The UFC badly wants light heavyweight champion Jon Jones to be the superstar the promotion desperately needs. Jones wants it too. He's spent years carefully building a persona—nice guy, holy guy, most importantly a regular guy. One who just happens to be the best fighter the sport of mixed martial arts has ever seen.
Since the departure of Chuck Liddell, an icon known as much for his trademark mohawk as his prodigious punching power, the sport has lacked a second marque fighter to compare with boxing's holy duality of Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather.
Welterweight kingpin Georges St-Pierre does his part in spectacular fashion. He's a solid box office draw in the United States, and his legion of Canadian fans make him a cash cow. But he's getting lonely at the top, and worse, has been AWOL all year, battling a knee injury and subsequent recovery.
Without St-Pierre and heavyweight Brock Lesnar, who left the sport to return to the WWE, the UFC has suffered with a series of uninspiring pay-per-view main events. They need Jones—need someone—worse than they've ever needed a star before.
Millions of dollars are on the line. For a promotion that is struggling towards its worst pay-per-view year in modern history, a situation made worse by new pressures to provide main event worthy fights for the Fox network four times a year, a lot is riding on making him not just an amazing fighter, but a popular one.
So why does Jon Jones keep messing things up, destroying good will as brilliantly as he's ever destroyed an opponent in the Octagon?
Jones tries hard. You have to give him that. He wants to be loved, more so than any UFC star I can recall. Even Tim Sylvia, who used to walk around the casino with his title belt hoping to be noticed, didn't yearn for approval quite like Jones. It's endearing in a way. But, almost without fail, when trying so hard to impress, he says the wrong thing.
Take his recent conversation with ESPN.com. Jones was trying to show reporter Franklin McNeil that he was a savvy player, that he understood the business implications of a potential fight with top contender Lyoto Machida:
I don't want to fight Lyoto Machida. He was my lowest pay-per-view draw of last year. No one wants to see me fight Lyoto Machida. I don't want to fight Lyoto again. Lyoto is high risk and low reward.He's a tough fighter, but no one wants to buy that fight. Between (Mauricio) Shogun (Rua), (Quinton) Rampage (Jackson) and Rashad (Evans), Lyoto was my lowest draw. Why would I want to fight someone where it's a lose-lose situation? I won't make money on it. And he's a tricky fighter.
It's a stunning revelation. As a member of the media, it's intriguing, the kind of honesty you just don't get from athletes in other sports.
Jones is saying, without the slightest embarrassment or hesitation, that Machida is too tough a fight for him to consider for anything less than the gross national product of Moldova.
Athletics is about competition, about being the best. The money flows from that, from fans willing to put down huge chunks of their salaries for the privilege of watching top athletes compete to decide who's the biggest baller.
The Pittsburgh Steelers don't get to decide they'd rather play the New York Jets in the playoffs, records be damned, refusing to lace them up against the Jacksonville Jaguars. Every single columnist on Around the Horn would explode in righteous indignation.
Try explaining to a skeptical press that the New York market is bigger than North Florida's and that they'd make more money playing the Jets than the Jaguars. That's not the mental calculus we demand from our sports stars.
They play who they are told to play and the cream rises to the top. That's the goal of sports after all—putting it all on the line to see who comes out the champion.
For Jones to suggest otherwise, to say aloud that Machida is too tough a fight, shows a young champion in desperate need of a savvy adviser. He's secured the Nike endorsement, battled to the top of a tough sport and continues to grow as an athlete. Now he needs people around him crafting his public appearances instead of getting in fist fights backstage at the UFC.
There is a way to avoid a Machida fight without telling the audience, an audience who wants badly to consider you a warrior by the way, that it makes you nervous. As an audience we are trained to read between the lines.
For example, if I told you a young starlet was hospitalized due to "exhaustion," you'd know that she was sniffing coke like it was still the 1980's. If I tell you an athlete was holding out because the team wasn't giving him enough "respect," you'd know he wanted a new contract. These are unspoken truths that we all understand.
Had Jones said "Machida isn't an interesting fight for me," we'd have known just what he meant. He didn't need to say the actual words. Never say the actual words!
In a sport built on machismo, it remains to be seen how well Jones's calculated capitalism, his borderline cowardice, will sit with the audience that likes its fighter fearless and as tough as they come.
Jones has worked his way to the top of a sport with a fandom dying to find someone to love. Unfortunately, he's doing everything in his power to make sure the next big star is someone, anyone, other than Jon Jones.