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Greg Jackson likens Jon Jones’s mental approach to Sugar Ray Robinson, Muhammad Ali

To describe what makes his star pupil special, coach Greg Jackson points to the examples set by the greats.

Watching Jon Jones in action, it’s easy to point to his superior physical gifts, creative striking, and strong wrestling as the main reasons for his success. But Jackson believes that the light heavyweight champion’s intelligence is also a major factor and he compares the mindset of Jones to that of three combat sports legends, starting with Sugar Ray Robinson.

A multiple-time world boxing champion who competed in 200 pro bouts, Robinson was successful in a number of rematches throughout his career much like Jones was in his most recent fight, a third-round TKO of Alexander Gustafsson at UFC 232 that was more definitive than their first encounter five years ago that Jones won by unanimous decision after five back-and-forth rounds.

That result would seem to indicate that there is room for growth for the 31-year-old Jones, who next defends his title against Anthony Smith this Saturday in the main event of UFC 235 at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas. Jackson evoked Robinson when asked how much Jones can still improve.

“I actually think quite a bit more,” Jackson told Luke Thomas on The MMA Hour. “Working with him as often as I do and getting to know him — not just as a person but technically as well — he actually has a lot more to go, which is scary I think in a lot of ways. He reminds me of a Sugar Ray Robinson. Anytime Sugar Ray Robinson got a rematch with somebody, it was short.

“He just has this internal fight IQ computer that starts to really download stuff and he learns and he studies and he gets better each and every time. So I really feel that if you give Jon a rematch, you’re in a lot of trouble even if he wins [the first fight]. There’s a little bit of that and there’s a little bit of, yeah, it’s just personal growth. He’s getting better in all areas, he’s always expanding, always pushing new ideas and new things, and as long as you do that you’re always going to stay current.”

Jackson has worked with Jones since 2009, when “Bones” was in the early stages of his UFC journey. The partnership has been extraordinarily fruitful, with Jones earning his first world title two years later and going on to successfully defend it eight consecutive times. It’s a stretch of dominance rivaled by only a handful of fighters, one of whom Jones and Jackson know very well.

It was Jackson who was also in the recently retired Georges St-Pierre’s corner throughout the prime of his career. A two-time welterweight champion, “GSP” was renowned for his work ethic and Jackson sees that same drive in Jones.

“That’s one of the remarkable things about him — and actually he had in common with Georges St-Pierre — is he’s still very studious,” Jackson said. “He’s never come in acting like he knows everything or he’s done it all.

“Obviously, one of the best mixed martial arts fighters of all time, if not the best, and so for a guy like that to still come in humble, still wanting to learn, still believing in new techniques that we’re showing him as a team, I think says a lot about him and is one of the main reasons why he’s still really at the tip of the spear is because he comes in with that same student attitude. I think he really likes it, like it makes him happy to learn and to grow and to be pushed mentally, I think is something that he enjoys. So he hasn’t changed a bit that way.”

Jackson went on to credit Jones’s diverse team of “specialists”, including Brandon Gibson, Mike Winkeljohn (kickboxing), Roberto “Tussa” Alencar (BJJ), and Israel “Izzy” Martinez (wrestling) for constantly helping Jones to evolve. The fighter’s coaches have been integral in sharpening Jones’s skills during his lengthy breaks from competition.

UFC 232 marked Jones’s first fight in 17 months, a forced hiatus that stemmed from a second anti-doping violation for which Jones was eventually handed a 15-month suspension. Controversy continued to swirl around the Gustafsson bout as the Nevada Athletic Committee refused to license Jones due to abnormalities found in 18 months of drug tests leading up to the event that was originally scheduled to take place in Las Vegas.

The card was quickly moved to the Los Angeles area where Jones was licensed to compete, going on to regain his world championship. It was a title that Jones never lost in the cage, but rather as a result of his misbehavior outside of it.

Jones’s first championship run ended in April 2015 when the UFC decided to strip Jones and suspend him indefinitely for his involvement in a hit-and-run. Jones would eventually return and win an interim title by defeating Ovince Saint Preux, only to see that belt also stripped in the wake of his first anti-doping violation and a subsequent one-year suspension.

Those are just the most high-profile misadventures that Jones has made headlines for and while he has always thrived in the Octagon, his personal follies have often left fans and critics frustrated.

Jackson doesn’t fear that these distractions are enough to weigh Jones down when it comes to taking care of business in the gym and on fight night. He brought up heavyweight boxing legend Muhammad Ali as an example of an athlete who continued to compete at the highest level even as he dealt with the consequences of objecting to the Vietnam War (Ali was threatened with jail time and saw his boxing license suspended for three years after being drafted and refusing to report for service), his affiliation with the Nation of Islam, and civil rights concerns. While the ordeals of the two fighters aren’t comparable, Jackson believes that Jones and Ali are cut from the same cloth as far as being able to deal with adversity and public scrutiny.

“Like all great champions, [Jones] has the ability to overcome that stuff,” Jackson said. “It wasn’t his first scandal in his young life. He’s been through the ringer as far as being young and partying and doing all this stuff that young athletes do, so he’s been through the ringer with all of that and it’s never really affected him.

“People have that kind of thread where there can be a lot of drama outside the cage. I always think the best at dealing with that was obviously Muhammad Ali. He might be going to jail and he has all these war things going on and there’s always all this drama with everybody around him. Everybody hates him because he was a black Muslim at the time and none of that every derailed him. I think that real champions can take that stuff in stride and that’s just the game, they’re okay with it. So I’m never worried about any of that stuff derailing [Jones] because he’s shown throughout his career that he’s able to overcome that kind of stuff.”

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