Marcus Jones is one of four ex-NFL players to join season ten of “The Ultimate Fighter” on Spike TV. A first-round draft pick with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Jones had the most prolific pro football career among all the ex-ballers vying a for a spot on the UFC’s heavyweight roster, but he didn’t pick up MMA until after his playing days were over. Now he’s 36 years old and is 4-1 as a pro, trying to prove to himself and others that he has what it takes to hang with UFC fighters.
Of all the former NFL players I spoke to for an SI.com feature that will run later today, Jones had the most unusual story about how he first got started in MMA, but he also admitted that it was probably a good thing that it took him so long to get into MMA, even if it put him behind some of his peers in the TUF house.
You were a defensive end with Tampa Bay after playing at the University of North Carolina. Tell me a little about your path through football and how you got into MMA.
Well, I played football from Pop Warner through high school and then into college. After college I got drafted by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and I played there my whole career. I played in the league six years, but they gave me credit for seven because I was on the squad for my last year.
And how did you first start training in MMA?
I’ll tell you, but you have to promise not to laugh.
I can’t promise that.
Okay, fine. Each year me and my best friends from college, we’d get together and have a little ‘man-cation,’ you know. We’d go, get away from the families, drink a couple beers, and then go home after a few days. It’s a fun thing that our families let us do every single year. I think this was maybe two years ago, in March, before I started MMA. We were sitting around, drinking, and we all kind of said, ‘Hey, let’s do some of that MMA stuff that you see on TV, like the UFC and stuff.’
So all three of us being very drunk, we decided to move the furniture up against the wall and make space in the middle of the room. At first we were just doing ground stuff, and we didn’t know how to do anything. You see it on TV and you think you know how to do it, but we didn’t know how to do any of this stuff. Finally, one of my friends suggested that we do some stand-up. He was taking Kempo at the time, only he didn’t tell us that. But he’s like, ‘Let’s throw punches and strikes and stuff.’ I was kind of like, okay, but, really?
So we start doing stand-up and I didn’t even really know how to hold my hands or anything. He catches me with an uppercut and then does a double-leg takedown and slams me into the cabinet and chairs. My ego was kind of hurt, but I was also thinking, that was kind of awesome. I mean, it hurt, but I didn’t die from it or anything. So the next day when I went back home I called up a guy I knew who did MMA in Tampa and I said, ‘Hey, my friend just beat me up and I need to learn something so I can get revenge.’ He told me to come on in and he’d give me the first week for free. I went in and my first day I got choked out with a north-south choke, and I just fell in love with jiu-jitsu.
How long after that did you start actually competing in MMA?
I trained for the next five months in jiu-jitsu, and then I said I was interested in having a fight. At the time I knew an Americana, a kimura, and how to take somebody down. That’s all I knew. My teacher said, ‘That’s enough if you’ll stick to the gameplan.’ I went in and I fought and I won and, I’ll tell you, getting your hand raised after winning a fight, that’s a very addictive thing, brother.
Does that make you wish you could have started earlier?
Yeah. I really wish I had gotten into it earlier, but at the same time, back when I was playing football there were never really any places that were offering mixed martial arts. It was always karate and stuff when I was growing up. I mean, I’m an older guy, but that’s what there was, just karate schools and stuff. Then I saw Royce Gracie and that cat amazed me. I remember watching him going up against these bigger guys and I always thought that if I had the chance I would love to be a bigger Royce Gracie.
You’re 36 years-old now, which is a little older than most guys who are just starting out in this sport and older than most guys who end up on TUF. Where do you see yourself going with this?
Realistically speaking, I started doing it just because I wanted to see what it was like. But honestly, once I got in the cage and won my first couple fights, I got addicted. It’s one of those things that becomes a lifestyle change. I can’t really put into words what it gives me to train every day and have that to look forward to. For me, I never really was all that in love with football once I left college. Once you get out of college, football, the essence of the sport itself, changes. You go from this feeling of honor to represent your school, your state, the people you grew up with, and then you go to the pros and it’s a job that’s all about money.
With MMA, it always has that honor to it. You’re not only representing yourself, but the school you train at and the guys you train with. For me, since I was infatuated with it ever since I first saw Royce Gracie and those guys in the early days, it was easy to transition into it. I know I started late and there’s a lot of aspects of the sport that I haven’t had the chance to pick up, but I think if I keep going to different places and learning new things, I can be a dominant force in MMA. Most guys don’t have their first fight five months after they start training, especially as a heavyweight. But me, I had my first fight literally five months after throwing my first punch. It was weird.
Do you think football helped prepare you to be a fighter, or is the feeling of playing on a team just too different from the feeling of going into a fight alone?
I actually think that one of the best sports that can prepare you mentally for this is track and field. The reason why I say this is that it’s all about you once you get in the cage. When you’re playing football there’s an offense and a defense and special teams, and you can be a decent player on a really good team and have a lot of success. But in MMA, you’re the offense, the defense, and the special teams. You have to get used to that. It’s all on you. You have to have some kind of ego, but you also have to be humble. In MMA you can feel like you’re on top of the world one day and then some guy comes in and trains you and he’ll beat the dog crap out of you. That helps to humble you.
Physically, which sport do you think is harder on your body?
Well, I think for me it’s a little different. Since I played football at such a high level and for so many years, I had a lot of injuries and they still bother me when I’m doing MMA. I think the potential for little injuries is honestly greater in MMA. There’s always something hurting on you in MMA. It seems like you always have a black eye or your teeth are a little loose. There’s never a time when I’ve gone into a fight 100% healthy. There’s always something wrong. Everybody deals with that.
Do you wish you had had some fight training to use while you were playing in the NFL?
Honestly, I’m thankful that I learned MMA once I got done playing football and not while I was playing. When you’re on a football team, there’s a lot that you take in from the other players. There’s a lot of super egos on teams that you’re always dealing with. I feel like if I would have known then what I know now, I would have gotten in trouble, man. There might have been a lot more locker room fights, maybe some dudes getting choked out.
What was it like for you to live in the “Ultimate Fighter” house and train with these other guys who have been at this sport for years?
It was a humbling experience. You had guys with a ton of experience, like [James] McSweeney, who had over 100 kickboxing fights. There’s Roy Nelson, who was an IFL champ. There were literally like five guys in the house who had belts in various organizations coming into this. I think it was probably the most skilled ground of guys overall that they’ve ever had on the show. Usually they’d have one or two guys who just dominated. But this season we had an IFL champ, a Victory Fighting champ, a Greco-Roman champ, I mean, the list goes on.
You have the opportunity to learn from these guys and it’s really humbling. At the same time it made me wonder, do I deserve to be here with these guys? I mean, who am I? I’m this old guy who got a stick up his butt and thinks he can do MMA, now he’s in here with all these champions. You feel inadequate, but you can’t let it get in your head.
After this experience, where do you see yourself in the future?
I see myself enjoying myself and doing this as long as my body allows me to. And I am enjoying it. It’s like, when you first touch that football and get that feeling like, I can’t wait to hit somebody, that one hit where the crowd goes ‘Ooooh!’ That’s what MMA is like every single time. That’s what I like.