When Glover Teixeira beat Sokoudjou at WEC 24 in October 2006, Jon Jones was barely 19 years old and still in college. At that time, Teixeira was riding a modest three-fight winning streak, and his name didn’t register much beyond Lemoore. Eight years later, in April 2014, that streak has grown to 20 wins in a row. By all measures, a winning streak like that in the roulette sport of four-ounce gloves is remarkable, even if visa problems prevented him from waxing people in front of North American eyes.
Yet the fight game is funny, because it’s Jones who stands as Goliath heading into their momentum clash at UFC 172 in Baltimore this Saturday night. Even coming off of a humanizing performance against Alexander Gustafsson at UFC 165 -- the first fight of his career where he had to dig deep to win -- it still feels like Jones as the inevitable.
And it says something about the price of Jones’ exceptionalism that Teixeira, and that block-long trail of casualties he’s amassed over the last decade, is being imagined as a Brazilian Soda Popinski -- modestly imposing but totally beatable -- heading into their fight.
Vegas oddsmakers are giving Teixeira a 20-percent chance, a line that Dana White called "insanity" on every platform of his ESPN car wash on Wednesday. Insanity because Teixeira, who stands in the pocket and socks (and eats his fair share in the process), is being undercut in that line. Thing is, though, that "insanity" is reflective of the general attitude; gambling lines are built on perception.
Which in a roundabout way gets to the real storyline of any Jon Jones fight for the last couple of years: Perception. Just who is Jon Jones? Talk about a polarizing figure. We love Jones, we hate him, we love to hate him, and, most frustrating of all for his growing base of haters, there’s no denying him in the one domain that matters most -- fighting.
Jones has not only beaten the light heavyweight best for the last five years, he has converted the most iconic names into "past glories," turned them into gatekeepers (or worse). He took out Mauricio Rua to become the youngest champion in UFC history, and he did that after stopping a purse-snatcher in Paterson just hours after a pre-fight communion with nature. Then it was former champion Quinton Jackson, former champion Lyoto Machida, and former champion (and former friend) Rashad Evans. It was Evans who questioned Jones’ character and called him a phony, which became -- in essence -- the end of his innocence.
Yet in the cage, Jones has kept on with the sublime.
His next three bouts weren’t against one-time titleholders, but against escalating degrees of adversity. Against Vitor Belfort, on a relatively short notice fight, Jones was caught in an early armbar that left his ligaments strained. Ever adaptable with his right arm out of commission, he dominated the fight from that point on. In the first round against Chael Sonnen, Jones outwrestled the wrestler (out of defiance), and mangled his toe in the process. He didn’t notice until the post-fight interview with Joe Rogan that his big toe was pointed at a 85-degree angle off the rest of his foot.
Then against Gustafsson in Toronto, he found himself equally matched -- at points even overly matched -- and with the "legacy" he likes to talk about fleeting, he made the championship rounds his own. A fourth round spinning elbow redirected fate. A dominant fifth sealed the deal. This was the show of heart and mettle that we hadn’t seen before from Jones.
It should have been a celebration of how deep his prowess runs. But it wasn’t. For years we wondered if he could take a punch; turns out he can, but that isn’t the issue anymore.
These days we like to talk about Jones’ arrogance, cockiness, pretentiousness, youthfulness, inauthenticity, simplicity, duplicity and hypocrisy, all wrapped in a presentation of humility. When you’re great, haters gonna hate, particularly when you are a full gulf ahead of the competition and carry an unwavering sense of righteousness. People don’t dig the cold unknowable. Jones doesn’t even play the game of s--- talking very well. On the UFC 172 media call, when Phil Davis came at him from left field and said he was smoldering with seven different kinds of smoke in the Gustafsson fight, Jones could only muster a "that’s not nice, Phil. That’s not nice."
Where Sonnen is equally lauded/hated on for his audacity, Jones goes one further -- he’s criticized for his audacity and lack thereof, whichever comes into play. Perhaps it’s that he doesn’t commit one way or the other -- one minute righteous and full of values, the next full of himself and childish. Maybe it’s that we don’t like that he’s not as exceptional outside the cage as he is in it.
Who knows. The thing is still playing out.
But as the 26-year old Jones goes for his seventh title defense on one of the greatest runs in UFC history, and sets up fights between him and Daniel Cormier, him and Gustafsson, him and Phil Davis, him and Cain Velasquez, it’s a curious thing to witness.
We are 80-percent sure he’ll beat the streaking Glover Teixeira at UFC 172. That's the kind of "insanity" we can agree on, because we know what he can do in the cage. Beyond that it gets harder, if even a little paradoxical. After five years in the UFC, the man whom many consider the greatest fighter going just happens to be its most well-known stranger.