Grounded Jones on brink of superstardom

NEW YORK – When his teammates or his opponents find out Arthur Jones' "secret," the scene is almost always the same. The Baltimore Ravens' defensive tackle is the older brother of budding UFC superstar Jon Jones. When other players learn that Jon is Arthur's brother, they, to use Arthur's words, "kind of go crazy."

Veteran or rookie, superstar like Ray Lewis or up-and-comer like Ray Rice, it doesn't matter. The reaction is the same nearly every time.

"I don't go around telling everyone, 'Hey, Jon Jones is my brother and he's fighting in the UFC,' " Arthur Jones said. "But it comes up. When one of my coaches brings it up or someone just finds out, they go, 'That guy is your brother? I love Jon Jones!' And they all get so excited and want to talk about it and what he's doing."

Jon Jones seems to have that kind of impact upon people. He's only 23 but is poised to become the youngest champion in UFC history (excluding tournaments) if he can defeat the formidable Mauricio "Shogun" Rua on Saturday at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J., in the main event of UFC 128.

He has the ability to do for mixed martial arts what Tiger Woods did for golf when he turned professional in 1996. Few remember, or care, that Woods made his professional debut at the Greater Milwaukee Open. What they do remember is that within three months, he'd won the Las Vegas Invitational and that within eight, he'd won the Masters.

And before long, television ratings skyrocketed, purses soared, minorities took up the game and interest in golf climbed to all-time highs.

A quiet, humble guy who rarely speaks much above a whisper and is so concerned about his image that he routinely pleads with reporters to portray him properly, Jones seems an unlikely choice to be the industry-changing personality, but for whatever reason, he is.

His manager, Malki Kawa, said he's got an "Ali-esque" way about him, referring to legendary boxing champion Muhammad Ali. And though UFC president Dana White can't recall a thing about Jones' 2008 debut, he is fully aware of the kind of impact Jones may have upon his business.

White said Jones has the kind of widespread appeal a young Mike Tyson once did.

"He has that 'it' factor and it's not this ferocious, mean, it's smooth, slick," White said. "He's good looking. He speaks well. But when he gets in there and fights, man, he's another guy. He's a finisher."

He's 12-1 overall and 6-1 in the UFC, and his only loss was by disqualification to Matt Hamill in a fight he was winning going away. Jones landed an illegal elbow and was disqualified near the end of the first round.

In Rua, he's facing a consummate professional who, like Jones, was once the young prodigy but now is a grizzled veteran with wins over the likes of Quinton "Rampage" Jackson, Lyoto Machida, Alistair Overeem, Chuck Liddell and Antonio Rogerio Nogueira.

Jones, though, seems completely unfazed. He's already signing autographs with the tagline, "Champ 2011," and speaks of impacting the world much more than he does winning fights.

"In order to be a great champion, and I'm not a champion yet, but I'm speaking as if I was because I believe I will be, but part of being a great champion is not being known for your tactics," Jones said following a news conference at Radio City Music Hall. "Part of being a great champion is changing the world in a way. One impact I'm going to have in trying to play that role is to help people with cancer."

Jones' older sister, Carmen, died in 2000 of brain cancer and he's trying to use his platform to help combat the disease. After the card Saturday, he'll host an after party in a night club, as many fighters do. They're given an appearance fee by the clubs, an easy way to make extra money.

Jones is donating what he makes from his after party to a charity designed to combat children's cancers.

"The demands on him have been insane and he's been getting pushed and pulled in so many directions, but look at how he's handled himself," Kawa said. "He's fighting one of the great fighters out there and this is his first title shot, but he's very composed and he's gone above and beyond in trying to promote this fight.

"And how many guys his age, with what he has going on, would be thinking of doing something to raise money for cancer [research]? Come on. All they'd be thinking is 'Train, train, train,' and 'Fight, fight, fight.' Fighting for a UFC title is a huge thing for anybody, let alone a guy his age. But he's not consumed by it."

That's why, Kawa said, the real A-list sponsors are lining up to get a piece of him. Kawa said he believes that Jones will someday "easily" be on the level of NBA stars Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan and LeBron James in terms of pop culture significance and recognition.

Fortune 100 companies like American Express, Visa, Coca-Cola and Pepsi-Cola will be interested in signing him to sponsorship deals, Kawa predicted.

It's a huge rise for a guy whom his NFL-playing brother says was a "skinny runt" when he was a boy.

Jon, Arthur Jones said, was never a particularly gifted athlete. Arthur and his other brother, Chandler, a football player at Syracuse, were more natural athletes. Jon wasn't blessed with the physical skills his brothers were and had to work for everything.

"He's got two left feet on the basketball court," Arthur Jones said of his brother. "When he dribbles, I think he's in trouble unless he dribbles with two hands. In football, he couldn't catch a cold. Jon wasn't really a natural athlete. He had to work hard for everything. He didn't become a great football player, but he worked and worked and worked and in his senior year, he was voted the most improved player on his [high school] team.

"He was into wrestling and he set a goal of winning the state title and he really went out and busted his butt to make it happen."

If Jon Jones manages to defeat Rua – and he's currently around a 2-1 favorite – his life will change dramatically, White predicts. How he handles that will be the determining factor in how big a star he becomes.

Jones said he's already being besieged by women who want to be with him, but White said it's going to be far beyond women.

"If he wins that title on Saturday night, his life is going to change so dramatically," White said. "I don't know if you saw on Twitter [on Tuesday], but he's got 50 Cent with him now and 50 Cent is tweeting me going, 'Where's the love for Jon Jones and his style and his this and his that?' But that's how it starts. You win that title and it's a roller coaster ride after that.

"Hopefully, he's mature enough and smart enough and grounded enough to be able to deal with it. Let me tell you what: I've seen it happy to everybody. Your whole life changes. I call them the 'Cling-ons,' and they come out of the woodwork. He'll have more 'Cling-ons' than he knows what to do with."

White said the younger stars, such as Jones, are particularly vulnerable.

"They get in there and they tell [the fighter], 'Oh, they're [expletive] you,' " White said. "They go, 'I can do this and I'm going to get you movie roles and I can do that for you.' They promise all this [expletive] that they never deliver and guys lose focus on who they really are. They have to remember, they're fighters. They're not actors. They're not supermodels or any of that stuff.

"The girls are a big part of it, too. You can walk into any night club in front of the line. You don't wait for things any more. Everything changes and it is a lot to deal with."

It's a lot to deal with for anyone, let alone a 23-year-old from a small town in upstate New York. But Jones, who says "happiness is a decision," said there is nothing wrong with dreaming big.

And so, he works toward not only winning fights and collecting championships but of becoming a seminal figure in his sport and a force for good in the world. The guy who used YouTube to learn some of the moves in the cage now wants to use it to promote his outlook on life.

Muhammad Ali made rhymes, and Jones uses "think positive" Tweets.

"I don't have much and I don't have the finances to change the world," Jones said. "I don't have the following of 50 Cent, but I have my little 50,000 followers on Twitter. If I could just tweet positive things, happy things, and just play a little role [in changing] the world. I know there is some 12-year-old out there somewhere reading my tweets and I can do my thing that way.

"And if you noticed, I've never sworn on Twitter and I've never put anyone down on Twitter. My Twitter is my sanctuary and if I could just give anybody the feeling that, 'I want to be like Jon Jones. I want to be happy all the time. I want to be nice to people. I want to be confident.' That's what I want to give to someone. That means more to me than winning a belt. That is having a belt."