SAN DIEGO – Few sports offer as much room for a can't-miss prospect to actually miss as mixed martial arts.
This isn't boxing, where future headliners are coddled in matches against two dozen or so palookas before they get so much as a whiff of real competition.
If a mixed martial artist happens to be lucky enough to get into the Ultimate Fighting Championship at an early age, and shows the potential to become a pay-per-view headliner, he's going to be tested early and often.
Each successive opponent will have a different style and experience level than the previous one. Each victory will mean a higher spot on the card on your next fight. A string of wins will mean increased television exposure in order to build a following and the increased pressure that comes with it.
Few fighters have run the UFC's star-making gauntlet like Jon Jones. The Endicott, N.Y., native just turned 23, but he's breezed his way through every test the promotion has given. The latest came on Sunday night, when the light heavyweight ran over former IFL champion Vladimir Matyushenko in less than two minutes in the main event of a UFC Live on Versus card at the San Diego Sports Arena.
"There's a lot of good fighters out there," Jones (12-1) said. "There's some guys that are great at jiu-jitsu, great wrestlers. I've got a lot of work to do, I'm aware I'm still a kid in this sport."
Matyushenko (24-5) entered the evening the winner of 11 of his past 12 fights, but he never had a chance to get untracked. Jones kept "The Janitor" backpedaling in the early going and then showed poise and maturity in attacking Matyushenko at his strength – wrestling – clinching Matyushenko and scoring a trip.
"A lot of times, a guy has wrestling credentials, he gets respected on a level like, 'Well, I can't take it there, he's got his takedown,' " said Jones. "[Trainer] Greg Jackson said, 'I see a chance for you to win this fight. I see you taking him down.' He's working on his striking and his takedowns and he's probably not working on his takedown defense, so I saw the opening and I took it."
Jones' jiu-jitsu has often looked raw, but on Sunday he showed tremendous fluidity in his ground work, as he smoothly moved from side control to a crucifix, from which he launched the devastating series of elbows that caused referee Herb Dean to call off the fight at 1:56.
"What you're seeing now, is him [being] technical," said Jackson. "He's doing the right things at the right time with a game plan. You're seeing the professional side of him. We work every day on his jiu-jitsu, his ground and pound is so vicious. There's so many different places we can go with him."
The win was so swift that Jones never had much of a chance to show off the dynamic, inventive offense that first brought him attention, with just a single spinning back kick added to his personal highlight reel.
"I had my spinning back kick," Jones laughed. "My coaches have done a great job of making sure my foundations are tight. I still have the room to exercise my creativity, but they have the right mix. Ever since I've been to the Jackson camp, I've had first-round wins. I want to be known as the best student the camp has ever had."
So where does Jones go from here? He's essentially cleaned out the B-level of the light heavyweight division. From Stephan Bonnar to Matt Hamill to Brandon Vera, Jones has rarely been in trouble. Only a controversial disqualification in a match he was dominating against Hamill has stained his record. Jones hasn't been pushed out of the first round since he left his local MMA gym in upstate New York and hooked up with Jackson's elite camp in Albuquerque, N.M.
Jones isn't shy about his intentions.
"Right now, I've passed the tests with flying colors," Jones said. "I don't want to sound arrogant, so I'm going to be careful how I word this, but I want to fight someone who is supposedly much better than me. If that needs to be the champion, or whoever, I want to fight someone who is supposedly much better than me who will help me challenge myself and evolve to the next level. Let me fight a top-three guy."
But Jackson knows that for every prodigy like Georges St. Pierre, who matured into a champion and leading pay-per-view draw, there's a Robbie Lawler, whose rocket ride to the top was knocked off course by a Nick Diaz knockout and a successive string of losses. So he's cautioning all involved to temper their expectations.
"He's young and on top of the world," said Jackson. "But believe me, he still has a ways to go. Don't put too much pressure on the kid, let him develop. He's done very well for himself to get where he is. The problem with falling in love with someone and putting them on a pedestal is if they mess up, they fall real hard."
That's the sort of reasoning that keeps Jones' head on straight. He comes from a family that had made athletics look easy: His brother Arthur is a rookie lineman in Baltimore Ravens training camp and another brother, Chandler, is a defensive lineman at Syracuse University. But training at a camp like Jackson's, surrounded by decorated fighters, has helped him deal with the burgeoning hype.
"To be honest with you, it does bother me sometimes," said Jones. "I feel the pressure to not just win, but go out and I have to impress people and look spectacular. I see someone like [WEC featherweight champion] Jose Aldo fight and he looks so sweet. I start to give myself that same type of pressure. So that's where my coaches say 'Don't worry about it, if you lose, all this hype and this media will fall away,' so they tell me to do it for myself. That gets me to relax, keep my focus … we've got a bunch of guys in our camp who are in their early 30s, late 20s, and they've been there. They get me to check myself."
Clearly, they're doing something right.
- Jon Jones