As stock rises, Jones remains grounded
LOS ANGELES -- It's easy to like Jon Jones, and a kibitzing women's group has just discovered this.
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Jones' Tuesday is winding down following another long bout of photo shoots, interviews and business meetings. He has to be awake at 4 a.m. to meet up with Malki Kawa, his rip-roaring manager, to catch a flight to Miami, where financial advisors and South Beach await. But, as usual, Jones has too much energy to call it a night just yet.
That hard-to-hit head of his, unburdened yet by any inflated sense of superiority, seems to almost kiss the boutique-hotel bar's ceiling as he embraces the reality of this life.
Asked to describe what he does for a living, Jones, standing 6-foot-4, obliges in simple, friendly terms. The ladies -- a wide cross-section of age, influence and affluence -- react typically. There's fawning, a smattering of disdain and the obligatory photo requests. Even an exchange of Twitter handles. If he wasn't before -- and, really, he was the moment that championship belt was unsheathed from its protective sleeve -- Jones is the most noticeable thing in the room. Not that he isn't getting used to it.
The 23-year-old father of three says moments like these encompass the positive part of fame, which was injected into his life in a big way after he pounded Mauricio Rua to capture the UFC light heavyweight belt on March 19. Experience, limited as it may be, tells him people -- regular folk, celebrities, it doesn't matter -- seem genuinely happy to be nearby, and these women, otherwise oblivious to his exploits, prove this by halting gleeful conversation about saving the world while sipping the house red or pricey martinis to focus on a pastor's kid from Rochester, N.Y.
Celebrity breeds infatuation, said Jones, and as his profile grows he is equal parts appreciative and apprehensive about the experience. That's the dichotomy and con of fame. Conscious of his status and the potential willingness by some to exploit it should he falter, Jones admits he may never be able to let loose again. At his age and operating under such intense pressure, that's no small sacrifice.
This is what Greg Jackson meant when he suggested the biggest obstacles in Jones' life won't come from setbacks. Just the opposite. The more success Jones realizes, the likelier he is to be impacted by the "adversity of success."
"He believes the only person who can beat me is me," Jones said of his trainer. "Me -- losing discipline, drive and passion. Success, having a lot of things thrown at you: He talks to me about that. I feel very aware of where I stand as a man, athlete and position in the sport. Life as a father. I'm aware of the ways you can fall. My awareness will keep me out of trouble."
Jones possesses grand aspirations. He talks of becoming "something unseen in sports," a Lebron James/George St. Pierre/Muhammad Ali/Bruce Lee hybrid. Yet, for now, he maintains a humbleness, a sense of purpose, that comes off as sincere.
"He's knows exactly who he is," said Kawa. "He knows his greatness. He knows his weakness. The only thing Jon is trying to figure out his how does he be a positive role model for everyone around him, but at the same time be as real as possible for himself."
It's the kind of internal debate that prompted Jones to pass on a lucrative deal from Bud Light for fear of the message it could send to kids, while at the same time leaving him free to enjoy a drink or two at, say, a posh L.A. hotel. As Jones' opponents have painfully discerned, he's not the easiest read in the world. Among his many appealing traits, this one stands out, as does a willingness to play in thorny patches -- such as recent comments on Twitter regarding steroid abusers being mentally weak characters.
"I'm not afraid to push the envelope," Jones said. "Controversy is good for your career. It gets your Twitter followers up. Some people are going to love it. Some people are going to hate it. I did it on purpose."
Jones won't need to go out on a limb to earn his share of media coverage over the summer as a showdown with Rashad Evans, 31, looms. The bout, Jones' first scheduled title defense, is likely to take place in September, and puts former training partners and friends in the cage together.
The champion, almost brazenly, claims an advantage in style, preparation and experience.
He has a lot to study. I have a lot to study, but I get to study[ing] more in-depth. He gets to study[ing] and gets a headache.” -- Jones, on his work ethic compared to Rashad Evans' in the gym
"We fought each other in practice," said Jones, who pushed his record to 13-1 with last month's triumph. "A finish has been possible several times and it has always been me finishing him. I never did it out of respect that he was the elder of the school. It's against protocol in a way. Some people would do it but I believe in tradition.
"He has a lot to study. I have a lot to study, but I get to study[ing] more in-depth. He gets to study[ing] and gets a headache."
Evans (15-1-1), already churning away in the gym, declined to respond.
"Everyone says they want to be the best, but I really feel as if I have the makings and it's coming very naturally to me," Jones said. "Now I need to educate myself and attack it even more on how to be better.
"I'm not naive to failure and success. I think I'll do fine with it. I think it'll be really surprising for my age how well I handle it."
Josh Gross covers MMA for ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter at JoshGrossESPN.
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