Jones shrugs off label as UFC’s next big thing on eve of crucial bout

SAN DIEGO — It’s a label that can go either way.

For every Stephen Strasburg, there’s a Todd Van Poppel. LeBron James lived up to it, but do you remember Felipe Lopez?

The “next big thing” label was bestowed upon Jon Jones almost immediately after he debuted in the Ultimate Fighting Championship in 2008 and, as the youngest fighter in the organization, defeated Andre Gusmao with an unorthodox striking game that included spinning elbows and back kicks to complement a strong wrestling base.

Jones, who will fight Vladimir Matyushenko in the main event of a UFC card tonight at the San Diego Sports Arena, knows how he’s perceived, but he’s also aware the hype can take him only so far and only he can determine whether he is the future of the sport or just another example of what could have been.

“I realize that if I was to start playing into it and start thinking I’m supposed to be the next cool fighter or whatever, if I start to actually think about that stuff, I run the risk of letting my family down,” he said. “They’re my main sense of motivation, and they’re the reason why I can’t afford to fail at this point. I don’t want to be a failure, and I’m not going to allow myself to be a failure, so I’m going to live every day like it’s my last and train as hard as possible for every fight and not be naive.”

That’s not to say the 6-foot-4-inch light heavyweight with the 84.5-inch reach dismisses the term completely.

“That whole next-big-thing stuff, yeah, it sounds cool. I would be lying to be sitting here and saying it doesn’t sound cool,” said Jones, 23. “But none of this stuff is coming out of my mouth about being the next greatest or anything like that. It’s scary to me sometimes to hear all that stuff, but I guess it just motivates me to work really hard and just to stay focused and realize that I’ve still got a lot to learn.”

It’s not just the media heaping the praise on Jones, whose only career loss came by disqualification in a fight he was dominating.

“(He’s) young, athletic, dangerous, fast and explosive,” Matyushenko said of his opponent. “Everybody will say (he’s the) new generation, but it’s not just new generation. He’s a unique person. He’s tall, he’s lanky, and at the same time he’s fast. There’s some tall guys, but they’re kind of slow. That’s new for me.”

Asked how he would describe himself as a fighter, Jones prefers to focus on his character.

“Someone who is real with himself. And someone who is excited and appreciates all the stuff that’s going on,” he said. “And someone who just doesn’t take things too seriously, tries to have fun, live a good life and inspire and motivate others.”

That might be the most striking aspect about Jones. He still appears to be the same small-town kid from upstate New York who went from being mostly unrecruited as a high school wrestler to winning a junior-college national championship and rarely is seen without a smile.

His father, Arthur, hasn’t seen any change in Jon since he found success in the UFC. “He’s pretty much just easygoing and free-spirited,” Arthur Jones said. “I think he’s truly grateful he’s here and appreciates that he’s so blessed.”

Jon Jones said he has made a conscious effort to stay grounded.

“I live in a really small town where nobody really knows who I am or cares who I am. I have a wonderful girlfriend, who will be my wife soon. And we have great kids,” he said of his fiancee, Jessie, and the couple’s infant daughters, Leah and Carmen. “I just have a good friend base around me and try to keep the people that are close to me close and realize that it all could be gone, so never take anything for granted.”

A win tonight, over an established veteran with 24 career victories, would only further his soaring reputation.

The card, which will air live on Versus (Cable 38) at 6 p.m., includes a middleweight bout between Mark Munoz and Yushin Okami and a lightweight battle pitting Takanori Gomi against Las Vegan Tyson Griffin.

Contact reporter Adam Hill at ahill@reviewjournal.com or 702-224-5509.

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