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Jon Jones and the fine line between confidence and arrogance

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Esther Lin

LOS ANGELES -- Throughout his meteoric rise to fame, those closest to UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones insisted their man is a confident, hard-working champion who sets the tone for the rest of the gym at Jackson's MMA.

Throughout 2012, a.k.a. The Year of the Jon Jones Backlash, his detractors derided him as phony and arrogant.

So which is it?

Jones keeps a tight lid on his inner circle. You don't hear much from him between fights. When he does speak in public, it's often in controlled situations like press conferences or quick-hit television interviews, which can lead to the sort of soundbites that help enable haters' hate.

Which made Monday afternoon's media luncheon with Jones in downtown Los Angeles an interesting occasion. As he gets set to meet Alexander Gustafsson on Saturday at UFC 165 in Toronto -- for what would be a record sixth successful defense of his light heavyweight crown -- it's a rare chance to pick the champ's brain in a relaxed atmosphere.

So he's asked, almost immediately, about the backlash he experienced from fans in the wake of both last year's DWI incident and the infamous cancellation of UFC 151. And it's clear the fighter who once attempted to please everyone has grown comfortable in his own skin.

"A lot of great athletes are hated," Jones said. "I have to be comfortable with it. I am comfortable with it. I have a strong group of people around me. Really strong friends, really strong coaches, really strong mentors. Those are the people who matter. I'll continue to be loved by many, hated by many, and be comfortable who I am."

Over the course of an hour and a half, Jones never raises his voice, except to register excitement over watching his brothers Arthur and Chandler square off on opposite sides of January's AFC title game. He's polite and considerate to everyone in the room, from his trainers to the wait staff. He looks people in the eyes when he answer their questions. His answers are thoughtful, measured, in-depth, at times even philosophical.

He's also unafraid to tell you exactly what he thinks if you ask him about any given fighter. Gustafsson? "He has terrible boxing defense." Glover Teixeira, who is expected to get the next shot at the title? "He's not ready."

A question for those who consider Jones arrogant: If this is how Jones feels about Gustafsson and Teixeira's abilities, would you rather he lie and pump them up instead? Do you not want an honest assessment?

Sure, Jones thinks he can handle Gustafsson's boxing and can defeat Teixeira. But that's where it ends. He doesn't belittle either Gustafsson or Teixeira as a person. With the notable exception of Daniel Cormier, who clearly bothers Jones, not once over the course of lunch does the champ cross the line from professional to personal.

Chael Sonnen can insult entire nations. Nick Diaz can swear a blue streak at everyone and everything. Jones doesn't call people out and doesn't troll others for attention. Yet in MMA's strange little subculture, the Sonnens and Diazes are celebrated, while Jones is derided as arrogant.

The champ thinks he understands why.

"The Yankees are hated for a reason," the Endicott, N.Y. native said. "Whoever is good at anything is usually hated. I'm really comfortable with it. What I'd really like to focus on is how many people support me. I've got a lot of support. Nike comes out with things, they sell out in less than a day. Every day I get messages saying they inspire me. If one person writes me a message saying I genuinely enhanced their life, that outweighs 500 haters."

That's the sort of motivation which keeps Jones aiming higher and higher. He's asked a question he's already been asked several times, about whether he has eyes on the heavyweight division.

"I do believe there could be greater challenges at heavyweight," Jones said. "Maybe there won't be. Maybe I'll be more athletic, more agile, faster, very unpredictable for that weight class, doing things heavyweights don't normally see. Maybe there will be easier fights for me. You never know. ... Cain Velasquez is the champion right now, I think there's some things I can do athletically that Cain has never seen before. If he can be a small heavyweight, then I can be a small heavyweight with a whole different playbook."

Jones also has been around long enough to appreciate just how soon it can end. He needs look no further than the man he supplanted atop the pound-for-pound list, Anderson Silva, whose record-setting middleweight title reign ended in the blink of an eye with his upset loss to Chris Weidman at UFC 162.

"At first I thought he got caught being arrogant," Jones said. "But when you really break it down, That's Anderson, that's what he does. I think it's a shame to see him get caught, when if he wanted to, he would have had his hands up and the chances of him getting tagged like that go way down."

Jones, incidentally, predicts Silva will take the title back from Weidman at UFC 168, and isn't ruling out a long-discussed superfight.

"If I get in a position where he wants to fight, it's on my own efforts, my own time," Jones said. "I want to beat his records and put my time in. I'm not trying to get an EZ Pass, I'm not trying to out-accomplish everything he did. I respect Anderson and I respect the time he put into being a champion."

Jones has reached that point all the great champions reach, where they start pondering goals beyond their division. Heavyweight fights. Superfights. Things to accomplish outside the sport.

"I've accomplished a lot of goals I've set my mind to," he said. "I've set a lot of goals where I can reach really high. Do huge movie roles, or doing something in boxing is really more of a realistic thing. If I can get myself really strong, do a two- or three-year camp, I would be more than ready for the challenge."

Consider what Jones has already accomplished at age 26: He was the youngest champion in UFC history when he defeated Mauricio "Shogun" Rua to win the light heavyweight title. He had five consecutive wins over fighters who once held the 205-pound belt. A victory over Gustafsson would set the light heavyweight title-defense mark. He wanted to become the first MMA fighter sponsored by Nike, and he got it.

Can you really call it arrogance if someone backs up everything he says he'll do?