TORONTO – He's won world title fights in the most spectacular fashion imaginable against some of the meanest, nastiest, baddest men in the world.
Jon Jones has, at 25, and in a little more than a year as the UFC's light heavyweight champion, established himself as one of the elite fighters in mixed martial arts history.
He hasn't hit so much as a speed bump in his career in the cage.
Thursday, though, had the potential to be a career-defining day for him. This was the day when he would finally face the public and would be forced to answer the question that has been the biggest story in the sport for the last month.
On Aug. 23, Jones opted not to fight Chael Sonnen in the main event of UFC 151 when original opponent Dan Henderson injured a knee. No sort of finagling, demanding, pleading, coddling or badgering by UFC chairman Lorenzo Fertitta or UFC president Dana White could force him to change his mind.
"I'm a huge fan of being prepared," Jones said. "I'm a gigantic fan of being prepared. I ultimately believe being prepared leads to making the fight look easy. You do your homework, you pass tests. It's as simple as that. To go back to the Chael Sonnen situation, I wouldn't have been able to do my homework and it wouldn't have been a smart decision."
So, Jones passed on the situation. When White couldn't find a suitable main event on just eight days' notice, he was forced to cancel the card at a cost of at least $20 million to the company.
White was irate and didn't hide that he placed most of the blame on Jones for the cancelation. The public sided definitively with White and painted Jones as the UFC's biggest heel.
Jones got his first real opportunity to plead his case on Thursday at the final news conference to promote his match on Saturday against Vitor Belfort at the Air Canada Center in the main event of UFC 152.
Over the past month, Jones was vilified as a selfish, egotistical phony who was out of touch with the people who helped him become rich and famous.
That person, though, was not present at the downtown sports bar where the UFC made the final push for ticket and pay-per-view sales for Saturday's card.
Jones came to the news conference needing to do something dramatic. What he did while sitting behind a microphone answering questions was every bit as dominant in its way as what he did while battering Mauricio "Shogun" Rua en route to taking the light heavyweight title at UFC 128.
Jones hit a massive grand slam at a time he needed one most.
Asked how he felt about fighting in Canada, Jones beamed that toothy grin of his and said, "Even if I get booed, I'm still happy to be here. I'm going to put on the best show I can for you guys, for sure."
He made his case logically and passionately. He was deferential when he needed to be, but he was far from a pushover.
White was missing, but his presence loomed large over the proceedings. The minute the news conference was opened for questions, Jones was put on the spot. He was asked to describe his relationship with White.
When he wants to be, Jones can be disarmingly charming. After he beat Rua at UFC 128, he delighted the crowd by animatedly describing the way he'd run down a mugger a few hours before the fight.
He used his story-telling ability Thursday to quickly cut the tension.
"I hate him," Jones said of White, feigning anger. "I hate him. Hate everything about him.”
He then folded his arms across his chest, leaned back in his seat and animatedly nodded his head.
A few seconds passed before he started to laugh and speak again.
"Nah, I'm joking, man," Jones said. "Dana White's awesome. You know, I've said before, Dana White is a passionate guy. … When he's upset with you, he's going to be passionate. I forgive Dana White for any insults he might have given me. I'm looking forward to talking to him and just moving forward.
"I've said this before, but me and Dana White are both ambassadors of this great sport. The two of us not being on the same page really makes no sense for anyone. I really want to get this sport as far as possible and get the word out, and I think working along with Dana and the UFC is a great way to do that.”
He related a story about how he'd struggled with everything that was thrown at him and how his girlfriend's mother told him to use adversity as an opportunity to grow.
"Right now, I'm on top of a lot of things,” Jones said. “I'm doing a great job as a parent, a great job in my business and I'm doing really well with my performances, training really smart and everything.
“I believe I've grown from all of it and I appreciate all the curveballs life has thrown me."
Jones, though, wasn't a pushover. He didn't apologize meekly, and he pushed back at White and Fertitta several times, albeit respectfully.
He apologized to those who purchased tickets to UFC 151 in Las Vegas, many of whom had non-refundable airfare and so were forced to fly to Las Vegas with no fight to see. But he never wavered from the "I did the best thing for my career," position.
"I'm hoping that at the end of the day, the fans start to open up their minds about the situation and realize that I'm not a UFC executive," Jones said. "I have absolutely zero power to cancel an event.
"At the end of the day, being a world champion, I've dedicated my whole life to this.”
He was honest and said he wasn't sure if he'd have taken the fight even if White and Fertitta had told him they'd cancel the card if he did not.
He made light of Sonnen and noted he didn't feel Sonnen has knockout power and was a less-threatening opponent than Belfort. Jones said he could defend a double-leg takedown, in a nod to Sonnen's success against middleweight champion Anderson Silva.
But he wouldn't take the blame for the cancelation of the show or for his decision.
He said he hoped he helped make his fellow fighters aware that they have rights. While he didn't say so directly, he was intimating that he proved a fighter could stand up to White, refuse to be bullied and still have a viable career in the UFC.
"Being the champion, it means more to me than any fan," Jones said. "It means more to me than it means to Dana White. If I would have somehow lost that fight, Dana wouldn't have lost a night of sleep over it. Life would have gone on. … Ultimately, why wasn't it a good enough card? Why wasn't it a great card? Why did it have to get canceled? I watch bar fights. I love fights, no matter what level it is.
"I think it was more of an insult to the other fighters on the card that, pretty much it was like saying they weren't good enough to host the card without me and Dan Henderson. I think that was more of an offensive thing. They should be mad at the superiors, not me."
Whether Jones did enough to win back the favor of the fans is a question only time can answer.
Jones, though, did a brilliant job of advancing his cause on Thursday. He positioned himself as a charming innocent who had the wherewithal to refuse to be bullied.
Unquestionably, skeptics will remain. And should he lose on Saturday, there will be a portion of the fan base that celebrates.
But needing something dramatic to repair his image, Jones belted it out of the park.
If he beats Belfort on Saturday, he's going to leave Canada with not one, but two major wins under his belt.
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