Jon Jones: Great Expectations

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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