For Jon Jones, the backlash began early. He was only a few fights into his UFC career when it became obvious that he was going to be … something. We didn't know quite what, but we knew that he was doing things we had never seen before. He was dominating despite little experience, he was manhandling maulers, and he was undoubtedly going places.
It all culminated in Jones becoming the youngest UFC champion in history. While the achievement silenced a few critics, it wasn't enough to shut down all of them. To them, there was always something else to harp on, whether personal or professional.
That's a common fate for public figures, and Jones has learned to grudgingly accept it, even when it comes from opponents like Quinton "Rampage" Jackson, who is a noted trash-talker, and Rashad Evans, with whom he had an ongoing, personal rivalry. But when Dan Henderson questioned whether Jones' personality was "genuine" and later called him "goofy" and "young and sloppy," well, the comments came as a bit of a surprise.
Henderson, he figured, had carried himself with class throughout his long career. With the exception of a brief, verbal battle with Michael Bisping which was born of their adversarial relationship on The Ultimate Fighter, Henderson has always chosen to let his performances speak for themselves.
Not this time. While he hasn't exactly been Chael Sonnen, the approach taken by Henderson has still been uncharacteristic of him.
"I just expected so much more out of him," Jones told MMA Fighting. "He’s an older, more respectable guy. He's a guy's guy. I was a fan of his. But he doesn't respect me, so now, I have no respect for him, and I'm going to show that the night of the fight."
Because, in his opinion, Henderson let out the first trickles of trash talk, Jones feels it's OK to open the floodgates. That became readily apparent when the talk turns to Henderson's fight skills.
Yes, Jones can appreciate Hendo's resume and longevity. Yes, he has respect for his crushing power. But Jones also feels like the murderer's row of opponents he's faced in his last four fights -- former UFC champion Mauricio "Shogun" Rua, Lyoto Machida, Jackson and Evans -- has prepared him for everything he will see from Henderson at UFC 151.
In fact, ask him if Henderson offers anything he's yet to experience, Jones doesn't require even a moment of thought.
"No," he said. "I feel as if he’s an older, slower version of Rashad Evans."
Adding Henderson's name to his resume would only lengthen the historic run he's made. It's an achievement that might well be peerless in the short history of the sport. To Jones, though, it is only a beginning.
His focus may be on Sept. 1, but he occasionally allows himself to peer far off into the future, at long-range goals.
"I haven't set any records," he said. "I'm not the biggest defending champ of all-time. That's Anderson Silva. I don't have the most takedowns in history. I think the only thing I'm doing that hasn't been done is that I haven't been taken down in any fight. But outside of that, I haven't set any records. There are people who have done so much more than me. I happen to have beaten some big names, but time could have been a factor. Some of these guys are coming down from glory while I'm really coming into my own. So, I really can't flatter myself and think I’m so amazing. I really haven't done anything."
Yet, Jones actually has set records. He was the youngest UFC champ -- after less than three years of being a pro, no less -- and he was the first man ever to beat four former UFC champions consecutively. Even his harshest critics have to begrudgingly admit those are two spectacular achievements.
More recently, he became the first mixed martial artist to sign a global sponsorship deal with sports apparel giant Nike. For Jones, the moment was as significant as anything he's done in the cage, because it was a goal he set for himself back in 2005, when he was 18 years old and uninvolved with MMA.
Jones said that for his first meeting with Nike executives, he was "way more nervous" than he's been before any match. He said little, made his words meaningful, and offered his genuine feelings for the brand. That impression stuck, because even after Jones was arrested for a DUI in May, Nike still signed him. ("They know the type of man I want to be," he said.) His excitement about the new relationship comes through in spades, particularly when he talks about the gear he will wear to the Henderson fight. His line, which was overseen by the same designer who launched basketball superstar LeBron James' Nike line, is deep in the planning stages.
"It isn't going to be anything like any MMA clothes you've ever seen," he said. "There will be people who don't know who 'Bones' is, but they'll still be buying the clothes. That's how first-class it is."
The landmark deal came as a jolt of energy as his camp ramped up. With company eyes watching in their newest investment, Jones acknowledges a desire to impress. But, he said, that's only one of many pieces of motivation pushing him forward. Among the others is one that is a bit surprising. Namely, Henderson's testosterone replacement therapy usage, which he says, actually benefits him.
"It feels funny fighting a guy his age," he said. "To know that he has some advantages helps me train harder and not to think anything about having mercy on him."
Henderson may have been the first to cross the line of trash talk, but Jones hasn't shied from countering. It's different where it counts most. In the cage, the champion has made a habit of firing first and firing loudest, and those actions have proven to be far more memorable than anything that's been said. The thing about words is that they can backfire, and Jones aims to ensure that this is one H-Bomb that blows up in Henderson's face.