With his recent apprehensions about a rematch with Lyoto Machida and the Twitter war beatdown he suffered at the hands of Chael P. Sonnen, it’s safe to say it hasn’t been a fun week for Jon Jones’ PR advisors. (Jones’s longtime publicist John Fuller actually resigned earlier this week; make of that what you will.) The familiar critiques of Jones being cocky and arrogant have once again intensified leading up to his next title defense against Dan Henderson. Of course, Jon Jones isn’t the first combat sports athlete to suffer these criticisms, despite arguably possessing the skill set to justify his conspicuous confidence. Before him, there was another young, brash, cocky, black fighter – black athletes being historically stereotyped and criticized as cocky and disrespectful by some inane, unwritten code of sporting ethics – who also had to suffer criticisms of arrogance: Muhammad Ali.
Perhaps it is because of their similarities that Jones has attempted to model himself after Ali, or at least inspire comparisons between the two. Perhaps he looks at how people perceived Ali when he fought, and feels that if he evokes the aura of Ali he will eventually be absolved of the criticisms he faces today. After all, when we look at Ali now, we say he was “confident” rather than “cocky” – that his accomplishments in the ring ultimately justified his persona. Jones has accomplished such a startling amount in such a short time, but his accomplishments are somehow not yet considered sufficient to justify his ego. Why the disparity? In short, Ali wasn’t just brash and cocky – he was a man of absolute moral conviction. If Jon Jones wants to stifle his critics, he must cultivate that aura of conviction, that willingness to sacrifice convenience for the sake of some higher goal. So far, he hasn’t been able to do that.
It’s odd to say that, given that Jones is a fighter who has undergone extensive training and laborious hardships, and has legitimately become one of the greatest fighters in history. If he beats Dan Henderson, he will probably become MMA’s greatest light-heavyweight of all time. At his age and given that division’s history, that’s extraordinary. But the sacrifices and conviction I’m referring to go beyond the Octagon or the gym. Ali was a spokesman for the civil rights movement at a time of enormous political and racial divisiveness. He became a Muslim despite the negative perception of Islam in America. He was one of the earliest public figures to oppose the Vietnam War. Refusing to get drafted, he was stripped of his title and was unable to fight – in his prime, no less – for four years.
Ali was cocky, sure, but he was his own man. He did what he thought was right, no matter what the consequences were. He wasn’t perfect – just ask Joe Frazier – but you had to respect him. In contrast, could you imagine Jon Jones protesting American militarism? Speaking out on controversial social issues? The point isn’t that Jones has to do any of these things to earn approval; it’s that he would never even consider doing them. He’d risk becoming a less marketable commodity. He’d risk making less money.
That’s not inherently a bad thing. When Jones says things like he doesn’t want to fight Lyoto Machida because he didn’t make that much money fighting him the last time, or he doesn’t want to fight Anderson Silva because of the financial implications for the loser’s career, he’s making a legitimate point. As a fighter, he has a very finite amount of time to accumulate an amount of wealth that will last him the rest of his life, so it’s imperative he uses that time wisely. You can’t fault a fighter – or anyone, really – for making smart financial decisions.
Of course, it’s somewhat absurd to complain about your financial well-being when you buy a $250,000 Bentley and proceed to wreck it doing the (illegal) thing you said you would never do. Which is what irks people about Jones – what he says comes off as disingenuous, or at least hollow. He’ll say what he thinks he should say to make him more marketable. When, on his Twitter, he describes himself as “Fighting toward Greatness” and asks “Will YOU be a witness?” it sounds more like an extension of the UFC’s “Greatness Is” marketing campaign (which, incidentally, began prior to the Jones-headlined UFC 145) and a rip-off of LeBron James’ “Witness” campaign than anything else. (And don’t forget that “stare into the sunset” pose he struck during staredowns, before Rampage put an end to it.) His every action seems like a ploy to build his brand. Jones is the ultimate company man – not in the sense of someone like Frank Mir, who will take any fight Joe Silva or Dana White tell him to, but in the sense that he seems designed to be the ultimate corporate icon.
But unlike the other UFC prototypical poster boy, Georges St. Pierre, Jones has the arrogance of a man of conviction to rival Ali. It’s in attempting to straddle the line between being a cocky, brash champion in the mold of Ali while streamlining his image explicitly to suit his “corporate wage masters,” as Sonnen might put it, that he falters and alienates people. His arrogance comes off as superficial – not because he isn’t a dominant fighter who has earned it, but because he prioritizes the whims of his company over his own desires.
Or maybe Jones doesn’t really have any desires beyond being a company man, and getting paid for it. Much to the chagrin of MMA fans, there’s nothing wrong with that. The fight business is just that – a business. But by in seeking to draw comparisons to Ali, in aspiring to be something greater than a fighter, Jones opens himself up to the criticism that he receives when he routinely fails to measure up to his own lofty proclamations. He appears disingenuous and artificial. If you’re claiming that’s unfair, it’s not. Like most of the criticisms directed against him, Jon Jones brings this upon himself.
All of this isn’t to say the Jones needs to change his ways. What he’s done has worked out for him fairly well so far, don’t you think? He’s already one of the greatest fighters in the sport’s history, and he’s only 25. Even if he did come off as honest, he’d still probably have to deal with critics who resent the fact that a young, bold, black athlete has had so much success. But at the same time, those who dismiss Jones’ critics as simply being jealous aren’t right, either. There’s a palpable dissonance between the image Jones wants to project as a transcendental figure in combat sports in the mold of Muhammad Ali, and that this image seems more like a brand contrived to bolster his appeal to the UFC audience and make him more money. Ali wasn’t a company man, he was his own man. Whether Jones truly wants to follow in his footsteps and aspire to true “Greatness,” or is content with conforming to the system, getting paid and being one of the best fighters of all time – as odd as that sounds – is up to him.