(A condensed version of this story appeared in today’s edition of USA TODAY.)
The way Jon Jones remembers it, he realized he could be something special three months into his pro career. That’s when he beat a fighter by the name of Parker Porter at a small mixed martial arts event in Wilmington, Mass., in June 2008.
“It was the most powerful I had ever been,” said Jones (19-1 MMA, 11-1 UFC), who on Saturday defends his UFC light heavyweight title against Chael Sonnen at UFC 159 in Newark, N.J. “I remember the fight perfectly to this day.”
So does Porter, who admitted he knew very little about Jones when he first accepted the fight. Few people did outside of some amateur wrestling aficionados in upstate New York, where Jones lived and trained.
In the opening minute of their bout, Porter, who’d come down from heavyweight for the fight, received a rough introduction.
“He caught me flush,” Porter told MMAjunkie.com (www.mmajunkie.com). “I’d never been hit that hard in my life, not even by heavyweights.”
Two months later, Jones was fighting in the UFC. Three years after that, he became the youngest champion in UFC history, and now is preparing for his fifth consecutive title defense. Not bad for a fighter who took up MMA out of financial necessity after his longtime girlfriend, Jessie Moses, became pregnant with the couple’s first child when Jones was 20 years old.
That’s also the reason Jones got off to such a fast start, fighting nearly every single weekend in his first month after turning pro in April 2008.
“I was just really determined because I had a kid on the way,” said Jones. “I wanted to try and be established by the time my first child was born.”
His early trainers warned him that money and success came slowly for fighters just starting out, he said, “but I just refused to listen to that. I knew you could make it to the UFC if you got a few solid wins under your belt.”
According to Jones’ trainer, Greg Jackson, that’s “a beautiful example of why fighters need to be optimists at heart.” Sure, for most of us professional cagefighting is not a great way to make a lot of money in a short amount of time. If our ability to pay rent depended on our ability to beat other trained professionals in an MMA fight, a lot of us would soon be homeless. But according to Jackson, the fact that Jones was so willing to commit himself so early on only demonstrates that there’s more than physical ability alone to account for his success.
“As far as fighting goes, he’s definitely the whole package,” Jackson said. “He’s smart, he’s creative, he’s unorthodox but can fight orthodox if he needs to, and he’s fearless in there. He believes. That’s all the crucial ingredients to a fighter.”
Jones had them, even if he didn’t know it right away. He also didn’t know just how soon he would become an MMA superstar, and neither did the local fighters he faced in those first few months.
That takes some of the sting off the losses now, though it didn’t initially make it easier to deal with for guys like Ryan Verrett, who was knocked out by Jones in a USFL bout in May of 2008.
“Do I feel bad about it now? No,” Verrett said. “Did I think the world was over then? Yeah. But it makes me feel good that I got to be a little part of history there. It’s like being able to say, I fought [Muhammad] Ali or [Joe] Frazier or Joe Louis.”
Verrett, who has since retired from MMA competition, had never been knocked out before his fight with Jones. “In all the training and fighting I did, everything, it never happened.” The way he remembers it, Jones saw him dropping his right hand and caught him just right with a punch that dropped him.
“He started celebrating as I was falling,” Verrett said. “I had enough to get back up and try and fight, but I heard his corner say, ‘He’s getting up!’ He just turned around and finished me off.”
It was a shock for Verrett, who said his manager had accepted the bout back when Jones had a 1-0 record and not much MMA experience to speak of. “But between the time we signed the contract to me getting in the ring with him, he had several more fights,” Verrett said. “I had no clue who he was.”
It was also once he saw what Jones became that the loss no longer seemed so bad, Verrett said. At first he wondered how he could have been so easily dispatched by some nobody newcomer, but now?
“I can say that I fought the best fighter in the world,” he said. “It changed me because I can look at other fighters and gauge them. I’ve seen the worst and the best.”
It was the same for Porter, the man who inadvertently reassured Jones that his career choice was the right one. The loss to Jones was the first of his career, and it hurt, he said.
“After I saw him make pretty short work of Ryan Bader, at that point I thought, ‘OK, it’s not so bad to lose to that guy,’” Porter said. “I feel like almost anybody who’s ever fought Jon can look back and say, ‘That one doesn’t really count.’ Jon Jones is just on a completely different level.”
It might help him to know that even Jones felt that way, at least about that one fight. When it was over, he said, one of the commentators asked him what was next. A fan in the crowd answered the question before Jones could, he said, screaming out, “UFC!”
“That moment did it for me,” Jones said. “I started believing that I could be there from that point on.”
Five years later, he’s still here.
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