In what likely will be the biggest and most notable sponsorship deal yet for an MMA fighter, Jon Jones will be Nike's new face of the sport.
Malki Kawa, the president and CEO of First Round Management, on Thursday told MMAjunkie.com Radio the deal he helped broker for his client could be groundbreaking for the rest of the sport.
"It legitimizes the sport in such a big way," Kawa said. "It opens the door for every other fighter out there because now, if you're an intelligent manager or marketing guy, you go to people and say, 'Hey, look, Nike's in our sport – they've got Jon Jones. You can't get Jon Jones – Nike's got him. But there are other opportunities.'"
MMA Fighting initially reported news of the landmark deal on Wednesday, and the UFC light-heavyweight champ and Kawa later confirmed the deal via Twitter.
Traditionally, a Nike sponsorship has been the benchmark for athletes, and the company has sponsored a who's who of athletes across the spectrum of sports, including TIger Woods, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, former stars such as Michael Jordan and Bo Jackson – and UFC middleweight champion Anderson Silva, though his deal with Nike doesn't appear to have the scope that Jones' will.
Kawa said the groundwork for the deal was laid as far back as November at the UFC's first event with network broadcast partner FOX. In January, Kawa said, he and Jones met with famed talent agency William Morris Endeavor, which is run by Ari Emanuel, who also has dealings with Zuffa, the UFC's parent company.
And though Emanuael, Kawa said, was more interested in Jones' potential on the big screen, Kawa's goal was to utilize the firm for its potential in developing business opportunities for his most prized client. And from there, WME set up a meeting with Nike.
"Ari opened the door for us, and we went in there and just kind of sold the deal," Kawa said. "Nike said, 'We're really taking this meeting kind of like a favor, and we'll go from there.' They really had zero interest in MMA on a global (or) North American level. But as a testament to Jon, to show you the type of guy he is, and the type of intelligence and the way he carried himself in that meeting, he did such a wonderful job they left that meeting saying to us they had to figure out a way to make something happen. We started working on hammering out a deal, and we finally got it done."
Exact terms of the deal have not been released, though Kawa said a joint press release from WME, Nike and First Round Management is forthcoming. Kawa did say, though, the 25-year-old New York native "will be the face of their MMA business – he will have a signature line."
For both Kawa and Jones, getting the deal with Nike has been a long-term goal.
"This is something that from the day I signed Jon, this was one of his goals – to get a Nike deal done," Kawa said. "I told him that some way, somehow, I was going to figure out how to get it done. I just knew that if he continued to win and do the right things that he could be the guy that could bring a company like Nike into the mix. We've always known Jon's been that guy."
Jones (16-1 MMA, 10-1 UFC) mentioned Nike prior to the most recent defense of his light-heavyweight title, which came in April against former friend and training partner Rashad Evans. For that fight, Jones eschewed the tradition of walking to the octagon with multiple sponsors on shorts, shirts and hats and instead was sponsored by the UFC and its new performance-apparel line. On a media conference call promoting the fight at UFC 145, Jones said his goal was to one day have a company like Nike behind him rather than many smaller companies that change from fight to fight.
Jones has just one blemish on his record, and it comes with an asterisk. He was disqualified for illegal elbows in an otherwise dominant performance against Matt Hamill in December 2009. But since then, he has won seven straight, which included wining the 205-pound title and three successful defenses of the belt. He next is scheduled to face Dan Henderson on Sept. 1 in the main event of UFC 151 in Las Vegas.
In May, he was arrested for driving under the influence when he crashed his Bentley into a pole in Binghamton, N.Y. He pled guilty to a misdemeanor DWI charge and this past month was fined $1,000 and had his license suspended six months.