Now comes the hard part for new champ Jones

The easy part, Jon Jones has found out, is over. The guy with the transcendent talent and the mega-watt smile was everyone’s darling as he rose from obscurity to UFC stardom by blasting his way through a small battalion of the best mixed martial artists in the world.

Jon Jones (above) makes his first career title defense Saturday against Quinton Jackson.

When he popped onto the scene at UFC 87, this long and lithe 21-year-old with precious few credentials, even long-time MMA experts had no idea what to expect from him. There are few expectations on a fighter no one knows much about. There is little pressure on a guy who taught himself some of his best moves by watching videos on YouTube. If one of the high-risk moves he seems to invent each time out didn’t work, he could just say, “Hey, I’m young and I’m learning and at least I tried to do something exciting.”

But when you blow through the heart of the UFC’s light heavyweight order easier than Yankees closer Mariano Rivera closes out the ninth inning, things change. Expectations soar. Responsibilities mount. The pressure builds.

And Jones, the UFC’s one-of-a-kind light heavyweight champion, has found that out in the last six months since he mauled the great Mauricio “Shogun” Rua to win the title.

As he prepares to make his first title defense, on Saturday at the Pepsi Center in the main event of UFC 135 against former champion Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, Jones is being forced to cope with issues that, just six short months ago, he never could have imagined would plague him.

Suddenly, he’s in more feuds than “Rowdy” Roddy Piper. He was accused of planting a spy in Jackson’s camp. He was called a traitor and nicknamed “Judas” Jones by Rashad Evans, his one-time mentor and training partner. Jackson labeled him fake and cocky. Many fans and media picked up the theme and ran with it. His toughness was questioned when first he said he needed hand surgery and it later turned out he did not.

Jones has the talent to be to MMA what Muhammad Ali was to boxing, what Michael Jordan was to the NBA, or what Wayne Gretzky was to the NHL. They all become generational talents, men who defined their sports and who dominated them like few have.

It’s unlikely that Jones is ever going to face an opponent with greater physical skills, but in the end, it’s almost always the things away from the competition that derail potential superstars.

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Jones cares enough about his image that following a pre-fight interview session with a gaggle of reporters at Radio City Music Hall in New York a few days prior to his title-winning effort at UFC 128, he got up from a table and said, “Guys, if you always make sure you portray me the right way, we’ll never have a problem.”

Suddenly, he’s had to fend off a slew of allegations, his image has taken a hit in some corners and, with Jackson leading the charge, a lot of people are deriding his “aw shucks” demeanor as phony. None of it is particularly serious, but it’s annoying to have to take time from his day to have to deal with it.

Jackson, though, isn’t backing off.

“I just like for people to be themselves, to be real all the time and don’t try to put on a front in front of everybody like how humble and everything at the interviews,” Jackson said. “He’s real humble and stuff like that, but then when you meet him, it’s [very different].”

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Jones insists he hasn’t changed and said suggestions to the contrary are likely borne out of jealousy of his success at a young age.

He’s fired a few well-placed zingers at Jackson himself, but for the most part, he’s tried to remain above the fray.

“Let him say whatever he needs to say to make him sleep at night,” Jones said.

Jones said at a workout Thursday that he doesn’t want to be the UFC’s golden boy and would prefer to be himself. Most 24-year-olds are just making their way in the UFC. This 24-year-old has run down a mugger, won the championship, appeared on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and Jimmy Kimmel Live, and been called perhaps the most physically gifted fighter in the sport’s history.

He’s trying to distance himself from all of the fuss and be the guy he says he’s been all along.

“I never asked to be called the future,” Jones said Thursday at a public workout in Denver. “I never asked to be called this and that. Everybody else is putting all these tags on me. I’m just being me. The people that find me cocky now or arrogant or say this or that, I’m actually grateful for the negativity in my career. I’m starting to realize that everything goes away. There’s nothing that you should lose sleep over. No matter how bad it may seem while it’s happening, it all goes away.

“This whole ‘Spygate’ issue – the day it happened, it was annoying. Now it’s just like, ‘Oh, whatever.’ The hand issue – Everybody was like, ‘Oh, you’re ducking fights.’ Now I haven’t heard that in a long time. So it all goes away. That’s the way it works. I’m just fighting. Ultimately, I’m here to fight.”

But Tiger Woods was there to just play golf and Jordan just wanted to shoot hoops. But when you’re blessed with the kind of talent they have, expectations rise and the responsibilities get heavier.

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If Jones, who is not only big, quick, fast and strong but is also a brilliant thinker and innovator in the cage, can handle the baggage that comes with his generational talent, we may be watching history in the making.

But as much as Jones’ career will be defined by what he does in the cage, his success in the cage will be hugely impacted by how well he navigates the waters away from it.

That’s really what bears watching.

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Kevin Iole covers boxing and mixed martial arts for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Kevin a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Friday, Sep 23, 2011