UFC

The Spiritual Jon Jones

Champion could cap greatest year in UFC history

Jon Jones likes to say that he was born on a Sunday.

This is a fact. Well, mostly. Jonathan Dwight Jones was born on June 19, 1987 in Rochester, New York. This was, in fact, a Sunday. Rochester used to be called The Flour City and then it was the Flower City, and if things keep going the way they currently are, perhaps it’ll someday be known as The Place Where Jon Jones Was Born.

But when Jones says he was born on a Sunday, he’s not speaking in simply literal terms. It’s a reflection of his upbringing, of Sundays spent on hard pews and in church choirs, surrounded by family and friends and community.

“I don’t think I missed many Sundays until I was twelve or thirteen. I went to church every single Sunday for the majority of my life, and I’ve just kept that up,” Jones says. “It was instilled in me at a very young age.”

It’s nearly impossible to separate the Jon Jones who was born on a Sunday and raised in the church from Jon Jones, the reigning UFC light heavyweight champion of the world, so don’t even waste your time trying. Jones doesn’t preach and he doesn’t condemn, but he has no problem with telling you that Jesus Christ is on his side when he steps in the cage. He’s not implying that Jesus has picked him over his opponent, because that would be silly. It’s just a declaration of thanks for seeing him through another training camp and another battle in the cage.

But much like Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow – another superstar athlete currently experiencing a bit of pushback for his outspoken faith – Jones has quickly discovered that his enthusiasm for the faith isn’t shared by everyone. Tebow, who might be the nicest and most wholesome human being walking the planet, hears plenty of criticism from media intent on seeing him fail. Jones’ grief comes from fans who dislike athletes bringing any kind of religious overtones into sporting events.

“They ask ‘how in the world can you be so religious out there, like someone is backing you or helping you or pushing you,’” Jones says. “But it’s what I believe, and I’m sometimes surprised that people can’t even open their minds to believe it’s a possibility.”

In a sport with as many unknowns as mixed martial arts, we’re quickly learning one thing: with Jon Jones, anything seems possible.

*****

More so than other modern religious athletic figures like Tebow, Jones would not be himself inside the cage without his spirituality.

Tebow’s game is predicated on his supreme athletic tendencies. If Tim Tebow woke up tomorrow and decided to devote his entire life and soul to the devil, he would still have enough athletic gifts to survive and perhaps compete in the National Football League. Everything would change, yet everything would stay the same.

Jones is different. From his daily meditation routines to that moment before he steps in the cage when he says a quick prayer for the safety of himself and his opponent, Jones is a uniquely spiritual athlete capable of visualizing his opponent and his fight before ever setting foot in the cage, and that gives him a unique sense of calm in the cage . The look on his face never wavers, never betrays his thoughts or emotions.

Mixed with his sublime athletic skills and his made-for-MMA body, Jones’ analytical mind makes him one of the more dangerous fighters in the sport. He spends hours watching film, breaking down opponents to the core of who they are and then building up the perfect game plan to not only beat them, but avoid taking any punishment from them at all. His one-sided beatings of Brandon Vera, Ryan Bader, Shogun Rua and Rampage Jackson will be remembered for their breathtaking violence, but it was the efficiency Jones displayed in dismantling his opponents that should cause concern for future opponents, Lyoto Machida included.

*****

In many ways, Machida is the perfect opponent for Jones at this point in his career. A little over two years ago, Machida was considered unbeatable. Joe Rogan once famously stated that the world was entering the Machida Era, and his blend of karate and impossible-to-hit striking defense made him seem like a mountain no opponent could climb. After losses to Shogun Rua and Rampage Jackson, however, the bloom is off the rose for Machida. He’ll walk into the cage on Saturday night a severe underdog to a twenty-four year old fighter who only started facing top ten opponents over the past twelve months.

Jones doesn’t care about Machida’s losses or his recent record or the odds. He’s intrigued by the style matchup. More so than anyone else in the division, Machida embraces the martial arts aspect of the sport and has since he began training in his father’s specialized karate system as a child. Lyoto, his father and brothers practice katas on a weekly basis, and meditation takes up part of his daily routine in the same way that sparring and jiujitsu practice do.

“I’ll be interested to see how I do against such a warrior. A lot of guys out there are fighters, but he’s a martial artist,” Jones says. “He practices katas. He teaches others what it means to have discipline and honor and respect through his karate system. He’s gone through the system and earned a black belt. He has my full respect and I’m interested to see how I do against such a martial artist.”

Jones is quick to point out that he’s not demeaning previous opponents by saying that Machida is a martial artist. They’re all martial artists, he says, but Machida embraces the core values of a spiritual martial artist far more than others, and that makes him an intriguing opponent.

“He is 150% martial artist,” Jones says.

Jones famously started off his career by watching YouTube videos of MMA strikes and counters, then learning them on his own, in the solitude of a gym. Despite the similarities in style, in elusiveness, Jones says he never once modeled himself after Machida.

“Not at all. The only thing I took from Lyoto is when he won the belt and said ‘if you have a dream, then go for it.’ That touched me,” Jones says. “He was right. My dream was to hold that belt. He doesn’t even know it, but he inspired me.”

*****

2011 has been a busy one for Bones. He started off the year as a good light heavyweight prospect with the potential to eventually hold a championship belt once the Machidas and the Ruas and the Jacksons rode off into the sunset. He could end the year on Saturday night by putting a stamp on one of the most successful (and busiest) years for any champion in the history of the company.

“In order to achieve great things, you have to do great things, so I’m going back out there. If I win…no, when I win this fight, I honestly think it will be the best year by any MMA fighter, period. In the history of the sport,” he says. “I really don’t think any other fighter has ever had a year like this. That’s my motivation.

“There is no other place on earth that I was meant to be, and God has put me in this situation.”

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