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Fight City

This Saturday's UFC headline bout in Atlanta could vault MMA into the mainstream. Or not.

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Clay Guida battles Mac Danzig during UFC Fight Night 15 in 2008. MacDonald and Danzig are on the cards for Saturday’s UFC 145 at Philips Arena. - JOSH HEDGES/ZUFFA LLC VIA GETTY IMAGES
  • Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images
  • Clay Guida battles Mac Danzig during UFC Fight Night 15 in 2008. MacDonald and Danzig are on the cards for Saturday’s UFC 145 at Philips Arena.

On the media call with the two fighters last week, Jones was asked if the Ali comparisons bother him. Even though he was careful to say he didn't compare himself to Ali (despite what some reporters suggested in follow-up articles), he did say he willingly succumbed to the marketing.

"I never came out and was like, 'Oh, I want to be Ali. Put me on the cover underwater.' That was the UFC's idea," Jones said. "That's the people on the outside looking at me in a positive regard. I'm truly honored and I think it's awesome.

"I definitely don't consider myself Muhammad Ali," Jones said. "I thought Muhammad Ali had many flaws in the person that he was. At the same time, I love Muhammad Ali. I've watched every interview he's ever done. I've read a Muhammad Ali book. ... I'm a huge fan, but I don't strive to be Muhammad Ali. I strive to be the best Jonathan B. Jones that there ever was. I want to do things better than Muhammad Ali."

This did not quell the backlash against Jones, as you may imagine. Earlier this week, someone even hacked the Wikipedia entry for the word "cocky" and inserted, under the heading "cocky may mean," the phrase "Jon Jones, Mixed Martial Artist." (It was promptly removed.)

In a way, the marketing of this fight is understandable. Jones, 24, is young and, according to those who know, a fighter who could give the sport a longtime champion (something that seems to elude it, at least in the way boxing had superstars who stayed relevant for decades). It gives people like me — 44, lapsed boxing fan, intrigued by the fury and power of the sport — a narrative shorthand I can read, puts the battle in context, gives me rooting interest. In that way, it tries to take the best of pro wrestling (larger-than-life characters, clear story lines) and combine it with the most-appreciated aspects of boxing (great skill, technique, and training).

But in this case, with the Ali-Frazier comparisons, it's wholly unnecessary.

For one reason, the Ali association could equally work for Evans (for whom I'm rooting; gotta support the old man). As Evans told Mixed Martial Arts magazine when asked why so many people have given him little respect throughout his very successful career:

"It's kind of crazy, but you got to keep it in perspective you know. And its just like Muhammad Ali — I'm not saying I'm Muhammad Ali — but those fighters in their time they weren't appreciated for what they were good at. Many people hated Ali, they hated his guts. Sometimes it may be good to be hated. Sometimes being hated means you're doing something right. One thing that I've learned just from watching other things in life, when people like you, they kind of devour you, they wear you out. So being in the position that I'm in right now is probably why I'm so successful. People don't like me, don't give me my respect, and I feel if it was the other way, they would devour me."

In the way, it seems, many fans are turning on Jones. So the Ali-Frazier comparisons just don't stand up to scrutiny, which is why they annoy so many. (Not to mention the social impact Ali had; whatever the equivalent of "Mad Men" is in 40 years, I doubt we'll see the 2012 version of Don Draper talking about Jones-Evans the way he talked about Clay-Liston.)

Besides, this fight already has a movie-ready backstory, one familiar to all MMA fans. The short version: Jon Jones became part of Rashad Evans' team, even though he was in the same weight class as Evans. They became fast friends, trained together, helped each other get better. The understanding was that they would never fight each other. Teammates first and all that. Then early last year Evans injured himself training for a title shot against then-champion Mauricio "Shogun" Rua. (Evans was trying to reclaim the title.) Evans suggested that Jones fight Rua instead. Jones won and immediately suggested he would be willing to fight Evans. This was seen as betrayal by Evans, who swears he would never have agreed to fight his teammate. Evans left the Arizona-based team to form a group in Florida comprised of African-American and Brazilian fighters — commonly referred to as "the Blackzillians" — with whom he trained for this fight. If you can't find the drama in that story, you must work for Disney.

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