Give Jon Jones 10 pitches in the batting cage, and he might make contact twice. Toss him a basketball, and even if he catches it, he says, "I'm a 6-4 black guy who's never dunked." Jones practically had a genetic mandate to play football -- one of his brothers plays in the NFL and the other is a Division I starter -- but when he went out for his high school team in the Binghamton suburb of Endicott, N.Y., he was too slow to play wide receiver, didn't have the hands to play tight end and didn't start at defensive end until his senior year.
If this seems an unlikely description for one of the most dominant athletes in the U.S. today, well, maybe we've been defining athlete too narrowly. Jon Jones might not win sprints, but he breezes through 12-mile training runs in the high altitude of New Mexico's Sandia Mountains, where he often trains. He has almost freakish flexibility, a carapace of muscle and a wingspan comparable to a seven-footer's. He has a sixth sense of the geometry and physics of his sport, an uncanny ability to anticipate his opponents' moves, and a wiry strength that belies his nickname, Bones. Maybe most important, Jones possesses what he calls "the combat spirit." Even in pitched battles, he performs in a shroud of calm.
Jon is the UFC light-heavyweight champion and the youngest man to hold a belt in the 18-year history of that organization. He's emerged from the cage unscratched after every one of his 14 bouts. When Jones defends his belt in Denver tonight, his challenger, Quinton "Rampage" Jackson, will try to become the first opponent to so much as lay a hand on him.
In high school Jones's best sport was wrestling. Jon won a state title, grappled for two years at Iowa Central Community College in Fort Dodge and in 2008 received a scholarship offer from the dynastic Iowa State program. Then he learned that his girlfriend was pregnant.
He dropped out of school and returned home to the Rochester area to find work. He got a job as a bouncer and in a good week took home $300 after taxes. He interviewed for a custodial job at the Lockheed Martin plant and was turned down. A decade earlier he might have been stuck, but Jones stumbled on mixed martial arts.
At a buddy's urging, he ventured into an MMA gym and was instantly seduced. He began training madly, watching instructional videos, going to Barnes & Noble and buying books on combat sports. He trained at the dojo, but he was mostly an autodidact, rehearsing and re-rehearsing moves at home until he'd committed them to muscle memory.
His father (a Pentecostal pastor) and his mother (an aide for the mentally challenged), already displeased that Jon had gotten a girlfriend pregnant and quit school, were appalled. When asked what their middle son was up to, they'd mutter something about "finding himself."
In 2008, after training for just a few months, Jones took his first pro fight. He made $200 for showing up and another $100 for winning. The same stone hands that had denied him a career in basketball or football served him well in his new sport. A few months after that he fought for $1,200. He knocked his opponent unconscious in the third round. "It was around then," he says, "that my parents thought maybe I was on to something, maybe I wasn't such a disappointment."
Having outgrown his gym in upstate in New York, Jones decamped to Greg Jackson's gym in Albuquerque two years ago.
Jones had always been spiritual. He grew up going to Pentecostal church services and singing in the choir. For years he practiced visualization, anticipating the success that would come both in fights and in his career.
"The fight would start, and I wouldn't feel nerves or fear because it already was so familiar to me," he says. "I'd been there in my head so many times." (Around the time of his first fight, he changed his e-mail password to UFCCHAMP.) He warmed to Jackson's unusual methods, reading about medieval battles and -- stealing a page from Lao Tzu -- attacking an opponent's strength.
"If your opponent breaks down what you're best at, mentally, where are you?" says Jackson. "Know yourself and known your adversary."
At Jackson's urging, Jones meditates multiple times a day. When he closes his eyes, what does he think about? "It can be anything," he says, "but a lot of times I'm in nature, as basic elements. I am immovable like a mountain. I flow like water. I am like fire to the touch ... Sometimes I feel more like a samurai than a traditional athlete."
As one of the top draws in MMA and the sport's youngest belt holder, Jones now earns mid-six-figures plus a pay-per-view bonus for each fight and, he claims, north of $1 million annually in endorsements, which include fight brands but also K-Swiss and Bud Light. (His Twitter account, @Jonnybones, has more than 140,000 followers.) Still, he is unapologetically cheap. No jewelry. No new car.
When he trains in Albuquerque, he leases the two-bedroom stucco house that he shares with his girlfriend, Jessie Moses, and their two daughters, 3-year-old Leah and 1-year-old Carmen; the cost is $1,000 a month plus four tickets to the fights. Asked about his biggest expenditure since he came into wealth, Jones pauses. Finally he says, "I paid for my uncle Morris's funeral."
On his legacy: "I don't want people to say, I want to fight like Jon Jones. I want them to say, I want to be Jon Jones. I want to transcend the sport, to inspire people."
It's such statements that make Jones's critics roll their eyes and, inevitably, take to the various UFC message boards. The knock on Jones in some corners of UFC Nation goes like this: He's too young to talk like that, he hasn't paid his dues, he smudges the line between self-confident and arrogant.
The quiet warrior will express himself when the octagon door clangs shut. He summons his inner mystic (a Pentecostal Buddhist?) and says softly, "God willing, the truth will come out."
As long as no one tosses him his belt like a football, he should hold onto it just fine.