Even during a weekend featuring a middleweight championship bout, more than a few insiders have admitted that Jones' fight with Ryan Bader is the one they're most interested in seeing at UFC 126. The spotlight on him is that bright. But to Jones, "hype" is a four-letter word for its often negative connotation related to unearned attention. To Jones, it's not hype if it's hard-earned through work.
But despite his success and the limelight that's followed him, Jones won't concede he's anywhere close to a finished product as a fighter. In fact, he says one of his favorite parts of MMA is that there is always more to learn.
"I love it," he told MMA Fighting. "MMA is like swimming out into the middle of the ocean and realizing there's no other side out there. It's like climbing a ladder where there's no top rung. When you take account of expert psychology stuff, working on flexibility, guard passes, working from the bottom, and I could go on, there's so much to learn. I love it. But I say I'm at 20 percent of where I can be, where I should be."
If that's true, the thought of Jones at 100 percent capability would be downright terrifying.
As it is, the "20 percent" Jones has been downright dominant. At 11-1, he's buzzsawed through nearly everyone put in front of him, and even his one official loss came in a fight he was in complete control of until being disqualified for an illegal elbow.
Jones has enjoyed every bit of the ride, and he continues to do so.
On Wednesday, one hour after every other fighter had long since left the press conference, Jones was still there, schmoozing with media and industry people, in no rush to leave the company of others who wanted to talk fighting.
"I just have to realize with rising, all of this will come," Jones said about the attention. "I embrace the whole thing. My goal is to be No. 1 in our division, and I know a lot comes with that, so mentally I've been preparing for it."
Yes, Jones makes no secret of the fact that he is thinking big, that he constantly keeps an eye on whoever is holding the belt with the belief that one day, he'll be facing that person. Jones said he's been that way from the beginning.
"I've always been looking and moving towards the top," he said. "Honestly, whoever the champ was, I was paying attention. It was Machida for a while. My eye's been on Shogun for a while. I focus on the guy who's the champion. Of course, I worry about who's in front of me when they come in front of me, but really my goal is that belt. That's where my heart is at. All my attention is on Ryan Bader right now, but that's where my heart is."
Jones later made sure to point out that he didn't want it to sound like he was looking past Bader, only that he has confidence in himself stemming from the belief that he's done everything he can do to prepare in training.
The style matchup between Bader and Jones is part of its appeal. Bader is a meat and potatoes wrestler with a crushing right hand. Jones is a flashy risk-taker with speed. But because of that jazzy style, Jones' fundamentals are often overlooked, and those building blocks are just as sound as anyone else's.
But it's the flash, of course, that brings the attention. Just this week, Jones signed a sponsorship deal with athletic footwear company K-Swiss. As you might imagine, since MMA fighters don't wear shoes in their sport, it's a fairly unique deal.
For his part, Bader -- unbeaten at 12-0 yet the underdog -- was complimentary of Jones and understanding of the levels of attention he's received.
"He deserves it," Bader said. "He's been running through people. I like the underdog role. I like going in there and proving people wrong and going in and putting on a show. 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 and prove to myself and my fans that I can take that."
The Jones' flash manifests itself not only in his sponsorship deals and his striking, but throughout his game, including his trademark elbows, and his throws. His Greco-Roman wrestling prowess often leads to highlight reel throws. Jones thinks his wrestling will match up fine with Bader's All-American collegiate pedigree. He acknowledges he might get taken down at some point, but scoffs at the belief of some that Bader's "basic and brute" takedowns, as he calls them, will be consistently scoring.
"I think it's funny that people think I'm going to lose by him taking me down over and over again," he said. "His takedowns are very strong, but I've wrestled for so long. Maybe he'll get me down, but over and over again? And he's going to hold me there, as though I'm just a striker? That's interesting. Maybe I'll take him down over and over again."
Jones said he's visualized the fight at least 1,000 times in his head, and the most common way he sees it end is on a knockout with a knee as Bader shoots in for a takedown.
Should Jones win in that type of fashion, his fan base will grow even further. He's 23 years old and with the world in front of him. And he just wants you to remember, he's earned the success he's had, and he'll earn the success he wants.
"I hate that word 'hype,'" he said. "It's just hard work and reality. I worked my butt off to be where I am. I don't want people to think I'm all hype. I see what I do in practice, when I get hit, things I have to work on, and some of my downfalls. I'm really focused and motivated to always better myself. I've only been fighting for three years. I've learned fast. I take pride in that, but I also know there's so much more I don't know. There's so much stuff out there I'm not even tapping into yet."
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