Tuesday, March 15, 2011 | 2:05 a.m.
Jon Jones is going to get hit harder than he ever has before this weekend.
That much is hardly debatable when discussing his UFC 128 main event matchup against light heavyweight champion and powerful striker Mauricio “Shogun” Rua (19-4) Saturday in Newark, N.J. What may ultimately decide the bout is how Jones (12-1) responds to that punishment.
“I don’t care what happens in the fight, I’m going to keep coming,” Jones said. “This fight will be mine. I’m excited to be pushed for the first time, if I’m pushed.”
So far in his career, Jones has looked more like he just finished nine holes of putt-putt than three rounds of fighting every time he exits the octagon. His only loss came via a controversial disqualification for illegal elbows in a fight he dominated against Matt Hamill. Jones, mixed martial arts’ youngest star at 23, has never gotten into a real battle.
Jones hasn’t encountered any adversity in his combat sports career since he was junior college wrestler five years ago. Jones went on to win the 2006 National Championship at Iowa Central Community College, but only after stumbling and losing a couple matches along the way.
“It doesn’t matter how much he’s down,” said Luke Moffitt, Jones’ former wrestling coach at Iowa Central. “He always thinks he’s going to win the match. That’s why he was dangerous wrestling-wise and I think it’s transferred over to MMA. We haven’t seen the best of Jon Jones as a fighter yet.”
Jones’ relentless mentality was something Moffitt discovered while working with him for two years at Iowa Central. It came as somewhat of a surprise after Moffitt’s first impression of Jones.
Moffitt said Jones came on a recruiting visit while still in high school and his team took him out for the night.
“I knew he came from a strong religious background and I’m telling our guys to keep him out of trouble,” Moffitt said.
Jones and his hosts wound up hanging out with some of the Iowa Central football players.
Perhaps sensing new blood, the football players started playfully talking trash to Jones.
“I don’t know what they said to him, but I think the football players were messing with him,” Moffitt said. “I think he was intimidated by them and pretty worried. He was a nice guy and you never thought of him as a fighter ironically enough.”
By the time Jones got on a campus, however, Moffitt realized he was a unique athlete. Moffiit said he usually had to pull freshmen aside and give them a talk about enduring collegiate-level workouts.
That never happened with Jones. It wasn’t necessary. Jones immediately started training with teammates who were in heavier weight classes and holding his own.
He would also come into the room from time-to-time with a new twist to try out.
“He used YouTube a lot just to watch other guys wrestling and their styles,” Moffitt said. “He picked away at some things that might have worked for him.”
Jones has kept that same approach in mixed martial arts. He says he falls asleep to fight films of his next opponent and studies every piece of video he can find — even interviews — on them.
That’s not the only similarity between Jones’ wrestling and MMA careers. Much like he has in UFC, Jones went on a rapid rise through the wrestling ranks.
In one of his first college wrestling tournaments, Jones faced off against Division-I competitors from the likes of Iowa, Iowa State, Nebraska and Missouri.
He beat all of them — including Missouri’s Max Askren who went on to win a Division-I national championship — and won the title.
“We knew he would get to that level, but he showed earlier than most that he could compete with those guys,” Moffitt said. “Some guys you expect to do that and know at the end of two years they’ll be ready, but he was ready right away.”
Moffitt knew Jones was destined to make the junior college national championship match. Jones’ opponent in the title was a wrestler who he barely beat earlier in the season.
Moffitt prepared himself for the fighting equivalent of a five-round slugfest, but it turned out more like a first round knockout. Jones was too quick, too motivated and too talented.
“The higher the stakes,” Moffitt said, “the higher Jon performs.”
Jones left wrestling behind to pursue a career in mixed martial arts, but uses the skills acquired in high school and Iowa Central well in the octagon. He’s regarded as one of the light heavyweight division’s best wrestlers.
And Jones says his wrestling is at its best heading into the Shogun fight because his brother, Baltimore Ravens defensive tackle Arthur Jones, joined his training camp in Albuquerque, N.M.
“His wrestling is on a completely different level,” Jones said. “Honestly, I think my brother — without starting anything — I don’t see anyone in the heavyweight division right now being able to clench my brother and not get thrown.”
“I was the second seed my whole career wrestling because my brother was on my team. And having him here with me has gotten me back almost as strong as I was.”
A lot of observers believe out-wrestling Shogun will be the key to victory for Jones. The thought is Shogun has more knockout power and would prefer to stand and trade punches and kicks.
Even the soft-spoken Rua, who is known for never saying anything negative about an opponent, considers his striking to be a notch above Jones’.
“He would be making a mistake if he stood with me,” Rua said through a translator.
Jones laughs off the comment the same as any other suggestion that Shogun’s strikes will hurt him. Even if Jones gets tagged, he says he has no worries about his reaction.
Neither does one of the men who last witnessed Jones in trouble during a competition.
“You can knock him down but with his mentality, he will come back optimistic and think he’s going to win the fight,” Moffitt said. “I think until the fifth round is over if there is time left on the clock for him to win, regardless if he’s down, he’s going to expect to win the fight.”