For Jones, a victory over Bader will prove he's worth the hype
Jon Jones has done nothing.
He's not a UFC champion, like Anderson Silva, who'll put his middleweight belt and a 13-fight winning streak on the line in the main event of UFC 126 on Saturday night in Las Vegas.
Jones is not even an ex-champion, like Silva's challenger, former light heavyweight titlist Vitor Belfort, who also won a heavyweight tournament at UFC 12 way back in the fight organization's pre-Zuffa dark ages of 1997.
There are several ex-champs on the Super Bowl weekend card, in fact, including both participants in a co-main event pitting Rich Franklin against Forrest Griffin. You might call their bout The Collision of the Spider's Conquests, by the way, as Franklin wore the middleweight belt before Silva brutally took it away from him in '07 and Griffin was an ex-light heavyweight top dog when Silva moved up a division two years later and went all alpha canine on him.
But I digress. I was talking about championship-caliber fighters who'll be in the octagon on Saturday. The list includes Miguel Torres, the former bantamweight champ of the UFC-affiliated WEC, who fights Antonio Banuelos. There's also another ballyhooed bantamweight, Kid Yamamoto, who fights for the first time in the continental U.S. this weekend, against Demetrious Johnson. Back in '05, Kid moved all the way up to middleweight to win a K-1 Hero's title. And let's not forget Donald Cerrone, who makes his UFC debut against Paul Kelly. "The Cowboy" has never worn a championship belt, but at least he knows what it's like to fight for one, having done it in the WEC. Three times.
Not only has Jon Jones never had a championship belt around his waist or even smelled an opponent's leather strap from across the cage, but he also doesn't even possess a shiny undefeated record like his opponent, Ryan Bader. So yes, you might say Jon Jones has done nothing. But you'd be wise to complete the thought by adding that Jones has done nothing but impress and dazzle.
"Obviously, we've got a great, great card this weekend, stacked," UFC president Dana White said at a fight-week news conference announcing that in addition to the 10 p.m. ET pay-per-view and 9 p.m. Spike telecast of two prelims, the Yamamoto-Johnson bout can be viewed on the UFC's Facebook page. "The co-main and main events are awesome, but everywhere I go, people are asking me about Jones and Bader, man. That fight's just as big as the other two."
It's because of Jones. No disrespect to Bader, but his role in this bout is to be the biggest obstacle yet placed in front of the dynamic 23-year-old from upstate New York. Jones, who trains as part of Greg Jackson's elite camp in Albuquerque, has been an attention getter from the moment he stepped into the UFC cage, eliciting gasps from arena crowds with his spectacularly thunderous body throws and unorthodox spinning fists, elbows and kicks. He doesn't just win, he awes.
Think early-career Michael Jordan and Wayne Gretzky and their zesty recipes of athleticism, creativity and dynamism. Or a young Mike Tyson and his dramatic destructiveness mixed with fearsome invulnerability. Even before any of those now-legendary athletes won a championship, each was pegged for stardom. So it is for Jon Jones. Call it a premature coronation, but he's the leading man of Saturday's show.
Even Bader recognizes as much. Asked at the news conference whether he feels disrespected when he sees the spotlight fixed pointedly on his opponent, even though Bader himself is the one with the zero in the loss column, the 12-0 former NCAA Division 1 wrestler said, "Not at all. He deserves it. He's been running through people."
Indeed he has. Ever since winning his first two UFC fights by unanimous decision, Jones has been a runaway train, finishing Jake O'Brien, Matt Hamill, Brandon Vera and Vladimir Matyushenko, all in dominant performances. The Hamill fight, however, ended up as the lone blemish on Jones's 11-1 record, as he was disqualified for throwing illegal elbows while administering his beatdown. Nonetheless, Jones gained nothing but rave reviews for overwhelming yet another pretty good light heavyweight.
Pretty good, but not great. Jones is yet to fight anyone at the very top of the heap, although he's certainly rolled with someone of that quality while training with Team Jackson-Winkeljohn, where ex-champ Rashad Evans is among his teammates. Still, it's easy to get carried away when assessing Jones, who has been so much faster, stronger, tougher and better than everyone he's faced, even as he's gradually stepped up in competition. As the spotlight has shone brighter, so has Jon Jones.
He doesn't even seem to recognize his ascent into bigger and bigger fights. "I try not to look at an opponent as a big opponent or a name, as a big name," Jones said. "Ultimately, I don't care what credentials someone's won. I fight their body, not their name."
So when he steps in the UFC cage on Saturday, Jones won't be awed by the two-time All-American status of Bader, who wrestled at Arizona State as a teammate of fellow UFC fighters C.B. Dolloway and Aaron Simpson. He won't be overly impressed that his opponent was the Season 8 winner of
"This is just another fight," Jones insisted. "I'm going to try to do what I usually do."
And so, for that matter, will Bader. He's not a walking highlight reel like Jones, but his career has seen nothing but highs. He's been the man every time he's fought, really, either finishing his opponent -- five KOs, three submissions -- or winning by unanimous decision. Jones and the rest of the MMA fan base probably should be mighty impressed by those victories over "Little Nog" and "The Dean of Mean," but Bader is fine if they aren't.
"I like playing the underdog role," he said. "I like going in there and proving people wrong."
He's certainly getting his wish with the underdog thing, and if he wins on Saturday, he'll owe a whole lot of people an I-told-you-so.