Jon "Bones" Jones sits in a wheelchair, two plastic bags stuffed with ice resting on his big, bruised feet. It's near midnight in Denver, and half an hour ago in front of 16,000 fans, Jones thrashed Quinton "Rampage" Jackson in elegant, but vicious, fashion, choking out the former light-heavyweight champion to retain his UFC title belt.
The September victory cemented Jones' status as the most brutal practitioner of precision fury in the UFC. In fact, Jones may be the best fighter the world of mixed martial arts has ever seen. Blessed with a six-foot-four frame and a freakish athleticism that runs in the family (his brother Arthur plays linebacker for the Baltimore Ravens), Jones, 24, brings a set of skills the UFC could only dream of in its early days of eye-gouging and head butts. His moves – spinning elbows, flying knee kicks – seem like the stuff of kung-fu flicks, and yet he's just as deadly on the ground. Urijah Faber, one of MMA's biggest stars, says Jones could become the Michael Jordan of the sport. "I don't really know what to say to that," Jones says as a trainer adjusts the ice on his feet, which are nearly broken from all the punishing kicks delivered to Jackson. "I don't want to sound cocky, but I do hold myself in high regard."
At 23, Jones became the youngest champion in UFC history, but he hardly fits the mold. The son of a Pentecostal preacher, he grew up a skinny kid singing in gospel choir, too gangly and awkward to excel at traditional sports. He wrestled in college, but dropped out when he got his girlfriend pregnant, and ended up a bouncer in upstate New York. After getting turned down for a custodial job at a Lockheed Martin plant, Jones decided to give MMA a try, teaching himself to fight by watching YouTube clips and flipping through combat books. "I had basically gone from this guy who had everything going for him to a college dropout who was applying for jobs as a janitor," Jones says. "I kind of felt like a loser. I had been a state champion wrestler, and here I am working as a bouncer. It was now or never. I knew I had this kid coming, and I needed money to get diapers."
After about a year and a half of mostly teaching himself, and adopting a life of monastic dedication, Jones had refined his nasty mix of kickboxing, wrestling and jiujitsu, and began his run to the title. In person, he's polite, funny and self-deprecating, but once he steps into the ring, he unleashes a fury of violence that can be frightening to watch. "He could be one of the best ever," says UFC president Dana White. "But when a guy becomes famous, all these parasites start to cling to you, and it can fuck up your head. If he can avoid that, the sky's the limit."
This story is from the November 10, 2011 issue of Rolling Stone.