UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones is officially in phase two. If phase one was to earn a title shot and ultimately win the light heavyweight belt, that's a difficult task. Phase two, however, is seemingly much more complicated.
Jones is employing a three-pronged strategy to the second and distinctly unique portion of his career. He's aiming to prove you can deftly and effectively mix being a sports figure, engage in meaningful philanthropy and use your elevated platform to raise or awareness about important social issues. Jones is staying away from hot-button political issues. Instead, he's focusing on major social challenges affecting wide swathes of populations and gathering broad support
It's been done before. Former NBA player turned mayor of Sacramento, California, Kevin Johnson is one such example, although he did so on a much longer time frame. Johnson is obviously jumping head first into the political machine, something Jones wants very little part of.
But it isn't so easy. Trying to mix platforms and identities can be distracting, a turnoff to fans or backfire on the athletic career that enabled the other various efforts.
Despite those concerns, Jones seems unphased by the championship portion of his career thus far. To hear him tell it, this is what he asked for. He's not prepared to be hampered by it now. In fact, this entire MMA journey is one about self-discovery, taking advantage of opportunity, giving back where he can and when time permits, enjoying the ride.
In this exclusive interview with SB Nation, we talk to Jones about his philanthropic efforts, get an update on his hand injury, talk Quinton 'Rampage' Jackson at UFC 135, moving to heavyweight, juggling responsibilities, his admiration for Bruce Lee, MMA legislation in New York and much more. Full audio and transcription:
Luke Thomas: So first time in D.C.?
Jon Jones: First time.
Luke Thomas: Initial impressions of the city?
Jon Jones: I think it's great. It's beautiful. Very business oriented. Very clean.
Luke Thomas: Let me ask you, before we get into the why you're here, where do you call home?I know that your from New York, Upstate New York but in twelve months of the calendar year, where do you spend most of your time?
Jon Jones: This last year I spent five of the months in Albuquerque, so Albuquerque was starting to feel like home-away-from home but my actual residence is in Ithaca, New York.
Luke Thomas: And that's where you live the other seven months out of the year?
Jon Jones: Right.
Luke Thomas: Alright, you're in D.C. today, you're here as I understand it as part of the Refugee advocacy effort. Tell us why you're here.
Jon Jones: I'm here to promote people getting involved with charities and people getting involved with the refugees. Especially the ones in Afghanistan. Being educated on the severity of depression and how bad their economy is over there. I thought that I'd do what I could and give them a shout out and convince others to pay closer attention.
Luke Thomas: Tell me what moved you about that situation. Obviously, anyone would tell you it's terrible but what spoke to you particularly about the refugee problem?
Jon Jones: I think a lot of it stems from being a father and imagining kids with no shelter and no water and no safety. That took its toll to imagine and now that I'm becoming a person of a little influence I think that I have an obligation to reach out and try and get more listeners to try and be aware of what's going on over there.
Luke Thomas: And as I understand it, there's something called the Blue Key Initiative with the United Nations Human Rights campaign, to what extent are you involved with that?
Jon Jones: I don't have much awareness of the Blue Key.
Correction: USA for UNHCR is responsible for the Blue Key campaign. The Human Rights Campaign is not affiliated with the Blue Key initiative. Jon Jones has no relationship to Human Rights Campaign (HRC), a separate organization not related to refugee advocacy. In addition, HRC is not a part of the United Nations.
Luke Thomas: Okay, but generally you're here to speak on behalf of refugees not just in Pakistan but in Syria, so any of the dispossessed worldwide or is there a particular group you have a more serious effort behind?
Jon Jones: Right now I'm just now joining the whole program so I'm just looking at it as a broad and I'm sure once we get in a little more deep we'll start to touch on specific countries.
Luke Thomas: Okay, so we'll transition a little bit into your UFC career. Last time we heard from you, you were in the final stages of checking out your hand to begin training, can you give us a health update? How is the hand and have you started training again?
Jon Jones: Yes, absolutely. Today my hand is doing fine, it's doing great. My grip isn't as tight as it used to be so good thing I use my left hand primarily. My punching power in both hands are pretty much the same so I'm excited.
Luke Thomas: When you say you don't have the same grip strength, have you lost that permanently or is that the transition you're in right now?
Jon Jones: I think that's the transition I'm in now. I've been doing some physical therapy work and it takes time so hopefully my hand doesn't get worse during this training camp and I'm able to heal while training for this fight and do what I do.
Luke Thomas: So how is it at Jackson's now? It's been a year of transition but it's a new phase. There's been a shift of characters as we know. Talk about the vibe there. Obviously, I'm sure it's very busy and committed but how does it feel to be at Jackson's in 2011 in June?
Jon Jones: Oh it feels great. Greg Jackson's program is one of the number one programs in the world for a reason. It has the best chemistry. It has the best staff. We have the best attitudes and I'm happy to be a part of it. We lost Rashad Evans but we're still growing strong. There's no "I in Team" so the team will go on, the family will go on and I can't wait to get down there on July 6th.
Luke Thomas: Happy to have Rampage as a competitor?
Jon Jones: Absolutely. Rampage is a great combatant. He's a respectable name. He's knocked out some of the best people in the sport. So it's a great opportunity for me to elevate and that's what wakes me up in the morning.
Luke Thomas: Let me ask you something about Rampage that I've heard people say. I'm going to play Devil's Advocate for a moment. They say "Jon Jones, phenomenal in his UFC career, blew through everyone, took the title in stunning fashion. One thing he hasn't face yet at least, maybe in training he has but certainly not in a fight is that no one's ever really hurt you. You've never fought back from adversity and maybe Rampage is that guy." How do you respond to that?
Jon Jones: Every fight I go in to, you guys say "oh he's never been hit, he's never been hurt" and that happens for a reason. I walk out there on fight night and avoid punches. It takes countless hours of preparation and knowing what you're getting into and what your opponent's tendencies are, so it's just like any test, you shouldn't take the big hits like "F's" when you study and do your homework.
Luke Thomas: To what extent do you believe that Rampage Jackson is in the prime of his career? In other words, do you believe that he's still in it? Do you think he's at the tail end of it? Is he still very dangerous? How would you this part of his career that he is in right now?
Jon Jones: Rampage, he's in a great spot. He's achieved a level of success where he should be comfortable with living. Ultimately, that all of our goals. As a combatant, I'm sure he doesn't wake up feeling the scratch when he trains being in his mid 30's now. But he's still the same guy. You always have to respect an opponent. It only takes one punch to end a fight and this guy is known to have some of the most extreme punching power in our sport's history so obviously I have to train and have my boxing defenses up, my mixed martial arts skills up, and I'll be ready for him.
Luke Thomas: Strictly speaking striking, is it still Mike Winklejohn that's training you?
Jon Jones: Absolutely, Mike Winklejohn is still my head trainer when it comes to striking and then I have Kru Phil Nurse who's teaching me more unorthodox tactics.
Luke Thomas: But it has to be more than that. They have different specialties. Is it fair to characterize Winklejohn's training as more Western Boxing where as Phil Nurse is more Muay Thai. Is that an accurate description?
Jon Jones: Yeah, that's definitely accurate. I would think Coach Winklejohn has more sharp skills when it comes to the boxing. He focuses on distancing and punching power, blocks and south paw training and things like that. But also, the fundamentals on how to kick harder but I guess his boxing skills would be a little more tight. He's trained Holly Holmes who is one of the best female boxers of all time. Kru Phil Nurse focuses more on knees and elbows. Spinning tactics and flying tactics. A lot of the unpredictable things so mixing them both in each fight. You see Mike Winklejohn in my technique, you see Phil Nurse in my technique, you see Greg Jackson in my technique. It's working. I won't put any of my coaches ahead of each other. They're all equally as important.
Luke Thomas: I want to talk about your future a little bit. I know it's too hard to think about cause too much is going on but speaking personally, this is just my guess, who knows if I'm right or wrong, but I think your time at Light Heavyweight is probably numbered. I think you're eventually going to move to Heavyweight. Just my guess, maybe I'm totally wrong. Would you disagree or agree that your best challenges, your potential greatest, even marking opportunities are at Heavyweight and not Light Heavyweight, agree or disagree?
Jon Jones: I think personally it would be cool to be considered a Heavyweight champion of the world. I think it doesn't get much better than that. But I'm totally fine with being the Light Heavyweight champion. I'm 23 and have lots of years to mature as an athlete and in my physique. I'm also getting smarter with the decisions I make. I have a really good nutritionist that's been helping me. Her name's Kelly Keegan. She's designing all my diets and all the fitness things I do. The type of workouts that I'm doing. She gives my girl friend consistent, new recipes and tricks on what can make me perform and look my best. That's making it a lot easier for me. My last two fights, the Bader fight and the Shogun fight, I felt extremely powerful. Against Shogun I competed at weigh-in, I was about 217 and had 5.25% body fat which is extremely low so yeah, everything is working out and I'm making it easier on myself.
Luke Thomas: How's it feel? Dana White said that you were a big star before but when you won the belt, things were gonna change. Give us an update, have they changed? It's only been a few months but how have you been?
Jon Jones: Things have been pretty much the same, I just get to meet more interesting people and share myself with a broader audience. But for the most part, I still wake up the same and still striving to become better everyday. I worked for this and this is what I wanted. I was prepared to achieve it and now that it's here it's my business not to be afraid of any of it and to embrace it and to execute all of the opportunities.
Luke Thomas: Does it ever get too much?
Jon Jones: Not at all, not at all. Gotta go out there and get the job done. That's the mentality I have so no, I'm greatfull.
Luke Thomas: Any concerns you still have to check yourself like "am I still me? Do I still like the things that I like?" Is there any reality checks you ever get every so often?
Jon Jones: Absolutely. I think when you grow, I don't think you change, I just think you become more yourself. And that's what I think I'm doing.
Luke Thomas: Explain that, I don't think I understand what you mean.
Jon Jones: You become more yourself. You have more opportunities to figure out what you're into, what you like. Different conversations, you can be intrigued by taking in different knowledge. I feel like I'm becoming more myself. I'm constantly learning who I am as a person. So when I say I am changing, I'm always changing. I'm growing and I'm learning so I'm becoming more myself. I'm becoming the great man that I'll be in the future.
Luke Thomas: If you had to liken yourself to another professional athlete, I don't know who you look up to. You're the "what" of MMA? Who are you?
Jon Jones: The Jon Jones.
Luke Thomas: (laughs) You gotta pick someone from another sport, you got to. It can be a crude comparison but somebody who you identify with, it could be a kindred spirit, who would that be in athletics?
Jon Jones: You know, I really identify with Bruce Lee. He has a phenomenal attitude towards the sport, towards life, towards making a difference. He was never looked at because of race. He wasn't known as the little asian guy. He was just Bruce Lee, a great individual and that's something that I'm trying to achieve.
Luke Thomas: You mentioned something about making a difference, certainly Bruce's impact is felt in a wide variety and sources of culture that we live in. I noticed something in a press release and I don't know if this is about you or not but it was mentioned that you want to mix the sports figure, philanthropy, and that you also wanted to have a message, a political voice if it were.
Jon Jones: Absolutely, not necessarily political but just the message of what's best for man kind in general. Just basic things like kindness and respect, things like that. So yeah, outside of being remembered for cool tactics, being remembered for a way of thinking and positive personality to want to be like. We can't all be 6'4" with really long arms athletic figures but we all can admire other things outside of the tactics.
Luke Thomas: Do you believe that for some athletes it's been a real healthy mix that they've been able to achieve all kinds of results to that end. For some athletes it's tripped them up a little bit. Any concern that you'll be pulled in a direction where you're just taking on too many things, misidentifying yourself, pissing off the wrong people, anything like that?
Jon Jones: No, no concerns like that. I trust my gut and I trust the people that I have in my life that helps me guide my life. I have my own mind and I make decisions and I'm very free to say no to anything I don't want to do. Right now I'm just learning at such a fast pace and taking in lots of knowledge and you know, the window isn't very big. I can't do this forever so right now, while the interests are so high, I gotta use MMA and not let MMA use me. And that's what I think I'm doing.
Luke Thomas: I saw your Tweets this morning saying you were really nervous speaking in front of certain law makers. People would say, how can that be nervous for a guy who literally fights for sport. Why was it so nerve racking? What was really worrying you about it?
Jon Jones: I'm my own biggest critic and I like to do my best, my absolute best. Speaking behind a podium in front of lawmakers is something that I've never done before so I was just criticizing myself and beating myself up. I figure I do better under pressure. I felt like I did a good job today so it was nerve racking but nerves it what makes us perform at our peaks.
Luke Thomas: Did you feel like they were receptive to your message?
Jon Jones: Absolutely. Absolutely.
Luke Thomas: You were on a panel with other people involved with refugee causes including the Editor-In-Chief of Foreign Policy Magazine and what were you there to do? Raise awareness, is this what it was about?
Jon Jones: Angelina Jolie has a campaign that she's doing. The message behind her campaign is for us to not to turn away and for use to not pretend like we don't know what's going on overseas. My job was to basically use my "star power" to speak out and to represent the common man and not a politician and just to say "I'm involved with it, you can be involved with it". There's nothing wrong with wanting to help. There's nothing wrong with going the extra mile to help others. Basically it was just a great assurance kind of thing.
Luke Thomas: Alright, UFC 132 next weekend, a close associate of yours Urijah Faber is going to try and get the Bantamweight title and become a two division champion. Let me play devil's advocate, devil's advocate would say "Dominick Cruz first time got smashed, this time it's completely different. I think you could make a case that Faber would have a hard time getting a hold of him, Dominick's got footwork that's just too dangerous..." tell me why Urijah Faber wins.
Jon Jones: You know what, Urijah's my friend and business partner, and I'm definitely rooting for him to win. It'll be great for our business that we have that we're working together to have two champions involved with it. It'd be great because I'm a personal fan of Urijah but to be real and to be a martial artist I think it's gonna be a very tough fight for him. If I actually had to put my money on it I would think that Dominick Cruz would win the fight. He's been winning very impressively and he seems to be always improving, Urijah's last two fights haven't been finishes. My prayers will be going out to Urijah and I hope he does phenomenal, but Dominick Cruz is a tall order for everyone right now.