TORONTO -- Of all the criticisms about Jon Jones' early success, the most ridiculous one has centered around his size, as if he plays by a different set of rules. Yes, his unmatched reach is a natural offensive advantage that he has been quick to master, but his long limbs are no impenetrable buffer zone. On the ground, they can be turned against him. When Vitor Belfort latched on to an arm bar early in the first round of their UFC 152 title fight, Jones was faced with that exact scenario.
It was just over one minute into the light heavyweight championship bout. Belfort was still completely fresh, and Jones' arm was dry and trapped, a victim of its own length. From this position, there is no easy escape. If you listen to enough MMA commentary, you often hear about how length is an advantage, but here is where you rarely hear that having long limbs can work against you. A long arm like Jones' has more distance to travel to work free of the hold. It is also a longer lever to hyperextend.
In this instance, Jones' length was of no help to him; in fact, at that particular moment, it was his worst attribute. And this is where even his detractors must have learned something new about Jones: his will to win might be greater than the sum of his physical gifts.
When you find yourself trapped as Jones was, there is a decision to make, one that doesn't offer much time for debate. Either you surrender and move on to the next day, or you fight on, willing to live with the consequences.
Jones immediately knew he was in a terrible position. He felt cracking, and Belfort, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt since 1996 who can trace his lineage to the founders of the art, said he too felt "popping" as he continued to torque the champion's right arm for the finish.
Faced with this position, most tap. If it were a training session, Jones wouldn't have thought twice about doing so. But with his championship on the line, he was committed to finding a way free or going home in a cast. As it turns out, he did both.
Jones tried three different escape routes. First, he tried to clasp his trapped arm with his free one, hoping to lock on to Belfort's leg and prevent full extension. By that time, Belfort was already committed, and Jones' two arms were not going to overpower Belfort's two legs. Jones' realized that instantly and went to plan B. He got to his feet and picked Belfort off the ground, hoping to shake free, then slammed Belfort to the ground, which effectively served to deepen the hold. Finally, faced with a nearly desperate situation, Jones stood up and shook his way free.
The whole sequence took 19 seconds, but even 19 seconds of your arm bent back at the elbow must feel like an eternity. Jones' resolve told us something about him that we had not fully known. This is not to say he pulled off some miracle escape. It wasn't a comeback tale to rival Anderson Silva's triangle over Chael Sonnen either, but in a sport that prizes gameness nearly above all else, Jones' willingness to trade his health for the possibility of victory is the first clear sign that he is prepared to live the "warrior" mentality he often mentions. And it's yet another sign that the champion is more than just a big body.
Think about this: Jones has tapped black belts, out-punched and out-kicked strikers and put wrestlers on their backs with ease. He's taken hard shots and escaped submissions. He's won fights on short notice and in the highest of pressure situations.
Whatever you think of Jones individually, you're lying to yourself if you can't admit just how good and how tough he is.
Jones' win over Belfort was his fifth straight over a former UFC champion, an incredible achievement made even more astounding with the knowledge that he's done this all within five years of the first day he ever stepped into an MMA gym. He's done it in dominant style and in a way where he reveals something new each time. Against Shogun Rua he proved his poise, against Rampage he proved his toughness. Against Machida, he proved he could take a big punch, while his fight with Rashad Evans showed he could win without his best game. And against Belfort, he showed he could withstand incredible pain and adversity to succeed.
Years ago, Ricardo Almeida told me a story about when he was a teenager just starting out in jiu-jitsu. In imparting a lession, his teacher, Carlos Gracie, told him that against Japanese fighters, he should always look for chokes rather than joint locks.
"The Japanese, they won't tap," he told the young Almeida.
The insinuation was that in living the warrior code, they would never voluntarily surrender. They must either be choked or beaten unconscious. On Saturday night, Jones effectively announced that's what it would take to beat him. As if he wasn't good enough, big enough and strong enough, Jones proved that even when you strip away his advantages, he's still willing to trade more suffering for success than you are.