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Jones heads UFC’s charge into mainstream

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The UFC is banking on the dynamic athleticism of light heavyweight champ Jon Jones to help take the organization to the next level. (Greg Nelson/SI)

Is the sports world ready for Jon Jones?

This is not a question that will be answered in the main event of Saturday night’s UFC 135 in Denver, a fight in which the 24-year-old will put his shiny new UFC light heavyweight championship belt on the line for the first time against Quinton Jackson. This is not a question about “Bones” the fighter.

OK, sure, what Jones does in the octagon does ultimately matter. This young man who breezed from phenom to champion in about the time it takes him to wheel through a spinning backfist could, with a loss or even an ordinary performance, instantly lose his mojo. But let’s not even go there. At this point, the mixed martial arts world is utterly transfixed by Jones, whose presence transcends his skills in striking and grappling. We’re going to assume, for the sake of argument, that that does not change this weekend.

But when we investigate the readiness of the sports world to latch onto the star of Jones, we’re not talking about the MMA world. We’re looking at the bigger picture, the sports world splashed across flat screens 24/7 showing enough flavors of sports channels to make Baskin-Robbins jealous. The UFC has been creeping onto that stage for a while now — a highlight clip here and a quick Q&A there. But emergence into the sports mainstream shifts into high gear in November when the Dana White Athletic Club makes its network TV debut on Fox.

Even though he’s fighting this weekend, not on the UFC on Fox 1 card Nov. 12 in Anaheim, Calif., Jon Jones is a big part of the push into the hearts and souls of the sporting public. He is an athlete unlike any who have come before in his sport. He’s not merely a skilled, dangerous fighter. You watch him perform in the cage and you get the feeling he just as well could be excelling on a basketball court or football field, as do both his older brother, who plays in the NFL with the Baltimore Ravens, and his younger bro, who plays college ball at Syracuse. Heck, he’s from upstate New York, so hockey isn’t out of the question. Nor is baseball, really, with Cooperstown being a couple hours’ drive from where he grew up.

It’s not that Bones has demonstrated an aptitude for any of those sports. In fact, at a fan’s suggestion on Twitter that he’s got the body and athleticism to play wide receiver, Jones responded, “Haha I can’t catch.” But that’s OK. He doesn’t have to catch. He just has to perform and carry himself like enough of an athlete to be measured alongside the stars who shine in all of the other prominent sports venues.

And no less important than that Twitter follower’s understandable projection, really, was Jones’ response to it. This athlete so lauded for his grace and talent showed he can laugh at himself, which will only bring him closer to fans. But will he maintain that poise as the spotlight grows ever more intense? When considering the near future of the UFC light heavyweight champ, it’s fair to twist around the question posed up top and ask: Is Jon Jones ready for the sports world?

Jones has never faced anything as challenging as UFC 135. That’s not because “Rampage” Jackson is a more formidable opponent than any he’s faced before. (Jackson is not.) What makes this so stiff a challenge is the stage. Jones is no longer an up-and-coming phenom. He’s the champ now. On top of that, he’s had to spend the weeks leading up to this main event balancing the rigors of training with the no-less-rigorous demands of promotion. Look what that did to Nick Diaz.

So far, Jones has fared pretty well. There have been times when he’s seemed a bit awed by it all, but mostly he appears to be actually having fun. Walking out onstage with Jackson for their joint appearance Monday night on Jimmy Kimmel Live, Jones paused to take a quick picture of the audience with his smartphone, then posted the imperfect snapshot on Twitter minutes after leaving the stage. In between, he had his moments during the ABC show, such as when he turned to fellow guest Dr. Phil McGraw, pointed to Rampage, and said, “You’re a doctor. What’s wrong with this man?”

Then, on Thursday, Jones conducted a five-minute radio interview entirely in a British accent. This was with the Washington, D.C., show MMA Nation, not something beaming over to London. He later explained himself to the show’s host, Luke Thomas, saying he’d been sitting around his hotel room with his trainers, and after the third phone interview in a row, he was bored. Let’s not forget: The guy is barely older than a college kid.

It’s good that Jones can keep himself entertained. At other times during the fight promotion, he’s allowed himself to be swallowed up by Rampage’s sullen crankiness. It happened during the Kimmel appearance, when the two traded insults and Jones seemed to purposely avoid eye contact. Then, on Friday morning, ESPN’s SportsCenter transitioned from a discussion of Sunday’s Packers-Bears game to a segment on the real Black and Blue Division, a.k.a. UFC 135. Jones and Jackson were on live, and Rampage was showing the effects of the last day of cutting weight before weigh-in. He was curt, moody, not interested in being there.

For a while, Jones followed suit, engaging in a pointless back-and-forth about disrespect and spying and other nonsense. You could almost hear Dana White cringing. This was a live spot on SportsCenter, fellas, and that’s the best you could do with a prime promotional opportunity? Eventually, Jones figured that out. Asked what he thinks of the label of “the next big thing,” he stepped up with a response that, while perhaps a bit pre-packaged, hit all the right notes: He mentioned the fans adoringly and used words like “honored” and “blessed.” And then, just before the interviewer cut away to move on to the other sports of the day, Bones flashed that Magic Johnson smile of his.

That sealed it. As long as he continues to take care of business outside the cage as well as he does inside it, this kid’s future is limitless.

– Jeff Wagenheim

  • Published On Sep 23, 2011
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