Esther Lin, MMA Fighting
TORONTO -- If the demands of being a champion, the pressure of living up to the highest of expectations, and the backlash of controversial actions have crept into Jon Jones mind over the past few months, you couldn't tell it on Wednesday. Not by looking at Jon Jones, and certainly not by listening to him.
The UFC light-heavyweight champ comes into UFC 152 with plenty of chaos swirling around him. Personally, he has a sit-down planned with Dana White to clear the air following a heated outburst against him by the UFC president. Professionally, he has Vitor Belfort and the business-side of a crushing left hand awaiting him on Saturday.
But in the midst of the madness, Jones is all smiles.
How, you might wonder, is this so? With more media, more sponsorship attention and more negative energy than he's ever encountered -- and a short-notice fight to boot -- how is he so calm?
To hear him tell it, the thing about it is this: on fight night, everything else melts away. He gets to leave it all behind. And fight night is fast approaching.
"It has been a long time," he said in a Wednesday press interview at the Xtreme Couture gym. "And I'll tell you what: fighting is my livelihood. No matter what I'm doing, fighting is my livelihood. To be back here, it is like my sanctuary. This is my place, and it's always good to be home."
From his answer, you couldn't quite tell whether he was talking about Toronto or the octagon, because in reality, it hasn't been too long since he's been in either place. The last time he visited the city was last December, and he was last in the cage just five months ago. Yet so much has happened between then and now.
Toronto is at least a place with good memories for him. It was here he awaited his most challenging personal test against the crafty Lyoto Machida, before leaving Machida an unconscious heap on the mat, a victim of a standing guillotine choke. At that point, everything was going right. Until everything started going wrong. He went to a decision against Rashad Evans in a fight that was considered by many to be lackluster (a first for Jones). He was arrested for DUI. And then, he committed the cardinal sin of declining a title challenger, a decision that was just one factor in the cancellation of an event.
The passage of time was evident in Jones' appearance. On his face, he wore a thick, bushy beard, just something new to "keep the fans guessing," he said. On his body, a Nike T-shirt, with the slogan "Bones Knows." Both combined to at least subtly extend the suggestion that Jones is offering an older, wiser soul in a newer, shinier package, or more simply, that he is willing to show different sides of himself. At the least, he appears to be growing more comfortable with his dueling public images. If you can simultaneously wear the beard of a mountain man and represent the polished Nike swoosh, well, maybe you're not two-faced; maybe you're like everyone else, a person with many different sides.
Much of the flak that's come Jones' way has been from those who suggest that he is not being genuine in what he says. One night probably won't change that perception. One year might not even be enough. But Jones seems as though he's past caring about those judgments. He's still blunt enough to offer his own opinion, even if it's likely to rankle some feathers. Like when he answered a question about Belfort's quickness by suggesting that his own speed was in the same ballpark. Or when he offered forgiveness to the fans and fighters who ripped him for his decision not to fight at UFC 151, even though they haven't asked for it.
As a public relations project, Jones is no finished product, but maybe he doesn't need to be one. There was a time it seemed as though he took criticism to heart, that he wanted to be all things to all people. Maybe this situation helped him realize he cannot be. He's 25 years old; these realizations happen in time.
"At the end of the day, all my drama is based around a game," he said. "It's really just a sport. It's MMA drama. It's not real-life. It's not real-life stuff. So I can deal with people hating me or loving me. It is what it is. Ultimately my job is to entertain people and I think this whole situation has definitely done that in some ways. It's definitely affected some people in a negative way. The people who lost out on money, which I apologize for 1,000 times. But I guess keeping everything in perspective is what helps me deal with things. Realizing that my world is not that serious. It's a game. We're all here to watch a sport being played. It's not life or death."
Jones says that he stands by his decision to turn down a UFC 151 slot. He suspects that Dana White also stands by his choice to cancel the event. When the two sit down and talk, whether they reach an understanding on their respective positions is almost besides the point. He is at peace with where he has been and content with where he is going. On Saturday, as is his custom on fight day, he will find a tranquil spot and meditate and envision the competition that will ensue. Everything in the past will be left behind. Everything in the future will be in sharp focus.
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