw him catapulted to levels of fame that proved to be too much for him in his relatively young years. As a martial artist, we watched in awe as he mastered each and every aspect of the sport to such an extent where he was already on the brink of that coveted ‘greatest of all time’ title, and though his successes inside the octagon are unquestionable, the demons that plagued him in the form of excessive alcoholic and drug consumption outside of it were slowly getting the upper-hand.
Jones appeared on the Joe Rogan Experience podcast last year in a truly eye-opening interview and despite all of the revelations that came from that fantastic insight into his psyche, the one part I’m going to highlight really does hammer home the dark and devastating nature of his self-destructive tendencies.
“I had this crazy thing that I would do where I would party one week before every fight. And I did it throughout my whole career. And it was stupid, but it was this mental crutch that I had. I literally would, one week before every fight. I would go out and I would get blacked out wasted. And my logic was, if this guy were to beat me somehow, I can look myself in the mirror and say, the reason I lost is because I got hammered the week before the fight.”
“I trained for the fight, but I definitely had this thing where I felt invincible. And I did a lot of wild stuff leading up to the fight. I definitely didn’t give it my all. Really partying, drinking, staying up all night. My relationship with alcohol was never healthy, and I never went through a period in which I had a mature, healthy, responsible relationship with it.”
Jones himself slowly began to buy into the widely-held notion that he was indeed invincible. I mean, he went on a run that saw him annihilate some of the greatest fighters and biggest names to ever do it and had to live his life day-by-day completely surrounded by analysts, fellow fighters and legions of fans who were telling him he was untouchable.
In this day and age you just can’t avoid your own hype and for Jon Jones, his ‘god-tier’ status among the MMA community placed a weight on his shoulders that he simply could not handle.
The scary thing about this – and his eventual return – is that we may not have even seen the best Jon Jones yet. Of course, he still has his issues but at 29, there’s no question that his prime is still well within his reach. The very fact that this man was capable of doing what he did while he was slowly destroying himself in his spare time is a truly frightening indicator of how ridiculous a more focused and disciplined version of himself might be.
But maybe, Jon Jones’ dark-side was a necessary evil in the sense that his confidence came from his belief in that invincibility that led to his downfall. Perhaps Jones, in the wake of his very public and highly explosive downfall, will never be the same and the damage that was done to him as a consequence of his early fame will be irreparable.
It’s hard to know, and we may never even find out if Jones does indeed continue to spiral out of control, but even so, on the back of what he was done for the sport so far, I think he has made a very strong argument that he is indeed the most talented mixed martial artist the world has ever known.
Cillian Cunningham, Pundit Arena