From catching a thief to making UFC history: Memories of Jon Jones’ light heavyweight reign


The UFC’s light heavyweight title will be up for grabs Saturday, and Jon Jones‘ only involvement will be on social media.

Dominick Reyes and Jan Blachowicz will vie for the title that Jones vacated in August, when he announced that he is moving to heavyweight. Reyes-Blachowicz will be the co-main event of UFC 253, preceding Israel Adesanya‘s middleweight title defense against Paulo Costa.

Jones is widely considered the greatest martial artist in history, and he reigned over the light heavyweight division for the better part of the past decade. He won’t be in the Octagon, but his legacy will never be far away from this title.

ESPN’s expert panel of Ariel Helwani, Brett Okamoto, Marc Raimondi, Jeff Wagenheim and Phil Murphy recount their favorite memories of Jones, both from inside and outside the Octagon, during his light heavyweight reign.

A star was born

Helwani: I don’t think Jon Jones’ stock has ever been higher than it was on March 28, 2011. That night in Newark, New Jersey, a 23-year-old Jones beat MMA great Mauricio “Shogun” Rua for the UFC light heavyweight title, and in doing so, he became the youngest UFC champion ever, a record that still stands. It was a sublime, dominant performance, and it capped an incredible six-week stretch for Jones, during which he beat the previously undefeated Ryan Bader at UFC 126, got offered the title fight in the cage during the postfight interview and beat Rua at UFC 128 the following month.

What made the day even more special was the fact that while Jones and his team were on their way to meditate earlier that day, he said he noticed an older woman getting robbed, and he chased down the man, caught him and detained him until the cops arrived. I remember Jones telling that story at the postfight news conference that night and thinking, “This guy is a promoter’s dream. He caught a criminal and made history in one day?! Wow. A star has been born.”

The following week, Jones was talked about on “Good Morning America” — long before that kind of coverage was the norm for the UFC — and it seemed like the UFC had the perfect new face of the company on its hands: young, talented, athletic family … it was magical stuff.

Of course, that shine began to rub off a year later, when Jones crashed his Bentley into a pole, but on that night in Newark, it seemed like the beginning of the type of storybook career all fighters dream of experiencing.

A memorable finish

Murphy: The most visibly stunning result during Jones’ early reign as champion was his standing guillotine win over Lyoto Machida at UFC 140 in Toronto.

Machida was the most complete striker the 24-year-old Jones had faced to that point. Jones said Machida was one of the most intimidating guys he fought, and Machida had success countering Jon’s kicks with well-timed, well-placed punches. Early in the second round, Jones faked a kick and threw an overhand left as Machida lunged forward. Machida went down.

Jones then cinched a viciously tight front headlock on the upright but wobbled Machida, who refused to tap. Referee John McCarthy was on the spot, stopping the fight and prying Jones from his opponent’s neck, though Machida was already out cold. Not that there was much remaining doubt, but an unconscious Machida folding against the fence and mat emphasized that the tall, skinny fighter from upstate New York was an unprecedented problem at light heavyweight, and that sequence is still played on event-opening montages. “I answered a lot of questions for a lot of people and myself the night I beat Lyoto Machida,” Jones told “It meant a lot to me.”

Taking nothing for granted

Okamoto: To this day, UFC president Dana White likes to bring up Jones’ win over Alexander Gustafsson on Sept. 21, 2013, as an example of why fans and media should never dismiss a fight before it happens. Although I think dismissing a fight — or game or match or whatever — before it happens is a normal inevitability in sports, I don’t blame White for constantly going to the well with this one.

The fact is, at the time, everyone did dismiss this fight. Jones was in the middle of arguably the most dominant chapter of his career, taking out established names such as “Shogun,” Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, Machida, Rashad Evans and Vitor Belfort. For the first time in Jones’ title reign, it seemed like he was defending the belt against “just some guy,” if that makes sense. He wasn’t fighting a legend. He was fighting some tall dude from Sweden.

I’ll never forget the UFC 165 poster, which included the tagline “Greatness Within Reach.” It was a nod to the fact that Gustafsson had … a long reach. That was the best the UFC could do to hype the fight: You might not be familiar with this guy, but he has long arms. You know, like Jon!

But of course, once the fight started, we all recognized that Jones was in for a real fight. I’ll say this: The spinning elbow Jones landed in the fourth round of that fight remains the most important strike of his career. That elbow won him the fight, and it was the epitome of his toughness and skill. I think it is actually the definitive moment of his career.

When friends became enemies

Raimondi: The talk about teammates fighting each other has been trendy these days. Well, long before Jorge Masvidal vs. Colby Covington and Kamaru Usman vs. Gilbert Burns, there was Jon Jones vs. Rashad Evans — a rivalry that changed the MMA landscape.

Jones and Evans were teammates at JacksonWink MMA in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Evans, a former UFC light heavyweight champion, was the veteran, a mentor figure for young Jones, who was considered the greatest prospect in the sport’s history. The two were training partners and friends.

In March 2011, Evans was supposed to challenge “Shogun” for the 205-pound title. But Evans got hurt, and Jones was granted a chance at the belt at UFC 128. He won, becoming the youngest UFC champion ever at 23 years old, a record that still stands. After winning the title, Jones said he’d be willing to defend the gold against Evans if that were what the UFC wanted.

That didn’t sit well with Evans. Before then, he and Jones had vowed to never fight each other. Seeing the writing on the wall, Evans left JacksonWink and formed his own team in South Florida — with agent Glenn Robinson — called the Blackzilians. That was the origin of the camp now called Sanford MMA, which is one of the best in mixed martial arts.

With his new group in his corner, Evans beat Phil Davis and Tito Ortiz to set up the grudge match with Jones at UFC 145 on April 21, 2012, in Atlanta. Jones vs. Evans had everything: great storylines centered on former friends facing each other and a bout featuring incredible skill and technique.

Jones won via unanimous decision for his third title defense. The bout — and everything leading up to it — remains one of Jones’ most memorable to date.

Chasing planes and stories

Wagenheim: Jon Jones was stretched out across a row of seats on a bustling Sunday morning, totally unrecognized at the Toronto airport because he was lying there facing the wall, asleep. The only reason I noticed him was because I knew it was his gate. The only reason I approached him was because he looked different from what I was expecting.

Jones had fought at Air Canada Centre the night before, Sept. 22, 2012, at UFC 152 against Vitor Belfort. Along the way to notching his fourth title defense, the UFC light heavyweight champion had fended off a Belfort armbar — the most dangerous moment in Jones’ career — and his right arm had taken the worst of it. Jones showed up at the postfight news conference in a sling, and the UFC announced that he was headed to the hospital for an X-ray.

I covered the fight and, after a short night’s sleep, was at the airport on my way home. As I walked toward my gate, I passed the gate for a flight to Baltimore. That’s where Jones was headed, it occurred to me, because the Ravens were hosting the New England Patriots in that night’s prime-time NFL game. Jones’ older brother, Arthur, was a defensive tackle for Baltimore, and his younger brother, Chandler, was a rookie defensive end for the Pats. Maybe Jones is here now, I thought, and I can find out how the arm is doing.

Sure enough, there was Jones, all 6-foot-4 of him, sprawled out in a corner — with his arm not in a sling. Now I had to ask him for a health update. Rather than wake the man, I decided to let him rest until his boarding announcement.

When the announcement came, however, Jones did not stir. Other folks in the waiting area gathered their things, lined up and boarded the plane. Jones remained asleep right through the final call for passengers.

It was now or never to make a move.

“Jon. Jon,” I said as I leaned near him, careful not to touch the injured arm. “Jon, your flight.”

Jones opened his eyes, startled. If he recognized me from an interview or two we’d done over the years, I couldn’t tell. He just murmured, “Thanks, man,” and started to get up.

“Hey, Jon,” I said, “since you would have missed your flight and your brothers’ game if not for me, can you give me just half a minute before you board? Can I ask you about your arm?”

Jones nodded, and we conducted a 30-second interview. It was all the time I needed to learn that he hadn’t gone to the hospital, that he might get an X-ray in Baltimore and that the fear of nerve damage he spoke of at the news conference might have been premature. I had a news story, and I had Jones’ appreciation.

“Thanks for waking me,” he said, reaching out to shake my hand — with his left.

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