As the midpoint of 2014 quickly approaches, the Ultimate Fighting Championship finds itself in a strange spot. Its biggest star for years, Georges St-Pierre, is on an indefinite break from the sport and is now is in the midst of an ACL recovery. Anderson Silva, the longtime middleweight title holder and once consensus greatest fighter ever, has a broken leg and wont fight again this year. The featherweight, lightweight, welterweight, middleweight and heavyweight champions are all currently on the sidelines through injury. The lower weight champions have yet to break through with the fans and, maybe most disappointingly of all, women’s bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey, after pulling less than impressive numbers in her fight with Sara McMann, is on another movie sabbatical before a much maligned next defence of her title against Alexis Davis in July.
That leaves one man. A glimmer of hope in the shape of pound-for-pound table topper, Jon Jones.
Although Jones has yet to fight in 2014, he has still emerged as the possible shining light going forward. The 205 lbs king has sighed down a minefield of former champions and highly rated challengers on his way to the top of the rankings which include Mauricio “Shogun” Rua, Rashad Evans, Quintin “Rampage” Jackson and Chael Sonnen, amongst others. The New Yorker has pulled steady (reported) Pay-Per-View numbers in his career to date – coming close to, or over, 500,000 buys in all of his title fights so far apart from the last one against Alexander Gustafsson where just 310,000 people tuned in to one of the greatest fights ever (a number which will surely pale into insignificance if the pair meet again later this year). Jones has been unflappable inside of the cage and trailblazing outside of it having signed deals with worldwide companies Gatorade and Nike. A great start to a career which looks like it could get a whole lot better very quickly….
The only thing thought to be holding Jones back is his seeming inability to connect with the fans. A spate of incidents ranging from crashing his Bentley when under the influence of alcohol to refusing to fight Chael Sonnen on short notice (causing UFC 151 to be cancelled) to taking to twitter to ask for a free subscription to fight pass have caused a wide divide between Jones and a large group of those MMA fans. And that’s leaving aside horrendous Instagram comments sent from Jones’ account which he claims were done after he was hacked. Individually, these may look like mistakes you could forgive, and they are, but MMA fans tend not only to remember these things but hold a grudge about them also.
In Jones’ rise, though, MMA fans (the hardcore ones at least) aren’t that important. The people who complain about Jones and spread a wide-ranging aura of disdain towards him will be the first to tune in to see him fight. Why? Because, basically, he is the best. The fans who dislike Jones outside of the cage appreciate his work inside of it (even if that is hid under a not-so-light veil of contempt) and/or tune in to see him lose. Either way, those fans, although unrelenting in their hatred, are guaranteed.
The next step for Jones, which isn’t too far away, is breaking through to the mainstream and enticing the casual fans to come in big numbers, and then to come back time and time again; something which the UFC badly need in the current picture. And he has the opportunity to do so, because what Jon Jones has ahead of him in the next year is the fuse which lights the brightest career ever seen in the UFC – and he has all the tools to light it.
Put quite simply, Jon Jones is on the brink of superstardom.
A win against Glover Texeira this weekend, in a fight which isn’t expected to draw well PPV numbers wise, will seemingly do nothing more than lead into a hugely anticipated rematch with Alexander Gustafsson – but that’s enough to make it important. The Gustafsson fight looks set in stone to be the biggest of Jones’ career to date. More eyes will be on him than ever before and he has the chance to impress all of the, probably close to one million, fans with one huge display. If he manages to come through that in solid fashion, a date with long time verbal sparring partner Olympian Daniel Cormier awaits in a match-up which seems to be a perfect fit for PPV viewers to rebound into. It looks like a well placed springboard should everything go to plan – and that’s before a mention of a highly possible move to heavyweight in the near future, which Jones refuses to entertain currently, where another line of big fights await.
Helping him on the road to achieving all of that is the recent experience of nearing defeat, without the actual hassle of losing, in the first meeting with Gustafsson – a fight where Jones can learn more about himself than any of his wins. He showed heart, exceptional cardio, toughness (both mental and physical) and a dedication to win in a fight where he looked off the boil from the very start. The most important lesson he learned from it, though, was to not underestimate anyone in the UFC – something which he will be expected to put on show against Texeira this Saturday.
The foundation is undoubtedly there for Jones to evolve beyond anyone the sport has ever seen, both as a “star” and as a fighter. He has one of the best training teams in MMA with Greg Jackson and Mike Winkeljohn, he works with Malki Kawa (one of the sport’s premier agents), and has family full of sporting stars (with two brothers in the NFL) who have experienced how to deal with the fame and fortune.
It looks, on the surface of it at least, that Jones has the ability and the support system behind him to go all the way. All he has to do now is the hardest part, win the fights – and win them well. That all starts with Glover Texeira on PPV this Saturday, a man he will know he can’t underestimate. Many people see it as an easy defence of his title when in actual fact it is first step for Jon Jones in a long climb to the next level. Greatness awaits.
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