Friday, Sept. 20, 2013 | 2 a.m.
A plush, ruby Nike sweatshirt covered Jon Jones’ lounging upper body as the UFC light heavyweight champion met with media in a hotel conference room.
Less than a glove length’s away from his limp right hand rested a lemon-lime flavored Gatorade on an end table. Jones was taking it easy ahead of Saturday’s title fight against Alexander Gustafsson in the pay-per-view main event of UFC 165, but only while flexing his sponsorship muscles.
A year after surprising the mixed martial arts world by securing an endorsement from the shoe manufacturer, Jones supplemented it by announcing a deal with the sports drink company Thursday.
“That’s what I want for my brand: To be endorsed by big sponsors, Fortune 500 companies, companies that sponsor the NFL,” Jones beamed. “I want them to be in MMA, and I want to be the one that brings them into MMA. I’m just grateful to break down another wall.”
A couple years ago, the thought of such corporations sticking their necks in the fight game was as far-fetched as believing a flyweight could beat a heavyweight. But Jones and his management have led the charge in changing the culture, at least in America.
Against Gustafsson (15-1 MMA, 7-1 UFC) at the Air Canada Centre, Jones (18-1 MMA, 12-1 UFC) will become the first fighter ever adorned with both the swoosh and the bolt on his gear. He’s got no intention of slowing his flash of lightning from there.
“I aspire to be at the level of guys like LeBron James and some of these bigger-name athletes in the world,” Jones said. “I know I’m very far off in terms of influence, following and things like that, but they say if you reach for the moon and come up short, you land in the stars. That’s what I’ve done so far, and I’m hoping I can get to the moon one day.”
He’s reached Apollo 11 status already in the UFC. Fighting professionally for just five years, the 26-year-old is 18-1 — with the only loss a bogus disqualification for illegal strikes — and has destroyed everyone he’s faced.
He’s unanimously the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world, with not even the opponent who called him an “immature child” protesting.
“I do because he’s been beating a lot of guys in a very impressive way,” Gustafsson said when asked if he considered Jones the best fighter in the world.
Although accepted as such, Jones has never quite been celebrated in the role. He’s dealt with an image problem that hit its peak with a DWI arrest a year and a half ago that stood in contrast to his public righteousness.
But UFC President Dana White said he had recently seen a change in Jones.
“We saw what happened when fame and money and all that stuff started to come together,” reflected White, who had his most infamous Jones run-in with the cancellation of UFC 151. “But I’m real happy with the way he’s been with that pressure within the last year.”
Signs supported White’s report at the media day. Jones spoke with less calculation, specifically when it came to questions about his opponent.
The champion never belittled his challenger, but he also wasn’t shy about “telling it like it is” and speaking like the fighter who the odds favor at an 8-to-1 clip.
“He’s shown me signs of having doubt with things he says, little things he says,” Jones said of Gustafsson. “The fact that he says he’s got to stick and move. Stick and move is a psychology of a guy who doesn’t believe he can be in a fight. That’s a guy who wants to score a few points and try to get away. I’m not trying to stick and move. I’m trying to dominate him and finish this fight.”
A win would make six title defenses for Jones. That would put him five away from breaking former middleweight champion Anderson Silva’s recently snapped UFC record.
It’s a goal that Jones said he was thinking about, and one that’s certainly within reach. For now, it sounds significantly more attainable than matching the fame of LeBron James or Floyd Mayweather Jr.
But Jones continues to prove he’s capable of bursting into territory no other mixed martial artist has ever had the chance to explore.
“A lot of people never realized that at every post-fight press conference the last four years, I’ve always made sure I’ve had a Gatorade next to whatever drink they had up there at the podium,” Jones said. “I always had a dream to be sponsored by Gatorade, always had a dream to be sponsored by Nike and it finally came true.”