The brightest phrase in sports begins to blink near his name. With his eighth title defense against Daniel Cormier, light-heavyweight champ Jon Jones can feel the halo of “Greatest of all Time” half-formed and flashing in the lights of the press.

“It’s so feasible; it is so attainable…and I do believe that 2015 will be the year I solidify it,” said Jones of being GOAT at last night’s post-fight press conference. When baited to compare himself to Anderson Silva, Jones claimed that although he needs to enshrine Silva as “the greatest” to keep himself honest, he believes that he holds the “toughest resume” in the sport. He’s not wrong there. Silva has had some iron-ore competition, namely Vitor Belfort and Dan Henderson, but his list of conquered names can’t par with that of Jones, which is littered with hall of fame worthy titans (in fact, the first four of Jones’ title defenses were against former champions). Dana White has often said that the LHW is the UFC’s strongest division, so to jump ahead and give Jones Silva’s GOAT title may not be too hot-handed at this point. For the UFC, that’’s surely an incredible corollary: the greatest of all time is 27 years old and his sun is still high above the horizon.

Of course, that grand title doesn’t have as much heft as we hypers like to think, given how “all time,” in this case, refers only to the twenty or so years that the UFC has existed. Even so, several commentators (Ariel Helwani for one) were framing last night’s fight with Cormier as an Ali-Frazier moment (notice that this was before the fight happened; how we love to take out loans on glory).

There are several reasons for this parallel (in fact there’s a vestigial race-related reason that I might explore), but, naturally, the most obvious is that, like Frazier, Cormier posed for Jones a challenge not only to his title but to his persona. Like Frazier, Cormier signified a promise to wipe the belt clear of a controversial personality, as UFC 182’s most salient selling point (memorably rendered in the “Bad Blood” promos) was the casting of Cormier as the ethical favorite, as the honest professional vis-à-vis the two-faced kid (Jones’s “fakeness” has long been a source of controversy for UFC fans).

But now we’re beginning to touch on the discrepancy of the Ali-Frazier comparison, and it’s not just because, looking back, it’s clear that Jones-Cormier wasn’t that caliber of a fight; rather, it’s because Jones doesn’t carry the same caliber of controversy as boxing’s “Greatest.”

Saying that Jones is anything at all like Ali is a strain, and knowing why is key to understanding why so many people dislike MMA’s GOAT.

I’ve always said that people get invested in the sport for the same reason they get invested in cinema: for the narrative. A good fight can last three rounds. A good story can last three millennia. It’s the stories that get people hooked long-term, not flash-in-the-pan action. And so far, despite all his success and talent, Jones hasn’t given us a good story. Who is he? What does he stand for? What are his values? Why should we cheer for him? While Ali was controversial because of his stances on religion, civil rights, and the Vietnam War, Jones is controversial because of a DUI, fight dodging, and bad PR. Sure, like Jones, Ali also suffered flak for his swagger and ego, but in the end he was still vested with goals, goals that made him vulnerable, goals that would bring him defeats that he could surge from–his life suddenly enhanced with a dramatic structure of rises and falls.

Jon Jones, by comparison, is little else than a winner. He has no goals we know of, nil to overcome. His greatness is vault-stored in statistics that won’t transcend the octagon. And until he loses or faces some important form of adversity (that’s made public), it will be difficult for him to become interesting as a character of culture. Ali isn’t so beloved nowadays because he triumphed over fighters (if that were the only reason then there’d be more documentaries about Sugar Ray Robinson and Rocky Marciano); he’s beloved because he triumphed over defeats.

So the final nail-down is that the Ali-Jones comparison should be null for now. All that’s left for me is to be bold and suggest how Jones’ problem of image can be fixed.

If there’s one thing the discerning viewer could take away from UFC 182 and all its trappings it’s that Jon Jones is aware of his lukewarm popularity. With his t-shirt tossing during the weigh-in and his walk through the stands during the event, he almost seems insecure about it, trying to go out of his way to placate the people. But, all this bread & circus won’t win Jones the fans he wants. That Jones seems fake is a powerful accusation for a reason: it’s correct.

Jones does seem fake, but it’s not for the reason everyone thinks (his media presence or his praising God, etc.). It’s because it’s hard to peel human authenticity away from struggle. Jon Jones never projects struggle. We never see him lose. We never see him as a vulnerable man, which makes him seem dishonest, makes him seem guarded, because we know he’s human and thus has to be struggling at something. If Jones really wants to be seen as “The Greatest,” he needs to show us what he can lose and what he can overcome.

 

About The Author

Paul French
Staff Writer

Paul French is a martial arts enthusiast currently residing in Cloudcroft, N.M. He's the former Managing Editor for the literary magazine, Puerto del Sol, and has had poetry published in Word Riot, Harpur Palate and Slipstream. Paul has trained in Karate, Muay Thai, Taekwondo and Jiu-Jitsu.