Ultimate Fighting Championship

Ultimate Fighting Championship


(Serra kicks Matt Hughes during their long awaited grudge match. Courtesy of Zuffa, LLC)

Josh Deitch’s profile of Matt Serra originally appeared in the May 2009 issue of FIGHT! Magazine. Serra will face fellow Matt Hughes nemesis Frank Trigg at UFC 109 on Feb. 6.

We all know the story.

On April 7, 2007, at UFC 69, Matt Serra shocked the world. After his hard-fought win on Season Four of The Ultimate Fighter, he faced then Welterweight champion Georges St. Pierre. Serra found himself labeled the underdog—the “Cinderella Man,” as he puts it. “I think it’s great. I love that role. … I never got caught up in any of that hype. I used it to my advantage, and I defi nitely felt I had the element of surprise.” Inside the Octagon, Serra took full advantage, stopping St. Pierre—a fighter many consider one of the best all-around athletes in the UFC—at 3:25 in the first round. “It’s funny. Everybody thinks I’m going to get killed,” Serra says, recalling the lead-up to the event. As a result, he adopted the underdog role and decided to “just go in there and stuff it up their asses.”

But what is it about Matt Serra that we fi nd so compelling? Sure, we pull for the underdog. And as Serra often fi nds himself undersized, relying upon larger-than-life fortitude, he plays that role better than anyone. Today, more than two years later, Serra remains the underdog, as he trains to regain the Welterweight title. However, athletes from all sports love to live the Cinderella story. Why is it that we fi nd ourselves drawn to the outspoken Long Island native?

Sitting behind the desk in his gym in Huntington, Long Island, Matt Serra talks casually with his friends and students. Having changed out of his black gi, which he describes as his father’s, Serra, now attired in a black T-shirt and camo cargo shorts, radiates casual. Naughty by Nature’s Hip Hop Hooray plays in the background. Ever the instructor, he constantly interjects shouts of “Good!” and “Nice!” In his gym, negativity does not exist. All visitors— old friends from high school, students, fellow instructors, or writers from FIGHT!—are met with the same level of comfort and kindness. The familiar voice tinged with the familiar Long Island accent rings out, “Nice pass, Rich!”

Listed at 5 feet 6 inches tall, Matt Serra’s personality fi lls any room he occupies. With his high school friends, who unexpectedly stopped by for a visit, he poses for pictures and tells stories about Las Vegas suites, UFC fi ghters, and the Octagon itself. For his students, he offers each a handshake or a pound. He calls every man out by fi rst name and checks to see if they have any injuries. For me, he hides behind no pretense. He slaps me on the shoulder and talks with ease, as if he has known me longer than the last 10 minutes.

Beyond the hints of sweat and humidity that pervade most gyms, an air of teamwork and camaraderie is present. Imagine the perfect classroom. Students actively engage in a given assignment, debating the correct path in a scholarly manner. The teacher moves expertly throughout the room, offering a helpful hint to one group, a gentle nudge to another, and a necessary kick in the rear to a third. There is an energy to this classroom, but it is not wild. Instead, all that energy aims at a specifi c goal.

That is the scene presented at Serra Jiu Jitsu off the Jericho Turnpike. Matt Serra is a consummate teacher. Every few minutes, when the right moment arrives, he drops to the fl oor and rolls with his students, encouraging them to learn or perfect some new technique. After 2 minutes or so, when one student had gained and worked to maintain dominant position, the digital timer blares, and Serra blurts, “Guy on top now on bottom…In other words—Payback time!”

For fighters, keeping a consistent mind-set is what matters most. The ones who get rattled by the high-profi le environments or shaken by an unseen right hook do not hang around for long. In mixed martial arts, success is so fleeting and so difficult to attain that those unable to cope with setbacks and losses ultimately disappear from the landscape.

If consistency and serenity in the face of adversity are keys to a fighter’s success, there should be no doubts that Matt Serra is a master. Serra is just as willing to talk about his triumphs as he is regarding his defeats. After winning the title from St. Pierre, Serra was scheduled to defend his title against Matt Hughes. However, a back injury kept him from the fi ght, and Hughes and St. Pierre met to decide who would be the champion while Serra convalesced from a distance. For most, such a circumstance would have been maddening. Serra took it in stride. “I had the misfortune of hurting myself getting ready for Hughes. The fight was up in April, and I got myself in shape. I recovered from the back injury.”

In Montreal on April 19, 2008, Serra lost his rematch to Georges St. Pierre. Ask him about the fight, though, and there is no sidestep, no deflection. He speaks straightforwardly about a loss that could have had devastating physical and mental consequences. “Everybody has a bad day at the office. There’s no excuse.” Serra shrugs, “It is what it is, man. I can’t make excuses. I should’ve rolled out sooner. So, it sucks, but what are you going to do? It’s part of the game, and I don’t want to take anything away from St-Pierre’s victory.” Nevertheless, smiling wryly, he wags his finger and adds, “I never said uncle. I never tapped.”

In dealing with the loss to St-Pierre, Serra reveals the other aspect of himself—perhaps the part that is most compelling. He lifts the curtain and provides a glimpse of the devoted teacher and caring instructor that we saw in both of his appearances on The Ultimate Fighter. “I mean, what do you do? You can either cry yourself to sleep or try to learn from it. I learn from it not only to make me a better fighter, but to make my guys better.” That is what sets Serra apart.

As passionate as he is about his own fi ghting career, Serra goes the extra mile for his students and fighters. “My instructor, Renzo Gracie, once said that he’s the test pilot. He’d test himself, test the techniques, and pass it down to the students. That’s how I feel. He passed the lessons he learned not only in fighting but in life to me, and I do that for my students. I like being on the front line in there.” When he teaches, his students focus upon his movements as much as his words. At one point during the class, Serra demonstrates how to roll from a dominant position at an opponent’s back into a leg lock. Costa Philippou, a boxer training at Serra Jiu Jitsu, where everyone calls him “Gus,” looks around, shrugs his shoulders, and laughs as if to say, Wow, how in the world did he do that? This little gesture indicates the respect that Serra’s students have for him.

Despite all that, an imposing figure stands in Matt Serra’s future. When he steps into the Octagon at UFC 98, it will have been more than a year since he last fought and he will stare across the ring at Matt Hughes, one of the greatest champions in UFC history. That the two men do not get along is no secret. “I enjoy fighting, so I don’t have to psyche myself up or hate the guy. But it is a contact sport. So, if you’ve gotta hit somebody you like or somebody you don’t like, I’d rather hit the guy I don’t like.”

When questioned about his differences with Matt Hughes, Serra pulls no punches. He sees Hughes as the opposite side of his coin. Where he feels he remained grounded and down to earth in the face of success, he asserts that Hughes changed. “He might’ve been that good country boy way back when, but he’s not that guy anymore.” Serra insists that a lot of people feel similarly, but he has been more openly vocal about it. “I’ve become the voice of that. I’d rather wear my heart on my sleeve. I don’t want to be cool with a guy and then talk behind his back.”

Though Serra relishes the thought of matching up against Matt Hughes, he brushes aside the idea that it is necessary to hate his opponent in order to succeed. “I get along with the majority of the guys I fought, win or lose. I mean, Din Thomas: That guy has a victory over me, and he’s one of my closest friends in the UFC.” Ultimately, for Serra motivation is never an issue. “It’s easy. It could be as simple as wanting to prove everybody wrong. What stays with you are all these memories of the fights, leading up to it, the hard training, testing yourself, learning new skills, looking to pull those techniques off in a fight.”

At 34 years old, Serra knows that time is no longer on his side. Though his skills are sound and his body feels good, age is beginning to take its toll. The bout with Hughes was originally scheduled for UFC 79 on December 29, 2007, but Serra suffered a herniated disk in his lower back while preparing to defend his then Welterweight title. In April 2008, during his fight with St. Pierre, Serra damaged the ulnar nerve in his elbow, which left him unable to train for a few months. “I still have my technique, even when I’m dead tired. I’ve shown that I have my technique to back me up. I take it a fight at a time. The only thing I don’t like is that I get injured more now. I never used to get injured.”

Matt Serra still has limitless passion for the sport and continues to push himself. He has not allowed success to change the way he deals with those around him, and simply takes life as it comes. “I feel real lucky to be in the position that I’m in, not just with fighting. I make a living doing what I’m doing.” He gestures to the mat where his advanced Jiu-Jitsu class works through an “hour and a half of hell.” “I could hang out with these guys, teach Jiu-Jitsu, work out with my MMA team. I get to fight in the UFC. I love my life.”

“No matter what happens from here to the rest of my career, I know that I fought the best guys on the planet, and, at one time, I was that guy. I was the UFC Champion. That’s the stuff that’s going to stay with me until I’m old and gray.” And on May 23, 2009, as he concludes his two-year dance both around and toward Matt Hughes, Matt Serra looks to add one more fight to that long list of memories.


Ben Fowlkes‘ profile of Jon Jones originally appeared in the Dec. 2009 issue of FIGHT! Magazine.

You could drive for hours up and down Route 41 in upstate New York looking for the BombSquad gym. Unless you already know where it is, however, chances are you won’t find it. Google Maps directs you to an empty field. Signs along the two-lane highway warn you to watch out for tractors. The smell of diesel fuel mixes with that of cow shit. And anything remotely resembling a city or town has long disappeared in the rearview mirror. You begin to get the paranoid feeling that whoever told you there was a gym out here is having a good laugh right now.

But it’s there, a small one-room building tucked behind the house owned by head trainer Ryan Ciotoli. It’s a shed, really, or it was at one point. Now a single mat with the words “Home of the BombSquad” covers the length of the floor. Two weary punching bags hang in the back corners of the room. Lil Wayne plays on the stereo inside, while outside a chorus of honking geese flies overhead in the failing light.

This is where I find Jon Jones on a Thursday evening. Depending on whom you believe, he is either some sort of fighting prodigy or he is simply very, very good. He’s the guy who learned his unorthodox striking attack from YouTube. The guy who earned a UFC contract after only four months as an MMA fighter. The guy who, according to world-renowned trainers like Greg Jackson and Firas Zahabi, could be MMA’s next great champion.

He’s here inside this converted shed with the three other guys who have shown up for tonight’s practice. None of them are even close to Jones’s size. At six foot four and 215 pounds, he makes for a long and lean light heavyweight—all arms, legs, knees, and elbows. His 84.5” reach is the longest in UFC history, and when he warms up on the mat, tossing light jabs and crosses, you get the distinct sense that opponents are rarely outside his range once they step in the cage with him.

The next one to test that hypothesis will be Matt Hamill, whose wrestling skills might rival Jones’s own.

“Yeah, he’s a big test,” Jones acknowledges, slowly shadowboxing his way across the gym floor. This turns out to be a show of the obligatory pre-fight humility. He believes it, but only up to a point. I make the mistake of agreeing with him.

“He’s powerful,” I offer. “He’s tossed around some tough guys.” This earns me a sidelong glance from Jones. It’s a breach of etiquette on my part, complimenting a future opponent.

“Yeah, he’s strong,” Jones says, his tone changing. “Slow, though.”

As a conversation stopper, it’s effective. He has no shortage of respect for his opponents, but he doesn’t seem to really think that they have a chance of winning. It’s not overconfidence or tough guy bravado. It’s just a resolute and unwavering faith in himself, which might help explain how he’s gotten so far, so fast.

“Show me that thing Phil Nurse taught you,” says one of his training partners, a stocky twenty-something whose cauliflower ear and missing tooth tell you exactly what he has committed to doing with his life.

Jones jumps up right away and strides over to him. There are no coaches here to train them tonight, so it only makes sense to take advantage of the one undefeated UFC fighter in the room. And Jones has recently come back from a stay in New York City with a few new tricks in his arsenal.

He walks up to the heavy bag and begins talking his way through the move, flicking his jab out and simultaneously switching his stance to throw a left kick that thumps against the bag, all in one motion. Simple enough, but when his teammate tries it, something looks off.

“No, no, like this,” Jones says, demonstrating it again, more slowly this time.

Again, the teammate tries. Again, it’s not quite the same. He’s doing what Jon says. His feet end up in the right places. But something’s missing. Though they both see it, neither of them can say what it is.

“Don’t think about it so much,” Jones suggests. “Just, you know…”

His voice trails off as he cycles through the move several more times, all effortless motion and speed. His teammate watches with the expression of a man trying to memorize something he knows he should be writing down. Jones refuses to get frustrated with him, but the more they go over it together, the more apparent it becomes that there are some things you just can’t teach. With some things, either you get it or you don’t.

What people want to know about most fighters is, “How good is he?” With Jones it’s, “How great will he be?”

“I think he can not only win a world title in his division, but clean it out completely,” says Firas Zahabi, Georges St. Pierre’s longtime trainer and the owner of Montreal’s Tristar gym. After having worked with Jones only briefly, Zahabi commented publicly that he saw a lot of GSP in the young fighter, and thought he’d one day dominate the 205-pound division the way St. Pierre has the 170-pound class.

“He can do that,” Zahabi insists. “He has what it takes, if he does the right things.”

“He’s exceeded all my expectations,” says Greg Jackson, who recently added Jones to his New Mexico-based team of fighters. “And he’s so young. I mean, he’s just 22. The sky’s the limit for him.”

A training session ends late at night. Jones leaves the gym, which is in Cortland, and embarks on the forty-minute drive along winding, country-dark highways to Ithaca, where his rented house stands on a quiet, heavily wooded hillside road.

Back at home in Ithaca, it’s easy to forget just how young Jones is. At an age where most guys are concerned with little more than graduating college or holding down a steady job, Jones is a family man.

After training he returns to his rented house on a quiet, heavily- wooded hillside street late at night. His fiancée Jessie and 15-month-old daughter Leah are waiting at the kitchen table. Leah is pretending to eat a bowl of dry Cheerios. Really she’s grabbing sticky handfuls and then spreading them out on the table or dropping them on the floor for Molly, the family’s golden retriever-poodle mix, which has learned enough by now to stay close to Leah when she’s eating.

It’s a surprisingly mature, domestic scene for two people in their early 20’s. And Jessie, a doe-eyed blonde with a thousand-watt smile, is pregnant with the couple’s second child, another girl. “The fighter’s curse,” Jones likes to joke. “Nothing but daughters.”

If you ask him now why he first walked into the BombSquad, he’ll give you a very simple answer: money. Jessie was pregnant with Leah, which meant that 60-dollar-a-night gigs as a bar bouncer wouldn’t cut it anymore. He needed to become a provider, and fast.

Mixed martial arts seemed like a logical choice. He’d been a state champion wrestler during his senior year of high school. Afterwards, he was recruited to wrestle at the University of Iowa, but had to do a couple of years at Iowa Central Community College to get his grades up first. No problem. He won a junior college national championship while still at Iowa Central.

But when Jones’s high school sweetheart told him they were going to have a baby, he knew that a college wrestling career and a four-year degree probably weren’t in his future. An acquaintance saw a picture of him on his MySpace page that had been taken after wrestling practice. Jones was posing in a pair of MMA gloves that belonged to his roommate, the future Bellator featherweight champ Joe Soto. So, the guy sent Jones a message suggesting that he try out the BombSquad when he was back at home.

That’s how Jones ended up standing in front of Ryan Ciotoli with no formal striking or submissions training, telling him that he needed to become a pro fighter so he could support his new family.

“I knew who Jon was,” Ciotoli recalls. “We’re actually from the same hometown, so I had watched him wrestle in high school. I knew he was a gifted wrestler, but I basically told him, ‘Look, this can be a tough business, especially when you’re just starting out. You’re probably not going to make any money in the first year.’ But he jumped right into it.”

Within a matter of weeks, Jones had his first pro fight, at a small show in Massachusetts. It took him a minute and a half to knock out his opponent. Within the next four weeks, he would have three more bouts farther afield, from Atlantic City to Ledyard, Connecticut. He won them all via TKO or submission. The baby wasn’t going to wait, so he didn’t have time for career setbacks.

But while he seemed to be off to a great start, not everyone was thrilled with his career decision. His father, a pastor at a Pentecostal church in Jones’s hometown of Endicott, New York, told him that he didn’t have the “killer instinct” it took to be a fighter.

“He thought I was too chilled out,” Jones says. “He didn’t think I was mean enough. But I don’t think you have to be mean to be a fighter.”

(Jones takes Stephan Bonnar for a ride.)

Growing up, Jon wasn’t even the best athlete in the family. That distinction belonged to his older brother, Arthur, a standout in both wrestling and football who now plays defensive line for Syracuse University, and is expected to be a first-round pick in the 2010 NFL draft. Even his younger brother, Chandler, dwarfed Jones by the time they were in high school. Today he’s a 6’6”, 260-pound defensive end in his first year with the Syracuse Orangemen.

All three boys got their love of wrestling from their father, and that made for a competitive environment at home, with almost daily combat.

“We always loved to wrestle,” says Arthur. “We used to tear up the furniture, so one day my dad came home with some wrestling mats just to keep us from destroying the house. From that day on we were pretty much always on those mats.”

The boys’ mother recalls bouts that would spring up at a moment’s notice. “Sometimes Jonathan and Arthur would say, ‘This is the last cookie. Let’s wrestle for it.’ And as they were wrestling, Chandler, the youngest, would come in and eat the cookie and watch them wrestle. Their dad was a wrestler, so he taught them some moves, and he enjoyed it as much as they did.”

While Jones hasn’t absorbed much damage so far in his MMA career, his face is still dotted with reminders of some of the more vigorous battles with his brothers. A deep scar on his forehead came courtesy of Arthur, who once battered him with an empty Coke can until the aluminum split his skin open. Neither of them can remem- ber what the dispute was about. Just normal brother stuff, intense and competitive, but never mean-spirited.

“My boys are all very kindhearted,” their mother says. “They always cared about people. They’re very sensitive, especially Jonathan. He was the type of kid who, if someone else treated the underdog at school wrong, Jon had to come in and be a rescuer and be their friend.”

Jones and his brothers have clearly been guided by their faith, by the lessons they learned listening to their fathers’ sermons every Sunday, but the family has also been shaped by tragedy. Carmen, Jon’s older sibling and only sister, died of cancer before her 18th birthday. It came as a heavy blow to the entire Jones family, but it also solidified their bond to one another.

“We were always very close,” says Arthur. “But I definitely think that brought us closer in a way. It just reminds you that life is too short to stay mad at each other, no matter what happens.”

Jon was just 12 years old when his sister died. Neither he nor his brothers like to talk about it much, says their mother. But as a living memorial, Jon has two Chinese characters tattooed on his ribs, along with the ink on his chest that spells out Philippians 4:13, his sister’s favorite Bible verse. He had to get both without his parents’ knowledge. When his mother saw the Chinese characters, she im- mediately went to the best authority she could find in their small hometown: the waitress at a local Chinese restaurant.

“I made Jon go in there so she could read it. She said that it meant ‘peaceful warrior.’ I said, ‘See, they told you it was your sister’s name and you believed them.’ But I couldn’t really get too mad at him. It’s fitting for her, and for Jon. He’s a fighter, but he is a peaceful warrior.”

It’s hard to believe that any of Jones’s opponents would think of him that way. Guys like Stephan Bonnar and Jake O’Brien probably didn’t see much that was peaceful in the spinning back elbows that dropped them to the mat, or in the Greco-Roman throws that dumped them on their heads.

But Jones insists that the sport isn’t about violence. Not for him, anyway.

(Jones unloads on Matt Hammill.)

“I look at it as an art. It’s like poetry to me. I don’t think about wanting to hurt my opponent. I think about the ways we’re going to push each other. I visualize everything. I picture him getting in my face at the weigh-in. I have images of Matt Hamill’s face, what it’s going to look like when he catches a kick to the side of his head. When I see his eyes roll back when I catch him with that hard punch. Mentally, I’ve already won the fight by the time I step in the cage.”

In fact, Jones insists it’s his psychological preparation that has made the difference in his career. Before accepting the fight with Bonnar, he took to the internet to look at fight footage, intentionally seeking out video of Bonnar’s losses.

“I wanted to see him at his weakest,” Jones says.

In the weeks leading up to the bout, he measured out Bonnar’s dimensions and put tape on the walls in his house to show him where Bonnar’s jaw, ribs, and legs would be. He wanted to live with his opponent – make him a constant presence in his house, in a way, to prepare himself for being in the cage with him.

Jessie remembers him shadowboxing his way around the house every day. It’s part of the reason she shares Jones’s unwavering confidence, and why she doesn’t worry about outcomes or injuries.

“I saw him throughout his whole training camp, and when the fight comes, I know he’s going to win,” she says. “I knew he could do this. I worked when I was pregnant with Leah, and there were times when I’d get worried, but I remember about five or six months ago him telling me, ‘Just have faith and it will all work out.’ And it did. It has.”

Fall has come to upstate New York, and it’s a beautiful, crisp morning. The trees around us are all exploding into gold and purple bouquets. It’s a perfect morning for Jones to get out on one his favorite nature trails, though Leah isn’t making things easy for him.

The mere suggestion that he might be moving toward the door is enough to make her latch onto his legs with both her arms and let out an overdramatic wail. Jones cocks his head to one side and regards the tiny head hidden between his knees before scooping her up and turning her upside down, making her squeal with delight. “She’s a little actress,” remarks Jessie.

When he sets her back down, she becomes distracted by a vigorous game of keep the dog away, and the coast is finally clear for Jones to slip out the back door.

Buttermilk Falls is just a few minutes from his house. There’s a steep trail from the base of the slow, trickling waterfall that winds up into the woods, gaining several hundred feet in altitude as it goes. In the past, he’s used this trail to measure his cardio fitness before fights. When he can run all five miles without slowing down or stop- ping, he knows he’s in fighting shape.

Today we’re just taking in the sights. We walk a little ways up the trail, and Jones points out places where the water has carved perfect circles into the rock. He somehow gets into a conversation with a man trying to fish in small pond that almost certainly contains no fish. Eventually, Jones has to explain what he does for a living, and he intentionally avoids using the phrase ”UFC fighter,” which he feels is too much like bragging. This does nothing to ease the man’s confusion.

“You should have heard me try and explain it to Jessie’s grandmother,” Jones says. “It was like, ‘You’re going to support my granddaughter how?’”

Something about kicking and punching people in the face for a living just doesn’t seem to make sense to some people. And especially when they try and connect it with the congenial young man who loves coming out here to be alone in the woods.

It’s an easy, pleasant morning walk today, but there won’t be many of those on Jones’s calendar for a while. The fight is only a couple months away, and he’ll have a sevenweek training camp with Greg Jackson in New Mexico to get himself prepared for Hamill. That means some grueling, though necessary, days in the gym still lie in front of him.

“Greg and I are a lot alike in a lot of different ways,” he says. “The way we visualize things is very similar, and Greg has a total martial arts mind-set. He’s not going to teach you to be a cage fighter. He’s going to teach you to be a warrior and to think like a warrior. He’s big on trying to teach you to have heart. He tries to push you to the point of puking. He likes to see blood. It was the first time I’d ever done what he calls ‘heart training,’ where you’re teaching yourself to be a true warrior.”

He first met Jackson, along with Zahabi, backstage at UFC 100. Something clicked between them right away, and now Jones is about to become a full-fledged member of the team. He knows it’s what he needs, a big camp with tough sparring partners who can push him every day. But the sentimentalist in him hates to leave the guys he came up with.

“I want to stay loyal to my school here and to everyone at the BombSquad for as long as I can. That’s important to me. But I know I need to be with guys who are kicking my butt and teaching me new things.”

That he has gotten this far without the benefit of big-name trainers, or even a complement of regular sparring partners in his weight class, is one of the many remarkable things about Jones. But few things seem to irk him so much as the suggestion that his success is all attributable to his natural athletic ability. That’s because he thinks he has none.

“Honestly, I am not a good athlete. Wrestling, boxing, martial arts, that’s all I’ve ever been good at. I can’t catch a football. I can’t even dribble a basketball. I’m a six-foot-four-inch black guy who can’t dunk. I mean, it’s bad.”

His brother Arthur corroborates that story. “He can’t catch a cold,” he laughs. “In high school, they tried to put him at the tight end. He was terrible. He couldn’t catch anything.”

Even the BombSquad’s Ciotoli acknowledges that watching Jones attempt to throw a baseball was “just really awkward.”

But something about the fighting arts is a natural fit for him. Zahabi says that, in the brief time they’ve spent together at the Tristar gym, he’s seen Jones perform remarkable feats of athleticism. “I don’t know if he can play basketball or hockey or anything else, but in sparring he does things that are just amazing. Really, it’s stuff most experienced pro fighters couldn’t do.”

This is a recurring theme in conversations with people who have worked with Jones. They’ve all seen the glimpses of brilliance, little things that tell of a seemingly limitless potential.

“He’s such a smart guy and he picks things up so quickly. He really just thinks on a whole different level than most fighters,” says Ciotoli. “You certainly don’t expect a guy to make the transition to the big show after three or four months of training. It’s amazing what he’s done, really. I’ll probably never see that again in my life.”

As Greg Jackson explains it, “He’s just so mentally talented, and that’s what makes him fun to work with. There’s so much he can do, and still so much you can teach him. He takes what you show him and he adds to it. His creativity is truly impressive.” But what do you do when you’re 22 and the world expects so much out of you? How do you live with expectations so expansive that anything less than greatness would be a disappointment?

If Jones is struggling with these questions, you wouldn’t know it. He talks about his career as if all the outcomes are already decided. He works hard in the gym, prays for the safety of his opponents and himself, and has no doubt that this will all be enough. He throws himself entirely into his training, and there’s no hint that doing so is work in any sense of the word.

“I feel like I have the best job in the world,” he says. “Getting to do nothing but train and fight, that’s all I could ask for. Like today, knowing that I get to go train later, that’s the highlight of my day.”

That the training takes place inside a shed most of the time, it doesn’t seem to matter. Just like it didn’t matter that no one was supposed to be able to go from zero to the UFC is just a few months.

As he often does in his fights, Jones seems to be writing his own script as he goes, following few of the established rules about form and structure. It’s almost as if he doesn’t know that he’s not supposed to be able to do it this way. So he just does it.

And while the kind words from his trainers are nice, they aren’t enough. Having the potential for greatness isn’t the same as being great, and the space between the two is vast and limitless. That’s why Jones will be back in the shed behind Ryan Ciotoli’s house tonight, soaking up everything he can. That’s why he’ll go off to New Mexico with Greg Jackson. It’s not a pursuit or even a passion. It’s an obsession. It’s a life.

“It’s an every day, all day thing for me. That’s why I’ve caught up to some guys who have been doing this their whole lives. When I signed up to do this, I went all in, all the way. That’s how it’s got to be.”



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Holy shit, Pep! Jones is a beast. How soon do you see him getting a title shot and do you think he wins it?


Can’t disagree with you, Alex. I’m guessing he will be in line in 2011. From a talent standpoint, I think he can hang with anyone in the UFC at 205 right now. I still think he’d have a tough time with Machida, but he’s either a pick ‘em or a favorite against anyone else in the division for me. I’m not just basing that on his record. There are guys who have come into the UFC and gone on a run that were nowhere near the fighter Jones is. More importantly, his length, reach, athleticism, high level Greco and dynamic striking make him incredibly difficult to prepare for. In fact, any ONE of those attributes at a high level would create some preparation challenges. Combine all of them and you’ve got a mess on your hands regardless of your last name at 205.

That said, given that Jon is only 22 years old and looks to have a long, successful career ahead of him, I think the UFC will exercise a certain degree of patience in bringing him along. He is a very mature, well-spoken and marketable fighter and there’s no rush in putting him into title fights. He’s also still growing and given his youth and frame, don’t be at all surprised to see him fight for the 205 strap and ultimately end up in the heavyweight division.

Hey Pep. I have a few questions that me and a few friends have always been curious about. Why do fighters pour water on the mat and rub their feet in it before a match? Why do fighters tape up their hands? Who pays for the hotel, plane fare, food, and rooms for a fighter’s entourage? How much money does a fighter lay out during a training camp to various coaches?

Dennis L.

Good questions, Dennis. I’m sure lots of people wonder about some of those things so let’s get crackin’. I have it on good authority that Zuffa fighters get one hotel room and two airfares for each non-title fight and two rooms and three airfares for title fight, whether they are the champion or the challenger. Any additional rooms or travel expenses are on the fighter. As for the pouring water on the canvas and rubbing their feet in it, fighters routinely say that the canvas is rather slick and that the water actually makes it less slick for them. Here’s the rub (no pun intended); I’ve been told on several occasions that the logos on the canvas tend to be more slippery than the canvas itself and that the water might actually have a negative effect when hitting those patches in the cage. Fighters tape their hands before a fight to lessen the likelihood of injury. The tape both creates an additional layer between the actual hand and the opponent as well as keeping the hand tightly clenched while striking. When it comes to the cost associated with a training camp, that number could range from zero to tens of thousands of dollars. Usually, a fighter’s regular trainers will get a cut of the fighter’s purse as compensation. But, when you get into situations of bringing guys into mimic an opponent and paying for their transportation, hotel room, food and, potential financial compensation, costs can quickly escalate. Imagine how high that bill can get when fighters move a camp to Colorado or Big Bear for six weeks to train in altitude.

(Shlemenko throws a spinning backfist at Robert McDaniel.)

First I would like to thank you for your radio show…it’s really great and I hope you’ll keep doing it for a long time. My question is about Alexander Shlemenko. Last Saturday his performance on Fight Festival 27 was really impressive. His manager said, that some big deal for Shlemenko is coming soon. So, my question is what do you think about Shlemenko and his possibilities to make it in some big organization? Does he have all that it takes to become a contender, for example, in Strikeforce?


Thanks for the props about Pro MMA Radio. I intend on doing the show for a long, long time!

I will be interested to see more of Shlemenko. At 27-4 with 21 of those wins coming by (T)KO or submission, he has a very impressive record. He’s a dynamic striker with solid submissions and I’d love to see how he’d match up in the middleweight division of a promotion at the Strikeforce level. I think the question mark for me comes down to the quality of competition he’s faced. It’s often very difficult to evaluate talent levels when most of the opponents on a fighter’s record are unknown fighters.

Shlemenko took care of Sean Salmon in 40 seconds a few weeks ago in his last fight, but Salmon has been less than impressive, going 2-4 in his last six. He’s also a guy who got cut from the UFC and never really found any success against top competition so it is very hard to gauge what a win over Salmon means. Keep in mind that Salmon went 0-3 in the UFC and Strikeforce. Taking nothing away from Sean, that win doesn’t really give us any idea of how Shlemenko would do in the big leagues. Additionally, the four losses on Alexander’s record have come at the hands of three fighters. He lost twice to Jose Landi-Jons (0-2 in Pride), once to Jordan Radev (0-2 in the UFC) and Jacare Souza, the most talented fighter he’s faced thus far. I think he’s improved a lot since those fights took place and he’s only 25 years old with a ton of experience, so it would be interesting to see how he would do in a major promotion.

Larry Pepe is the host of Pro MMA Radio.


FIGHT!’s Heavyweight Rankings have generated a lot of ire among fans who felt that they did not accurately reflect the current realities of the division. But the beauty of our computerized ranking system is that it is results-based so any anomalies get worked out when the top guys fight each other. Two top-tier heavyweights faced each other last night in Las Vegas, and the winner now sits atop FIGHT!’s heavyweight rankings. Undisputed UFC Heavyweight Champion Brock Lesnar moves from #3 to #1 while Shane Carwin slips from #5 to #7. According to UFC President Dana White, second-ranked Cain Velasquez gets the next crack at Lesnar and the winner of Junior Dos Santos (#8) vs. Roy Nelson (#10) will get the next title shot after that, so expect even more reshuffling of the top 10 before the end of the year.

In the other heavyweight tilts on the card, Brendan Schaub and Chris Tuchscherer faced each other in what was the FIGHT! Rankings qualifying fight for each; Schaub enters our rankings at #25 with the TKO win and Tuchscherer comes in at #51. Jon Madsen ran his UFC record to 3-0 with a win over promotional rookie Karlos Vemola and entered our rankings at #27. Vemola remains unranked.

In the night’s fights at 205, Stephan Bonnar moves from #44 to #22 in our Light Heavyweight Rankings with his win over Kryzstof Soszynski, who falls from #18 to #36. Seth Petruzelli returned to the Octagon with a loss, entering our rankings at #48 after being stopped by unranked Ricardo Romero.

In Middleweight action, Chris Leben clawed his way into the top 10, jumping from #26 to #8 in our Middleweight Rankings with his stoppage of Yoshihiro Akiyama, who drops from #12 to #28 with the loss. Also at middleweight, Kendall Grove gets a nudge from #44 to #41 with a win over previously unranked Goran Reljic, who enters our rankings at #35. Gerald Harris is making moves at 185, jumping from #42 to #29 after slamming David Branch into unconsciousness. Bellator veteran Branch remains unranked.

At welterweight, Chris Lytle jumps from #22 to #12 in our Welterweight Rankings with his crazy double-submission win over Matt Brown, who drops from #34 to #49. In the only other fight at 170, unranked Daniel Roberts defeated Forrest Petz, who falls from #52 to #63.

In what should have been a title eliminator bout, George Sotiropoulos retained his #3 spot in our Lightweight Rankings by beating Kurt Pellegrino, who slides from #8 to #13.

FIGHT! Fans: What do you think about the updated rankings?


Dan Hardy talked to FIGHT!’s Elizabeth Holloway and the Brit doesn’t mince words on the subject of fellow UFC welterweight Josh Koscheck.


Tapout—a sponsor of Ultimate Fighting Championship middleweight contender Chael Sonnen—features the phrase “American Arrogant” on some of its apparel, and it couldn’t be more fitting for the Oregonian.

When Sonnen opines, it’s more big stick and less speaking softly. It’s American arrogance, sure, but the 32-year-old son of a plumber and a housewife from rural West Linn, Ore. is also contemplative and even humble going into his UFC 109 title eliminator with Nate Marquardt.

The two actually trained together briefly four years ago and Sonnen walked away from the week with Marquardt duly impressed.

“There’s only been a couple of guys and when they left, I went, “God, those guys are really good.’ I don’t know if I can beat those guys,” says Sonnen of the former King of Pancrase, former opponent Yushin Okami, UFC welterweight Mike Swick and Strikeforce Middleweight Champion Jake Shields. Battling world-class competition under the watchful eye of longtime mentor and training partner Matt Lindland has Sonnen one fight away from challenging 185-pound UFC king Anderson Silva.

“I’m close. Again, you can’t have any let ups. I’m close. Nate Marquardt’s close, too. I can beat him and he can beat me, too,” he says. Sonnen’s honest assessment may surprise fans who view the 36-fight veteran as cocky.

“All I want is a 12-pound yellow belt and that’s it,” he continues. “I’m not looking for fame or fortune or to sign autographs and get into V.I.P. lines at local restaurants. I’m just looking for that yellow belt.”

When the talk turns to titles, Sonnen’s expressive speech returns.

“There’s three major companies out there besides the UFC. There’s a company called Bodog [sic] and I beat their champion. There’s a company called IFL [sic] and I beat their champion. There’s a company called the WEC and I beat their champion,” he says.

In Sonnen’s mind there’s just one company left he hasn’t conquered and that’s the UFC. When Sonnen’s father was on his deathbed, Chael promised he’d be crowned champion in the promotion. Having narrowly fallen short of competing on the Olympic stage, Sonnen’s proximity to the title shot drives him to come through this time around.

“If I find out that its just not gonna happen, you just have to face that reality too,” says Sonnen. “But I have a lot of things to look to in my favor to say I’m on track and I’m going to be able to make this happen.”

Sonnen will face Marquardt at UFC 109 at the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas, Nev. on Feb. 6. Read more about Sonnen in the Feb. issue of FIGHT! Magazine, on newsstands now!


(Nelson lands a right hand en route to beating Brendan Schaub to become ‘The Ultimate Fighter’. Courtesy of Zuffa LLC)

When Roy Nelson defeated Brendan Schaub to win the tenth season of The Ultimate Fighter, he walked away holding a six figure contract with the biggest MMA company in the world. It was a dream come true for the thirty-three year old, who had competed in the mixed martial arts scene for a number of years before his life changing victory.

His journey to The Ultimate Fighter house was a long one, having competed in the IFL as its heavyweight champion and having fought the likes of Andrei Arlovski, Ben Rothwell and Brad Imes before he arrived at the TUF house. Even on the show, Nelson had to get through the likes of Kimbo Slice, Justin Wren and James McSweeney, before a knockout win over Brendan Schaub won him the lucrative contract. It certainly hasn’t been an easy journey for the BJJ black belt.

In four weeks time, Nelson comes up against Dutch heavyweight Stefan Struve in a fight that could put the winner amongst the elite for a shot at the title. With Cain Velasquez waiting in line for the champion, and Shane Carwin and Frank Mir snapping at the heels of Brock Lesnar for a huge title unification fight this summer, both men know that they need to work extra hard to pick up the win in this fight. It’s a win that could push either man another step up the ladder towards that illustrious title shot, and help them stand out amongst a crowded division that also includes the likes of Cheick Kongo, Mirko Cro Cop, Junior dos Santos and Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira

“Training is always good here at the Country Club” says the former IFL Heavyweight champion. “Preparation for Stefan has been interesting. We just started to put people on shoulders so I get that look,” Nelson states, hinting at ways to tackle Struve’s incredible 6ft 11 inch frame.

The bout against Struve is expected to be a good clash, with the two men heading into the fight holding solid win streaks. For Struve, it’s another chance to show the MMA world his impressive skills on the mat – with fourteen out of nineteen wins coming by submission. However, Nelson certainly doesn’t have a weak link in his jiu jitsu, and his black belt in BJJ from Renzo Gracie means that he is a dangerous prospect when grappling on the mat.

A close fight is definitely in prospect, and when asked how he expected the contest to go, Nelson refused to hint at how the fight would pan out, instead suggesting that both men remain talented enough to end the fight wherever.

“The best thing about this fight is that we are mixed martial artists, so you never know,” states the Las Vegas native. “I intend on beating Struve with my length and my abnormal build to derail his win streak.”

His fight against the former Cage Gladiators heavyweight champion will feature on the main card at Ultimate Fight Night: Florian vs. Gomi, but Nelson admits that there isn’t any extra pressure when stepping in the cage. Struve, on the other hand, knows all too well what a victory over a fighter such as Roy Nelson will do for his career, and coming off the back of an impressive win over Paul Buentello, the twenty two year old will likely utilize his strong Muay Thai ability when standing. Is this something Nelson is prepared for?

“The answer to this question is usually an easy one. Any Muay Thai striker throwing knees, you just put them on their back, [however that] might not be smart thing to do with Stefan Struve,” he states respectfully.

“Struve has won three of his four fights in the UFC so he is a great opponent,” he continues. “[He] is right in the mix, so I would like to think I will be too”.

Of course, for fighters such as Nelson, studying and researching opponents become a normal formality in their job. To succeed in the cage, it’s important to take the time to look at how your opponent usually performs and pick apart their weaknesses. It’s something that Nelson does well, but he also has another way of preparing for fights.

“I usually bring my laptop or Xbox before a fight to just get my mind off it,” he says. “I am big nerd that happens to fight. I love the computer, and I love playing sports games.”

Growing up with the Atari, and then the Nintendo, Nelson admits to loving sports and first person games due to his competitive streak, and playing the computer is one of his favourite past-times.

The Madden-loving heavyweight will continue to step up his training routine as the bout draws closer, and will be hoping to improve his record with another win when he meets the talented Dutch kickboxer on March 31st.

A great guy, with a great sense of humour, we could very well have ourselves a fight of the year candidate once the cage door closes in North Carolina.


(Stay tuned for the rest of our FIGHT! Life series featuring Los Angeles Police Department lifer and famed MMA referee “Big” John McCarthy.)

– Hot Potato: Melissa Jo is a “Southern Belle with A Twist.” (CagePotato)

– Penn vs. Hughes III is official for Detroit. (MMA Convert)

– Efrain Escudero comes in four pounds heavy for UFC Fight Night 22; fight with Oliveira will proceed as a catchweight bout (Five Ounces of Pain)

– Must-see: Chael Sonnen debuts his new stand-up comedy material at yesterday’s UFC Q&A session in Austin. (Heavy.com/MMA)

– Helwani vs. Dundas: UFN 22 Edition (Versus MMA Beat)

– Donald Cerrone Steps Over the Line Between Good Hype and a PR Problem (MMA Fighting)

– UFC 119: Mir vs. Cro Cop extended video trailer (MMA Scraps)

– Punk rock vampire pirates are the key to MMA promotion, obviously. (MiddleEasy)

– Anderson Silva says the fight against Chael Sonnen would be a different story, if he was completely healthy (LowKick)

– Muhammad Ali doing what he does best… (Watch Kalib Run)


Canadian collectible figure maker Round 5 announced its UFC Series 1 today. As part of its licensing agreement with the Ultimate Fighting Championship, the company will cease the production of earlier figure lines and move forward with officially licensed UFC products. Fighters included in its first series include Chuck Liddell, Georges St-Pierre, Rashad Evans, Kenny Florian, Clay Guida and Lyoto Machida.

“These six athletes provide a strong, varied base for our first UFC series,” said Round 5 president and co-founder Damon Lau in a press release.

According to the press release, Round 5’s remaining inventory from the previous four Series’ will be available while supplies last. Round 5’s UFC Series 1 will be available in early 2010 through Round5.com and select retailers including Toys ‘R’ Us, Kmart and Walmart.


Tune in live tomorrow at 1:15 a.m. EST on FIGHT! for the UFC 126: Silva vs. Belfort Post Fight Press Conference from the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas, Nev. The pay-per-view televised main card is headlined by a UFC Middleweight title fight between champion Anderson Silva and challenger Vitor Belfort. Check out the full card below, and check back on Sunday for updated rankings and FIGHT! photographer Paul Thatcher’s best shots from the event.

– UFC Middleweight Championship Fight feat. Anderson Silva (#1 Middleweight) vs. Vitor Belfort (#5)
Forrest Griffin (#10 Light Heavyweight) vs. Rich Franklin (#14)
Jake Ellenberger (#10 Welterweight) vs. Carlos Eduardo Rocha
Ryan Bader (#7 Light Heavyweight) vs. Jon Jones (#8)
Miguel Torres (#10 Bantamweight) vs. Antonio Banuelos (#25)
Preliminary Fights Aired Live on Spike TV
Donald Cerrone (#18 Lightweight) vs. Paul Kelly (#53)
Michihiro Omigawa (#4 Featherweight) vs. Chad Mendes (#6)
Preliminary Fight Streamed Live on Facebook
Demetrious Johnson (#6 Bantamweight) vs. Norifumi “Kid” Yamamoto (#9 Featherweight)
Untelevised Preliminary Card
Paul Taylor (#71 Lightweight) vs. Gabe Ruediger (#118)
Kyle Kingsbury (#30 Light Heavyweight) vs. Ricardo Romero
Mike Pierce (#41 Welterweight) vs. Kenny Robertson