Friday, August 24, 2012

Jon Jones and the Cancellation of UFC 151

I stumbled across the news Thursday that there was going to be a media conference call for a “special announcement” regarding UFC 151.  There was so much speculation on the internet as to what was going on.  It was such a strange scenario because no one knew what was going on.  The rumor was that light heavyweight challenger Dan Henderson had injured himself just one week prior to his fight with champion Jon Jones.  If so, the call would likely be informing everyone who would step in on eight days’ notice to challenge for the UFC light heavyweight title.  What happened next was unprecedented in UFC history.  UFC Dana White jumped on the call and announced that the event was cancelled.  He informed everyone that Henderson had a partial tear in his MCL and had to withdraw.  The strangest part came next as White informed the media that Jon Jones was offered a fight with Chael Sonnen and refused the fight.  It was clear on the call that White was beyond angry.  He called out Jon Jones, almost insinuating that he wasn’t a real fighter.  He called Jones’ trainer Greg Jackson a “sport killer”.  It got ugly and it got ugly fast.

Once the call completed, I started reading some of the tweets that exploded all over Twitter.  The fan and fighter anger towards Jones was unreal.  He was called a coward.  He was accused of ducking Sonnen.  He was blasted all over the place for ripping off the undercard fighters and preventing them from making a living.  It was absolutely surreal.

Personally, while listening to the conference call, I was disappointed.  I am a Jon Jones fan and love watching this kid fight.  I was absolutely pumped to watch him fight an all-time great in Dan Henderson, and possibly continue his legendary run through the light heavyweight division.  I’ll admit I was surprised to hear that he turned down the fight with Sonnen.  They had been in a pretty public Twitter spat and thought this would be a more marketable fight.  I’m used to watching someone like Chuck Liddell who never turned down a fight.  It just seemed so strange.

Before ranting and spouting off like so many did online, I wanted to take my time and wait for the Jones camp to speak before making any kind of opinion.  I know it’s strange, waiting to receive information from both sides before making an opinion, but it’s just how I roll.  Here is what Jon Jones, himself, said in an interview with about it:

Chael is a completely different fighter. This is war. This is strategy. You have to go in there prepared and know that you did your homework. I wouldn't be the same warrior if I just jumped in there blindly and was cutting weight while I was trying to prepare for the fight.  Greg Jackson wasn't going to show up until Friday. Coach (Mike) Winkeljohn wasn't going to be there until Wednesday or Thursday. I would have been pretty much on my own trying to prepare for a new opponent. That's just not the best way to prepare. If this was my first fight in the UFC and I really didn't have a choice and they needed somebody to step in last minute, if it was that type of scenario, then I'd probably more open to it, but I'm a UFC champion, and I need to perform that way. If I would have taken this fight, that would have been letting my ego get in the way and not using my intellect. This is war, and you have to go in there prepared. The criticism does bother me, but I have to stand by my decision. I have to be the man that I am. With such large audiences comes great criticism. There will be a lot of scrutiny, but I've got to do what makes me happy and feels right to me. At the end of the day, I have to make the best choice for me and my family. This is a professional sport. It's not just a backyard fight. You put everything on the line every time you step into the cage, and I now have a new mission. I'm all-in now, and I won't give anything less than my full effort."

Like it or not, his logic makes complete and total sense.  As much as we want to believe that mixed martial arts is a solo sport, fighters need their trainers and coaches to properly prepare for a fight.  The stakes are so much higher now than they were just a few years ago.  Gone are the days of UFC 50, when Guy Mezger can get taken to the hospital the day before the main event fight against Tito Ortiz and be replaced at the last minute with Patrick Cote.  The sport has gotten so much bigger now, and that doesn’t even factor in that it was a title fight!  I completely understand why Jones decided against it.  I may not like it and can be disappointed, but seriously, he’ll be fighting in a month against Vitor Belfort (Originally supposed to be Lyoto Machida, but he turned it down; where’s the backlash for him?).  Quite frankly, the “fans” should be disappointed with themselves for the attacks on Jones.  It’s really easy to sit behind a keyboard and act tough.  When you’re not the one putting your belt on the line and your health at risk, it’s really easy to say “Take the fight”.  This is about more than the fight.  It’s about your brand.  Whether we like it or not, athletes are not just athletes.  They are companies upon themselves who need to keep winning and looking good doing it.  No one wants to sponsor the guy who is always losing.  Nike isn’t signing up to sponsor Kenneth Allen.  They want their brand associated with a winner like Jon Jones or Anderson Silva.  The shelf life for a professional fighter is not long, so being intelligent about fights and sponsorships is paramount to securing a financial future for their families.

It’s so easy for the fans to point their finger and blame Jones.  The way that UFC president Dana White, a man I am extremely fond of, painted him made it possible.  However, for the full spectrum of blame to go on Jones is both shortsighted and flat out wrong.  Take this into account:

- Dan Henderson was hurt a mere week prior to his fight.  Injuries are an unfortunate part of combat sports.  He has to get a portion of the blame, though, for being the reason Jones is not fighting.

- On the conference call, White himself said that a few guys were offered the fight with Jones and they turned it down.  While we don’t know who they were, or if Jones would have taken the fight, why aren’t we mad at the guys who lacked the courage to step up to Jones?  This is the UFC light heavyweight championship of the world!!  If there is ever a time to step in on short notice, this is it.  How quickly we forget that Jones himself stepped in for an injured Rashad Evans to fight for the belt.

- The lack of depth on this card played a major part in why it was cancelled.  This isn’t Jon Jones’ fault at all.  This one has to go straight to the top brass.  The UFC has a tremendous track record of putting on shows that normally give you multiple “names” for a pay per view card.  While you may be excited for the main event, the undercard is normally stacked with solid fighters that can easily be upgraded to a top slot without losing too much hype.  This was one of the rare cards with a tremendous lack of depth.  Hardcore fans like me are familiar with Jay Hieron and Jake Ellenberger, but the mainstream public won’t get excited for that in a main event.  That is the key to this card getting cancelled.  They made it too much like a boxing event, with too much focus on the main event and not enough marketable fighters on the undercard.

While on the topic of undercard fighters, Jones has taken such a verbal beating, blaming him for the financial loss of the lower tier fighters on the card.  This is such an uncalled for attack on him.  Read the following words very closely…Jon Jones did not cancel the card, the UFC management cancelled the event.  Again, just so you can let it sink in… Jon Jones did not cancel the card; the UFC management cancelled the event.  To blame Jones for this is absolutely ridiculous.  You expect him to jeopardize his career and health for someone else?  It’s not his responsibility to take care of the entire card.  His job is to make the right choices for himself and his career.  Calling him selfish is both out of line and ridiculous.  You want him to feel bad for putting himself in a good financial position, and not needing to live fight to fight, paycheck to paycheck.  Should my doctor friends feel bad for me because they are in a better financial position than me?  Heck no!  Their choices put them in a good position, whereas I made alternate choices that have me in a different position.  That’s called life.  If you’re going to sit and blame Jon Jones for those guys missing a paycheck, you really need to reevaluate how you look at things.  It’s not his responsibility.  Stop playing “The Blame Game”.  While I’m sure he feels bad about being part of the reason they don’t have that check on the first, it’s not his problem.  If those fighters blame him, they should look for a new line of work because that is not a champion’s mentality.

I think the real undercurrent of this entire spectacle is the growing distaste for Jones.  It seemingly came out of nowhere after his destruction of Ryan Bader.  People seemed to dislike this kid simply based on him being successful.  He is the LeBron James of the UFC.  Immensely talented with no real reason to dislike him, yet a growing (and loud) contingent of fans have turned their backs on him.  The problem is that Jon Jones is already a winner and champion.  LeBron James was able to fix the perceived image some had of him by having an absolutely legendary season, culminating in an NBA championship and Olympic gold medal.  Jones, already being a champion and dominant, will have a much harder time changing his image.  Success breeds contempt.  It’s almost impossible to change the opinions of the masses.  It’s a sad state of affairs when people seem to hate a young man simply because of jealousy of his success.

The last thing I wanted to address was the challenger that was put in front of Jones, former middleweight contender Chael Sonnen.  Sonnen is an extremely intelligent businessman.  He started a war of words on Twitter with Jones as soon as he made the decision to move up to light heavyweight.  Chael was able to talk his way into a title shot with Anderson Silva, so why not try it with Jones too?  Here’s a guy who hasn’t fought in the division since October of 2005, which was a loss to Renato “Babalu” Sobral.

From a business standpoint, I understand the decision to put Sonnen against Jones.  He’s a marketable guy that entertains with his crazy, WWE-inspired interviews.  He’s a guy the mainstream media is familiar with, which helps if you have to promote a fight in only eight days.  By no means does that make you worthy, from the pure sports standpoint, of getting a title shot against Jones.

The funny part of this is the hypocrisy that so many are displaying online regarding Sonnen.  Just three days ago, the internet was buzzing that Sonnen better not get a title shot if he beats Forrest Griffin in their December fight.  “It wouldn’t be fair for him to jump everyone in the division.”  “A win over Griffin shouldn’t make you the number one contender.”  It went on and on.  Fast forward to a few days later and those same people are calling out Jones for not fighting a guy they said wasn’t worthy of a shot?  Really?  You have a guy who is coming off of a loss at middleweight and the very next fight is a light heavyweight title fight?  From a pure sport perspective, that is ridiculous.

From the business standpoint, I think it would have been lose-lose for Jones to take this fight on short notice.  The pay per view revenue would not have been as high as it could have been.  Fighting Sonnen, with the full amount of marketing behind it, would be a huge financial success for all involved.  If they do it on short notice, it’s not going to make as big of an impact.

Additional what if he won against Sonnen?  He was supposed to win against a guy who hasn’t fought at that weight in seven years.  If he lost?  He got beat by a middleweight and the vocal, hate filled crowd would start calling him hype.  However, if Jones were to have lost, the rematch would have been a massive pay per view.  The storylines would be all there:

- Jones only had three days (the other five days are weight cutting and media obligations) to prepare for a completely different fighter.

- Sonnen is friends and a training partner with Dan Henderson, so he knew the game plan and how they expected to win.

- Jones has a full camp to prepare for Sonnen, how does the former champ respond?

It would have been fun to see.

In watching all of this unfold, I completely understand and fully support Jon Jones’ decision to back out.  He’s taking too much of the blame for the cancellation of the card.  He did not make the final decision to cancel the card.  Rumors have started to come out that guys like Anderson Silva (at light heavyweight; not against Jones) and Chris Weidman had offered to step up and fight that night.  The UFC made the decision to cancel the card and move the existing fights to upcoming events, which are only a few weeks away.  Chael Sonnen was not deserving of a title shot and tried talking his way into one, which Jones said last week he would not allow him to do.  I commend Jones for not allowing Sonnen to talk his way into another title fight, and make him earn his way there.  If Sonnen and Jones ever meet in the Octagon, that fight will do massive business now.  When we look back (given Jones vs Sonnen happens), this move by Jones will look extremely smart.

This entire thing boils down to your personal opinion of Jon Jones.  If you weren’t a fan before, nothing he does will make you happy and you’ll blame him for whatever you feel like.  If you are a fan, you’re likely disappointed he isn’t fighting next week but stoked he is fighting in a month.  Regardless of what happens, I will still be a fan of Jon Jones.  Unlike the fair-weather fans who flip back and forth on who they like/hate, some of us stick with our favorites.  You can disagree with Jones’ decision, but that doesn’t give someone who used to be a fan the right to call him out.

Loyalty…a word lost on so many sports fans.