LAS VEGAS – Jon Jones knows that he'll face the fight of his life at UFC 126 on Saturday, when he'll meet unbeaten Ryan Bader in a duel not only for positioning within the Ultimate Fighting Championship's stacked light heavyweight division but for the more prestigious honor of the promotion's most heralded prospect as well.
There haven't been such raves for a young player like 23-year-old Jones since Michael Jordan was a rookie with the Bulls.
Jones knows that the challenge he'll face in Bader is immense – Bader is a terrific wrestler, a concussive puncher and a surprisingly strong kicker. Jones has been so focused for the past few months that he's all but dreamed of Bader. He's human, however, and he lets his guard down, if only for a moment, allowing himself to look beyond Saturday's fight.
"I think," he says, lustfully, "I'm going to go to Pizza Hut and get a large one. I'll probably go to McDonald's and get a double cheeseburger. At least one or two."
He chuckles, then realizes the danger of thinking ahead. He can't let his body go, the way he'd like, because he's got to help former light heavyweight champion Rashad Evans prepare for his March 19 bout in New Jersey against reigning 205-pound kingpin Mauricio "Shogun" Rua.
"I need to be the best training partner I can be for Rashad," Jones says dutifully, "so I can't really go crazy. But I will at least have a double cheeseburger."
He cracks the broad smile that has made him one of the UFC's most popular fighters and lifts his shirt – 48 hours before he has to weigh in at no more than 206 pounds – to reveal a washboard-like abdomen.
He says all the right things – that he's taking the fight no differently than he's taken fights with guys such as Brandon Vera and Vladimir Matyushenko – but the rippling abdominal muscles would suggest otherwise.
He knows, and Bader knows, that much is at stake.
"Obviously, this is a huge fight for both of us," Bader said. "Everyone knows that. There is a lot that is riding on this."
UFC president Dana White said he'll consider the winner a Top 10 light heavyweight, one who will move into position to fight for the championship. That's saying a lot, considering the division includes some of the sport's elite fighters.
Jones has been a runaway hype machine since his UFC debut in 2008, when he scored a decision over Andre Gusmao. Jones unveiled moves never seen before, along with athleticism unmatched in mixed martial arts.
Bader is a thickly muscled guy with a more traditional MMA build and background. He was a college wrestler at Arizona State and, not surprisingly, a star linebacker when he was in high school. Once he took up MMA, he found that his strength allowed him to punch extraordinarily hard.
While Jones has been hailed as a budding superstar from his earliest UFC days, Bader has taken a longer, quieter road to contention. He was the winner of Season 8 of "The Ultimate Fighter" and has reeled off a 12-0 record, including wins over veterans Antonio Rogerio Nogueira and Keith Jardine.
Bader, 27, doesn't begrudge Jones the hype he's received: "He deserves it because he's been running through people."
Bader is about a 3-1 underdog, which is shocking for a guy with a perfect record and few close fights. That's indicative of the fascination the public has with Jones, who learned a lot of moves by watching YouTube videos and who continues to work on new, unusual techniques.
He's embraced his role as the underdog, using it as motivation.
"I like the underdog role," Bader said. "I like proving people wrong and going in and putting on a show. That's what I like to do. I respect him as a person and as a fighter; He deserves all the accolades he's got. It's my turn to go in there and prove to myself and my fans I can take that."
No one whom Bader has faced has been consistently able to stuff his takedowns. And when Bader gets top position, he's been able to deliver serious punishment.
Jones, though, is a former national junior-college champion wrestler and isn't concerned that Bader will be able to dump him on his back and bust him up. If Bader wants to try that, Jones would welcome the challenge.
"I know myself and I know my weaknesses, and I don't think a strong wrestler would be the worst matchup for me at all," Jones said. "I've been wrestling for a very long time and I have a lot of pride in my wrestling."
There's a psychological aspect to fighting, though, and once someone does something you don't think he can do, it can cause panic to set in. Nobody in the UFC had gotten up once former heavyweight champion Brock Lesnar had taken them down, but Cain Velasquez did when they met in a title match at UFC 121 in Anaheim, Calif.
Lesnar dumped Velasquez seconds into the bout, but Velasquez quickly bounced up and won a psychological edge before going on to stop Lesnar and take the belt from him.
Jones is confident without being cocky, and one gets the sense he sincerely doesn't believe Bader will be able to take him down. If that happens, though, it wouldn't be the worst thing, Jones insists.
"No one has seen me fight off my back yet, but I work on my gaidojutsu all the time with [Coach] Greg Jackson," Jones said.
"My goal is to not be taken down at all – and I believe in my heart I won't be taken down – but if he does get me down, I'm mentally prepared for that," Jones added. "For the people who think a big factor in this fight will be Bader double-leg-diving me, I think it's silly. I won a state championship, a national championship, and just because I'm a striker it doesn't mean I haven't been wrestling since I was 14."
There's a lot of psychological baiting going on between the two, but White cares about none of that. He believes the Jones-Bader match could be one of several on the card to pull fans from their seats.
He was disgusted, he said, while watching the Timothy Bradley-Devon Alexander boxing bout last week on HBO, and was eager to let everyone know that Jones-Bader will easily trump it in terms of excitement.
"I love to see great fights; I love to put on greats whenever possible," White said. "I don't like to take any chunks out of boxing, but the fight that happened last Saturday, where they were pumping this up as the two guys who were undefeated and all this stuff, was the worst fight I've ever seen. It's one of those fights where I say in boxing, 'Did I just sit home on a Saturday night and waste my time and watch this?'
"I hate to give guarantees, but I guarantee you "Bones" Jones and Bader won't do that on Saturday night. I'd lay money down and guarantee you that that's going to be a [sensational] fight."
The winner will be the true sensation. Jones is 11-1, but his loss was a disqualification for an illegal elbow in a fight against Matt Hamill which he was dominating. If Bader is able to beat him, he'll be the hottest prospect in the game.
If Jones derails Bader, though, it will push the already unbelievable expectations of him even higher.
"I know all the hype is out there and it's all good," Jones said. "But hype means nothing if you don't put the time and effort and passion into it. The hype is a result of the work, and I have worked harder for this fight than I ever have for any fight – ever."
The good thing for Jones? Win or lose, he'll get a double cheeseburger or two on Sunday.
- Jon Jones
- Ryan Bader