In all sorts of ways, Jon Jones has grown up in front of us the last two years. And considering the UFC light heavyweight champion is just 25, there will be plenty of blooming left to do.
That said, if the trajectory of 2011 and 2012 holds an indication of what's to come, Jones oozes importance.
On Saturday, "Bones" proved he's more than a great athlete, he's a true fighter. Old-school; new-school -- it's the same DNA in the end.
The lanky New Yorker learned a few things against Vitor Belfort, who's as good a person to take lessons from as anyone. For one thing, Belfort made Jones familiar with the sharp discomfort of a hyperextended joint. The champ confirmed to everyone that despite feeling this, regardless of cartilage in his right elbow snapping, crackling and popping, he wasn’t going to tap. There have been many defended armbars over the years. Jones' wasn't a particularly pretty escape, but that doesn't matter. This was his first true moment of in-Octagon adversity. During the time he stood over Belfort, his long limb stretched beyond 180 degrees, Jones wasn't motivated by self-preservation. That's the salient point. He was willing to let it break. It's a sadistic truth that truly great fighters need quality coursing through their veins.
So it's clear: Jones has every intangible. There's nothing you'd want to see in a fighter that he can't call upon. And then there’s the stuff only he can do like he does, those awkward odd-angled kicks that really seem to hurt, for example. Most fighters keep distance in two ranges. Jones has at least three, making him much more difficult to decipher. The mid-range work with elbows opens up an entirely new set of problems for opponents, and Jones adroitly made them a staple of his game.
Though Belfort’s lightning strike may suggest otherwise, it's unlikely, as Jones' trainer Greg Jackson has long said, that his toughest tests will come in the cage. And that's not because he's running out of opponents. Light heavyweight is an active and exciting class. Potential suitors linger at heavyweight with Messrs. Junior dos Santos, Cain Velasquez, Alistair Overeem and Fabricio Werdum. Bottom line: There will be plenty of guys who put Jones through his paces over the next decade.
Still, if the past few months is predictive, Jackson called it correctly. The DWI. The cancellation of UFC 151 and all that that entailed, including tricky navigation around a war of words with UFC president Dana White. The failure to appease some fans, who seem eager to dislike a guy who smiles way more than he scowls. A major sponsorship with Nike, the first of its kind for a fighter in the UFC. These sorts of things can weigh heavy on the head of a young king. Yet they didn't appear to hurt him this week, particularly not on fight night when he walked to the cage to Bob Marley's "Could You Be Loved?" and memorably retained the title.
If Jones wasn’t sure of his ability to handle multiple stresses, including some he brought upon himself, he has a good read on it after UFC 152. Yep, Jones is maturing in front of our eyes. Growing comfortable in his own skin. Growing as a mixed martial artist. So it feels safe to suggest that he’s nowhere near as dangerous as he will be two years from now. And if that’s the case, then he’s nowhere near as rich or famous or popular or affected as he could very well become.
A great fall (or two or three) is probably required for Jones not to find where he seems destined to go. Not an unheard-of scenario for a man of his talent. Individual sports like MMA are fertile ground for highest of the highs and lowest of the lows. Jones is more familiar with highs at this point, but that’s today. Tomorrow is a Bentley wrapped around a utility pole.
Jones has graduated from the school of the come-up. He’s here now. Established. On top. Better positioned for a lifetime of success than any UFC champion before him. He’ll take what’s his or he won’t. One way or the other, though, the current UFC light heavyweight champion will be remembered.
Jones faces a long road ahead in MMA and life, which sounds odd considering how far he’s already come. But it’s nonetheless true, verifiable by the wisdom he recently gained and the many volumes yet to be learned. What will Jones be like at 27? At 33? Could he lose interest in this sport, a victim of his own success? Will a kid come along, beat him and change the paradigm? Will he dominate until he walks away for good?
I suppose it’s not quite right to say that Jones has displayed every trait expected of great fighters. Longevity. He hasn’t shown that one yet. So time will tell with this talent, still very much the future.