The coronation of Jon "Bones" Jones took place a short time ago. He just hasn't actually won the UFC light heavyweight championship yet.
Jones is everything America wants from its sports heroes. He's extremely gifted, both physically and visually. He speaks thoughtfully and intelligently. He's young and hungry. He does things in the cage we've yet to see from others.
But he's still the challenger on Saturday night in Newark at UFC 128. Mauricio "Shogun" Rua will wear the championship belt into the cage. Seems like everyone believes - er, knows - Jones will walk out with the gold.
"I actually understand that people think he's the favorite for the fight because he has been winning all his fights easily," Rua said. "I certainly think he is rightfully the favorite for the fight."
Jones, from Endicott, N.Y., and a state high school wrestling champion in 2005, opened as a -155 favorite, moved to -200 then came back to -185. That means lots of money is on Jones the champ, oh wait, we mean Jones the challenger. It's easy to get confused, especially since Jones has been reported to have signed autographs this past week as "Champ 2011."
Maybe Rua was being glib about being the deserved underdog. Or maybe just playing into what everyone else thinks: Jones is no longer the next great thing. He's the right-now great thing.
But don't shortchange Rua (19-4), a fighter with finishes via knockout or technical knockout. Pause for a moment to remember who "Shogun" is. He's the guy who solved the previously unsolvable Lyoto Machida. Twice! (Even though he lost by controversial split decision the first time then won by first-round TKO in the rematch.) He was the Jon Jones prequel, a young fighter rolling over opponents in an exciting way. But that was six or seven years ago for Pride in Japan, just before MMA truly crossed over in the States.
"Will all due respect to 'Shogun,' look what 'Shogun' was doing to people when he was 23," Jones said. "I'm that 23-year-old and now 'Shogun' is the older guy."
The older guy who just happens to be the champion. To watch from the outside how Jones has been received is to forget who already has proved himself at the highest levels.
Jones (12-1, 6-1 UFC) may very well win on Saturday night. He has the talent, and Rua is coming off a 10-month layoff after a third knee surgery. But someone somewhere needs to remind folks that Rua isn't a No. 16 seed in the opening round of March Madness.
But it's Jones on the morning talk shows, Jones in the forefront of promotion, Jones with the half-hour show on Spike called "In the Moment."
None of it is really his fault, though. He's a 23-year-old kid living the dream and trying to support his two children. His aura has grown with each fight, and despite that one loss, it's actually more of a "loss." Jones was pummeling Matt Hamill with elbows when one of those elbows came down 12-6 (think hands on a clock). That's a no-no in MMA, and referee Steve Mazzagatti stopped the fight and disqualified Jones. Of course, Mazzagatti should have stopped the fight earlier as Jones pounded away and Hamill could not intelligently defend himself.
Plus, there's a sublime aspect to how Jones got the title shot. He just beat Ryan Bader, then undefeated, in UFC 126. Rashad Evans, Rua's original opponent, injured himself a day earlier, and the UFC scrambled cageside after Jones' win to put the fight together. Then broadcaster Joe Rogan began his televised in-cage interview with Jones by telling him he just got a title shot.
Part of it all is Jones' talent, part of it is his challenger story line, part of it is his charisma. Don't discount the language barrier either. Rua is from Brazil, where Portuguese is the national language. He speaks a little English but all his interviews with the media are conducted through a translator.
Jones is news. He's also new, much the way Barack Obama was during the 2008 presidential campaign. Everyone wanted a piece of Obama then, and the same holds true for Jones (yes, obviously on a much smaller, far less important scale). In an American society fixated on "new and improved," Jones relates to all.
"I feel young, and I have a lot of heart, and I have a lot of hunger," Jones said. "I have no knee injuries. I'm young. I could jump through the air. I could squat too. I can do anything right now."
Just don't sleep on Shogun.