The UFC has a star problem.
You can recruit the best talent, cultivate that talent and market the hell out of the finished product, but every fighter is a split-second lapse from being stopped and falling to the back of the line.
Remember the Brock Lesnar era? Or the Cain Velasquez era? Or the Lyoto Machida era?
Jon Jones has the tools to be part of the solution, but his refusal to fight Chael Sonnen on short notice seemingly made him part of the problem. The UFC can endure losses from their big names, but for a company with fighting in its title, it's difficult to calculate the impact of its rising star refusing to fight.
Jones was not obligated to accept the fight with Sonnen. It is his right to turn down a short-notice title defense and train for the next highest-ranked challenger. Any fighter has the right of refusal, but Jon Jones isn't just any fighter.
He's the potential star who can elevate the sport further into the mainstream; he's the lone MMA fighter with a Nike endorsement.
Rather than save UFC 151 by taking on a 35-year-old with less than two weeks to prepare, he chose to protect his title rather than defend it. Fear may not have been the motivating factor, but in the alpha-dog world of MMA, the mere appearance of fear can be enough to condemn.
And mainstream fans typically don't pay to watched a coward.
But they'll pay to watch a villain.
Jones has been unapologetic for acknowledging pay-per-view projections in his desire to select opponents. He speaks freely about business savvy and defends his motives as a refusal to be a "broke athlete" when he retires. There are few things in professional sports less endearing than millionaire athletes voicing their financial motives.
Good for you, Jon Jones. You're rich, and you got some money; you don't need to take this fight. But there's a bunch of guys on the undercard. This is how they feed their family, and this is how they make a living.
White also said Jones' popularity has yet to match his talent and success, for whatever reason, and the refusal to fight Chael Sonnen probably wouldn't help:
As much as he's won, and all the things he's accomplished in a short amount of time, he burst onto the scene a year and a half ago, he's ripped through the top guys, he's been a champion that hasn't been very popular and I don't think this is going to do wonders for his popularity.
Popularity can be overrated. Polarizing sells.
The Yankees, LeBron, Tiger and Floyd Mayweather move the needle and sell tickets everywhere they go. They are loved by some, hated by many. The worst thing for a relatively niche sport like MMA is to run guys out that don't induce emotional responses.
Jon Jones is stirring up emotions. It remains to be seen whether he's doing it intentionally or if he's just a coward.