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SportsMixed Martial Arts

Jon Jones, an ever-evolving fighter and man

Jon Jones, left, kneels in the center of

Jon Jones, left, kneels in the center of the cage after defeating Rampage Jackson, right, and successfully defending his light heavyweight title at UFC 135 in Denver. Jones won via submission in the fourth round. (Sept. 24, 2011) Photo Credit: AP

To see him fight is to be inspired. To listen to others talk about him is to feel his dedication. To know he's the champion is to understand how it all comes together.

But to hear Jon Jones tell it, none of that amounts to much.

"Yeah, it's exciting to watch me fight because I have a cool style but outside of that, I really haven't done anything," said the light heavyweight champion with a 14-1 record. "I haven't even gotten a knockout in the UFC yet. This is something that Anderson [Silva] gets every other fight. So that's what keeps me on the prowl, realizing that if I was to leave tomorrow, I probably wouldn't be remembered in the sport."

Dressed in a gray V-neck T-shirt, gray newsboy cap and ripped jeans -- the kind where the rips were there at the point of sale -- Jones looks every bit the part of a smooth 24-year-old with a million-dollar smile and the world at his fingertips.

Jones has been called "cocky" and "arrogant," but on this Monday morning, he's nothing of the sort. He's friendly and outgoing, fully ensconced in a comfortable leather chair at the breakfast table inside a swanky East Side hotel in Manhattan. Jones asks nearly as many questions as he answers. His smartphone isn't even visible. He's 24.

Conversation begins where it usually does in these environs -- the see where this guy is coming from level. It soon evolves into a relaxed flow, complete with etiquette commentary/mockery -- "Dude, put your pinky down" -- and offering to fork-feed his sliced banana to the person to his left.

Soon, the topics will change and mixed martial arts will dominate the talk. After all, Jones is the UFC light heavyweight champion and he defends that title Saturday against Lyoto Machida in Toronto at UFC 140.

"It's definitely safe to say Machida presents different challenges, different angles," Jones said. "Lyoto Machida is a southpaw, throws straighter punches, faster high-kicks. He's elusive, and maybe sharper at evading getting touched."

Jones, however, is far more complex than just a guy who goes shirtless when he punches and kicks someone in the face and torso. There's his meteoric rise in 2011, the pressure and burden of being the new golden boy of the UFC and that night on the side of the road in Albuquerque, N.M.

'Champion 2011'

New Year's Eve, a night of revelry when many in their early 20s are inebriated. Parties, fireworks, concerts and a ball drop.

Here was Jones, on the side of the road in Albuquerque, in an unfamiliar car with his girlfriend, Jessie, and their two daughters as the calendar moved to 2011. No confetti, no Auld Lang Syne. Jones and his family were en route to church for services. Instead, the church was closed. They found themselves in the front seat of a car loaned to them by a friend, hands clasped, heads down.

"I remember praying that 2011 would be a defining year for me," Jones said. "And that I became a champion, that I became a better father and a better man of the house and just a better man. I prayed that I had a breakthrough in character just to become better at life. From that night on, I just had a good feeling that I did the right thing."

Hard to argue with Jones.

"That's when I started signing 'Champion 2011' consistently," he said.

Jones faced some criticism for that, but in his mind, it was foreshadowing. Jones chooses a path and takes the steps he feels necessary to travel in that direction.

He began the year by defeating Ryan Bader at UFC 126 in February. Within five minutes, Jones had fallen to his knees. Not from the exhaustion or physical toll of the fight, but from exultation. Jones had just been given a title shot against champion Mauricio "Shogun" Rua inside the cage during his post-fight interview.

That's a rarity at UFC events, but so is what Jones brings to the cage.

He's not just an NJCAA champion wrestler anymore, although he still remembers the name of the guy he beat for the 2005 New York state title -- Jack Sullivan of Huntington High School.

Jones invents angles to strike from faster than protractors can be redesigned to measure them. Jones displays moves inside the octagon that make adjectives get jealous.

He's the youngest champion in UFC history, and he re-invents a sport that is even younger than he is each time he fights.

"The good thing about him fighting four times in a year, it's a chance to keep building," said Brandon Gibson, a striking coach at Greg Jackson's MMA camp in Albuquerque, who accompanied Jones to Manhattan. "He has all the tools from the last fight."

Jones demolished Rua in March, then submitted Quinton "Rampage" Jackson in September. Next up is Machida on Saturday. All three were UFC champions. Machida was the last to defend the title, and now he faces a Jones who learned takedown defense to fight Bader, who developed the skills to withstand Rua's kicks and sweeps, who trained to avoid the knockout power from multiple angles of Rampage.

"Once you get to that certain level, they're all monsters, and they all present very different challenges that I've never seen before," Jones said. "That's what makes me smile. I don't look at them as a problem but a new challenge to rise up to. That's why it's a game. That's why I love it. I'm trying to conquer something new I haven't done before. That's what wakes me up in the morning."

Striving for more

From hitting the late-night talk show circuit to cruising in his new Bentley to celebrities asking him to pose for a photo, Jones felt his star power grow by the day. Jimmy Kimmel Live, Jay Leno and Mo'Nique all made room on their couches to talk with him. Spike TV viewers voted Jones the Most Dangerous Man on the Planet. Fighters Only gave him its Fighter of the Year award.

One heck of an 11-month run for a kid from upstate Endicott -- population 13,392.

Jones lived in those moments. His good-natured attitude, his charisma, his wide smile -- they all came through.

Many on the inside -- fighters, mostly -- see it differently. They consider his confidence and comfort in his own skin as signs of arrogance and cockiness. Those "Champion 2011" autographs certainly didn't detract from those opinions.

Is Jones cocky? Is he arrogant?

Yes. No. Well, maybe.

"In the present, it may come across as arrogant in a way, or full of myself," Jones said. "But in a way, you have to be full of yourself in order to be someone who's under a spotlight. You have to be full of yourself in order to stand out in a way. If you're not full of yourself, you're just going to go with the flow and listen to anyone's opinion of you. You have to be your own biggest critic and your own biggest fan."

Is that a bad thing? No.

"I verbally speak my paths and it gives me somewhere to follow," Jones said. "To strive for something way farther than what I even know."

New York, New York

Jones moved through the hotel's lobby and restaurant undetected, a reminder that while he's at the pinnacle in the world of mixed martial arts, things are different in the business breakfast hour in Union Square.

Folks here are more concerned with pie charts and dollar signs than choke holds and spinning back fists.

Mind you, some 30 blocks north and west right now, Jones' face hangs on a giant billboard in Times Square to promote Saturday's fight in Toronto.

Albeit in another country, Toronto is about as close to home as Jones can fight legally. Jones was born in Rochester, grew up in Endicott and lives in Ithaca.

He can't perform his work in either of those three cities, or anywhere in New York because the state deems MMA an illegal activity.

Zuffa LLC, parent company to both UFC and Strikeforce, filed a lawsuit in U.S. district court in Manhattan claiming the law -- on the books since 1997 -- violates the First Amendment of the Constitution. The suit argues that a mixed martial arts bout is a "performance" and an "expression" and as such, is held to the same freedom of speech standards as dance or theater or music.

"You can't pick and choose which messages to send," UFC chief executive Lorenzo Fertitta said. "That's what freedom of speech is."

Jones attached his name to the lawsuit, albeit with some hesitation at first.

"It's not like I'm suing New York State for a hate crime or anything," Jones said. "I'm suing them for justice for our sport that I love and that I'm passionate about. It's kind of an insult to me that what I do is looked at as kind of criminalized."

Any fighter will tell you that fighting in Madison Square Garden is their dream. There's no bigger stage for a combat sports athlete. Not Las Vegas, not Atlantic City. The Garden is "The Fight of the Century" with Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, and their second fight. It's Jake LaMotta vs. Sugar Ray Robinson, Rocky Marciano vs. Joe Louis.

"It doesn't get more fulfilling than that," Jones said. "I don't care if I have to come back when I'm 30, 40 years old to fight at Madison Square Garden."

Jones and Gibson grabbed two large duffel bags filled with gear and lugged them from the breakfast table to a black Lincoln waiting outside the hotel on East 17th Street. He would have additional appearances on Monday, but not before a quick workout . Champion 2012, perhaps?

New York Sports