Iain Hepburn | August 26, 2012
As weekends go, UFC president Dana White and light heavyweight champion Jon Jones will have had better.
After a tumultuous couple of days in the MMA community, the dust is finally starting to settle following White’s decision to cancel next month’s UFC 151 card.
The drama on Thursday night and Friday morning saw the Ultimate Fighting Championships cancel one of their pay-per-view events for the first time since Zuffa took over the MMA fight league in 2001. The UFC 151 card, originally scheduled for September 1 in Las Vegas, would have featured Jones defending his title against Dan Henderson.
Rumours began circulating on Wednesday night that Hendo had suffered some kind of injury and was out of the fight. And while they were true, few could have predicted what would come next.
Chael Sonnen, who lost a middleweight championship fight with Anderson Silva earlier this summer, offered to step up at eight days notice and face the heavier Jones in the main event. Jones refused to take the fight, however.
“The one thing I never thought in a million years would happen, happened,” White said during a conference call.
“Jon Jones said, ‘I’m not fighting Chael Sonnen on eight days’ notice,’ – something that’s never happened in UFC history, a guy that’s a world champion and considered one of the pound-for-pound best turning down a fight.”
Jones was then scheduled to take on Lyoto Machida – a fighter he had already turned down a rematch with for UFC 151 – at the following pay per view event in Toronto… until the former light heavyweight champion decided he was not interested in taking the bout with such little notice.
Instead, middleweight contender Vitor Belfort was named as Jones’ opponent, vacating his scheduled bout against Alan Belcher at UFC 153 to take on Jones instead.
White said he was disgusted by Jones’ behavior in not taking the fight for this Saturday, admitting that he couldn’t make the champion fight contractually. And put the blame on Jones and trainer Greg Jackson for the cancellation of the entire card.
“I have a building here in Las Vegas that 250 people have been busting their ass, working hard, to promote this fight,” he said.
“Not just for Jon Jones, but for everyone on this card.
“You know what? Good for you Jon Jones. You’re rich and you’ve got some money, and you don’t need to take this fight. But there’s a bunch of guys on the undercard that this is how they feed their family, and this is how they make a living. And the UFC has spent [expletive] of money to promote this fight.”
Jones, in response, said he felt terrible for the 20 fighters who lost out on the card – though most have already had their bouts moved to other cards – but insisted the decision was the right one.
“I signed a contract a long time ago to fight Dan Henderson,” he told MMA Junkie at the weekend.
“That’s what I studied for, and that’s what I prepared myself for. To take a fight with a different opponent in which I would basically have three days of training before traveling and then starting to cut weight I just thought would be the dumbest idea ever.
“I feel terrible, but it also wasn’t my decision to cancel the whole card. I don’t make those decisions.”
Fans and other fighters on the now scrapped card – which could leave the UFC out of pocket to the tune of a high-seven figure sum – joined the chorus of criticism for Jones over the weekend, questioning his heart as a fighting champion.
Yet it’s hard, looking dispassionately, not to have some sympathy with Jones’ position.
Indeed, few have emerged from this sorry saga with any kind of credit. White’s over-the-top blustering, seeking to scapegoat one of his top fighters and main draws for the collapse of the show gave the impression of a man very much on the edge.
Not that Jon Jones can have much to cheer about. His decision to refuse the fight against Chael Sonnen on short notice – when other champions in the organization have taken bouts within a similar time frame – has alienated fans at a time when, for commercial reasons if nothing else, he needs to be seen as popular.
It’s hard, in the outside world, to find fault with either his reasoning or his attitude about taking the fight, but within the MMA community his already shaky standing has all but collapsed entirely.
With Jones due to sign a big money global sponsorship deal with Nike, having been exclusively sponsored by the UFC for his last bout, and in the aftermath of a recent DUI charge, negative publicity is the last thing Jones needs – and the reaction of Dana White, fighters and fans has given him that in spades.
Although he claims he would not have been prepared, he’s been through a full fight camp whereas Sonnen would be stepping up a weight class with just a few days notice. The odds on Jones’ winning streak coming to an end would have been long to say the least.
As it is, facing Belfort – largely under the same circumstances – has seen Jones being put at ridiculously short odds by Vegas experts. Even allowing for the risk of overtraining and having to peak his training again, and against a different fighter stylistically in Belfort, Jones is still comfortably favourite for the match.
Jones as a champion and figurehead for the company should be seen to do the right thing – which would have been taking the 151 fight. But as a businessman and athlete, he needs to do the right thing for himself. Which is not facing someone he’s unprepared and unwilling to take on. And for all the UFC bleat about him turning down a fight, if they don’t want champions to have the choice, they shouldn’t give them the power of veto.
But while nobody can be blamed for the injury to Dan Henderson that caused their match to be scrapped, to lose a whole card and to point the finger at one individual for the cancellation smacks of desperation by a company on serious danger of overexerting itself.
I’ve said before on this blog – and I’m not the only one – that UFC is spreading itself too thin. Between pay-per-view and televised events, it feels like there’s a show at least every fortnight, if not every week.
And as a result, there feels a real sense of burnout. Not just among the fans – who are now picking and choosing which events to watch and to buy in a way they were not during UFC’s peak only a couple of years ago – but among the organization itself.
The danger of running a one-fight card is that, if said fight goes under, you’ve nothing to replace it. So it was with UFC 151, which had an undercard so weak you’d have struggled to make tea with it.
That’s not to say the fights would have been bad – chances are they wouldn’t be, with Jay Hieron v Jake Ellenberger and Kyle Noke v Charlie Brenneman fun match-ups for the die hards. But none were the sort of fight you could build as a replacement for Bones v Hendo being scrapped.
With so many shows on so often, and an increasing number of fighters getting hurt in training, the lack of depth at the top is increasingly exposed in the UFC. Running Ultimate Fighter shows in Brazil or Australia to increase your fanbase there might be bold, but it doesn’t pay the bills, and when you’re shedding pay per view buys at a notable rate, there’s clearly issues to be resolved.
Telling a fighter that if he doesn’t take a bout the entire card will be scrapped – and he will be blamed – is a nasty sort of emotional blackmail that demands people ‘do the right thing’, and seems to be telling people that nobody is bigger than the UFC.
But if the UFC itself is only of a finite size, and those resources are stretched paper thin already, throwing a hissy fit and axing your entire show because someone said no to you smacks of desperation. Jones makes a handy scapegoat because lots of folk in the MMA community already dislike him, while the reality is that UFC itself arguably dropped the ball by having too many cards, and too little depth, on both this show and the ones around it.
Indeed, if anything good comes out of this fiasco, and the loss of UFC151 to being anything other than an historical footnote, it may be that White and Zuffa have to take a long, hard look at just how many shows they run, and how often.