With practice winding down and sparring partners drifting toward the door, Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) light heavyweight titleholder Jon Jones stood alone on the mat, clad in boxing gloves and shin pads on a recent morning, scanning the room for his next victim.
Volunteers had become sparse, and for good reason. With his pay-per-view main event against challenger Glover Teixeira (22-2 mixed martial art, 5-0 UFC) on Saturday (Sunday in Manila) at UFC 172 in Baltimore (10 p.m. ET), Jones (19-1, 13-1) was kicking his training up a notch.
That meant five-minute rounds that felt like forever for the man on the receiving end of his long jab. It meant body shots and leg kicks that sent teammates scattering. Whatever novelty there might be in trading blows with the pound-for-pound best MMA fighter in the world, it tends to wear off after a few left hooks to the liver.
Jones solved the problem by calling out his own partners, by name, across the crowded floor of the Jackson-Winkeljohn gym in Albuquerque so there could be no skulking away without losing face. It assured him of having a warm body to thump on once the next round started. And the round after that.
It wasn’t like this for his last title defense against Alexander Gustafsson in September. Which, to hear his coaches tell it, might be why that fight turned out to be the toughest of his career, a bloody five-round battle that Jones narrowly won via unanimous decision.
According to coach Greg Jackson, who’s worked with Jones since 2009, there is a stark difference between this training camp and the last. Jones is working much harder this time, Jackson says, partly because he got a painful reminder that he’s not as invincible as he thought.
“I think everybody has to go through that time, because it’s hard,” Jackson says.
“Everybody tells you how great you are all the time and you have a pretty easy run of it, [and]it’s hard not to [believe it.]He had to learn that lesson.”
He’ll get no argument from Jones, who admits he took Gustafsson too lightly. After becoming the youngest UFC champ in history at 23 in taking the 205-pound title from Mauricio Rua, Jones defended it five consecutive times with relative ease. He was heavily favored against Gustafsson, but instead found himself in a desperate struggle that landed him in the hospital after the win.
Now that it’s over, maybe that wasn’t such a bad thing.
“That fight, it lit the fire under me that I really needed,” Jones says. “I don’t like to make excuses, but I definitely think I’ve been more committed to other performances in the past. I could have been more committed to that fight, and I learned from that. I learned not to look past anybody.”
That’s been bad news for Jones’ sparring partners, and worse news for Teixeira. The Brazilian slugger, 34, is a 4-1 underdog heading into the fight, and his best hope seems to be in his powerful right hand.
Jones admits Teixeira hits hard.
“But I’ve fought guys who hit hard before,” he says.
This time, at least, you can bet the champion won’t show up unprepared.