TORONTO – Jon Jones’ atmosphere expands with every fight. The last time he was in Toronto, getting set to defend his belt against Vitor Belfort, he’d just burst the niche-sport bubble by signing an endorsement deal with Nike.
This time through southern Ontario, with his whole faction wearing Jones’ red and black Nike t-shirts, Jones has signed a deal with the Gatorade. The latest big-time endorsement dovetails with his chance at history. Jones is getting ready defend his light heavyweight belt an unprecedented sixth time when he faces Swedish challenger Alexander Gustafsson.
Breaking records, rocking the "swoosh," sporting his own line of shoes, and now aligning with the "thirst quencher?" This sport has found its Michael Jordan. And his name is "Bones."
Come Saturday night at the Air Canada Centre, Jones will show up a lot "like Mike." He will have both the Nike and Gatorade insignias on his trunks as he does battle with Swedish challenger Alexander Gustafsson.
And the man who tears down the barrier between these mega-companies and the 26-year old star of a "fringe sport," Malki Kawa, was all smiles at the Shangri-La Hotel on UFC media day for having brought so many elements together.
"I’m going to tell you something, and I’m not going to lie -- I’m probably the proudest I’ve ever been working with Jon Jones over this Gatorade deal," Kawa told MMA Fighting. "The reason I’m saying that, it’s a combination of both [this deal and the Nike deal]. When I first met Jon he told me his ultimate goal was to be sponsored by Nike and Gatorade. This is something he wanted from he day he set foot in this, from the day he started competing.
"So for me to sit back and say, we broke down some barriers, that we went after it, and that he did everything he had to do to get it? And to finally sit down and watch it come together on a fight, where he can also set the record for becoming the best light heavyweight ever with the most defenses, and to see those two companies on his shorts? It made me feel really good. I’m proud about that Nike deal. That Nike deal was the biggest thing ever. But I’m just as proud about the Gatorade deal. And I’m even more proud that it all comes together."
Jones’s presence has grown to the point that he could barely make his way through the media throng. His entourage has grown, too. He's got a new goal of doing some movies. His demeanor has changed. He is confident and cocky indistinguishably, but rarely insincere (as he was accused of being not so long ago). He had his travails in 2012, but he seems to be thundering ahead in 2013.
Kawa says that part of the maturation process comes from having lived in his skin a little longer. At this point, Jones has stopped overly worrying about what people think.
"I don’t think people have realized how much stuff we’ve gone through as a team," he said. "How much he’s been attacked, how much I’ve been attacked -- just from our own relationship, that I shouldn’t be managing him, and he should be with this guy, and Jon sucks, and Jon’s a phony and this, that and the other, and we’ve weathered every single thing. And I’ve always told Jon just to be himself. Whatever you feel, just say it. He wants to put a good example out there. I told him, be a good example, just be who you are. Just continue having fun and stop worrying about what people say.
"I think when you guys first saw Jon, you saw him worry too much. If he said the wrong thing he would piss off a fighter. If he said the wrong thing about the UFC, then Dana [White] would be mad. If he said the wrong thing about a reporter, the reporter would blast him. Although he was very natural, he put a lot of pressure on himself. I think as time has gone on he’s realized, I am the world champion. I am Jon Jones. And if people don’t like what I have to say then they don’t have to listen."
And for anybody who wonders how the "casual" fan sees this sport, or when the thing will go "mainstream," or if there’s real money to be had in this racket, Jones is still in the process breaking down barriers. Gatorade is the latest example. Kawa says he’s been working on that deal since 2011, when Jones first became the 205-pound champion.
Jones’ star has risen to greater heights since then.
"Yeah, and you know what, you’ve got to give a lot of credit to the UFC because that FOX deal was a huge help," Kawa said. "Once they got on FOX, and got on that big network and seeing the promotion that FOX is getting, a lot of the bigger companies are saying, ‘okay, we may not be ready for the UFC yet, but they’re here -- we really need to pay attention.’
"And I’ll tell you what a testament to Jon is, he goes out and gets these things," he said. "I’m not the only one in the room. I might fly around and be making meetings and get on conference calls all day, but when the time comes for Jon to come in and be an ambassador for the UFC and for himself, he’ the best in the business. He comes in and sits down and says, ‘I am a UFC fighter. I can kick everybody’s a-- in this room, but I won’t.’ And people are like, holy cow this is a really nice guy, he’s a good dude, he speaks well, and that whole stigma of he’s a fighter, he’s a thug goes out the door.
"That’s a testament to him, but obviously the UFC is doing everything they need to do to make this happen."