NEW YORK -- To the end, the Jon Jones-Chael Sonnen "rivalry" remains mostly unrealized. On Thursday afternoon, just about 48 hours before the two will face off for real, the two stood side-by-side for photographers on a concourse at Madison Square Garden. Minutes earlier, Jones had been speaking about how Sonnen had dropped hints suggesting he knew he couldn't win their UFC 159 matchup, while Sonnen insisted that Jones was the best fighter in the world. The only edge in the promotion was coming from the champion, not the silver-tongued challenger.
But now, here they were on this stage, and as the clicking of photographers' shutters slowed, the UFC 159 main-event combatants were informed their duties were over. Just as Jones turned to offer his hand in sportsmanship, Sonnen began to walk off to his left. As he did so, Jones' hand remained suspended in the air, unmet, and the uncomfortable moment drew laughter from the assembled. Sonnen, realizing something was amiss, quickly wheeled around.
"Did I turn on a shake?" he asked. Jones feigned anger, pretending to walk away.
"Did I make that turn on you?" Sonnen said as their hands met.
The two smiled at each other.
"Dick," Jones said. Sonnen slapped his back and the two laughed, and it was oh, so awkward.
It's been that way from the beginning, from the time their names were first linked together. It was a surprise pairing, with Sonnen volunteering to fight Jones on eight days notice, but Jones declining the matchup.
That led to the canceling of an event, and Sonnen calling Jones "a selfish, entitled brat." He's since taken back those comments, and characterized Jones as a "pretty good guy."
His mind was changed, he said after spending time with the champion on The Ultimate Fighter. The show was supposed to spread the enmity of Jones and Sonnen, and highlight the rift between them. Instead, the close proximity served to thaw any remaining animosity, and throughout it, the two were quite collegial and respectful of one another.
That's not to say that there aren't occasional glimpses of conflict. Like when Jones was asked about what kind of insider information he learned from the time spent with Sonnen. Instead of talking about how his view of Sonnen was changed, Jones was more interested in the unspoken battle between the two, showing that Sonnen is not the only one who could participate in mind games.
"I just feel like I have a pretty good understanding of him," he said. "The things he says, I understand when he’s not giving a crap. I understand when he’s telling the truth. A lot of his psychology stuff. He says things that show that deep down, he really doesn’t believe he’s going to win this fight. Saying things like, 'I may go down, but I’m going to go down swinging like a gangster.' That lets me know, if I go out there, hit him real hard, maybe take him down right away and maybe open his face, he’ll start to think, 'OK, this is what I thought was going to happen. Maybe I’m OK with that. Let me just try my hardest but Jones is the better fighter.' Little things like that. It just shows me that all I have to do is let my presence be known. Own the octagon right away and that won't change. There won’t be a shift in momentum."
That is essentially, a critique of Sonnen's courage and will. It is not the only shot he has fired the challenger's way. Earlier this week, Jones accused Sonnen of being a career-long steroid user, an accusation he later recanted. Meanwhile, the things Sonnen has said during fight week have run the gamut from fascinating to ridiculous.
One moment, he might speak of the lifetime of sacrifice that brought him to this moment, while at another, he would make outrageous claims like being the highest-paid UFC fighter, or saying Jones was the king of the UFC's easiest, least competitive division. But mixed messages are part of the Sonnen sell, and his ability to weave truth with exaggeration have been on full display.
"I just answer the questions," he said. "I don't manufacture conflict. If I don't have a problem with a guy I’m not going to make it up. I would never try to sell a fight. I had someone ask me earlier, 'Why should someone buy this pay-per-view?' Don't buy it. If it doesn't interest you, I don't want your money, if you don't want to see a fight. But I'm not going to make something up. I'm not going to disparage a guy or create fake animosity to try to get 50 bucks. I'm just not going to do it. This is what it is, a superfight. The two baddest dudes in the world are going to go fight, in a steel cage, until one of us has had enough. If that interests you, it's Saturday night, and it's only on pay-per-view."
That, in a nutshell, is a prototypical Sonnen answer. Start with some earnestness, and take a hard right turn into pitchman, facts be damned.
Jones, who has experienced this phenomenon first-hand for weeks, said he views Sonnen as having three sides, the gentleman side, the fighter side, and the crazy side. Two of them he takes seriously. The other?
"When he gets the veins popping out of his neck, that's when I turn him off," he said.
But Jones also admitted a bit of salesmanship of his own. You know how Dana White has passed along the story of Jones telling him he wants to badly hurt Sonnen? It's made up, a ruse.
"To be dead honest with you, I said that to Dana because I knew Dana wanted to hear that," he said. "That’s the dead honest truth. I think Georges St-Pierre said to Dana I never wanted to hurt somebody so bad as Nick [Diaz]. I was at the fight and said, 'Oh, maybe I should say something like that.' I knew Dana was going to go and use it in the media. But I don't fight to be malicious. I don't care about injuring him. I would prefer to not injure him. I want to beat him. I want to look dominant. I want it to look ferocious. But injuring him is not my intent, it really isn't."
And so we are left to dissect each statement and parse fact from fiction, truth from embellishment. In the end, all of the words are window dressing anyway, something to pass the time until the opening bell. In the end, we're supposed to care about the fight ahead of how it's promoted. It's just that in this case, the rivalry was supposed to be the big lure. Jones vs. Sonnen was supposed to be contentious, "one of the biggest grudge matches of all time," according to a commercial that has aired in the New York market. It's not that. It's not anywhere close. There is no animosity, no enmity. It's just a champion and a long shot, and that will have to do.