If you want a reason to think that something is going on with Jon Jones, who is as likable as he is talented, you might do worse than to note that he's started referring to himself in the first-person plural. It isn't the third person, but it's still a tell.
Example: When does Jones, currently resting up the most famously injured hand in all of fighting, think his next bout will take place?
"I'm not really sure what timeline we're talking, but Dana White understands what's going on," he said the other day by telephone. "Everybody that we've gone to see has been doctors that he's recommended us, and he has all the facts and all the paperwork and all the scans and everything. So he knows exactly what's going on, and he'll throw us back in there when we're ready."
Another: How have things changed for Jones since winning the UFC light heavyweight title from Mauricio Rua in March?
"I'm traveling a lot more, and being used a lot more, which is really awesome," he said. "Right now there's a big hype around me and right now they're trying to take advantage of all the situations and opportunities that are out there and take advantage of this energy that's surrounding our careers, and that's what we're doing."
One doesn't want to make too much of a verbal tic, but all along the questions about Jones have had little to do with how good he is -- he clearly has the talent to surpass Anderson Silva, Georges St-Pierre and Fedor Emelianenko and mark a legacy as the best fighter we've seen -- and more to do with how he'll handle success. They remain open.
In the cage, Jones, 23, is a prodigy, longer and faster and stronger than anyone he's likely to come up against anytime soon. More than that, while he has been tagged, like many African-American athletes often are, as "athletic" and "explosive," his real strength might be a mental game refined under the hard tutelage of Greg Jackson and Mike Winkeljohn. I wasn't surprised when he was utterly bewildered when I asked him to confirm that he just can't train right now.
"I can run," he said. "I can study footage. I can go to jiu-jitsu classes and observe and learn and watch. I can study future opponents. I've been keeping a pretty heavy diary as far as new tactics and new set-ups and new ideas and new combinations, new ways of getting clean shots in. Martial arts is definitely a lifestyle, and it's not always based around being able to go and spar at a gym.
"Right now I study a lot of footage of potential opponents. I'm doing a lot shadowboxing as well. I really feel as if I'm growing mentally as a fighter and coming up with a lot of cool ideas of ways to fight people. It's kind of like new battle plans."
Jones' injury, which he describes as "extremely painful and extremely uncomfortable," is a thumb problem dating to his days as a college wrestler. It affects his grip strength and especially his grappling, given that any position where he has to catch his weight on his hands is where he feels it most. Traditionally, he simply gutted through it, sometimes wrestling tournaments with a wrapped hand, and then let it heal. After his title win over Rua, though, the injury looked to be something new and different. He had to have the gloves cut off his hand in the locker room after that bout, something that had never happened before. The injury was thought to be a broken bone, which caused him to withdraw from a planned title fight against former teammate Rashad Evans at UFC 133 on Aug. 6.
At first, the plan was to have the problem fixed through surgery, which UFC-approved doctors had indicated would likely be needed. As it turned, though, during a pre-operative evaluation the doctor who was scheduled to fix the problem said he thought surgery would be too invasive, considering the level of mobility in the thumb, Jones' ability to fight through pain and the likelihood that he would just jack up the surgical repairs anyway. (He is a fighter, not a banker.) The doctor counseled that resting it through June 11 would get Jones back to where he needs to be.
Naturally, this led to widespread confusion among fans, the media and even UFC insiders over why exactly Jones couldn't fight Evans. From June 11 to Aug. 6 is exactly eight weeks, after all, about the time of a normal camp. When his manager, Malki Kawa, made rounds through the press and on Twitter essentially explaining that eight weeks isn't eight weeks, the confusion grew.
Kawa was, actually, right: Jones will need time to get his hand back to full strength before entering a grueling camp. Even so, the word "fiasco" comes to mind, given the interesting conspiracy theories that arose. (One, for example, had Jones holding out from the Evans fight so as to get a percentage of the pay-per-view revenues his fights generate. He's had this, says Kawa, since even before he won the title.) Now Evans is gloating that Jones is ducking him, lending juice to a fight that isn't actually scheduled, and UFC officials are groaning and pouring themselves shots of the stiff stuff.
As a condition of talking to Jones, I was asked not to bring up Evans, which makes enough sense considering how embarrassing the hype over this non-fight has been. (On Twitter, Jones claimed that Evans texted him calling him a "white boy," which Evans denies; the two were also reported to have scrapped in a Las Vegas nightclub, though by all accounts this was overblown.) To be clear, though, no one who has any idea what they're talking about seriously thinks that Jones is ducking Evans. The issue is one of timing, something Jones addressed by implication without being asked.
"I know how much it would suck to get right back into a training camp with this hand," he said, "especially at the level that I'm training and the level of professional that I'm training for in each and every one of my fights. I don't want to compete with sore thighs, sore neck, sore abs and then a permanently sore hand. It's just not smart for myself to be in there injured."
In all, it's probably fair to say that Jones is going to need time to rehabilitate his hand before beginning a camp for a fight against Evans, and that his people would prefer he have a longer rather than a shorter camp to do so. It's also probably fair to say that UFC officials are pulling their hair out over all of this, but that they also respect Jones' appraisal of the kind of rest his body needs. In addition, they know they owe him one after Jones took his title fight against Rua on short notice. No one involved thinks that Jones is a fraud or a coward, and the ideal scenario is that he'll get healthy, Evans will beat Phil Davis in August and come out healthy, and that the two will then fight in the fall. There are a lot of variables there, but so it goes.
(In fairness to Jones, too, it should be noted that the UFC gave Evans the option of waiting on a title shot. He and his people chose to take the Davis bout because Evans hasn't fought since last May, he'd like to get paid and avoid ring rust, he's rightly a heavy favorite and there's no guarantee that Jones will be ready to fight in the fall. This isn't Jones' fault.)
That all of this has become a controversy, though, with fans accusing Jones of running scared from Evans, gets to the broad question of how he's handling his success. The "we" to whom he's referring when he speaks in the first-person plural includes not only Jackson and Winkeljohn, quite possibly the most impressive pair of trainers in the game, but also Kawa and Jennifer Wenk, who handles his public relations and formerly did the same for UFC. It's evident by the success he's had and the money he's making that Jones isn't being mismanaged. But it's also probably true that a defter touch from his team could have kept his image from taking unnecessary hits. This matters, because more than any other fighter, Jones has the potential to transcend the sport.
All of this aside, Jones is an athlete, not a commodity, and there is little reason to expect anything other than continued brilliance from him inside the cage. The nominal pretext for our interview was his nomination by UFC broadcast partner Spike TV for the "Most Dangerous Man" prize at its upcoming Guys Choice Awards. Jones is up against Manny Pacquiao, and while he isn't much of a boxing fan, he had a pretty interesting take on the great champion.
"I think it's really cool that he's the champion in different divisions," he said. "No matter what sport it is, to be a multiple time champion is always cool and always very respectable, so I respect Manny a lot for what he's been able to accomplish."
Does this mean that Jones is planning to do what Winkeljohn has suggested is inevitable, and move up to heavyweight?
"I think that's something that can happen in the future, for sure," he said. "I'm 23, and I plan on doing this for a long time. I can see myself being a heavyweight by the time I'm 27, 26, somewhere around there. So yeah, that's definitely something I wouldn't mind entertaining. It would be awesome."
For now, there is a light heavyweight title to defend. In a perfect world, Evans would come through unscathed against Davis, and then fight Jones for the title, possibly in November. If that doesn't work for whatever reason, Quinton Jackson -- if he comes through in his upcoming fight against Matt Hamill -- and Lyoto Machida are on tap as potential opponents. There is also always a fight against middleweight king Anderson Silva to dream on. Jones, unsurprisingly, has opinions on all three, whom he's probably assiduously scouting on film.
Jackson? "'Rampage,' I think, is a great guy. I think he's slowed down a little bit. Focusing on different ways of success like movies and things like that. I think that's fine, he's a smart businessman."
Machida? "A great fighter. He's a warrior, he's a role model. He's a champion in a lot of ways, and someone that I'll definitely fight in the future and I'm very aware of that. When the time comes, I'll be ready."
Silva? "I respect him a great deal and I don't think he gets the respect he deserves. I really admire him for what he's doing in our sport. He is a modern-day Bruce Lee, and he's defended his belt, I think, a record-breaking 12 times. I've modeled my career after him."
Whatever comes, Jones is readier than some of his press has had it to fight. Bad communication and bad timing is what it is, but there is no reason to question that the champion is looking to do what everyone expects him to do, and start on a title reign that, if everything goes perfectly, might end up being as impressive as that of the legendary Silva.
"I'm not taking the whole injury as crazy as the rest of the world," he said. "It seems like there's a lot more serious things going on out there, and everybody's worried about my thumb. It will heal, and it's healing already. I'll be back, and I'll be strong and continue my winning ways, and this will just be part of my past."