Jonathan Dwight Jones grew up in upstate New York. He was normal. Average. Full of many of the same insecurities that pervade the psyche of teenage boys.
Skinny, bony and yes, those chicken legs.
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If not for Sheila Ryan, perhaps he would have remained the same way in his early 20s, instead of becoming Jon "Bones" Jones, the 26-year-old reigning UFC light heavyweight champion with the potential to change the sport of mixed martial arts.
"She was the first person that really taught me how to believe more and be confident and focus on your mind and your thoughts, positivity, goal-setting and things like that," Jones said. "She really taught me things about meditation and visualization and thinking great and thinking big."
Ryan is the mother of Jessie Moses, then Jones' girlfriend and now his fiancée. Jones credited her with turning him into a believer in himself and aspiring toward greatness. He soon became obsessed with motivational speakers.
"My life was changed," Jones said. "I went from this kid who had all these insecurities to this kid who really thought he was gonna be great some day."
Fast forward several years and that day has arrived. That average kid from Union-Endicott High School, the middle brother of two future NFL players, lives in Ithaca with his fiancée and their four daughters when he's not training in Albuquerque, N.M. He also happens to be the best pound-for-pound MMA fighter on the planet right now, capable of doing things in the octagon that didn't already exist.
His six straight title defenses are a divisional record. He attempts No. 7 Saturday against Glover Teixeira (22-2) at UFC 172 in Baltimore.
Jones is cocky. Jones is arrogant. Jones admits both now.
"My psychology was completely blessed by other people and they made me this person now, a guy who's a little too confident, a little cocky, borderline cocky, but I'm grateful for the psychology that was learned," Jones said. "I think I am a little arrogant.
"I notice that I'm full of myself and I am arrogant to some degree," Jones added, "but it's honestly only when it comes to talking about MMA."
Ahh, arrogance. That word is the pivot point of Jones' relationship with fans, a sine curve of boos and cheers, disdain and praise. Both ends of that spectrum often appear at the same time, by the same people. They'll boo Jones' entrance to the cage, then cheer his fighting. Or, they'll cheer for his victory, then boo his in-cage interview.
It presents a fascinating dichotomy. At times, Jones plays to the crowd. At times, he doesn't.
One thing remains clear and finite: None of that makes much difference inside the cage. That's his athletic home. His zone. Ironically, even as his opponent hurls fists and feet at his 6-foot-4, 205-pound body, Jones is safe in the cage.
His record, officially, is 19-1. Unofficially, he has never lost a fight. The reason there's no oval to the right of the hyphen in his record is because, amid the flurry of strikes he was throwing at an overmatched Matt Hamill, one of them was an illegal elbow that led to a disqualification. That's the reality of record keeping. The general acceptance is that the fight should have been stopped earlier.
But that's just one fight. There have been 10 since, all victories. Six were successful title defenses, a UFC record for the light heavyweight division. Five were against former and then-current UFC champions. Four were by submission. Four came by knockout or TKO.
"When it comes to MMA, there is a big chip on my shoulder," Jones said. "There is a way that I look at myself. I think it's really, really important, and it's something I'm not really apologetic for it. As I get older, and I win more, I start to embrace it even more. The biggest thing is to just not be apologetic for it and realize it is a big reason why I'm able to perform out there. The moment I let fear slip in is the moment that the fights are gonna start getting closer and closer."
Like his fight last September against Alexander Gustafsson at UFC 165. That was the closest Jones came to truly losing a fight. The judges' decision was unanimous, three rounds for Jones, two for Gustafsson.
In a way, that was bad for Jones' public image. Those who needed to fill up their hate tank on Jones got themselves some premium fuel for the long drive. Jones has become a polarizing figure in MMA since winning the title in 2011, combining his wealth of talent with a few missteps along the way such as an arrest for driving while intoxicated in May 2012. Dana White's public lambasting of Jones on a conference call with the media for not accepting a fight against Chael Sonnen on 10 days' notice leading to the cancelation of UFC 151 certainly didn't help those in the middle sway in Jones' favor.
"I feel as if maybe they're looking at the fight through biased eyes . . . either they're Gustafsson fans or someone who's just so shocked to see me in that type of that fight, it's like almost they don't count anything I do and count everything he does," Jones said. "To go through a fight like that to prove to myself that I have heart and that I can be in a war and come out stronger. I got to answer a lot of questions to myself and I got to answer a lot of questions for the fans."
A fight that close always establishes a "he won, he lost" narrative. Jones said he has watched the fight close to 20 times and remains as confident now as he did then that he won rounds two, four and five. Of course, that hasn't stopped people from taking their shots at Jones. Even Phil Davis, a UFC light heavyweight who fights Anthony Johnson this Saturday, took a few shots at Jones twice this week.
"The last time you tried to handle somebody in the striking department, Alex hit you so many times in the right eye you almost turned into a pirate," Davis said to Jones on Monday's conference call.
"Walk over here and give me the belt and say, 'You know what, Phil? Honestly I'm scared. I'm just going to give you the belt,'" Davis said about Jones at Thursday's media availability. "That's the easiest way to go about it."
As much as Jones tries to separate himself from the commentary and negativity, something about that Gustafsson fight still irks him.
"It's almost like people want an excuse for why Gustafsson lost, but no one really has an excuse," Jones said. "What's your excuse for him losing? There is no excuse other than the fact that I wanted it more. I took over. I took over when it mattered, in the championship rounds."
Beginning with a crushing elbow in the fourth round.
"When I looked up at the clock, I realized, all right, I may be losing here. Let me win. Let me win," Jones said. "I simply won. I simply started winning. I think that's something champions have. I'm not saying Gustafsson isn't a champion. He's not the champion that I am."
Jones paused for a moment. A very brief moment.
"He's not a champion at all," Jones said. "I've won the belt seven times. He got tapped out by Phil Davis and lost to me fair and square. This guy gets so much praise. Having a close fight with me was the greatest thing he's ever done. And I think he's, like, living off of it and feeding off of it and loving it. It's a defeat. It's still a defeat. The guy's driving around on a new motorcycle with a new Rolex like he's the champ. It's like, 'Dude, you lost. You still lost. You have so much pride for coming close to me.' I would be [ticked] off if I was him."