When the 10th season of The Ultimate Fighter debuts Wednesday night on Spike, most of the eyes will be on Kimbo Slice, the street fighter turned YouTube star who is trying to make it into the UFC. But Kimbo is far from the most accomplished athlete on the upcoming season.
That distinction belongs to Marcus Jones, a former Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive end who was a first-round draft pick in 1996 and finished eighth in the NFL in sacks in 2000. Jones talked to FanHouse last week about why he made the transition from football to MMA, and why he thinks fighting in the Octagon is tougher than playing in the NFL.
Michael David Smith: What's more physically demanding, playing in the NFL or fighting in the Octagon?
Marcus Jones: Fighting in the Octagon is more demanding on your body. The pain that you go through over a short period of time, all the training that you have to do for just 15 minutes of fighting, to me, that's just incredibly difficult.
When did you decide you wanted to try MMA?
The biggest factor for me was the Tim Sylvia-Randy Couture fight (in March of 2007). I was 33 at the time and I saw that Couture just started fighting at 33 and was still great into his 40s. I didn't want to be that person who just spends his life standing on the sidelines, wondering, "What if?" so I started taking jiu jitsu classes at Gracie Tampa, and five months after that I had my first fight.
Do you have any regrets about how your athletic career has turned out, playing football through your 20s and now trying MMA? Do you wish you had tried MMA sooner?
I'm happy that I played football as long as I did. Any time you do a sport you enjoy, it's never a job, it's never work.
But I do wish I had started MMA at an earlier age. I ask myself, If I would have started jiu jitsu in my 20s, can you imagine what kind of fighter I'd be today? I'm a much better fighter now than I was during my first fight. In my first fight, I barely knew how to throw a jab. Now I feel comfortable fighting anybody.
Are you satisfied with your NFL career? You had one very good year with 13 sacks in 2000, but overall do you wish you had accomplished more?
I wish it would have turned out differently in the NFL, but you have to be comfortable with who you are. I knew early on that I wasn't the caliber of player of, say, a Simeon Rice. I also had a lot of injuries and that slowed me down. I loved college, and I loved playing in the NFL, but there came a point in my career where I knew it was time to move on. To move on to MMA is great because I've always watched it, I've always been a big fan of the sport. When I learn something new, it's exhilerating.
You're the most accomplished football player of this year's Ultimate Fighter cast, but there are other former football players as well. Did you talk to them about your experiences?
We talked a little bit about it. Some of the differences, some of the likes and dislikes. All the guys who were in the Ultimate Fighter house who played in the NFL truly love MMA. It's not like we're just toying with it.
Which sport do you like better, MMA or football?
Well, I loved playing college football, the camaraderie I had with my teammates there. I didn't feel as much of that in the NFL, but now I feel that with some of the guys I train with at Gracie Tampa, and with other MMA fighters. One of the things I like most about MMA is the camaraderie I've developed with other fighters.
Did you develop that camaraderie with other guys in the Ultimate Fighter house?
It was kind of hard to. There were some guys on the show that I really liked, but you have to understand, this is a competition. There's only one Ultimate Fighter. At any moment you might have to fight someone you're training with. You might have to fight someone you bonded with. I don't want to become really good friends with someone and then have to get in the cage with him and beat him down.
Kimbo Slice is obviously the most famous guy on this season, but he's also one of the least-accomplished professional athletes on the show: He hasn't accomplished nearly as much in MMA as someone like Roy Nelson, or nearly as much in other sports as someone like you. Did anyone resent the fact that he's more famous even though he hasn't really done much as a professional athlete?
I never felt that because, realistically speaking, I was just elated to be on the show. I wasn't there to get attention, I was just there to fight. I think other guys felt that way, too. And at the end of the day, we were all there trying to become the Ultimtae Fighter. No matter what you had done before, that's what we were there for.
Tell me an NFL player who you think would be good at MMA.
I think Simeon Rice would be a really good MMA fighter. Not only is he a good athlete, he's a nimble athlete. He can move, he has the kind of flexibility you need for jiu jitsu, he has the power. I think he'd be a good MMA fighter.
Have you kept in touch with Simeon? Do you know if he has any interest?
No, I don't think so. I think he'd be good but as far as I know he's not planning to do it.
On the flip side, do you think there are fighters in the UFC who could play in the NFL?
There's a lot of guys who fight who are good enough athletes. It's all the direction you go in with your life. A lot of guys in high school focus on football and go toward the NFL, or others might focus on wrestling or martial arts and go toward the UFC.
You mentioned that you started at 33, the same age as Randy Couture. But he's a freak of nature -- most athletes can't keep going into their mid- or late-40s. How much longer do you think you can fight?
I would like to fight as long as my body holds up and as long as I'm winning more than I'm losing. Right now I'm in the best shape of my life, I'm probably one of the strongest fighters because I was a strong NFL player and I've maintained my strength. I don't have a background in fighting like a lot of these other guys have, so every day in MMA I'm learning something new. I don't have a background in fighting or anything, so that's why I'm constantly improving.
Did you ever take martial arts or anything as a kid?
No. No background at all. The first time I threw a punch was the first time I took a striking class at Gracie Tampa. The first time I sparred with another guy he tore my face up because I didn't even know how to punch.
Kimbo got his start in street fights. Have you ever been in a street fight?
No, I was always the kid who tried to do the right thing. My dad always told me to carry myself right and not get into trouble. I tried to stay out of trouble as much as I possibly could.
What were Rampage Jackson and Rashad Evans like as coaches?
It was just great to be around two guys who are both very accomplished in MMA. That's where I'm trying to get to. I'm just starting out in this sport, and I hope I can get to where they are.