January 11, 2019

Jon Jones: Transition From Babyface To Heel Has Solidified Him As A Bona Fide UFC Superstar

By Raphael Garcia

With UFC 232 behind us, the conversation around the controversy is sure to subside. Fans are excited about a new year of mixed martial arts action, a new partnership with ESPN, and a quickly announced fight for Jon Jones as he prepares to take on Anthony Smith at UFC 235 on March 2nd. Even with all those updates, there’s a space for reflection regarding Jones. While he hopefully has a wealth of time left in his professional career, one can still wonder what might have been for the the UFC Light Heavyweight Champion. Once a beloved face in the industry, he’s morphed into a hated figure – a persona that he’s seemingly embracing.

Step into a time machine and head back to 2009. Jones was twenty years old and stepping into the Octagon for the second time. After his debut against Andre Gusmao a few months before, Jones was booked against The Ultimate Fighter's poster boy, Stephan Bonnar. For three rounds Jones would trounce Bonnar and elicit an excitement around him that had not been seen before in the organization. Chuck Liddell and Tito Ortiz could be considered the first “homegrown” stars in the ZUFFA-owned organization, but Jones had a specialness about him that could transcend the limitations of both men and bring in a new kind of fan that would help push the organization into the future.

“I’m excited about Bones. He can be a mix between Michael Jordan and Muhammed Ali for our sport. The guys got a lot of character and personality, and he’s a good person...I’m so stoked to have one of my brands behind him. He’s going to bring our sport up; I’m impressed with him, it’s awesome.”

These were the words of UFC Hall of Famer Urijah Faber two years later, at the post-fight press conference for UFC 128, where Jones earned his first UFC Light Heavyweight Championship. Just hours before fighting for the title, Jones stopped a robbery; then he stopped a legend in the sport in dominant fashion. Jones hails from New York, often called the “Mecca” of professional sports. Jones comes from a family of phenomenal athletes, with two brothers that would go on to play in the NFL and win Super Bowl titles. This is what the UFC had -- the makings of a superstar athlete from a superstar family, with Jones as the face of mixed martial arts pushing to the forefront of the mainstream sports world.

But that would not be the case -- at least not as planned. The proverbial wheels started to fall off a little over a year later, when Jones was involved in a 2012 car accident where he crashed the Bentley that was presented to him by the UFC. He was arrested for driving under the influence, which would be one of four traffic related instances that would occur during his prominent fighting career. And less than a month earlier, during the run-up to his UFC 145 title defense, Jones was confident that these types of scandals were not to be expected of him:

“You never have to worry about me with a DWI or doing something crazy...I think I’m a good company guy. The UFC asks me to do anything and I always do it, and I never tell them no for anything. I’m glad the UFC wanted to work with me as well, and I think that they trust that I’ll never make them look bad.”

When this first incident occurred, the MMA world largely treated the situation as a one-time mistake stemming from Jones' then-young age and being thrust into sudden stardom as a successful professional athlete. Multiple UFC fighters and champions stood up for Jones and were prepared to vouch for his character. But one notable exception was his UFC 145 opponent, former friend and training partner Rashad Evans, who said this about Jones before their showdown:

“I say what I say about him being fake. Jon is not the person he says he is or tries to pretend that he is. He’s setting himself up for a fall that he can’t take right now.”

Those words proved eerily prescient, and while they may have been presented as fight hype back in the day, it’s very relevant to the question as to whether we are seeing the “real” Jones today. The tone in which fighters discuss him has changed substantially since 2012, when he spoke about his “company man” persona. While the issues with recreational and performance-enhancing drugs are the focal point when many talk about Jones today, there have been so many other situations that brought his character into question and led to others taking adamant stances against him. Who could forget Dana White's infamous "sport killer" comments after Jones refused to take a replacement opponent, leading to the UFC 151 cancellation? Or the allegations of being a dirty fighter because of his penchant for push kicks to the knee and "unintentional" eye pokes? And after infraction after infraction, and situations that have damaged his character, it seems like he’s outwardly changed. In fact, he frequently displays a degree of spitefulness that is stunning to watch, as his responses to questions posed by the media and comments from peers in the fight game are rife with contention, indignation, and sometimes outright disrespect.

"I think my problem, when I first got into the game, was I wanted to be a saint—like, literally. I thought I had to be a real goodie-goodie. I'm at a place now where I realize that the fans don't really care if you're a good boy or a bad boy.”

Jones said that back in 2017, in a Bleacher Report piece written by Mike Sager. and if you look at his PPV buyrates and live event gates, that statement may be right. Jones has headlined 12 UFC events, and while we're still waiting for the PPV buy number from UFC 232 (some outlets state that the number is nearing 700k), Jones still averages more than 500K on pay-per-view whenever he headlines an event. Fans will tune in to Jon Jones fights, more than they will tune out – regardless of his actions outside the cage. It doesn’t matter if it’s their favorite baseball, football, or basketball team, or the top fighters in the world. Sports fans want to see great athletes performing at the highest levels, and it's hard to get any higher than Jon Jones. The fact that we see a steady and/or increasing trend of interest in him, even with his frequent missteps, shows that he’s going to be a major draw for the duration of his fight career.

But from a persona standpoint, Jones is making it clear that he’s no longer interested in being a “white meat babyface," to steal a term from professional wrestling. Instead, he’s poised to continue a "monster heel" run that has many believing he’s the greatest MMA athlete to ever compete. With each win the fans will continue to tune in, and the dollars will continue to flow. And Jones can continue to be the man that he’s shown us to be: someone who no longer cares what we have to say or think, and makes no Bones about it.

UFC 232
Jon Jones vs. Alexander Gustafsson 2 (UFC Light Heavyweight Championship): Jon Jones def. Alexander Gustafsson via TKO (punches) at 2:02 of Round 3.

UFC 232: Jones vs. Gustafsson 2 took place December 29, 2018 at The Forum in Inglewood, California (formerly T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada).

Click HERE for more UFC 232 Post-Fight Analysis

UFC 235
Jon Jones vs. Anthony Smith (UFC Light Heavyweight Championship)

UFC 235 takes place March 2, 2019 at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Click HERE for more UFC 235 Pre-Fight Analysis