Jon Jones is the Ultimate Fighting Championship's equivalent of Stephen Strasburg, the Washington Nationals pitcher who was so spectacular as a rookie before being injured. Strasburg did things that had been years – decades – since the likes of it had been seen in Major League Baseball.
Jones, 23, is similarly gifted. He became a sensation quickly in his UFC career after acknowledging that he incorporated moves he'd learned on YouTube into his fight game. He's 11-1 and his only loss came as a result of a disqualification because of an illegal elbow as he was in the process of destroying the highly regarded Matt Hamill.
Jones tries moves in the cage few other fighters would even attempt, but he rarely does the same one twice. Even more amazing, he's been so dominant that he hasn't had to put his flashy moves together in combination.
He's been the UFC's top prospect almost from the minute he signed his first contract, in 2008. Greatness seemed assured; it wasn't so much a question of if but when.
"He's a serious, serious talent," UFC president Dana White said of Jones.
White said after Jones' Aug. 1 victory over veteran Vladimir Matyushenko that it was time for the one-time junior college wrestling national champion to begin facing the top talent in the UFC's stacked light heavyweight division.
Two months after that win, though, Jones suddenly finds himself sharing the spotlight as the sport's most promising prospect. Ryan Bader is 12-0 after back-to-back impressive wins over Keith Jardine and Antonio Rogerio Nogueira.
The UFC is trying to put together a fight between the two young stars on Feb. 5 on its annual Super Bowl Eve card in Las Vegas. That has led to Jones being involved in a controversy – a minor, nearly completely insignificant controversy – for the first time in his career.
Bader, like many of Jones' past opponents, is a wrestler. Jones isn't particularly thrilled at facing yet another wrestler and mentioned it in several interviews as word leaked of the pending deal.
Jones was mortified when he perused the Internet and saw that his words were taken as disrespect for Bader's ability.
"I believe in the martial arts way and carrying yourself in a certain manner and never disrespecting your opponent," Jones said. "I'm not the type of person who would ever talk badly about another fighter and it's really bothered me to see what has happened and how I've been portrayed."
The son of a pastor, Jones praised Bader for his win over Nogueira and for improving to 12-0.
"You have to be really good to do what he's done," Jones said. "Ryan Bader is an excellent fighter who has accomplished a lot and deserves everything that is coming to him now."
Jones, though, concedes that he saw things he believes he can take advantage of when he meets Bader. The conventional wisdom has always been that a wrestler would probably be the one to beat Jones, because beating him would probably require getting him off his feet where he wouldn't be able to use his lethal strikes.
He's heard the talk that Bader might be the guy who could get him down and, after UFC 119, isn't buying it.
"It was a great fight to watch," Jones said of Bader's Sept. 25 victory over Nogueira at UFC 119. "I thought Ryan Bader was exposed a bit as far as his wrestling ability. Nogueira not being a wrestler and considering the fact that Nogueira was able to stuff a lot of his takedowns, it was very interesting for me to watch.
"But I respect Ryan Bader as an opponent. I respect that he's never lost a fight. I am up for the challenge and I'm excited by the challenge."
The controversy, however minor and trivial it may be, came because Jones was honest enough to admit he was tired of fighting wrestlers and would rather test himself against a different style. He was hardly demeaning Bader or Bader's talents.
He's cringed at those who have suggested he's become arrogant or cocky. He'll admit to being confident in his ability, but he insists he's far from cocky. The dictionary definition of cocky is "jauntily conceited or overbearing; self-confident in an aggressive or swaggering way."
Anyone who knows Jones would laugh at such a description of him. He has confidence – defined as "firm belief; trust, reliance" – in his ability in the cage, but he's by no means pompous.
"I'm confident because I study, study, study and, yes, I have some physical attributes that maybe give me an advantage. The long arms are something I was born with. But the way I pull off moves, the timing of the way I do my moves, it's all because of my passion and love for this sport. I'm confident because I work hard. I'm a warrior.
"But cockiness is not where I'm at. Financially, I'm not the most successful fighter. As far as stats, I haven't broken any records. As far as Hall of Fame, I'm not there. As far as being a champion, I'm not there. I have no reason to be cocky. I just love who I am, I love what I've earned and I love this sport."
The fight with Bader will be the biggest of his career because it will put the winner on the precipice of a championship shot. Still, Jones dreams of one day meeting his idol, UFC middleweight champion Anderson Silva.
Jones is an unabashed Silva fan and said he's frequently locked himself in his room and sat in front of his computer for four or five hours at a time watching Silva fights. His eyes sparkle as he speaks of moves Silva has pulled. He's memorized sequences in those fights, almost by heart.
"I've bathed myself in Anderson Silva," Jones said. "I think I'd have an advantage going into a fight with him because I've studied him so much. I've patterned my career after Anderson. You can't really say you know Anderson Silva, because, like me, he can pull off pretty much anything he wants to pull off, whatever he trained for that specific fight.
"So, you can't know Anderson Silva, but you can understand who he is and how he thinks and how he operates."
The one thing Silva has never done is look past one opponent to another he may fight down the line. Part of Silva's greatness has come from delivering night after night.
Jones understands that and plans to take a similar approach to fighting Bader.
"I feel I'm this close to getting a shot at being the UFC light heavyweight champion of the world and I'm not going to slow down or allow pressure to get in my way now," Jones said. "My dream is right in front of my face and I'm fighting someone I respect a great deal, so that will inspire me to train even harder."
- Jon Jones
- Ryan Bader
- Anderson Silva