This time last year, Jon Jones was a 23-year-old prospect with fewer than four years training in mixed martial arts. Over the past 12 months, the Rochester, N.Y., native captured the UFC light heavyweight title — becoming the youngest champion in the organization’s history — while soaring up most outlets’ pound-for-pound ratings. (He’s No. 2 on SI.com’s list.) SI.com caught up with Jones, who makes his third defense of the 205-pound title Saturday against Rashad Evans at UFC 145 in Atlanta.
Who is your all-time favorite fighter in boxing or MMA?
Anderson Silva and Muhammad Ali. Both of them.
When was your first fight?
I was around nine years old. I lived in Rochester, N.Y., and I was at my elementary school outside hanging out. I think we were drawing on the ground with chalk. And this kid, he said something about my mom. And at the time when you’re a kid — especially in the neighborhood where I grew up — when someone says something about your mama, it’s on. I said, “Come over and say that to my face!” The kid came across the street, said it to my face, and then he lifted me up in the air, slammed me on the ground, hit my head on the concrete and I just kind of blacked out from there. I don’t think I won that one.
Did you have fear in that moment?
I don’t remember being afraid, I just remember feeling out of control. It was a terrible feeling, and it’s a feeling I’ll probably never feel again — and don’t want to feel again.
When did you realize MMA was something you could make a living with?
After my second pro fight [against Carlos Eduardo in 2008]. I got paid $1,200. At the time, that was life-changing for me.
Who is the toughest opponent you’ve ever fought?
It depends on what mood I’m in. It varies. A lot of times it’s Stephan Bonner.
What was your favorite subject in school?
What’s on your iPod?
Actually I don’t have an iPod right now. I don’t listen to music while training.
What is your favorite movie?
What’s one misconception about MMA fighters?
That we are aggressive and violent and not civil. In reality it’s the complete opposite. We’re men of great integrity. I think we’re some of the most disciplined athletes there are.
What would you be doing if you weren’t fighting?
I’d be law enforcement in upstate New York.
What is your biggest guilty pleasure?
Eating unhealthy. I love greasy fast food. It’s not good for me, but I love it.
Favorite meal when you’re out of training?
Probably a Wendy’s triple stack hamburger with cheese.
What would you change in MMA?
Nothing. I love the sport as it is.
When is the last time you cried?
Recently. Doing the Primetime show for this fight. They asked me about my sister [who died of brain cancer when Jones was 12], and it brought tears to my eyes to think about how beautiful she was and how much I missed her.
What’s the biggest thing that’s changed for you since becoming champion?
More Twitter followers.
Name three people you’d like to have dinner with (living or dead).
I would invite Muhammad Ali, Bruce Lee and Michael Jackson.
What advice would you give to young fighters coming up?
Remain extremely passionate and have patience — but mainly to be extremely passionate. A lot of people want to be successful, but a lot of people don’t really want to put in that work and really be obsessive over success and obsessive over what they need to do to better themselves. We all know exactly what we need to do. You know where you [stink]. Work on it.
Favorite place to vacation?
Brazil. Rio de Janeiro.
What is your dream venue for a fight?
Madison Square Garden.
What sports do you watch outside of MMA?
Tell us something no one knows about you?
[Thinks for nearly a minute.] I’m not saying.
When’s it’s all over, how do you want to be remembered?
I want to be remembered as a great champion. I want to be remembered as someone who inspired the people around me to better themselves. I want to make people reach for their goals and to look at themselves in the highest regard possible. I want people to be cocky in a good way. I want people to be extremely confident, because you only have yourself.
What’s your prediction for Saturday night?
Mark my words, I’ll finish the fight before the third round.
– As told to Bryan Armen Graham