At first, we didn't notice how different he was.
We saw his enormous physical gifts against Stephan Bonnar and Jake O'Brien, two durable veterans who wilted under his surprising strength.
This was a fighter? No way. This was a skinny kid getting by because he was longer than his opponents, as if being longer suddenly meant a damn thing if you didn't know how to use it.
We saw the inexperience and the immaturity, a two-headed athletic hydra if ever there was one, against Matt Hamill. Through four minutes, the skinny kid appeared to be cruising to another easy win. Only this time, it contained a whole lot more violence than we were comfortable with, if we cared to admit it.
Hamill, ever the inspiring story due to his ability to overcome his handicap and make it to the UFC, was for the first time rendered completely helpless, and the number of fans begging for the fight's stoppage were many. When the fight ended, we didn't care that it came with controversy; we only cared that it was over.
We saw the pain that he could inflict when he crushed Brandon Vera's face in his next outing. It wasn't revenge for the Hamill decision, but Vera's cranium probably felt like it was. The elbow that did the job made a horrendous sound, both live in the arena and on television.
It was one of the few times in the history of the sport—at least that I can remember—that an injured man shrieked a blood-curdling scream of agony.
Vera was already on a downward spiral, but having his face shattered and his orbital socket dismantled didn't help matters.
We saw all of those things, and perhaps we would have seen more if we were careful observers. What we never saw in those early days—well before the kid had made his mark as the greatest light heavyweight in the history of mixed martial arts—was the scientific side of Jonathan Dwight Jones.
Much of the marketing effort surrounding his Saturday title defense against Alexander Gustafsson—a Swede with considerable fighting skills—has focused on the idea that Gustafsson is a physical match for Jones and thus the most dangerous opponent that the champion has faced to date.
Being tall has suddenly become a commodity against Jones, mostly because there is precious little left to tout when trying to make fans believe that this athlete has a better chance of dethroning the champion than those who have tried before him.
The marketing is wrong, as marketing so often is, and the public betting odds agree: Jones has been installed as an 11-to-1 favorite in some markets. This is a championship fight against an opponent who allegedly matches up with Jones better than anyone he has ever faced, and yet the public perception gap is widening.
The truth is that Jones' biggest skill—the one thing that sets him apart from every fighter who has competed in the sport—is his mind. He is analytical beyond anything we have ever seen, constantly considering all facets of a fight. Only Jones doesn't view it so much as a competition as he does an endless series of problems that need solutions.
Cause and effect.
Jones was not always this way. His parents did not instill the trait in him or his two brothers during their childhood, which is another way of saying that science and analytics were not a Jones household pursuit. He was just a kid; the creative side would come later.
"I never realized how much I used my mind until I started MMA. Wrestling was my thing, but I didn't use creativity," Jones said in an interview with Bleacher Report. "But when I became a fighter and I was able to accelerate, I knew I had something special. And I knew it had a lot to do with my psychology. When I started martial arts, I realized I had a creative mind and a unique psychology toward fighting."
Jones' fight entrances are something to behold, but they also provide a key insight into the fighter. Go back and watch any fight from the last two years. Only, instead of focusing on Jones in the Octagon, concentrate on the champion as he makes his walk to the cage.
At first glance, you might say he's emotionless. But that's really not the case, is it?
The corners of his mouth turn up into a hint of a knowing smile. His eyes occasionally twinkle with the knowledge of a secret not privy to the rest of the world and certainly not to the man waiting in the cage. There is sometimes a shout, which startles you because it sounds crazy and comes out of nowhere.
Why is he shouting and smiling when he's about to get in the cage and fight someone?
"You will never see me try to mean mug my opponent. If anything, you'll see a smile or a wink, or something like that," he says. "A fight is just a problem. It's a math problem. Maybe not a math problem...but it's just a problem that you're trying to figure out. Instead of getting frustrated by it or angered by it, you get excited by it. And then you come up with a solution."
For lack of a better term, you could classify what Jones has as inner peace.
He is a spiritual man as well as a physical one, rooted equally in the worlds of bloodletting and churchgoing. Sunday mornings spent bruising his backside by sitting on hard church pews were brutally offset by afternoons spent wrestling his two brothers—both future NFL players—in the basement.
All of it, the violence and the worship, were layered on top of each other to create a fighter unlike any before him.
"It all goes hand in hand. I think you have to have a great mind to fight. You have to have a confident mind, a peaceful mind. You have to get your body in the right place to perform and pull off the moves you want, to have the endurance and strength to survive the fight," he said. "And then once you get your mind and body in the right place, your soul is at peace. You are very confident in what you're capable of and in what you done. It all goes hand in hand: mind, body and spirit."
"They all have their parts. You have to be happy with the people around you. You have to be happy in your love life. You have to be happy with your family. You have to be a happy person. You have to be confident. They all go together."
When the Octagon door closes, Jesus must assume a seat in the audience just like everyone else.
Jones will offer all credit to God once he's done dismantling his opponent, but what happens in the cage is largely due to hours and hours of watching tape, brutal training sessions with trainers Greg Jackson and Mike Winkeljohn and a curious mind that stays active outside the confines of the gym.
Some fighters scoff at the idea of watching film, as if it's uncool to study your opponents because fighters are supposed to just get in the cage and let things unfold how they will.
Not Jones. He is a voracious watcher of film; long after his striking, grappling or wrestling sessions are over, Jones can still be found watching film at the gym or on his phone. By the time the actual fight rolls around, everything his opponent does is second nature, which allows him to focus solely on himself because the reactions happen naturally.
"If you have pride in not watching tapes, I think you're silly. I watch tape as much as I can. I get into it, man. When I go in for a clinch, I know which side I will naturally have my head on. I know which side my opponent has a tendency to put his head on," he says. "When it's time to go down for a takedown, I know which side my opponent will probably be more open for when he's trying to defend. I know which punch is his favorite. I know which hand is more powerful. I know that when he tries to take me down, I know what side his head will be on and which side his head will not be on.
"In knowing all of these things, I have more detailed training and more detailed tactics. And it results, for me, in a dominant performance."
The champion enjoys dominating his opponents in the strongest area of their game, as there is no greater pleasure than utilizing someone's greatest strength to beat him convincingly.
Imagine the feelings coursing through Chael Sonnen's head last March when Jones took him down easily. Rushing in and taking someone down and smothering him? That was Sonnen's game, and yet, there was Jones doing it to him.
On Countdown to UFC 165—the hype show that typically precedes UFC pay-per-view events—Gustafsson, a fantastic striker, was bemused by the idea of Jones attempting to stand and trade strikes with him. He actually laughs at the concept, which would be significant if only it weren't historically inaccurate.
Jones thrives on breaking the spirit of his opponent, and where's the fun in taking someone down and elbowing him into pieces?
Still, Jones is fine with Gustafsson's confidence because he believes the Swede will need it on Saturday night.
"I think his psychology is in the right place. He needs to be confident. As the No. 1 contender, you have accomplished a great deal," he says. "To make it to the UFC, that's something that many fighters in the world never accomplish.
"And when they get a title challenge, they have every right to be confident. I think it's great that he's confident. But that doesn't mean that he's worked harder than me."
For all the perpetual talk of heavyweights and Anderson Silva and Chris Weidman, Jones acknowledges that he wants to be something like the Floyd Mayweather Jr. of MMA—someone who establishes a level of dominance unseen in his generation that will leave a lasting legacy.
Not content with merely being good or even great, Jones wants to be legendary. His career goal is to walk away from the sport having never been booted from the UFC for losses and to leave a mark that resonates with future generations of fans.
His Twitter profile photo reveals more about him than anything else we've seen, and it also rings with truth. It is a lion on the prowl, waiting for its next victim. It is no accident that the picture has remained his calling card for so long.
"I am a predator. I fight against the toughest men in the world, and I'm one of the better guys to do it, which means I have to have a certain kind of psychology that's more than me," Jones acknowledges.
And what of that psychology? What makes him so different than everybody else? What is it that has him approaching all-time greatness at the tender age of 26 years old, still not quite in his prime and with many years of excellence ahead?
"It's a confident one, a confident psychology. It's a psychology based on victory and dominance and greatness," he says. "Being a winner. Hard work. Champion. I have the psychology of a winner. It is not something I was born with, but it's something I have learned.
"I embrace fighting, but I embrace practice. That is who I am."
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