Jones joins generation’s elite athletes

The rapid rise of an athletic icon is a wondrous thing to watch, and even more so when you never saw it coming. Albert Pujols going from 13th-round pick to the best hitter in baseball in just a few years. John Daly being the ninth alternate for the PGA Championship one day then a major champion and cult hero a few days later. Tony Romo, Tom Brady and Kurt Warner ascending from backups to the NFL’s elite over the course of a single season.

And now Jon Jones, going from a fighter with potential to the face of the UFC.

Mixed martial arts pundits will tell you the 24-year-old Jones’ dominating victory over former UFC light heavyweight champion Lyoto Machida cemented his status as the 2011 UFC Fighter of the Year. That is true. But there was something much larger at play at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto Saturday night.

The story of UFC 140 was Jon Jones — the charismatic yet soft-spoken son of a preacher, the UFC marketing dream as the sport continues its push into the mainstream, and, yes, one helluva fighter — transcending his sport and elevating himself to become one of the elite athletes of his generation.

The world hasn’t fully grasped this man’s greatness yet. But don’t worry: That will come. He’s clean-cut and clean-spoken, a man who said a prayer before entering the Octagon on Saturday and hugged his parents as he was leaving the Octagon. His legend is based as much on his fighting as it is on the story about Jones chasing down a man who’d just robbed an elderly couple — on the day of Jones’ first title fight.

Oh, and the fighting: He just completed the best year in UFC history, dispatching one sitting champion and two former champions. It’s easy to forget that this man wasn’t on anyone’s radar in 2010, not even considered a top contender for the light heavyweight belt.

Now, he’s the best thing going in the UFC.

“If he stays on the right track, does the right things, the guy could go down as the greatest ever,” UFC president Dana White said. “I just don’t see anybody beating this guy any time soon. And with his frame and size, as he gets up in age, has the potential to move up to heavyweight.”

And with his easygoing, likable demeanor — contrary to the hooligan stereotype blindly stamped upon UFC fighters — Jones has the potential to be as good for the sport as the sport’s been for him. Case in point: As White was talking at the post-fight press conference about Jones moving up to the heavyweight class, Jones flashed his toothy smile and pretended to choke the man next to him, heavyweight Frank Mir.

The earlier bouts in UFC 140 featured plenty of fast and furious fights. Chan Sung Jung knocked out Mark Hominick in seven seconds, tying the record for the quickest KO in UFC history. Krzysztof Soszynski got knocked unconscious by Igor Pokrajac in 35 seconds. Frank Mir turned around an early first-round beat-down by Antonio Rodrigo Noguiera and broke Noguiera’s arm in one of the most stomach-turning submissions in UFC history. Antonio Rogerio Noguiera beat up Tito Ortiz in the first round.

Yet make no mistake: Saturday was about Jon Jones.

The importance of Saturday’s fight in MMA circles is that it proved the once-untouchable Jon Jones could take a hit. After the first five minutes, all the momentum was going for Machida. Machida dodged Jones’ early advances and landed a handful of punches and kicks in the opening round. After Machida landed one blow to Jones’ face, the champion took a step back, his face looking as if he were stunned that Machida could hit that hard. For the first time in his UFC career, Jones looked in trouble.

“I’ve never fought anyone like him,” Jones said of Machida, a left-handed karate expert, “so the first round was very, very confusing for me.”

The sequence continued at the beginning of the second round. Machida’s karate skills kept him safely out of Jones’ long reach. Then Jones got Machida to the ground and bashed Machida’s forehead with a nasty elbow. A huge gash opened, enough that the referee paused the fight to ensure Machida could continue. As blood dripped down Machida’s face, Jones hit him again in the head. With 34 seconds left in the second round, Machida submitted after Jones got him in a guillotine choke.

It was Jones’ least dominating performance of the year — and yet he still dominated, and disproved the one knock against him, that he can’t take a punch.

“I just felt like I was meant to do this, with all my heart and soul. I just feel like there’s nothing else on this planet that I was meant to do,” Jones said. “I think it’s my destiny to be one of the best who’s ever lived.”

Afterward, White was asked whether Jones will overtake Georges St. Pierre as the biggest draw in the UFC. A year ago, the question would have been met with guffaws, especially in GSP’s home country of Canada. But now?

“If he keeps winning and keeps doing the things he’s doing,” White said, “he does have the potential to be our biggest star.”

Enough talking about potential. After seeing the rapid rise of Jon Jones in 2011, Dana White and the rest of us should go into 2012 with a new mindset. Jon Jones is not just the biggest star in the UFC. He’s fast becoming one of this generation’s icons of sport. And the sooner we realize that, the more time we’ll have to sit back and enjoy the ride.

You can follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @reidforgrave, become a fan on Facebook or email him at reidforgrave@gmail.com.