UFC not coddling talented contenders

LAS VEGAS -- If Jon Jones and Ryan Bader were boxers instead of mixed martial artists, chances are they wouldn't be fighting each other at this point in their careers.

They'd probably be hand-fed lesser opponents until they built pretty records of 20-0. They might each win a world title from a different sanctioning body, thus making each of them a "world champion." Then one day -- possibly not until fans start to question if they're even still in their prime -- they might fight.

Fortunately, Jones and Bader aren't boxers, and they are meeting one another in the Octagon on Saturday as part of the main card at UFC 126.

Not to put the focus on boxing, but it's hard to ignore the fact that promoters seem more apt to avoid challenges for their young boxers than seek them out.

It's something that used to drive UFC president Dana White crazy when he was more involved with boxing a decade ago -- and something he refused to allow happen in the UFC.

"Boxing used to drive me crazy," White told ESPN.com. "It's one of the things you guys know, I'm a fan as much as anyone else out there. I love to see great fights and I love to put on great fights."

Jones (11-1) and Bader (12-0) are the absolute definition of the term "prospect." Jones is 23, Bader 27. Both guys didn't start training in MMA until 2007.

But even this early in their careers, both have already passed significant tests.

Jones has faced dangerous veterans in Stephan Bonnar and Vladimir Matyushenko. He fought a national champion college wrestler in Matt Hamill and a former heavyweight contender in Brandon Vera.

Bader has also faced tough veterans in Keith Jardine and Antonio Rogerio Nogueira. And while you won't find it on Bader's record, he defeated tough outs such as Kyle Kingsbury, Tom Lawlor and Elliot Marshall en route to becoming the winner of the "Ultimate Fighter" reality series in 2008.

These are the kinds of tests you just don't see boxers face early in their careers. According to Jones, such tests are a good thing. Not only can an MMA fighter's life change in one fight, but the constant pressure of facing the best forces one to get better in a hurry.

"I love MMA. In MMA, you can change your whole life around in a very short amount of time," Jones said. "To have such a big mark on my back when I'm still learning is scary. It motivates me to keep working hard and not to fail."

Because Jones and Bader haven't been babied too much to this point in their careers, fans have gotten some kind of measure as to how good they potentially are.

That's a problem in boxing, as prospects can develop without the general public even knowing it.

That happened as recent as Jan. 29, when undefeated 140-pounders Timothy Bradley (27-0, 11 KOs) and Devon Alexander (21-1, 13 KOs) met at the Silverdome in Pontiac, Mich.

The fight grew tremendous interest from boxing media but was all but ignored by fans. It drew an attendance of just 6,247 and didn't produce the interest HBO had hoped for when it paid approximately $3 million to air the fight.

Meanwhile, White says he's gotten the feeling from fans that the Jones-Bader fight is one of the most anticipated ones of Saturday's card.

"I went to the Celtics-Lakers game and people were screaming to me, 'Bader, Jones!'" White said. "You don't get excited about a fight because of one guy. You're excited because of both guys. People are pumped for this fight."

So, with fans obviously asking for both guys, why bury one of them now by squaring them off?

Even Bader himself couldn't help but ask that question, admitting it would have been something if the UFC had held off on matching him up with Jones another 6-12 months.

Bader knows why it's happening now, though, and it would be smart of boxing to take notice. This fight is happening because it's what the fans wanted.

"It would have been cool if we would have met later down the road when we were both built up," Bader said. "But this is a fight the fans want to see. We seem to be on a collision course, so here we are.

"We're both the future of this division, so this is going to be a great fight."

Brett Okamoto covers MMA for ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter at bokamotoESPN.