It was a scene as awkward as it was uncomfortable.
Jon Jones stood behind Roy Nelson inside the Theatre at Madison Square Garden Thursday afternoon. The stars of the Ultimate Fighting Championship were in New York to promote Saturday night’s UFC 159 pay-per-view event and were preparing to square off for photos with their opponents.
“Two of your favorite people,” Jones said to UFC President Dana White in reference to himself and Nelson. Nelson has earned White’s ire for what the executive believes is an unprofessional attitude toward his career.
Jones and Nelson convulsed in laughter. White smiled uneasily and turned away.
It was the briefest of moments but it encapsulated the conundrum that is Jones.
Who is he? What is he?
The first question is complex. The second is straightforward.
Jones is still the UFC’s Light-Heavyweight champion after dispatching Chael Sonnen with a first-round TKO Saturday night at UFC 159. Jones is now 18-1.
“I knew in that five minutes who the better fighter was,” Sonnen said.
Jones met Sonnen in the middle of the cage at the bell and engaged his opponent in a wrestling match. Eventually, he muscled Sonnen against the cage and began peppering the top contender with strikes before referee Keith Peterson stopped the fight.
Simply, it was a display of graceful malevolence in a four minute and 33 second span.
“I wanted to Chael Sonnen Chael Sonnen,” Jones said.
“He was in on my legs before I knew it,” Sonnen said. “I don’t think I’ve been taken down three times in my career. [He] took me down three times in one round. He’s a lot better than I thought. He’s the best fighter I’ve ever fought.”
But will Jones’ malevolent genius be appreciated?
For all of Jones’ physical gifts and career success, he has not captured the adoration of mixed martial arts fans.
It is the oddest of conundrums. Society values greatness in all forms. So it would stand to reason that Jones would be respected, if not beloved, for his meteoric rise to the top of the premier MMA organization in the world.
Nevertheless, by his own words, Jones acknowledged he has “haters.”
Certainly, some of it is jealousy. Jones has become one of UFC’s cornerstones — along with Anderson Silva, Ronda Rousey and Georges St. Pierre — at the grizzled age of 25. Yet for those who loathe Jones for his youth and success, an equal number despise him for his actions and words.
His first public misstep occurred last May 19 when Jones was arrested for DUI in Binghamton, N.Y. after he crashed his Bentley into a pole. The Ithaca, N.Y. native subsequently had his license suspended for six months and paid a $1,000 fine.
“I got a DWI,” Jones said with more than a hint of irritation in his voice Thursday. “It was last year. It’s like everyone’s comeback every time they want to get at me.”
Three months later, Jones’ refusal to accept a short notice fight with Sonnen after Dan Henderson had to pull out of the scheduled light-heavyweight title fight with a partially torn knee ligament at UFC 151 caused the cancellation of the card.
In an oft-profane conference call to announce the card’s cancellation, White said it was a “selfish, disgusting decision” that hurt 16 fighters and the company. Jones responded by writing a tweet in which he blamed the cancellation of UFC 151 on “old man” Henderson “and his knee.”
His decision and subsequent snit did not win him many fans. Neither has his tepidity regarding a potential superfight with UFC Middleweight champion Anderson Silva.
“We’re in the fight business,” Sonnen said, adding that Silva and Jones should have been calling White requesting the fight. White noted that Silva called him to ask for a fight but would not divulge if he asked to fight Jones or St. Pierre.
Jones, who spoke during the week about moving to heavyweight, is one successful title defense away from passing Tito Ortiz for the most in light-heavyweight division history. In the post-fight press conference, Jones expressed interest in a fight against Alexander Gustafsson.
Before Jones left the press conference to have a fractured big toe on his left foot examined, he was asked if he thought he could go down in history as the greatest light-heavyweight in UFC history.
“I owe it to myself to be great,” Jones said. “Life is good.”
Follow MMA writer Denis Gorman on Twitter @DenisGorman.