Jon Jones is the consensus best fighter alive, and it makes no sense. He grew up the awkward, gangly middle brother of two future NFL defensive linemen who dominated their childhood scraps. While Arthur and Chandler went on to play for nearby Division I Syracuse University, Jon moved halfway across the country and wrestled for Iowa Central Community College, a junior college program. A hoped-for transfer to one of Iowa's powerhouse Division I wrestling programs never happened and Jones left the sport when Jessie Moses, his current fiancée, became pregnant with their first child. He worked as a bouncer and nearly became a janitor for the health benefits. Three years and change later, he knocks out the UFC light heavyweight champion. Jones hasn't lost a fight since and is expected to spend his Saturday night sonning Glover Teixeira, owner of a 22-2 record and nine-year undefeated streak. It's preposterous.
The thing about Jones is that he's a freak athlete whose athleticism works in only one context. This is a 6-foot-4 200-plus pound man with a 84.5-inch wingspan capable of going up for a dunk, missing the rim entirely and flipping the ball off his own face, who is nevertheless in league with Lionel Messi and LeBron James as one of the world's most viscerally compelling athletes. A sports fan who sees Jon Jones live is collecting cred of the "Yeah, I Was At Radiohead's OK Computer Tour" sort--it doesn't take an MMA diehard to recognize a special athlete. He sure can't dunk, but subtract the foreign objects and Jones becomes a grand master of spatial reasoning, capable of decoding the exact relation between himself and an opponent in three-dimensional space.
Step inside the pocket and he stakes out precise obtuse and acute angles that align with his optimal striking range. Sit back on a counter and Jones' sense of distance and timing is enhanced by his unmatched range. Move in for a takedown and finish on the ass-end of a physics equation that ends with the mean man beating you down. Jones does everything so well that strategizing against him begins with realizing there isn't even an obvious starting point.
Some perfect harmony of all possibilities is about what it takes and the only person to manage it so far is No. 1 contender Alexander Gustafsson. He fought Jones to a standstill for most of four rounds by constantly adapting his angles and timing; a new experience for the 26-year-old champion, who then blasted Gustafsson in the face with a spinning back elbow and swept the championship rounds. Congratulations on making the world's best fighter activate a second gear, here's your unanimous decision loss. This is the impossible standard that Glover Teixiera must somehow exceed.
Once just another Brazilian gym legend whose constant visa issues kept him outside the UFC for years on end, Teixeira enters his first major title fight a five-to-one underdog and with good reason. He damn near got knocked out by gatekeeper Ryan Bader in his last fight and can't sustain the aggression his style hinges on for more than a round or two. Teixeira's best and perhaps only hope is to dominate in the pocket with power combinations, but there isn't a light heavyweight alive who can force Jones into that kind of fight. The short of it is that Teixeira's limitations mark him as someone Jones will delight in exposing -- his stated preference is not to win, but to win in an aesthetically pleasing manner that highlights the intelligence underwriting his athleticism. He's dead serious about it.
Rather than the American utilitarianism of "a win is a win", Jones is in tune with the Brazilian soccer tradition that ties outcomes to the beauty of a performance. There are fighters who can match Jones' accolades, but Jones is singular in his belief that the aesthetics of a win are as important as the win itself. This is more the mentality of tortured artist than professional prize fighter and it makes for beautiful fights. Amid the abyss of pseudo gladiators the UFC adores, Jones stands out as someone worth watching. It would be nice if the people most invested in his success took notice of what they have.
The two stories heading into Jones' Saturday title defense are the issue in depressing microcosm. First up was Jones' alleged homophobic trolling of a Gustafsson fan via Instagram that manager Malki Kawa insists was the work of a phone hacker. That hackneyed bit of PR conveniently ignores the selfie Jones posted after dropping "homosexuality is a sin" on some random kid. Now is as good a time as any to note that Jones was raised in a strict Pentecostal home that forbade secular music and television as wicked influences, which at least suggests some media training might be in order for him.
Given this readily accessible information, a competent manager would, at minimum, take pains to keep his Nike-sponsored client from coming off like an ignorant on the record. Jones' retrograde beliefs are on him, but Conflicted Social Media Homophobe as branding exercise gets no one paid, manager included. The Instagram conspiracy theory Kawa floated as fact just made everyone look dumb. When not making his own messes, Jones' employer does the job for him.
UFC management knows that Jones is integral to the company's future, which only makes their seeming disdain for him all the more puzzling. President and CEO Dana White has repeatedly criticized Jones for failing to conform with the stereotype of Tough Fighting Man Fighting Tough Man Fights and former UFC champion turned Zuffa VP Chuck Liddell is turning fight week into MMA's version of the baseball nostalgia complex.
Liddell claiming he would have knocked Jones out back in the day is not just counter to the idea of promoting a fight, but a painfully stupid thought on its own. Let's be real, Liddell got to be a UFC champion because the best light heavyweights were fighting in Japan at the time. On his best day, Liddell might have lasted two or three rounds with the Jones of today. This is probably a far too generous breakdown of a fight requiring time travel to pull off. It would be better all around if the promoter were more concerned with the fight that is actually happening, or at least settled for acting like an adult.
And this is where it always ends up with Jones. One moment he's foiling would-be robbers and racking up highlight reel fodder, the next he's catching DWI charges and using God to espouse hate. Jones is frustrating in his complexities and no one is doing a good job of helping him sort it all out. Not even the people who stand to benefit from him becoming the mainstream face of MMA can be bothered to recognize how badly they're botching a ready-made deal. Expecting a measure of basic public decorum from these people may be Pollyanna stupid, but it would be a pleasant change of pace. Really, all I want is to watch my obviously homoerotic dude fights in relative peace.