ATLANTA – No more than 250 people, probably fewer, gathered in the Georgia State University Sports Arena to watch fighters who will compete on Saturday's UFC 145 card at Philips Arena go through their final preparations during a public workout.
The sparse gathering was barely heard from until the last fighter of the day entered the room.
UFC light heavyweight champion Jon "Bones" Jones, who will defend his belt against arch rival Rashad Evans, livened the spectators simply with his presence. As Jones went through his paces, the crowd repeatedly applauded his moves, a scenario that occurred with exactly zero of the fighters who preceded him.
It's the kind of popularity that could make Jones the UFC's first transcendent star, one who crosses over and becomes a mainstream celebrity.
He's represented by Ari Emanuel, the CEO of the William Morris Endeavor Talent Agency and one of the most influential agents in the world. His managers are working on long-term sponsorships with the biggest global brands, trying to work out deals with athletic shoe and apparel companies and soft drink companies.
Jones is not there yet, as he'll quickly tell you, but he has the makings of an iconic brand like Kobe Bryant, Derek Jeter or Tom Brady.
Emanuel, who was the basis for the character Ari Gold played by Jeremy Piven in HBO's "Entourage," sought out Jones as a client. That's a pretty significant clue that Jones may one day gain elite status.
"I went after him to sign him because I think this is a guy who will transcend his sport," Emanuel said. "He's as big as it gets. He's a really nice guy to be around, he has a really nice personality and he's a great athlete. I went after him because he's one of those special athletes who only come along every so often."
Jones, 24, is 15-1 overall and 9-1 in the UFC, with his only loss being a disqualification many believe he didn't deserve. He's the guy who ran down a mugger a few hours before he routed Mauricio "Shogun" Rua to win the light heavyweight title, then cracked up a room filled with reporters as he recounted the story.
He's zoomed up the pound-for-pound lists and is second in the Yahoo! Sports rankings, behind only Anderson Silva. He's appeared in a Bud Lite commercial, was an honorary race official for the Daytona 500 and has already appeared on two of the major late-night talk shows – "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno" and "Jimmy Kimmel Live."
There have been comparisons between Jones and legendary boxing champion Muhammad Ali, although UFC president Dana White downplays that association.
White believes Jones has the ability to become a global superstar but said he needs to concentrate on being the first Jon Jones and not the second coming of Ali.
Jones is off the charts in everything needed to become a crossover star, White said, beginning with his otherworldly athletic ability.
"He just started training about four years ago, if that, and look what he's done in that time," White said. "He became the youngest [UFC] champion in history, and last year he beat three of the nastiest guys on earth and just destroyed them.
"But he's got a real nice, charismatic personality and people just gravitate to him. He has that something about him that makes you want to be around him, to see him."
Critics portray Jones as a phony, a theme Evans has stressed during the fight promotion. Jones hasn't always been beloved by the crowd and heard boos when he walked to the cage before his fights against Quinton "Rampage" Jackson at UFC 135 on Sept. 24, as well as against Lyoto Machida at UFC 140 last December.
The backlash, Evans says, is that "people see through him" and realize he's cocky. But Jones insists he's the same humble, wide-eyed guy who first learned MMA by reading books and studying videos on YouTube.
Jones has heard the comparisons to Ali and Michael Jordan, among others, but isn't entirely comfortable with them if only because he doesn't want people to think he's the one doing the comparing.
"I think people don't realize that I'm not [the one who is] saying that," Jones said. "People are saying that. Fans are saying that and the media is saying that. That's the first thing I wanted to clear up. Quote me. Somebody tweet me when they ever saw me saying that I'm Muhammad Ali or I'm Michael Jordan.
"I'm a fan of great people. I'm a fan of Michael Jackson. He was so brilliant. I'm a fan of Muhammad Ali. I'm a fan of Bruce Lee. I'm a fan of Michael Jordan. I'm a fan of Kobe Bryant. I'm a fan of great athletes, and I study these guys. I try to see what makes them, them. I realize that all these guys have a sickening work ethic. They have supreme confidence, and they're very mental. Everything's mental with them. So, when I hear these comparisons, it inspires me."
Jones added that being associated with greatness does add pressure. It's a lot to live up to for anyone, and Jones admits he feels the weight of expectation.
"When credible sources give me these compliments, it makes me think this way: If it doesn't come true, it can only be me who messed it up," Jones explained. "I have to work extremely hard and I have to continue to believe and make bold statements and be the person I am despite how many people don't like it. So, yeah, it's a beautiful thing, and I'm working towards making it reality."
He'll fight in UFC gear Saturday instead of having sponsor patches all over his body. Jones has made clear his desire to be sponsored by Nike, and his manager, Malki Kawa, said he has been in talks with not only Nike but several athletic footwear companies.
Kawa also said he's talked with Coca-Cola about Jones and that two of the company's executives will attend Saturday's bout.
Welterweight champion Georges St. Pierre, who has an endorsement deal with Under Armour, said if Jones can land one of those blue-chip sponsors, it will be a significant win not only for Jones but for the sport.
"[Companies] are interested in sponsoring an athlete who does well in his sport, but also who has a good image outside of his sport," St. Pierre said. "As an athlete, it's important to try to have both, to perform well and to have a good image. … The fact that Jon is doing this is good for everybody else because everybody will benefit. He's opened the door for everybody."
Jones, though, has to keep winning. And while he's a massive favorite over Evans – between 5- and 7-1 – he said he's trained as if he's the underdog.
"He's a phenomenal fighter," Emanuel said. "How often have you ever seen a guy who can fight like he can? But he knows that all of the other things come out of winning. Winning begets all of that. Jon's got that personality that can make him a larger-than-life figure, but he's aware that he has to get it done in the cage."
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