Jon Jones in action (Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
While Anderson Silva and Vitor Belfort represent the UFC's present and its past, on the undercard the future is lurking. He's already been anointed as the sport's future king by hardcore fans. UFC ring announcer Bruce Buffer has compared him to Muhammad Ali. He's never tasted defeat, except for a disqualification in a bout with Matt Hamill that he dominated from bell to bell. The prologue has been written. The future is now. And now Jon "Bones" Jones has to prove he's worthy of the hype.
"He has the potential to be the best fighter in the sport, there's no doubt. First off, we know he's an anomaly with his length. And he's got very different trips and takedowns and great wrestling moves. His strikes are coming from different angles. It's great," striking coach Mike Winkeljohn said. "What Jon has that will take him to the top, to any place he wants to go, is the intellect. He's a smart kid and he's a student of the game. He's willing to sit down and study and learn. To try new moves. He's one of those guys who is constantly trying to evolve. He doesn't like to be stuck in the same box as everyone else."
His coaches aren't the only ones salivating over his potential. Yesterday K-Swiss and Form Athletics announced that Jones had signed a deal with the California based shoe company. Following the footsteps of Urijah Faber, Jones and agent Malki Kawa have taken things to the next level. While Faber has been featured in K-Swiss commercials alongside HBO faux athlete Kenny Powers, Jones will become the first MMA star with his own signature athletic shoe from a major brand.
"Jon is an elite athlete with an incredible training regime," said David Nichols, executive vice president of K·Swiss in a statement to the media. "His input will be valuable in developing new footwear, and his notoriety in his sport and great personality will fit well with the K·Swiss athlete roster. We are extremely excited about working with Jon, and look forward to a bright future with him as part of the K·Swiss family."
Standing in the wings, waiting to rain on the parade, is former Arizona State All American wrestler Ryan Bader. It's a new level of opponent for Jones, one who could easily derail a speeding express that seems destined for title gold. Coaches Greg Jackson and Winkeljohn understand the kind of test Bader presents and will have their fighter ready to defend the takedown attempts that are surely coming.
"The main guy who has been working with Jon is Willie Parks," Winkeljohn said. "Willie Parks almost made it to the Olympics and Willie Parks can take anybody down. He's jumping into MMA and just getting started, he has three or four fights, and he's goign to be someone to contend with here down the road at 185. He's been known to take Shane Carwin down up in Denver and he can shoot. When it comes to wrestling we've got the perfect style for Jon to work his defense against."
The coaches aren't the only ones who understand the danger Bader poses. Jones told The Fight Fix's Dustin Green that he's eating, breathing, and dreaming about his opponent.
"As far as watching his fights, I watched them pretty much every night. I fall asleep on his fights many nights after practice," Jones said in a The Fight Fix exclusive. "I would eat my lunch and watch more fights and fall asleep. I feel as though I've bathed myself in combat, bathed myself in Ryan Bader, and I know exactly who I have to fight [Saturday] and some of his tendencies - his footwork, timing... I think it's the secret to why things are going well for with me right now...You know what, hang on, that 13 hour thing, that might be a little creepy. Maybe not 13 hours on just interviews, but I've watched a lot of film. 13 is creepy. I'm not that big of a creepy guys."
A win over Bader immediately sets Jones up for a title shot and all that comes with it. At just 23, will Jones be ready for all that comes with MMA superstardom and headlining a major UFC pay per view? It's a legitimate concern, especially for his coaches in New Mexico who have seen promising careers sidetracked by the pressures of fame.
"Greg and I sat him down and talked about it. Because the bright lights did hit Diego Sanchez. The bright lights did hit Rashad Evans a little bit when he suddenly became the champ. That's the greatest thing about Rashad. He's made a comeback from that and gotten better," Winkeljohn said. "Rashad was smart enough to know what he needed to do. And Rashad has been in the gym helping Jon Jones out. We've seen it play out, but I think Jon is different. He's a smart kid. He's got great parents and understands about hard work, staying grounded and staying rooted. He doesn't listen to people telling him he's the greatest in the world. Because at the end of the day, after one punch you can be just like everyone else."
Jones versus Bader is just one of a number of great fights at UFC 126. The show is available on PPV or can be ordered online at Yahoo. Look for complete event coverage and analysis right here at Bloody Elbow.