As the main event started for UFC 172, Jon Jones did an homage to Ray Lewis, one he apparently worked on all day to perfect to the delight of the Baltimore crowd.
It was something the small watching party of friends and family who sat with me recognized immediately. They are a mishmash from different backgrounds. None of them follow MMA with any fervor or zeal. Most of them are sports fans, so they only knew of Jon Jones by name, probably from an ESPN ticker.
“Of course he would do that,” I say. “He’s looking for the crowd to pop.”
“Why do you dislike Jones so much?” a friend asks.
The drunk driving incident? His predilection for hypocrisy? The 80% comment? The ridiculous excuse about his phone being hacked/his PR firm was to blame for homophobic comments?
There’s no one answer that could truly justify it. Especially one that wouldn’t come off as petty. I’m aware of my bias. I’ve made no bones about my dislike of Jon Jones outside of the Octagon. However, I’ve also been just as vocal about how much admiration and respect I have for him inside the Octagon. He is the best fighter today. He’s unique. And that’s part of the problem. When someone is that unique, you immediately search for something or someone that is a touchstone for comparison’s sake.
The fight itself wasn’t unique. It was classic Bones Jones. Jones proceeded to dismantle Teixeira over five rounds, making Teixeira look ordinary. It was a beautiful performance punctuated by a slew of short-range elbows and hand fighting that kept Jones safe and Teixeira in danger. Teixeira, who had more wins than Jones had total fights. Teixeira, who hadn’t seen a loss in nine years. Teixeira, who had the power Jones had yet to encounter. Teixeira, who?
Jones took the one area that was Teixeira’s strongest attribute and used it against him, fighting in close quarters and lighting up Teixeira time and time again. The performance was so dominant, UFC cameras overheard Teixeira apologizing to his coaches in his corner for his performance. It was a sad scene. What made it even sadder was there was still one more round to go.
Jones wrecked a very tough Glover Teixeira and made it look easy. It was a brilliant performance by an athlete who has yet to even really show the world the entirety of his fighting abilities. It’s a scary thing to consider, but not nearly as scary as the weak ways fight analysts have been trying to describe Jones’s greatness.
After the fight, the praises sung for Jones were justifiably loud, and they were legion. In fact, some fight pundits have crowned Jones the “Michael Jordan of MMA”. Of course it will be interesting to hear the change of tune if, when the PPV numbers are released, UFC 172 ends up tanking. In the meantime, oh, how sweet the hyperbole tastes.
That yardstick shows just how far away Jones is from those expectations of greatness that are being heaped upon him. It shows the lack of imagination of fight analysts. It also shows the immaturity of MMA as a sport. Legacies take time and reflection. For a sport that still manages to wet the bed in a wild crawl to go “mainstream”, time and reflection are luxuries rarely allotted to fighters. The more Jones wins, the more he pulls away from a small pack that includes Fedor Emelianenko, Anderson Silva, and Georges St. Pierre. But it’s the very short shelf life of fighters in this sport that will likely prevent them from making the kind of lasting legacies that someone like Michael Jordan can claim. It apples to apricots, so why make it more difficult by asking fighters to live up to comparisons of legends from other sports? It comes down to identity. How can fight fans ask for Jones to be the ambassador for a sport, when we still have to pantomime what MMA is when we describe it to people who don’t follow the sport? After all, no one is saying, ”Michael Phelps is the Jon Jones of swimming.” At least, they aren’t yet.
Back to fight night.
“How can you not like that guy? He was completely dominant,” my friend asks, clearly impressed by Jones’s complete dismantling of Glover Teixeira.
I, much like the ridiculous comparisons to Michael Jordan, searched for an equally absurd arrow in my quiver for a response I knew he would understand.
“He’s the Isiah Thomas of MMA.”
ESPN aired the 30 for 30: Bad Boys documentary earlier last week (one you should seek out at all costs), and it had been a topic of conversation for many NBA fans that grew up watching the NBA in the late 80s. That connotation, Isiah Thomas, cut through and immediately hit a nerve.
Isiah Thomas was one of the best point guards to ever play the game, and watching the Bad Boys doc, you’re reminded of that in stark detail as all of his brilliant performances with the Pistons come flooding back. The reason they come flooding back is because many times, Isiah did and said things that were so stupid, they distracted NBA fans from his brilliance. They pounced on Thomas’s comments about race. They dug their teeth into his decision to leave a game early that the Pistons were losing. Even his peers had such animosity for Thomas, they refused to allow him to be part of the 1992 Olympic Dream team, a team coached by Thomas’s own coach, Chuck Daily. Sound familiar? On the surface, sure. But Jones is also not Isiah Thomas.
Ultimately, Jones isn’t comparable to Isiah Thomas, Michael Jordan, A-Rod, Derek Jeter, Muhammad Ali or any other sports idol/role model in the public eye because he simply hasn’t reached the general public’s eye. If Jones continues to dominate his opponents in spectacular fashion, he will carve out an identity for himself and the sport. The mainstream sports media is just as overwhelming as Jones is in the cage. Provided Jones can stand up to the scrutiny of the media outside the circle jerk of MMA news outlets, he could be the first one through the wall.
Time and reflection. He may not be there, yet, but he’s also not too far off. We all better get used to it.