Jones labels Evans, Jackson as haters

Jon Jones has found himself defending his character since becoming light heavyweight champion. Ed Mulholland for ESPN.com

When Jon Jones manhandled Mauricio Rua in March to become UFC light heavyweight champion, he was just 23 years old.

Supreme athletic ability, an unorthodox fighting style and unwavering determination are some of the reasons very few people doubted Jones would become the youngest UFC titleholder ever. Jones also exhibited good character inside and outside the cage, which had never been questioned during his rapid rise to the top.

But after Jones won the belt, his character became a hot topic. It has remains a hot issue heading into his first title defense Saturday night (pay-per-view at 9 ET) in Denver.

And the man often leading the discussion is Quinton Jackson, who will look to dethrone Jones at UFC 135. Jackson has expressed contempt for Jones, claiming the champion isn’t the nice person many believe him to be.

“When I first met Jones he was real cocky,” Jackson told ESPN.com. “I have no respect for him. I don’t care two shakes about him.

“And I want to be the first person to hand Jones his first [butt] whipping.”

Jackson claims Jones made disrespectful comments about him, though the former UFC 205-pound champion can’t recall exactly what was uttered. The exact words don’t matter; Jackson is determined to demolish Jones.

But Jackson isn’t the only high-ranking light heavyweight who has questioned Jones’ character in the past few months. Former UFC champion Rashad Evans labeled Jones a "fake."

While Jones (13-1) could envision becoming a champion, he was unprepared for the hostility that followed. On the surface it appeared the verbal assaults had no impact on Jones, but inside he was hurting.

Jones can’t pinpoint why he became the target of such anger. But after several months of seeking answers, he has reached a conclusion.

“It’s hate. That’s all it is,” Jones told ESPN.com. “I’m not one who goes around calling people haters, but in this case I really think that’s what it is. I really do. It’s hate.

“I know Rashad is a hater; definitely. I don’t want to talk about Rashad for this fight. But he proves that he’s an envious person in everything that he does, when it comes to me. And it’s so clear, that I feel sorry for him.

“With Rampage it’s also hate. I’m a young guy who’s worked hard. I’ve made it to a position that they both want. And both of them know that it’s going to be really hard for them to ever get this belt again.

“Maybe they think by coming out and trying to insult me makes them look better.”

Jones is 24 years old now and there are days when the harsh criticism still stings emotionally. But he refuses to let wounded feelings interfere with his mental and physical preparation.

Jones has had a solid training camp. He is in top physical condition and believes the questioning of his character has accelerated his mental maturation.

“I’d never gone through anything like this before,” Jones said. “It’s been a very interesting little road to travel, but I’m growing.

“The only thing that this has done is make me stronger, wiser and more experienced as an athlete. But at the end of the day, we’re going to get in that cage and rock it. We’re going to start swinging at each other.”

Jones isn’t about to reveal his game plan for Saturday night’s fight, but he hasn’t ruled out trading punches with Jackson.

That’s sweet music to Jackson’s ears. He’d love nothing more than to have a toe-to-toe battle with the young champ. Jackson (32-8) is an old-school slugger. Maybe his verbal attacks are intended to lure Jones into slugfest, which would favor Jackson.

“I’m going to keep it real,” Jackson said. “God made me to be a fighter. That’s what makes me different from anybody else Jones has fought.

“I’ve been a fighter my entire life. I was designed to be a fighter. It’s everything about me, from my natural punching power to how big my legs are -- that’s where you get the punching power from -- from the way my head is shaped to my thick neck.”

The physical objective of each fighter is no secret: Jones needs to utilize his long reach to stay out of harm’s way; Jackson must come up with a plan to close the gap.

Strategy aside, this title bout likely has already been determined by the prefight mental war. If Jackson has damaged Jones’ young psyche, a slugfest will ensue and a new light heavyweight champion should emerge.

“That is what Rampage is trying to do, get my mind off the fight, to get in my head and maybe that will change things -- which it won’t,” Jones said. “People who support me understand my character. That’s what’s important to me.

“I have good intentions. I’m just trying to be my best and inspire others with some of the things that I say and the way I carry myself. Some people will love it, others will hate it.”