Jon Jones was in his Albuquerque, New Mexico, living room, positioned in front of a projection television on July 25. UFC Fight Night aired that evening, and Jones had a keen eye on the undercard as Alexander Gustafsson, one of Jones' main light heavyweight rivals, was making his heavyweight debut against former champion Fabricio Werdum.
The bout didn't last long. Werdum caught Gustafsson's arm in a ground scramble and submitted him 2:30 into the first round. Jones shook his head.
"I don't think [Gustafsson] did it the right way," Jones told ESPN. "Just because you gain some extra pounds doesn't mean you're ready to compete against these boys that were born that way. You've got to really take your time, find your body, find your feet, your new speed, your new rhythm. And then go up there and play the game."
Three weeks later, Jones shockingly vacated his UFC light heavyweight title -- the one he held on and off for nearly a decade -- and announced his own intention of moving up to heavyweight. He vowed to himself that he would do it the correct way, no matter how long that took and what that meant.
For the past three months, Jones has been putting in the work. Arguably the best MMA fighter ever, Jones had never trained much in between fight camps. But the inspiration of a new challenge is reflected in a noticeably changed physique and mindset.
Jones has put on almost 20 pounds, with potentially more to go. He sees a team of three strength and conditioning coaches six times per week, has adapted his skills to the heavier weight and now believes he could be more dominant than ever. This is the Jon Jones who awaits the heavyweight division as he pursues another title and attempts to end any debate about MMA's greatest of all time.
"It's a different feel for me," Jones said. "I would never really train in between fights. I would allow myself to get fat. To train now with no fight scheduled, it's different. It shows maturity and it shows how much I really want to do this.
"I'm trying to change my whole makeup. There are some guys that are way bigger than me up there. I'm just constantly pushing ... I have to commit my whole life to this project. I'm committed."
Jones let out a loud "woo!" as he ducked into the squat rack at his home gym. Strength and conditioning coach Jordan Chavez was behind him, spotting as Drowning Pool's "Bodies" blasted over the sound system. Jones started with a 405-pound Anderson squat -- or bottom-up squat. Then he moved to 435 pounds and 455. He finished by squatting 500 pounds. The video of that sequence was posted on Jones' Instagram account on Nov. 23. It has more than 450,000 views.
In order to make a legitimate move to heavyweight, the lanky, 6-foot-4 Jones knew he had to put on muscle. And he has done that. Chavez said the former champ is now walking around at about 240 pounds. The goal is 245 pounds going into Jones' next training camp.
While the strength work looks great on Instagram, Chavez said it's only about 20 percent of what Jones is doing. Getting bigger and stronger is important, but in an MMA fight there are other considerations. So Jones' team, which also includes coaches Lawrence Herrera and Steve Horwath, emphasizes preserving his speed, explosiveness and endurance despite the added muscle. A diet rich in protein, good carbohydrates and fat also has been implemented.
Chavez said Jones has been focusing on his legs, which long have been the brunt of jokes -- including his own -- for being too skinny.
"We are making sure that he's going to be just as explosive, just as quick as he was at light heavyweight," Chavez said. "And bring the dynamic ability and the shock that he has shown the MMA world at light heavyweight. He's going to bring the same shock and awe to the heavyweight division. Because there's never been an athlete like him in the heavyweight division."
Including MMA training and strength and conditioning, Jones has eight sessions of training per week. Jones joked that he is "always sore," but said he is moving even better now at 240 pounds than he did when he was lighter. The gains have paid dividends in mitt sessions with striking coach Brandon Gibson as well.
"I've trained Jon for over 10 years now," Gibson said. "I've seen so much growth in his technique and his strategy, his arsenal. But to feel Jon at 240-plus pounds right now, he has a lot of power, but he hasn't lost his footwork, his technique, his stamina or his speed. His IQ is only going to continue to grow in the game and his approach to these fights.
"Jon has a very unique skill set for heavyweight. You don't see that many kickers at heavyweight. You don't see that many grapplers of Jon's caliber at heavyweight. You don't see that many well-versed strikers with such an arsenal like Jon has. You see a lot of boxer-wrestlers. I think Jon has the skill set to really exploit a lot of these heavyweights. As long as we can carry over the stamina, the skill set and the speed, I think Jon is going to look great. And he's only 33. In heavyweight years, he's still relatively young."
Jones believes his biggest improvement will be in his wrestling, which was always a strength dating back to his days as an NJCAA national champion at Iowa Central Community College.
"When I was 205, I always had a hard time getting down low," Jones said. "Or hated getting low, with [single-leg takedowns] and stuff like that. Almost as if my knees were killing me to do it.
"Now that I've been working on my legs so much and they've gotten thicker ... I think that's going to translate into me shooting high-crotches and shooting double-legs. I think it'll make those muscles a lot faster. I predict that my shooting ability and my wrestling is going to just be faster. There's just more power, and my ass has gotten a lot bigger. I think my double-legs are going to be one of the biggest differences in my game that people are going to notice."
And he knows he'll need every one of those tools to succeed at heavyweight. Jones admitted that maybe he wasn't at his best in his most recent light heavyweight fights, close wins over Dominick Reyes and Thiago Santos.
"The light heavyweight division was fun, but I just wasn't scared of those guys anymore," Jones said. "Like, none of them. And I think it showed in some of my performances. Obviously, I still trained hard. But there was no urgency in some of my last fights.
"With these next guys I'm going to be going up against, I respect these guys. These guys are intimidating -- they're intimidating as s---. It just gets me up in a whole different way."
It's not just about the heavyweight title for Jones. It's about the bigger picture, and that was obvious when Khabib Nurmagomedov announced he was retiring on Oct. 24 and sparked a debate about the greatest MMA fighter of all time. Jones took to social media and scoffed at the notion.
"I just want there to be no debate when I'm done," Jones said. "I do feel like I've had a great light heavyweight career. I'm by far the greatest light heavyweight. And in my heart, I do feel like I'm the best fighter in this sport's history.
"But I just don't want there to be any debate. And one way I can do that is by capturing this heavyweight crown, and that's exactly what I'm going to do."
"The light heavyweight division was fun, but I just wasn't scared of those guys anymore. ... With these next guys I'm going to be going up against, I respect these guys. These guys are intimidating -- they're intimidating as s---. It just gets me up in a whole different way."Jon Jones
Perception matters to Jones, including outside of the Octagon. After several brushes with the law, he founded a nonprofit organization in Albuquerque called the C.A.R.E. Project earlier this year. C.A.R.E. Project is going to give 50 local families in need a $500 shopping spree at Walmart during the holiday season.
Inside the cage, Jones said he's in no hurry to return to competition. Maybe June or later, he said. As far as an opponent, most people expect Jones to fight the winner of the anticipated -- though currently unbooked -- Stipe Miocic vs. Francis Ngannou title fight, which might not happen until March.
"I go back and forth," Jones said. "Sometimes I think I should take like a top-10 guy [at heavyweight] and just get my feet wet, figure out what's happening. And then the other times, I think, 'F--- it. Let's just go big or go home.' I'm trying to get these big-money fights these days. I like taking care of everybody around me."
The focus right now, though, isn't on a foe or a date. It's on Jones himself. Chavez said Jones is already in fighting shape -- he could fight next month, if need be. But the team will continue to set goals and Jones will continue to get better, stronger and more adapted to his new weight.
"This is a goal that he's hungry for," Gibson said. "And any goal I've ever seen him set his eyes on, he's achieved. So I have no doubt that he's going to get heavyweight gold wrapped around his waist."