By now we should all have realized that whatever Jon Jones says will be scrutinized, deconstructed and overanalyzed. Depending on the viewpoint, Jones is either the most charismatic or infuriating athlete in mixed martial arts. That doesn't come along with the territory for every champion, only the ones that become so good, so fast, so young.
Like any criticism, sometimes it's warranted, and other times it's way off the mark. And then sometimes, he unwittingly, even innocently, provides them ammunition that they simply can't let pass. Take, for instance, what he said on a Friday conference call for UFC 145, a statement that is sure to set off his detractors, and perhaps even an entire other sport.
Let's set the scene a bit. Jones is on the cover of the current edition of UFC Magazine. The cover photo of Jones in a striking stance while underwater is very similar to a picture shot with Muhammad Ali 50 years ago. The obvious insinuation is that Jones may be this generation's Ali. He didn't ask to be on the cover. He didn't ask to recreate the Ali photo. But when he was asked about the comparison, he gave an answer that will surely rattle some cages.
Here it is, in its entirety:
"I just find it fun, that’s all," he said. "I definitely don’t consider myself Muhammad Ali. I thought Muhammad Ali had many flaws in the person that he was, but at the same time, I love Ali, I’m a huge fan of Muhammad Ali. I’ve watched every interview he’s ever done. I’ve read Muhammad Ali books. I have his autograph signed ‘Cassius Clay,’ I have his autograph signed ‘Muhammad Ali.‘ I’m a huge fan, a huge fan of Muhammad Ali. But I’m not trying to be Muhammad Ali. I strive to be the best Jonathan D. Jones there ever was. I want to do things better than Muhammad Ali.
"I just want to have fun," he continued. "I never came out and was like, ‘I want to be Ali,’ and ‘put me on the cover.’ That was the UFC’s idea. So that’s the people on the outside looking at me in a positive regard. And I’m truly honored. I think it’s awesome. And what it does, with most fighters, it would probably get to their head. ‘I’m the man. Look at this cover.’ It would deteriorate a lot of young fighters. But me? It motivates me. It empowers me to train harder. And to realize that if I don’t become greater than Muhammad Ali, it’s my own fault. So I realize that it pushes me farther. That’s why I train five times a day."
Now, what exactly is controversial about this? The answer is nothing. Like anyone who ever steps into professional sports, Jones has set his sights high. He reached the top of his division in record time, the youngest champion in UFC history. So how do you top that? You aim for an icon.
Using any icon as a comparison is risky, but using Ali is PR risk of the highest order. He is of course one of the most beloved figures in combat sports history, and globally revered as possibly the best boxer of all time. To suggest your goal is to surpass what he's done is both completely understandable yet shockingly provocative. That quote, especially taken out of context, will leave some with a taste of arrogance.
Athletes don't tend to speak in such historic terms at a young age. All it does is add extra pressure on your plate and invite greater scrutiny. If Jones goes through a tough time in the future where he loses a couple of fights, these are the types of statements that will come back to bite him. On the other hand, isn't this exactly the type of ambition we should want our athletes to have? Don't we watch in hopes of seeing the extraordinary?
For now, it won't matter. Jones is likely to face another news cycle in which the comparison to Ali stands out front, despite the fact that he didn't simply offer an unwanted opinion out of the ether.
It's something he's probably getting quite used to. Hearing his words used against him isn't even new. You remember the often-cited interview Jones on Versus in 2011 that supposedly started this whole feud? The one in which Jones indicated an openness to fighting Rashad Evans with a rather understated answer that noted UFC president Dana White's influence and that 'if that's what he absolutely wanted to happen, I guess that's what would have to happen."
Well, Evans says now that it wasn't exactly the straw that broke the camel's back. That Jones had previously said things that were "dismissive" of him.
"Who cares about the interview?" Evans said. "It’s really about what was said before and how Jon really, really feels. And now I know how he really feels. Jon always wanted to fight me. Jon never wanted to be teammates and never wanted to be like brothers. Jon came on the team to learn a way to beat me so he can fight me."
Now, Evans isn't exactly a fan favorite, but few will take that as an egotistical statement, even though it presupposes that Jones would pick up his entire family and move across country on the off-chance that he would rise up to title contendership (he was just three fights into his UFC career at the time) and meet Evans somewhere down the line. What were these things that Jones said? We don't really know. Perhaps that was between them, or perhaps it never happened, or perhaps Evans heard what he wanted to hear when he listened to Jones talking.
That doesn't make him any different than anyone else piling on Jones right now. When we want to hate something or someone, we look for evidence to back our already existing opinion. That's easy when someone talks with grand vision as Jones does. As if he needs to apologize for ambition. As if he needs to explain away his desire to be the best. He couldn't if he tried because we wouldn't let him. Is Jones in Ali's class? Not yet, not by a long shot. But that doesn't mean he shouldn't aim for something that seems unreachable. Let the man say what he wants, knowing history will have the last word.