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Nothing that Jon Jones says would suggest that he's fallen in love with himself or that he believes he's God's gift to mixed martial arts. He speaks softly and humbly, talking of what an honor it is to fight Vladimir Matyushenko and scoffing at suggestions he's on the verge of becoming a superstar.
Listen to him rave about Matyushenko's skills and you might walk away fearing for Jones' safety.
Yet, one needs to go no further than UFC.com to see the 23-year-old light heavyweight referred to as the future of the MMA. Search the Internet and you'll see words such as "star," "sensation," "phenom" and "generational talent" next to his name.
Jones, who fights Matyushenko in the main event of UFC on Versus 2 on Sunday at the Sports Arena in San Diego, has heard and read it all. He's been the darling of the fight crowd since his UFC debut at UFC 87 on Aug. 9, 2008, when he outworked veteran Andre Gusmao and then admitted he learned the sport by reading books and watching videos on YouTube.
After dismantling Brandon Vera, himself once a heavily hyped UFC prospect poised on the brink of stardom, on March 21 in Broomfield, Colo., Jones seems a fight away from hitting the big-time. The UFC's light heavyweight division is filled with, well, stars, sensations and phenoms, from guys like champion Mauricio "Shogun" Rua and former champions Lyoto Machida, Quinton "Rampage" Jackson and Rashad Evans to legends like Randy Couture and Rich Franklin.
Jones has the talent to some day place himself in the same sentence with those types of fighters, though he's yet to accomplish an iota of what the least of them have so far.
And in professional sports, there are many more great prospects who don't make it big than there are those who do. All you have to do to understand that is to remember JaMarcus Russell, David Carr, Ki-Jana Carter, Aundray Bruce and Walt Patulski, all former first overall selections in the NFL Draft who were flops of varying levels once they turned pro. And that doesn't even consider the NBA, where guys like Kwame Brown and Michael Olowokandi are prominent among the first overall flops.
Jones is extraordinarily gifted, no doubt – Just watch the way he almost effortlessly took apart Stephan Bonnar and Vera if you need convincing – but he still has to prove he can handle the pressure that comes with being a young prodigy.
He's going to have women throwing themselves at him and men making him all sorts of outlandish business propositions. For the time being, he'll never have to pay for his own drinks if he chooses to hit a night club, which might seem like a good thing, but the more he wins and the greater the legend grows, the greater the scrutiny will get.
Evans, his teammate at Jackson's Submission Fighting, knows a thing or two about dealing with soaring expectations. He likes what he sees from Jones, but he also knows there's a long way to go before anyone draws conclusions.
"It's hard to hear the praise and people saying you're this and you're that and not get sucked in by it," Evans said. "Whenever you build a high profile, there are always going to be expectations and, a lot of times, living up to those expectations is the hardest part. Jon seems to be doing a decent job of showing up to the fights and being a game fighter when he hits the arena, but the more successful he is, the more pressure there's going to be and the more people are going to expect from him.
"People are cheering him and telling him he's great and they're patting him on the back. But the thing about that is, the same people who are patting you on the back and wanting to be your best friend are going to be the ones who will break you when you hit a bump in the road."
The best move Jones has made in his young career probably was opting to train at Jackson's in Albuquerque, N.M., where a treasure trove of not only the sport's elite but also the sport's most grounded personalities are housed. Jones is a teammate of Evans and welterweight champion Georges St. Pierre, as well as veterans like Keith Jardine and Shane Carwin. They're the consummate professionals, even-keeled and level-headed and their presence has helped teach Jones the importance of losing the ego, ignoring the expectations and working every day in order to get better.
"Growing up, being humble was something that was stressed to me time and time again," Jones said. "And working at Jackson's and being around guys like Rashad and Keith Jardine, they're like big brothers and they show me the right way to do things.
"I don't pay attention to the hype. It's not that important to me, honestly. I am in MMA because I have a passion for the sport. I love it. It's becoming who I am as a person. And I know there are going to be critics, some who love what you're doing and some who hate what you're doing. To me, none of it matters. The only thing that matters is being humble and working as hard as I can and fighting the best that I can because this is what I love to do."
Trainer Greg Jackson said when he was building his camp, he recalled a story he heard one of The Beatles tell about how they dealt with fame. It's become part of the philosophy of his gym, for the group to keep the individual grounded and humble.
The Beatles remain one of the greatest acts in history. But Jackson said they policed themselves and didn't allow each other to change and become influenced by their press clippings.
"When one of them would get full of himself and start to show his ego, the other three would jump on him," Jackson said. "They'd say, 'Hey, relax. You're one of us. We're all in the same boat.' And in our gym, with the culture the way it is and the number of veterans we have, it's kind of that way.
"A hot prospect can't come into our gym and say he's done this or that, because so many of the guys there have already done that. Jon's a humble guy to begin with, but when he comes through the doors and sees a Georges St. Pierre or a Rashad Evans and he realizes that no matter what anyone thinks about him, they've done what he's done and way more. It's not a giant deal to them and they remind each other about the need to stay humble and to keep your focus."
Jackson said Matyushenko is the perfect type of opponent for Jones at this stage of Jones' career. Matyushenko is 24-4 and a former International Fight League champion. He once fought Tito Ortiz for the UFC light heavyweight title and his only losses are to Antonio Rogerio Nogueira, Andrei Arlovski, Vernon White and Ortiz.
He's not going to be intimidated or awestruck by Jones. And nor, Jones said, should he.
"He's an extremely durable guy and he's earned the respect of everybody in this business," Jones said of Matyushenko. "He's a lion and he's not going to lay down for a 23-year-old kid. I don't know for sure what is going to happen, but I do know it's going to be a very tough fight."
Jones has quickly earned the respect of UFC president Dana White, but even White, who frequently gets fired up by a high-profile knockout, knows he has to temper his enthusiasm.
Jones is still more about potential than performance and White knows all too well that a lot of potentially great fighters have come into the UFC and left with losing records, swollen eyes and bloodied lips.
"He's an extremely talented kid with a great future," White said. "But he's a young guy and he's got to do it in the Octagon. I know you guys (in the media) love him, and I'll admit, it's hard not to when you see what he can do. But to become a star in this sport and to make it to legend status, you have to do it night after night and year after year and you have to prove you can handle all the outside stuff that comes with it.
"He's off to a good start, but he's got a long way to go, still, and a lot to prove."
- Jon Jones
- Rashad Evans
- Vladimir Matyushenko