It’s strange to think there’s a fight Jon Jones can’t win.
Because of his transcendent talent, we have a tendency to talk about Jones only in superlatives.
On Saturday at UFC 172, he ended Glover Teixeira’s nine-year, 20-fight win streak with the ease of a man checking items off his grocery list. If he emerges unscathed from 2014—potentially adding victories over Alexander Gustafsson and Daniel Cormier—it’ll be time to seriously consider whether he’s the greatest MMA fighter of all time.
But that’s only half the story. The fact that some fans gagged a little bit when they read that last paragraph? Yeah, that’s the other half.
For all his greatness, Jones remains shockingly unpopular with a segment of our sport’s hardcore supporters. Depending on which way the wind blows, they charge him with being too falsely humble or too brazenly arrogant, claiming by turns that he’s either a dirty fighter or a self-righteous zealot—sometimes all of the above.
It’s impossible to know if Jones ever had a chance with these people. Certainly, he’s made plenty of mistakes along the way, with DWI arrests, alleged Internet hackings and a media presence that waffles between artificial and tone deaf. But the truth is, it feels like a certain group of MMA fans were going to dislike Jones no matter what.
When he debuted in the UFC, his public relations were so calculated that they came off fake. He was so good at answering (or deflecting) our questions that he appeared scripted, manufactured. Fans slammed him for it. Once he started letting his hair down a bit, they said he was an egomaniac and slammed him for that, too.
He’s been obviously wounded by this reception. Above all else, the champion is a sensitive man. At times, it seems like he bends over backward trying to make people like him, most recently literally doing a dance to get the crowd at the Baltimore Arena to cheer for him.
“I love the people,” he told MMAFighting.com’s Ariel Helwani the week of UFC 172. “I definitely want to be remembered as a positive force and light into the sport and people’s lives. That’s what I’m going to continue to fight for. I haven’t quite given up on the people.”
In the wake of his victory over Teixeira, however, there’s mounting evidence to suggest Jones might be less and less concerned with what we think of him.
Prior to the bout, he caught some flak from Teixeira-mentor Chuck Liddell and prospective future opponent Phil Davis. When it was over, he drew criticisms from fans for gratuitously placing his hands in Teixeira’s face (and occasionally his eyes) en route to a clean sweep on the scorecards.
This week, Jones fired back, mocking his detractors with a series of social media updates. The posts aimed at Davis and Liddell were legitimately funny, and played as the kind of unfiltered retorts we seldom get from the image conscious fighter.
In short, they were exactly the kind of things we need to see more of from Jones.
The video aimed at fans was somewhat less successful. Only seven seconds long, it still managed to make the champion look resentful and a little bit childish.
But at least it was real.
Jones quickly deleted it, and in doing so, reaffirmed what is perhaps the biggest flaw in his ongoing struggle for likability: A failure to own who he really is.
The truth is, Jones isn’t a normal guy. He’s wealthy and insulated and had already gained more notoriety (and infamy) by the time he was 23 years old than most people will in their entire lives. He’s the best in the world at beating people up, and because of that, he’s enjoyed successes and endured scrutiny that would ruin a lot of us. If he’s come out the other side of all that a little bit conceited and a little bit hypersensitive, well, few sane people would blame him.
Sure, some fans are never going to like it. Some will even hate him for it. It’s wrong, he doesn’t deserve it, but that’s reality. The people who haven’t come around by now—or at least learned to divorce Jones the amazing fighter from Jones the occasionally off-putting human—never will.
The sooner Jones himself comes to grips with that, the better.
It’s past time he stopped caring what any of us think. It’s past time that he stopped trying to make us like him. It’s past time he stopped trying to be all things to all people in a ridiculous attempt to curry favor with fans and big-name corporate sponsors.
The thing that was so refreshing about his recent social media outburst (aside from the fact he didn’t try to blame it on hackers) was that Jones appeared to have decided that he was just going to be himself, damn the consequences.
But then he deleted part of it, showing us that in true championship-level, type-A, control-freak fashion, he hasn’t quite given up yet.
Sooner or later though, Jones needs to realize this is a fight he can’t win. If his options are to be fake (and unpopular) or real (and still unpopular), he’d be better off just giving it to us straight—embarrassing videos and all.
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