TORONTO – The challenges for Jon Jones are, at least for now, no longer in the cage. The UFC light heavyweight champion is vastly better than the competition and will have to move divisions if he is truly to be challenged.
Jones is the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world and will set a long-standing mark for most successful title defenses should he, as expected, defeat Alexander Gustafsson on Saturday in the main event at UFC 165 at the Air Canada Centre.
[Yahoo Sports Radio: Dana White previews UFC 165]
Every fighter is vulnerable in MMA because there are so many ways to win, and lose, a fight, but Jones at light heavyweight is as close to a sure thing as there is in the sport. He's not just beating his competition; he's destroying it.
No, Jones' biggest challenge comes far away from the Octagon, in a place where he's not nearly as comfortable.
The next big challenge for Jones will be duplicating Floyd Mayweather's path in boxing and becoming a transcendent, larger-than-life figure in the sport.
Mayweather is one of the most recognizable figures in the world and has the audacious paycheck to prove it. He was guaranteed $41.5 million last week to fight Canelo Alvarez in Las Vegas, but when it's all said and done, adding in his pay-per-view bonuses, Mayweather is going to walk away with at least $70 million.
He's the face of the sport, the one boxer all fans know. He's devoutly loved by some, fiercely hated by others and well known by all.
That's the next step for Jones, the best fighter but hardly the biggest star in his sport.
Jones already has an endorsement deal with Nike, and on Thursday announced he will become the first MMA fighter to wear a Gatorade logo into the ring as part of a new deal with that company. Still, he lags in recognition, acceptance and star power compared to Mayweather.
Jones' manager, Malki Kawa, conceded that Jones isn't at Mayweather's level from a marketing and promotional standpoint yet, but he pleaded for time.
Kawa noted that Mayweather was well into his career before he caught fire and became the unquestioned face of the sport.
There was a time, as laughable as it seems now, when Mayweather was considered a poor draw. But Mayweather just finished a fight in which the live gate was a record $20 million and in which the pay-per-view is very likely to break his own existing record of 2.525 million set in 2007 in a fight with Oscar De La Hoya.
As significant as the Nike and Gatorade deals are for Jones and, to a larger degree, for the sport, it's still just a blip compared to what Mayweather is doing.
"Floyd had more than 30 fights before he became that big crossover star, after he fought Oscar De La Hoya," Kawa said. "Jon's making progress, but he's not quite there yet. A lot of it has to do with the fact the sport's not as old and as established like boxing; the sport itself isn't there yet, so it's hard for one athlete to do that.
"The Fox [television] deal [with the UFC] is helping tremendously. That's bringing MMA into the mainstream and it's going to help take this to the next level."
Mayweather's talent is a part of his success, but Jones is as talented in his sport as Mayweather is in his. But Mayweather's got this unique ability to evoke emotion among the fan base, whereas Jones sits in an odd middle ground.
Jones isn't widely beloved by the fan base, but neither is he hated; there are those who dislike him for being what they perceive as arrogant, but he hasn't gotten the fan base so riled up that it will buy tickets and/or pay-per-views hoping to see him lose.
In an interview with the London Telegraph, UFC president Dana White said of Jones, "I think it's something about his personality that people don't like."
The athletes who are the biggest draws generally are elite in their sport but are either beloved or despised.
Jones definitely wants to take the good guy route, and it's going to take time for the broader fan base, as opposed to the hardcore MMA audience, to get to know and warm up to him.
If he breaks records – and the possibility of setting the divisional record for most successful defenses is the first of many within his reach – he may start to get his audience to look more closely at him.
"I've set a lot of goals and becoming the greatest light heavyweight, record-wise, is definitely a big goal of mine," Jones said. "Guys like [former middleweight champion] Anderson Silva with 10 title defenses, it just motivates me a lot. It's just to keep moving forward and things like that.
[Watch: UFC 165 extended preview]So, yes, this record means everything to me and did kind of since my very first fight."
Jones' popularity is, in a way, intertwined with the UFC's success, which is why Kawa is so bullish on its broadcast deal with Fox. That's what will bring MMA into the mainstream, Kawa said.
The deal with Fox is making it easier for fighters to land major sponsors and giving those potential sponsors a bit of peace of mind about what they're getting into.
Jones will be featured soon in a spread in GQ. He's already been on the cover of other non-MMA magazines, and interest in him from the mainstream market is building.
MMA is only 20 years old – UFC 167 will be the official 20th anniversary show on Nov. 16 in Las Vegas – and it was all but ignored for the first 12 or 13 years of its existence.
It takes a lot more work, and a fair amount of good luck, for an MMA fighter to break through in the mainstream marketplace than it does for athletes from the traditional sports.
"It's way easier now to go out there and sell a baseball player, a football player, a basketball player," Kawa said. "People know those sports; they're familiar with them. There's a long history and a track record and there is a comfort level there that people have with those sports that we're just building in MMA now.
"We're all going through the growing pains. With the exposure from the Fox deal, it's getting better and better all the time. The thing is, Jon's a young guy and we realize this is a marathon, not a sprint. Jon's on his way to being that guy. I wouldn't be surprised some day to see him in an Amex commercial, things you've never seen an MMA fighter do. I think you'll see things like a McDonald's commercial potentially. Or after a fight, Joe Rogan will ask him what's next and he'll say, 'I'm going to Disney World.' I think that's where we're heading."
Floyd Mayweather has laid out the blueprint. The burden is now on Jones to prove that he can follow it.
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