There is a constant meme that gets passed around regarding how mixed martial arts will look 10 or 20 years from now. In that crystal ball version of the future, all the athletes are bigger, stronger, faster, better. They are more creative, have better technique and are more thoroughly schooled in the various disciplines utilized in fighting.
It's mostly BS.
Don't get me wrong, advances in training and the increased availability of coaching will mean a better crop of aspiring fighters over time, but the difference will be marginal and result in no net change from the parity we see today. And that will mean a freakish athlete with a sharp intellect, confidence and and a fighting heart will always separate himself from the pack.
That brings us to Jon Jones
Jones is a gift to mixed martial arts, a charismatic, dynamic, hard-working, good-looking 23-year-old with the poise of a veteran and upside to burn.
He's engaging and exciting, but is he the future template for fighters? No, not unless all future models are going to come stocked with cartoonish 84.5-inch wingspans, brilliant fight IQs, relentless work ethic and unwavering fearlessness.
No one, after all, should be this good, this fast. Three years into training, he should still be toiling around regional promotions working his way up to the big leagues. Instead, he's the champ in what is historically MMA's most competitive weight class. He did it with an insatiable appetite to learn. Ryan Ciotoli, who was Jones' first MMA trainer and manager, told me that he would often return home to find Jones sitting at his computer, glued to Youtube fight videos and highlight reels.
Ironically, it became the basis of his unorthodox standup. While most fighters begin their striking education with simple 1-2 combinations, Jones began by working on spinning back elbows and flying knees.
"I don't look at my moves and my style as being flashy," Jones said after defeating Mauricio "Shogun" Rua
on Saturday. "I really don't. It's the only way that I know."
But don't be concerned he'll get more conservative now that he has a belt to protect. Jones says he prefers the style because the aggressive and unusual moves tend to force opponents into defensive mode. Instead, Jones is working on refining them.
Jones' striking education has been two-prong, with boxing coaching Mike Winkeljohn and Muay Thai coach Phil Nurse
guiding him along.
Nurse never had a thought about changing Jones' willingness to take risks, he simply wanted to teach Jones how to set up those strikes better, make them even more predictable and effective.
"He needed to learn to do things at the right time," Nurse told MMA Fighting. "The things he was doing, he was doing to show he could. It's great, but there's a time to do it when it's going to be a definite hit, or more likely to hit, instead of just looking good. He totally got it, and that's when he started sponging, soaking it up."
While Jones' size and length plays a role in various parts of his offense, it can be a challenge in Muay Thai. Small, light guys tend to be more nimble, quicker. Yet, somehow Jones manages to pull off the same moves. Part of the reason they land is because no one expects someone so big to be quite so quick. You think defensively you have a bit more time until it's suddenly too late.
But the scary thing with Jones is that as good as he is, he's still just a baby in the game.
"I realize I don't know crap when it comes to mixed martial arts," Jones said just a few days before winning the title.
In some ways, he's not too far off, and that should be a terrifying thought for fellow light-heavyweights. He just recently got his first dedicated jiu-jitsu coach, and Nurse, who has been training Jones for just over a year, classifies him as a "high-level beginner" in Muay Thai.
His UFC 128 opponent, the 29-year-old Rua, had been training Muay Thai since he was 15 years old. He'd been doing it half his life, yet Jones outstruck him 30-13 on the feet, according to Compustrike stats
. Over hist last five fights -- against his best opponents -- he's outlanded them by a staggering margin of 210-37. That is ridiculous. It's absurd. How much better can he really get?
"He still has a medium stage to go through and advanced stage to go through," Nurse said. "That's what people have to be ready for. The things that you see in movies, those are the things he's going to pull off."
He's also getting a lot stronger, having only begun lifting weights less than two years ago. Nurse, who has been in the Muay Thai game for three decades, says through all his years of holding pads, it's quite easy to feel differences in striking power. He says that power is coming fast for Jones. The one-punch knockouts haven't come yet, but they will.
He already manhandles All-American wrestlers in the clinch, destroys black belts on the ground, and he's barely getting started. This isn't the rise of the new MMA athlete, it's the birth of a singular talent that might raise the game by himself. It's maybe unfair to put all this pressure on a kid, but it's also impossible to ignore the potential that he has yet to unlock as long as he stays healthy and focused. Already the champion, and the amazing part is this: what he hasn't yet shown us will be even more incredible than what we've already seen.