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Jon Jones takes next step in path to stardom at UFC 126

Jones squares off against undefeated Ryan Bader in a bout between young standouts

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Justin M. Bowen

Jon Jones works out during UFC 126 open workouts Thursday, Feb. 3, 2011, at Mandalay Bay Events Center.

UFC 126 Workouts

Jon Jones works out during UFC 126 open workouts Thursday, Feb. 3, 2011, at Mandalay Bay Events Center. Launch slideshow »

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Jon Jones may have already caused a few injuries at the Mandalay Bay Events Center two days before his fight at UFC 126.

At the conclusion of his open workout Thursday afternoon, the 23-year old phenom created a frenzy when he signed and tossed a handful of his gear into the crowd. Fans dove over seats and wrestled for positioning to grab gloves and anything else that came from the hands of Jones.

It was just another example of the excitement surrounding Jones, who is widely seen as the sport’s next superstar.

“I appreciate the people who see something in me,” Jones said at the open workout. “That’s why I do it and why I work really hard. But at the same time, it can be scary and it can be a lot.”

But if Jones (11-1) is at all intimidated for his light heavyweight clash with “The Ultimate Fighter” season 8 champion Ryan Bader (13-0), he’s not showing it.

“Jon Jones scares me because he’s not nervous,” said veteran light heavyweight Forrest Griffin, who fights Rich Franklin Saturday. “He’s just excited, running around and smiling before the fight. He’s like a little kid on Christmas.”

Jones is the antithesis of a lot of athletes who find success at a young age. He appears to know how to handle it and is far from reserved.

Jones offers arguably the most insightful media sessions out of anyone in the UFC and interacts with fans like he’s practiced it for years.

The constant spotlight doesn’t bother Jones, who said that comfort stemmed from the way he was brought up in Endicott, N.Y.

“My dad used to make me sing in church on Sundays and I was shaking I would be so scared,” he said. “So, this is just people watching you. I’ve been at wrestling tournaments for a long time and been in the finals quite a few times, so over time I guess I’ve developed not to fear people.”

Jones was an accomplished wrestler, winning a state championship in high school and a junior college national championship at Iowa Central Community College. But he had no MMA background until three years ago, making his rapid rise to the top of the sport one of the fastest ever.

Jones pointed out Thursday that the 26-year old Bader already had a handful of professional fights before he even started trained.

“I was just a normal college kid,” Jones said. “Now things have changed and I just try to remember it can be all taken away.”

UFC President Dana White said he considered Bader a major step up in competition for Jones.

The undefeated Bader won his last two fights against notable MMA veterans. He knocked out Keith Jardine and scored a unanimous decision win against Antonio Rogerio Nogueira. If Jones is regarded as the No. 1 future standout in the 205-pound weight division, Bader is a close second.

“I’ll say this about the Jones vs. Bader fight: I’m surprised they didn’t hold off on it, because this has Main Event potential,” Franklin said. “You give these guys another fight or two and in six months it could be a Main Event.”

Bader has kept a close eye on Jones’ career ever since his debut at UFC 87 because he knew their careers were destined to cross. Bader said he enjoyed watching Jones fight because of his inventive style, which often includes spinning elbows and unconventional takedowns.

But Bader also feels like people are overlooking his accomplishments and solid technique, which he calls basic but effective.

“I relish the underdog role and people not giving me a chance,” Bader said. “It’s going to feel really good to prove a lot of people wrong when I go out there and beat him.”

Bader would consider himself the first man to truly beat Jones, whose sole loss is a controversial one. Jones dominated Matt Hamill in the first round of a bout in December 2009, but was disqualified for throwing illegal elbows.

It was a decision that angered many, most notably White.

“Every time he gets in the octagon and I see that one loss, it’s going to drive me crazy,” White said after one of Jones’ wins last year. “He should have had a point taken away, not been disqualified. The reason Hamill couldn’t continue in that fight was his shoulder. It had nothing to do with the illegal elbows.”

Jones is one of the few who still consider that fight a loss. He vowed to improve after it and followed by knocking out both Brandon Vera and Vladimir Matyushenko in the first round of his last two fights.

Those performances have put his popularity at an all-time high. He’s going to do everything he can to validate it against Bader.

“I’m trying to remember not to look at him as a threat to fall to,” Jones said, “but as a challenge to rise up to.”

Case Keefer can be reached at 948-2790 or [email protected]. Follow Case on Twitter at twitter.com/casekeefer.

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  1. Jon Jones is a baaaaad man!