Jon Jones: The UFC’s fault lines finally lead to an earthquake

Jones and White in happier times.

When Dana White is angry, he doesn’t hide it. Even through the impersonal nature of a conference call, White’s anger crackles over the phone lines.

Dana White is angry. And he’s angry at his best fighter, Jon Jones.

That in itself would be a big story. The fact that the UFC has just canceled a card for the first time, at least since White and the Fertitta brothers bought the company more than 10 years ago, is a bigger story.

So today, White held that conference call and dumped all over Jones and his coach, Greg Jackson. The issue, in case you don’t follow the MMA blogoTwittersphere that immediately revved into high gear: Jones’ opponent, Dan Henderson, is hurt. Chael Sonnen volunteered to fight Jones. But Jones refused to fight Sonnen on short notice.

The UFC line is to place the blame for the card cancellation squarely on the broad shoulders of one person — Jon Jones. It’s not just Dana being mad in the conference call. A couple of hours later, a UFC press release started like this:

For the first time in the history of the Ultimate Fighting Championship®, a UFC® champion has refused to face an alternative challenger after an injury to his original opponent, forcing the organization to cancel an event.

It goes on:

White explained: “UFC 151 will be remembered as the event Jon Jones and Greg Jackson murdered.”

The release ends with quotes from Henderson and Sonnen, both of whom are shocked that a champion would turn down a fight. But the meat of the release is in between — White laments the financial losses incurred by the other fighters on the card, PPV distributors, sponsors, etc.

Have others piled on? Oh yes. They have. The reaction from fighters isn’t unanimous, but it’s lopsided, particularly among those who lost a payday Sept. 1. (The two fighters on the co-main event, Jay Hieron and Jake Ellenberger, had a restrained response.)

One point people seem to forgetting: Jon Jones didn’t cancel the card. The UFC did.

And the reasons the UFC canceled the card go far beyond one injury and one fight refusal. In the long term, several conflicts within the UFC world have been violently yanked to the surface like Frank Mir yanking an arm.

(Or Ronda Rousey, for those who are a little newer to this sport.)

Those conflicts are:

1. Supply and demand/too many cards. MMA Mania made a prophetic point last month:

The cards have become increasingly top heavy. UFC President Dana White used to criticize the boxing model for having one big headliner littered with undercard bouts no one cared about, but his company is slowly but surely moving along this path.

White deflected this question in the conference call, insisting that the UFC’s bosses know what they’re doing. But this problem has been brewing for a while, as the numbers-mad MMA media digest the disappointing ratings and PPV buy rates this year. This year — and last year, to an extent — has been a year of more fights, fewer blockbusters.

For a hard-core fight fan who isn’t cynical — if such a person exists — the explosion of UFC fights is a good thing, as Bloody Elbow’s Tim Burke points out in something that will take you a few days to read. When White has been asked in the past about putting on too many fights, he responds that he’s besieged by people from every city and every country asking when he’s going to bring another UFC card to their local arenas. And he has a point.

And it’s not as if the UFC is stretching the same talent pool more thinly. The UFC has ballooned from five weight classes to eight. When White and company bought Strikeforce, they brought over more good fighters. And as a younger generation grows up in this relatively new sport, the talent pool grows steadily deeper.

But for both the hard-cores and the “casuals,” the problem is the lack of main event-worthy fights. Georges St. Pierre’s injury woes don’t help, nor does Brock Lesnar’s retirement.

The first UFC card I attended was the promotion’s Atlanta debut, UFC 88. It wasn’t considered one of the UFC’s biggest cards. At that time, it was still unusual to have a card without a title fight. That card’s main event — Chuck Liddell vs. Rashad Evans — featured a UFC Hall of Famer against someone who has a shot to join him. The co-main event had former champion Rich Franklin, still a company star, against Matt Hamill, an alumnus of The Ultimate Fighter whose life was chronicled in the excellent film The Hammer. The third bout on the main card? Brazilian submission ace Rousimar Palhares against Dan Henderson — the same Dan Henderson slated for the main event at UFC 151.

Not bad, is it? If Chuck Liddell had been hurt at the last minute, that card surely would’ve gone on without him. Henderson would’ve been the co-main event, at least.

The next time the UFC was in Atlanta, in April 2012, the co-main event featured rising prospect Rory McDonald against Che Mills, a British fighter with a good track record who had nevertheless failed to make the cast of The Ultimate Fighter a couple of years earlier. That was Mills’ second UFC fight. His first was in his native England — on the undercard, broadcast on Facebook.

Still, the UFC kept up the “show must go on” mentality — even for UFC 147, where plans to bring Anderson Silva and Sonnen to Brazil fell through, and Vitor Belfort pulled out of his fight against Wanderlei Silva. The UFC offered refunds in advance of the show. The PPV sales were abysmal by the UFC’s lofty standards. The UFC took the hit and moved on with a very strong UFC 148.

UFC’s 151 co-main event, Hieron-Ellenberger, would’ve been one of the weakest main events of any UFC pay-per-view card. But Greg Jackson has a point when he says, “I didn’t know they had it all riding on one fight.”

And Jackson leads us to another point …

2. Brawling vs. technical fighting. “He’s a (bleeping) sport-killer,” White says of Greg Jackson, the fight guru whose cerebral approach was recently chronicled in a compelling Sports Illustrated piece. Jackson is a game-planner. He has been accused of taking everyone from Georges St. Pierre to Clay Guida and turning them into dull fighters content to grind out decisions.

It’s not just Jackson. The 13th season of The Ultimate Fighter was full of plodding wrestlers. Even Sonnen, for all his wild-man talk outside the cage, isn’t a particularly interesting fighter — he gets the takedown, pounds away without much result and tries to remember not to get submitted.

Jackson says he and Jones would’ve had only three days or so to prepare for Sonnen before starting the weight cut, press conferences and other obligations of the days leading up to the fight. To the coach, that’s not enough.  That attitude may not sit well with an audience nostalgic for the days of Tank Abbott’s devil-may-care approach or at least Chuck Liddell’s hands-at-the-hips striking style. But until someone proves Jackson’s style to be ineffective in the cage, he’s going to keep teaching it.

And that leads to the third issue …

3. The legitimacy of the sport. The UFC prides itself on being real. They don’t do gimmicky matchups (usually). They don’t tell you Kimbo Slice is one of the world’s top heavyweights.

Given that, why would Chael Sonnen get a title shot in the first place? He lost his last fight — at middleweight. Before that, he had an unconvincing win over Michael Bisping. He hasn’t fought at 205 pounds in years. But if he had fought Jones, landed a lucky punch and won, we were supposed to hail him as the legitimate light heavyweight champion?

Kid Nate and Luke Thomas discussed one option — have Jones fight a non-title bout … against Sonnen, against a heavyweight, against whomever.

That might have worked. A Hieron-Ellenberger main event might have worked. Even better — between UFC 151 and 152, stack one of the cards with a couple of decent fights (the 152 card was already solid before moving Jones there to fight Lyoto Machida), and promote the other as a “Fight Night” card.

That’s hindsight, of course. But looking ahead, the problems that led to UFC 151’s cancellation aren’t going away on their own. From fans’ expectations to front-office planning, those problems are part of a new reality. Time to adjust.

 

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One thought on “Jon Jones: The UFC’s fault lines finally lead to an earthquake

  1. Good article. Dana White is basically blaming Jon Jones for his own screw-up. You don’t ask a champion to defend a belt on three days notice; have some respect for what it took to win and defend that belt. For a long time White and UFC have been hanging their hats on too small a stable of fighters, thinking GSP, Silva, Jones, Lesnar, Couture, and Liddell could sell every pay-per-view. And more and more we are seeing injuries disrupt fights and, subsequently, entire cards because of terrible planning by the UFC. When will the UFC finally admit that they have top talent at the bottom four weight classes, and potential PPV draws among the contender ranks at the top four? Not to mention Zuffa-owned Strikeforce still has many great fighters and two entire women’s divisions that put on great fights every time out. White needs to take his head out of the sand and get women’s mma established in the UFC, finally roll the Strikeforce roster completely over to the UFC (no idea why he negotiated an extension with Showtime), and have some faith that good matches between non-titleists can sell cards.

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