After enjoying what he described as an "awesome" 2019, UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones is excited for a 2020 that begins with Saturday's title defense against Dominick Reyes and could include a move up to heavyweight.
And Jones isn't looking to work his way up the heavyweight ladder. He's already eyeing a title challenge.
In an extended interview with Ariel Helwani prior to UFC 247's fight week, Jones discussed dealing with the mistakes of his past, his social media beef with Israel Adesanya and the criticism of his recent performances. He also revealed the fortuitous way he was introducted to mixed martial arts.
Editor's note: Answers have been edited for length and clarity.
HELWANI: The first time that I was ever in Albuquerque, sitting in front of you, it was February of 2011. You had just beat Ryan Bader, and you were about to fight for the (UFC light heavyweight) belt. Nine years ago. I'm just curious, who was that guy nine years ago, and what's the difference between that guy and this guy now at 32?
JONES: I've learned a lot, constantly growing and evolving as a father, as an athlete. Many more championships since then. I'm still here, and feeling great.
Deep down, did that guy think you would be that successful? People call you the GOAT, people call you one of the greatest ever. You're still at the top of your game. Did you think it would turn out like this or are you even surprised by how good of a fighter you've become?
Deep down inside, I did feel that I would be in the situation I'm in now, and I'm excited to see me 10 years from now. I believe I'll still be on top of the sport. I've always had a very strong conviction that I could be the greatest ever. And sure enough, it's just years of belief and hard work -- we're here.
As you said, you've learned a lot. There have been ups and there have been downs, but it seems like as of late, there has been a fairly consistent trend up. Do you feel like the storm is behind you?
I do feel like the storm is behind me. It has been an interesting journey, and I've learned so much, and I'm just grateful. I'm grateful to have had all the lessons that I've been able to learn. I'm grateful that God has kept me through all of it and just allowed me to grow so much through it all. I think my best days are definitely still ahead of me. I feel like I'm just now really getting into a nice groove of what it means to be a father and a professional athlete and a person with great responsibility. And I'm excited about this, and I feel like I'm stepping into it well.
How did you get on track? Was there a moment, was there a conversation, was there an epiphany that allowed you to try to stay on this positive track?
I just feel like I was maybe at a place where I felt like I was throwing a lot of greatness away. And I believe that talent ... it's a terrible thing to waste. I feel like these days, I just take more accountability for my actions and from my emotions and my circle and behaviors and things like that. And I think that's been the major difference -- just more accountability.
I remember talking to you in November of 2018 when you were in my studio. We had an extended extensive sit-down, and one thing that I thought was really interesting about that conversation was you were brutally honest about where you're at and what's to come. And I said to you like, "Oh, you know, maybe if you go 10 years without doing anything, you know, wrong, all that other stuff will be forgotten." You were like, "Ten years. That's a very long time." Do you remember that? Do you still feel the same way?
Yeah, you can never promise anything in life. You just never know what twists and turns life's gonna throw at you. But I do feel like I'm on a great track, and I'm excited to just continue to elevate and just be the best person that I can be and try to help as many people as I can help. I've never been more excited for my future. I'm really excited for my future. I see nothing but great things coming. I am my future.
Not that long ago, you were talking about superfights, big fights, things to get you excited. It seemed like you were sort of jonesing for a big fight, like a megafight, if you will. When you got the Dominick Reyes fight, was that initially a bit of a letdown? Was that not the superfight that you were looking for?
No, it wasn't a letdown. I mean, Dominick Reyes, he's a hell of an opponent. He's undefeated, he's extremely athletic, he believes in himself. He's knocked out almost everyone he's gone against. And in order to be the best ever, you got to take on all comers. And so, I'm excited for this challenge. And I know bigger fights are ahead of me, for sure. I'm only 32 years old. I'm trying to figure out new ways to just stay on top of my game and stay young and preserving myself better. I know megafights are inevitable. I just gotta be appreciative for where I am today.
When he beat Chris Weidman and made the comment about the party favors, was that almost like a good thing for you because then it made it personal and that kind of gave you a little bit of a push to want to beat this guy up?
No, it wasn't necessarily a good thing or a bad thing. It's just, it's something that's going to be tagged to my image and reputation maybe forever, and I'm OK with it. We all have our pasts, and that's what makes us [who] we are in the present.
So you're at peace with that?
Yeah, 100 percent. You know, I can't allow my past to hold weight over me. You've got to forgive yourself for mishaps in life, and you gotta move forward. You can't hold yourself in prisons, and you can't allow anybody else to hold yourself in prisons. If people are talking about things I did five years ago, that means I'm doing something right.
Was that always the case or was that just a part of your maturation process where you started to say, "I need to start letting go of the past?"
It wasn't always the case. It's taken a while for me to be able to be comfortable with some of the mistakes I've made and things like that. But I'm grateful that I am at a place where I'm comfortable with who I am, comfortable in my own skin. There's no good without bad, so I'm grateful, and I just feel good.
"I've obviously let the hard-partying side of myself go completely. It's been three years since I've done anything wild, like the way I used to be, and I'm really proud of myself about that."
When we spoke in November 2018, you told me that the previous summer, you had checked into like a trauma rehab center, dealing with the loss of your mother and also getting stripped (of the UFC light heavyweight title) and all that. And you actually told me that you were planning on doing it every summer. Did you do it last summer?
No, I didn't, just because I feel like I took a lot out of going into a trauma therapy center. I still carry the lessons that I've learned, and I didn't really feel a need. I feel great. I think I've faced a lot of the issues that I was going through and got a lot of it off my shoulder, and I just didn't feel like I needed it.
I knew you were very close to your mom. How often do you think about her and how big of a part of your life is trying to continue to do well in honor of her and try to make her proud?
My mom, Camille Jones, was an amazing woman, amazing Christian. She gave back to absolutely everyone. You know, her funeral was so epic because I got to watch maybe 10, 15 women stand up and talk about the way my mom helped them get off drugs or got them out of abusive relationships or just dropped off food or clothed their children, things like that. My mom's funeral was just so inspiring to me because I realized that my mom was a rock star. She was an absolute rock star. And in her own way, you know, and it -- it made me really kind of look at my platform out of a different lens, and I realized that I had the means and the ability to give back to so many people and to do so much for the world and make such a positive impact. And that's what I've gotten out of my mom's legacy is: What are you doing with your talents and your gifts? And so I definitely try to keep my mom in mind and through a lot of my actions and decisions, and I want to make her proud, for sure. I know that she has front-row seats at everything I'm doing, front-row seats at my events and everything, and I definitely want to make her proud, for sure.
When you told me back then that you weren't sober anymore, that you enjoy drinking and things like that, that was a big headline, because everyone's always wondering about your sobriety or what you're doing. Where does that stand right now?
Sobriety, I'm like 90 percent of the UFC roster, you know what I mean? Just your average guy. I'm a very normal person outside of being a steady fighter, I enjoy my weekends. I enjoy my family. I enjoy everything that everyone else is doing. I've obviously let the hard-partying side of myself go completely. It's been three years since I've done anything wild, like the way I used to be, and I'm really proud of myself about that. But outside of that, I'm just like everybody else. I have beers on the weekends, but I work really hard.
Do you cut it off before the fight at some point?
So like here we are a little over a week -- is that no more?
I got my traditions. You know, I do my thing. I like to enjoy myself. I think to earn a certain life and to deal with the level of pressure that I deal with, you got to have balance in life. So I do a really good job of working and planning and just being true to myself and making myself happy and making my family happy and my friends and the coaching staff and everybody feels good. I think it's important to feel good with what you're doing.
How would you describe 2019 for you?
2019 was tremendous. It was awesome. I got some great fights out of the way. I got to take on the first wave of this new generation of fighters. Anthony Smith, Thiago Santos, to finish Alexander Gustafsson. It was just great. I felt like I could have competed a little harder, and I would have liked to finish some fights, but I'm grateful for the wins against some young men that were doing really great, especially Thiago Santos. I mean, he has a hell of a record, great character, Christian guy, single dad, former military, gives back to his community. I mean, he would've made a tremendous champion. I think that's as tough as it's going to get, guys like him. I honestly think Thiago Santos is two, three times the opponent of Dominick Reyes is, to be honest with you. It was a great year. I'm very happy with myself and my team and what we were able to accomplish.
Some people were critical of that performance because you didn't finish him. Did you think that was unfair?
Yeah, it's unfair. Of course it's unfair, man. [Michael] Jordan didn't win every game? Kobe [Bryant] didn't win every game. They didn't make every throw. I'm winning consistently, and I'm not going to be incredibly impressive every time. It didn't bother me. I know how hard it is to do what I do. And like I said, Thiago was just, it was such a worthy opponent.
Is it important for you that when it's all said and done, people talk about your greatness first and not, "He was great, but ..." you know what I mean? Is that important to you to try to do as much as you can when you say "right those wrongs"?
Like I said, I don't allow myself to be held in prisons. I don't allow people to hold me in prisons. We all have our past, and I'm genuinely over the negative things that's happened in my life. I think through time, my good deeds and my work ethic and things like that, the wins and my impact are gonna far outweigh my early 20s.
Do you get nervous before the fights with all the picogram stuff and the pulsing? That's all behind you?
It's behind me. I hope the pulsing doesn't come back at all, and it's been scientifically proven that in no way, shape or form could it possibly affect my performances, and that's all I need to hear. And I think that's all most people need to hear, if you have any common sense. There's some people that's gonna want to hang on to that, and I'm aware of the fact that when you attain a certain level of greatness or whatnot, people are gonna want to try to attach it to any type of mud they can. And I gotta be OK in this place and just keep going.
You mentioned Kobe Bryant -- the whole world is still grieving. I saw you post a few things about him on Instagram, and you're a father of four girls, as well. How did that news impact you? Not only hearing about him, about one might say you're the Kobe Bryant of MMA, at least in your time. And then to hear about his daughter and those other young girls on that helicopter, how did you handle that?
It was shocking and so disappointing. I learned so much from it. I learned to be more appreciative for life. It made me want to just hug my daughters closer. It was just so sad. Just gone too soon. Kobe Bryant, I feel like the legacy that he was getting started outside of basketball was just so much bigger than what he did in basketball. You have foundations everywhere. He died being a hell of a dad. ... I heard he went to church that day. So I feel like he's in a better place, and I feel a personal obligation to pick up where he left off and just try to be as great as I can be in the cage and for humanity. That's what I took from Kobe's situation. Bring that Mamba mentality, keep that Mamba mentality that I feel like I have when it comes to the Octagon, but introduce that Mamba mentality when it comes to humanity in ways that I can help this world out.
We were just talking about living up to your potential and making the most of your career in your prime. When you see something like that, is it a reminder that you have a gift and you can't let this go? You need to maximize your potential?
You got to, yeah, you got to. Kobe said find something you love and do your absolute best at it. Give it everything you got. And I'm truly blessed to know what I love and I felt like I was born to be a fighter. I genuinely love what I do, and the inspiration that you get out of the situation is just to give it everything you got, every day. You owe it to Kobe. You owe it to the people who are maybe handicapped who can't do it. You owe it to the world to show them how great they can be by me just trying to be the best that I can be.
You know what the first question is going to be when you fight Dominick and all goes well on Feb. 8 for you in Houston -- the first question is going to be heavyweight, right? This is what everyone wants. They want to see you go to heavyweight. What are the chances, if all goes well, in February that your next fight is at heavyweight?
There's a really good chance.
Jones would like to fight Miocic next
Jon Jones says he could see his next fight after Dominick Reyes being against Stipe Miocic for the heavyweight title.
Have you set your mind to that? Do you feel like there's nothing left at 205?
I feel like I really want to fight Stipe Miocic. I feel like I could beat him.
You don't want like a tune-up? Just go straight for the belt?
I don't think I would need a tune-up. I'm pretty tuned-up. I'm pretty in tune. I feel great, I feel strong already. Stipe is like what, 230 or something? I feel like me at a lean 230 is plenty. I feel like I could totally beat him just based on his performances with DC [Daniel Cormier], our speed differences, my fight IQ, our versatility, my faith and confidence. I think I'm the guy to beat him, for sure. And I want to strike while I'm feeling hot.
So you'd like that to be next? Maybe take that fight from DC, is that part of it?
Right now, it's Dominick Reyes. I'd like to fight [Miocic], but at the end of the day, too, I'm happy doing what I'm doing, man. But I've been cruising through some victories, man, and they said this: If it's not broke, don't fix it. So whether I get the heavyweight title, whether it comes against him, whether it comes a few years from now, I just learned to -- to just be in the moment, be grateful for just where you are now. And the future will take care of itself.
If you do go up, will you go back down or do you think that it's one of those things that you go up, you'll stay there forever?
I think I'll go up, go straight for the king.
And then will you be done at 205?
No, I think I'd probably go back down to 205. Getting down to 205 just makes me feel good about myself. It makes me feel good. Earn that victory and to detox myself and to lose the weight again, it just makes me feel like the journey to get down to the weight class and just to feel ultimately prepared, I just love it. I feel that my highest mentally and spiritually and just physically, there's something about getting down to my weight class that just makes me feel supercharged.
Is there anyone at 205 after Dominick that you have your eye on?
So you're not having trouble finding motivation?
No, no. Listen, to every piece to the puzzle is a very important piece or else you don't have a masterpiece at the end.
And I have to ask about Israel [Adesanya]. He brings out a special side of you. It seems like you almost enjoy the back and forth with him.
I was loving it. And honestly, it was just fun. I bicker, and I talk crap with a lot of people, and he's hot right now in the sport, so it was just fun to attach myself to his fight weeks.
So he said he'll chase you up to heavyweight, he'll chase you all over the place. You don't buy it?
Come on. Daniel Cormier has fought many heavyweights, and he says in his interviews Jon is a little bit bigger and a little bit stronger than you would imagine when you're in there with him. This is a guy who's fought Bigfoot Silva [Antonio Silva]. I don't think a long, lean middleweight would present me much problem, especially once I got my hands on him and put him to the ground. People can eat up what he's saying, but the truth of the matter is he's scared today.
Why do you think that?
Oh, he'll be scared in 2021, as well. This is all what he's saying. At the end of the day, dude, I'm so far ahead when it comes to, I mean, you name it in every sense of this game, I'm so far ahead of this kid. So the fact that I am even talking about him right now, I'm just going to stop.
But that's a big fight, right?
I don't want to come across as arrogant, but in the grand scheme of things, I'm a man and he's like a child when it comes to this game, what I've proven already, what I've done, where I'm going. People can be more popular than me. People could be, you know, you got guys like Conor [McGregor], who makes more money than me, you know, these types of things. I'm not in it for what's hot right now. I'm a household name in combat. And so like I said, even me bringing him up right now is flattery to a boy that doesn't deserve me to be talking about him.
Jones: Adesanya is scared
Jon Jones explains why he doesn't think Israel Adesanya would cause him any problems, claiming that Adesanya is scared of him now.
So you don't care if you never fight him?
Come on. He's hot right now. Let's see.
Yoel [Romero] could beat him?
There's a very likely chance Yoel would beat him. I'm mad you brought him up, honestly.
Well it's a big fight. You know, everyone loves the back and forth between you two ...
I'm done with that.
You're done with it?
Yeah. It's just like the more I talk about him, it's raising his stock. Like I've been winning world championships since he was getting knocked out overseas fighting for $5,000. I've been doing this for years at the highest level, world championship fight after world championship fight. So, like I said, he's hot right now.
I know it was like a month or so ago when you guys had the faceoff in Las Vegas, you and Dominick; it was a pretty good faceoff, and you went away, and then you went back and you said something to him and you kept saying something to him. What did you say to him?
Yeah, I just told him that he had really bad breath.
Oh, it was bad. Dana [White] started laughing 'cause he knew it was true. I don't know if it's always like that. It was just the day, but his breath was really bad. ... He just said, "Oh, you're gonna insult me?" And I said, "You started with the insults." And I said, "You messed with the wrong one." And I pointed at him, I said, "I'm going to get you."
You used to not look at your opponent in faceoffs. Not only do you look at him, you actually took a step forward. Why did that change, the philosophy with the stare-down?
Every fight's different. Some guys I look at, some guys I don't. It's just all based on my mood at the time. Some guys I wanted to let them know that, hey, I'm here. I'm taking you deadly seriously.
And with him, you felt like it was the right thing?
I just wanted to let him know. He doesn't annoy me at all. I don't think he knows what he's getting into at the end of the day. I'm very familiar with training for world championship-level fights. I've been doing it for so long. I don't think he knows. I just don't think he knows what he's getting into. For a lot of these guys, just making it to fight for the title is a touchdown. I saw on his Instagram, he took a picture of, I think it was like ESPN or something he was at. And it had his name, Dominick Reyes, in headlights. And he took a picture of that, and it just goes to show me that to him, he's already made it -- just to be here, to be able to go to the bar and everyone wants to buy him a drink and everyone's like, "Oh, good luck." And everyone's calling him champ and he's getting all the attention. And you know, same thing with Thiago. Thiago saw his name on the front of the UFC building. He took a picture of it, like, "Look at me. That's me up there. I did it." And you're here at the battlefield now, but you didn't do it. So for a lot of these guys, they got nothing to lose, everything to gain. And just being here is a huge opportunity for them, and I'm fighting from a place where I have everything to lose, and I just think our motivations are completely different.
You mentioned only left hand, that's all you do. Do you feel like Reyes does nothing that concerns you?
No, no. He is a very capable athlete. He's strong, he's explosive. He has extreme power on that left side. And since I said that, I'm assuming that he's probably exercising some things on his right. You know, some trick plays that he's prepared for on the right. My job is to be prepared for whatever he has going on. I've fought a lot of versatile fighters, capable of so much. So, I'll be prepared for the left and the right and whatever.
Do you feel pressure to finish him because of the criticism after the Santos fight?
I don't feel pressure, but I would like to finish him, for sure, for my own satisfaction and to make my coaches proud, and the finishes are always nice. But the victory is just as good with me. Like I say, you're not gonna sink every 3-pointer. I'm just good with the win.
The best of Jon Jones
From starting in the UFC at age 21 to becoming the youngest champion at age 23, revisit all of the best moments for Jon Jones in the Octagon.
There's that famous photo from 2011, Toronto, with all the champions up there. You know, the one right where they had the press conference. It was you and Anderson [Silva] and GSP, Dominick Cruz, and you're the only one [still champion]. And it's amazing. Like if nothing crazy happened in your life, just to be champion for nine years is absurd in the fight game. And then when you consider everything that you've been through and that you're still here and still on top of your game, are there times where you sit back thinking like, "Man, I'm a lucky guy, because some crazy stuff has happened. I'm still here. I haven't lost, I haven't gotten knocked out." Do you have moments where you're like, "Man, how did this happen?"
I do. And I always just point it back to God, man. Honestly, man, it's God's grace. And I know everyone's not a believer and a lot of people think, I wish you just wouldn't talk about it, but it really is God's grace. It really is. He has sustained me through so much, through the death of my mother through a four-year suspension, through just my dumb mistakes. He's probably protected me in ways that I didn't even know he has. But really, I just pointed to God's grace man. I wear this tattoo on my chest: Philippians 4:13, that I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength. And I genuinely believe that I can do anything, and I'm not surprised that I'm still here, and I believe that I could possibly be here a decade from now.
In your mind you don't have an end point?
No, there'll be an end point. There will be an end point, but I believe I'll go out on top for sure.
Is that a goal? Like GSP?
I've already won. At this level, I could retire today and I've already won.
What do you mean by won?
I won. I'm getting my life together. My kids love me, my old lady loves me. I'm surrounded by people who love me, friends and family. I've already had a successful career, and I'm just, as I say here today, victorious.
It's amazing for a guy who, I believe, was a janitor, and you got into this because you needed to get some money for diapers?
Yeah, I was applying. I was a bouncer, actually, making $50 a night, and I was applying to be a janitor because I would have benefits, and right when I was waiting to get the call back, someone wrote me on Twitter -- a guy named Gary, kid that I'd never met -- and he said, "Hey, my cousin owns an MMA gym in Cortland, New York," which is about 45 minutes away. I didn't have a car, and I was driving my fiancée's car to commute over to these practices. I got that phone call on a Saturday night, and I was heading to my first practice that next Monday. The kid changed my life forever.
Why did he reach out to you? Just like that?
God's grace, man.
You were not training at all, about to have a baby, right?
About to have a baby, applying to be a janitor ...
And for what building? Do you remember?
I think it was like Lockheed Martin.
And this guy writes you and says ...
I had a picture on MySpace, and I had been weightlifting a little bit, and I had a hat on backwards and I had some UFC gloves on and I was -- I was posing, you know, being a poser. ... I took the idea and I ran with it, and that's how God works sometimes.
How old were you?
I was about 19. It was crazy, man. It was just like one of the best years of my life, man, because I went from a very average-thinking person -- I don't like reading, so I literally got on all these TED Talks and on YouTube, and I just started YouTubing videos about self-belief and what does it mean to be confident and what does it mean to be a winner and how do you become a winner? And I would watch hours and hours of Tony Robbins and Les Brown and TED Talks. And I like taught myself how to believe in myself and how to think that I was greater than just this kid that was a dropout who never really had great grades, never really was the starter, never was the captain of a team. I was just always kind of this average person. And overnight I taught myself that I could be great and change -- change myself forever -- and I'm forever grateful, and I'm never going back.
Did you have low self-confidence?
I didn't have low self-confidence, but I needed to have extraordinary confidence to do what I was getting ready to be doing.
Would that kid have believed that all this would've happened?
I don't think he knew that he was changing my life by giving me an idea.
It took a couple of years for you to believe it, as well, probably.
I think when I fought Stephan Bonnar is when I really dug into the power of the mind and how important it is to look at yourself in a high regard and to believe that first, you can -- that's when I started to fly.