Jon Jones is a superstar.
When he defeated Mauricio Rua by TKO at UFC 126 he became the youngest ever Champion in UFC history. He has become the first ever UFC fighter to receive an international Nike sponsorship, and is one of the most talented, destructive forces that have ever stepped into the Octagon. Within the ever changing context of UFC, Jon Jones’ career provides an interesting example of the problems facing the sport, and the major issues now facing it.
Following the refusal of Jones to take a fight at short notice against Chael Sonnen and the subsequent cancellation of UFC 151, Jones has come under a barrage of criticism ranging from perceptions of cowardice to blaming Jones himself for the cancellation of the fight night, with Dana White even going so far as to claim that it “will be remembered as the event Jon Jones and Greg Jackson murdered”. It’s always reassuring to the health of an organisation when the President can remain so professional and emotionally in-check in such circumstances. To blame a fighter and his coach for refusing to accept the fight at short notice for the cancellation of what was supposed to be a big fight night is worryingly short sighted and ignorant of the problems facing UFC. The fact of the matter is that if UFC was half as strong as Dana White likes to say that it is, then how did we ever get to the point where a chain of events leading to the cancellation of an entire event for the first time can be set off by a 41-year old man’s injured knee? With UFC’s history of changing fights at the last minute and having events without previously planned fights this should not have posed a major problem. Dana White was obviously upset seeing as his Light Heavyweight Champion does not fit the ‘fight anybody, anytime, anywhere’ mantra that he expects. This increased expectation on Ultimate Fighters from within the organisation runs much deeper and could prove devastating on MMA if they aren’t addressed.
Dana White’s biggest critique of boxing, and one which he was always proud to say didn’t fit the example of UFC was a one-fight card. UFC have spread themselves too thin with fights every weekend, and aside from the small number of diehard fans who will watch every fight that takes place in the Octagon, the real numbers come from the part-time fans who will tune in for big names, big fights, and big moments. As respected as they may be as fighters and legitimate tough guys, names like Yasuhiro Urushitani, Eddie Yagin and Jay Hieron simply will not pull in the numbers.
Expecting the Champion to defend his title against an opponent with three days’ notice, whilst pursuing media commitments and watching his weight reflects the new pressures faced on an increasingly thin card to make. An unprofessional approach to fight scheduling is putting fighters off making returns to the Octagon. Why should Rampage Jackson or Rashad Evans take a fight on without a full training camp? What’s the motivation? If you’re good enough, it won’t hurt you in the long run. When Dana White and the Board of UFC take another roll of the dice on the blame game, and consider whose fault it actually is that ratings are decreasing and there hasn’t been a truly quality fight card in what feels like forever, perhaps they’ll look in the mirror. Decisions like monthly PPVs and weekly shows on Fox have placed so much expectation on the individual fighters that eventually they will be forced to say no: by their bodies and their coaches. It’s a pattern that Dana would be well advised to consider before more of his stars decide to take the Brock Lesnar route and head to WWE.