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Biggest challenge yet awaits Jones

By age 20, Mozart had written five piano concertos and five for violin, 10 operas and nearly 40 symphonies. Mary Shelley composed Frankenstein when she was 19. Buddy Holly was 21 when he changed rock 'n' roll forever with "That'll Be the Day." Picasso painted La Vie when he was 22 and feeling blue. Marlon Brando transformed into Stanley Kowalski at age 23.

So let's not go overboard when we talk about 23-year-old Jon Jones as a mixed martial arts wunderkind.

Even the sports world has seen it all before from young'uns. LeBron James was 18 when he took off from the free-throw line and jumped all the way from high school to the NBA, landing with a Rookie of the Year trophy in his hands. Wayne Gretzky netted the NHL MVP award as a 19-year-old first-year player. Mike Tyson smashed everything in his path on the way to capturing boxing's heavyweight championship at age 20.

And now it's a young man known as "Bones" who has cast a spell over his sport. He's fought seven times in the UFC and has yet to face anyone who's even had a whiff of championship leather. But Jones' enchantment is such that he'll be the favorite among bookmakers and prognosticators at UFC 128 in Newark, N.J., on Saturday when he tries to become the youngest to win the light heavyweight title.

The defending champion, Mauricio "Shogun" Rua, also knows a little bit about success in the fight game at a young age. He was 23, too, when he won the 2005 Pride Middleweight Grand Prix, beating Quinton "Rampage" Jackson, Antonio Rogerio "Little Nog" Nogueira, Alistair Overeem and Ricardo Arona along the way. Shogun, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt who's known for unleashing relentlessly on-target striking assaults to overwhelm opponents, most recently KO'd Lyoto Machida for the UFC belt last May, and also owns a TKO victory over ex-champ Chuck Liddell.

Not a bad résumé for an underdog.

"The fact that I'm the favorite, I think that's bologna," Jones said during last week's UFC 128 media teleconference. "I think I'm the favorite because oddsmakers are very smart and they think that I'm going to lose."

Yeah, right. With so shaky an understanding of bets and bookmaking, Jones is lucky this bout isn't in Vegas, where he'd be in danger of dropping his whole purse in a casino.

For a firmer grasp on reality, listen to the champ. "I understand if people think he's the favorite," Rua said. "He's been winning all of his fights easily."

Easily and with style. Jones, who won a junior college national championship in 2006 while wrestling for Iowa Central Community College, has dominated far more decorated wrestlers in his UFC fights, including three-time Division III national champ Matt Hamill and, most recently, two-time Division I All-American Ryan Bader. Bones has been most dangerous, however, not on the mat but while his fights are standing, taking the wind out of the sails of opponents with spinning elbows, breathtaking throws and other game-changing maneuvers that show off not just technique and power but also unabated creativity.

"What we want to do with Jon is keep him really creative but work solid foundation basics at the same time," trainer Greg Jackson told Fight! magazine after a bout last summer. "It's important for an artist like Jon not to be limited to a certain game plan, to a certain thing, but to just let his timing flow and get him in situations where he can show his creativity."

An artist like Jon ...

Jones is indeed an artist. And an athlete. It's that deliciously potent combination that makes all those historic comparisons -- from Amadeus to Pablo, LeBron to "The Great One" -- seem apt.

The son of a pastor, Jones grew up in Endicott, N.Y., as part of an elite athletic family. His older brother, Arthur, is a Baltimore Ravens defensive tackle, a fifth-round pick in last year's NFL draft. Younger brother Chandler is a junior defensive end at Syracuse, an all-Big East second-teamer. That brawny, agile gene pool shimmers through every Jon Jones fight.

There are a lot of skilled martial artists in the UFC, plenty of tough guys. And the Octagon is home to its share of slick, strong athletes. But remember how out of his league physical specimen Georges St-Pierre looked while competing in a home run derby against Josh Koscheck on Season 12 of The Ultimate Fighter? I've never seen Jones with a baseball bat in his big hands, but with all that athleticism I can envision him whacking a lot of balls over the fence.

If ABC still had The Superstars on its schedule, Jones is the MMA guy who'd be giving Kyle Rote a run for his money. I'm guessing Jones could win the freestyle swim even while stopping to save Joe Frazier from drowning.

Is there anything Jon Jones cannot do? We'll find out Saturday night. Just like hoops man-child LeBron did in 2003, Bones is about to see a big step up in competition. Can he handle it?

His trainer sure thinks so.

"You haven't seen the best Jon Jones yet," Greg Jackson told Fight! last summer, long before Jones demolished previously undefeated Bader six weeks ago. "As he steps up and fights more and more experienced people, you're going to see a more and more devastating Jon Jones."

Questions? Comments? To reach Jeff Wagenheim or contribute to SI.com's MMA mailbag, click on the e-mail tab above.

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