UFC Champ Jon Jones, Dana White and MMA's Eternal Question: Sport or Spectacle?
Now that UFC 151 is dead—more importantly, now that we've had the appropriate amount of time to grieve—it's our duty to look back with an unflinching eye at the decision that led to the UFC canceling the first event in the promotion's 18-year history: light heavyweight champion Jon Jones's refusal to fight Chael Sonnen after his original opponent pulled out of the bout.
The initial takes, no doubt influenced by UFC President Dana White's angry press conference tirade, were full of bombast and passion. His impact on reporters covering the sport is strong, and many people followed White on tangents about Jones' manhood, missing the point that was right in front of their eyes.
The real crux of the issue isn't about Jon Jones; at least not just about Jon Jones.
You can see where White is coming from, of course. Cynics might say his bombast was all about the bottom line, but I think White has a genuine concern for the fans. White just wants to do what's right for his fans, his business and the other fighters on the card.
No one could ever question his passion for this sport. It comes across as genuine because it is. But his attack on Jones, impassioned as it was, was short-sighted. His characterizations of Jones will have ramifications that last well beyond this fight or this year. He's rewriting the book on Jones, changing perceptions, making fans question one of his top stars just when he needs a star more than ever.
The real question?
Was Dana White right?
Should Jones (or any champion) have thrown his eight-week training camp to the side, making his intense physical and mental focus on opponent Dan Henderson all for naught? Should he have taken a fight with wild card Chael Sonnen instead?
As always, as it has since Gerard Gordeau kicked Teila Tuli's teeth into the stands at UFC 1, it all comes down to MMA's great divide.
Is this a sport? Or is it a spectacle?
It's clear now where Jones stands. He's a professional athlete and the first UFC fighter to show mixed martial arts deserves its place at the grown-ups' table of sport. He comes complete with all the trappings of a modern athlete—the prickly ego, the self importance and, most of all, the talent.
It's the talent, God-given and honed by coaches like Greg Jackson and Mike Winkeljohn, that has made all the rest possible. The Nike deal, the Bentley and the power to look Dana White in the eye and say "no."
Longtime kingpin Tito Ortiz wasn't just dragged through the mud during a contract dispute—the UFC had to import slop just to dump it on the champion. That dispute got so ugly that White created a reality television show that was essentially a 90-minute gripe session painting Ortiz, still the company's top draw, as a coward and a bum.
There were plenty of reasons, then, for Jones and his team to kowtow to White and the UFC. Jones had to know White would bludgeon him for daring to disagree. Even though bad-mouthing his top star is bad for business, White has never been one to yield, to take the high road. He would pull this dispute into the mud. That seemed predestined.
And Jones did it anyway. Is it impossible to get the best of the UFC brass? We only say "yes" because nobody ever has.
Jones, though, isn't just anybody. Jones feels untouchable. He's young and wealthy and feels empowered to do what's best for his career. And refusing to fight Chael Sonnen, a dangerous wrestler with a style completely different than Henderson's, was the smart play.
This is a man who loves what he does and is so good at it that the idea he would fear any man or any fight is preposterous. What is there to fear? He's Jon Jones.
It boils down to this: MMA is a sport that requires an eight-week training camp to get your body ready to fight at all. Eight weeks to get your mind ready to fight a specific opponent. For Jones, arguably the greatest fighter of all time already, despite being just 25 years old, the result of this eight-week camp is an athlete who is unstoppable, seemingly unbeatable. He becomes the ultimate human weapon. It's what his fans have come to expect.
That, more than the residue of fame and glory, is what we think of when we consider Jon Jones. The man exudes excellence to his very core.
When you've built your brand on being the best, the best is what you have to provide. Every time. And in a fight with Sonnen, Jones wasn't in position to deliver what the world—and just as importantly, what he himself—expects in the cage. His body was ready for a contest, but it wasn't the contest that was staring him in the face.
Henderson, despite his wrestling pedigree, is a slugger, a fighter who intended to pressure Jones in pursuit of his deadly right hand.
Sonnen, by contrast, is pure wrestler. He would pressure Jones too, but always with the takedown in mind. The rhythms then, the movements of the body that Jones had drilled until they were second nature, were all wrong. He was ready for grizzled black bear, pawing at him with enormous power. Instead, he'd be facing MMA's most deadly boa constrictor.
If MMA is a real sport, we want our athletes competing to the best of their ability. We want them ready, physically and mentally, to show their opponent and the world exactly what they are capable of on their best day.
Demanding that an athlete fight anyone you put in front of them, even if it's a fight that is sprung at the last moment, isn't the hallmark of sport. That's spectacle, where feeding a bloodthirsty crowd is paramount.
Did Jon Jones make the right call?
But when White is making arbitrary decisions about who competes for titles, when the lack of athletic architecture shines through, when matches are made based on the bottom line rather than determining who's best, the slope towards spectacle is dangerously slippery.
Sometimes Dana White loses sight of the line that makes this a sport and prevents critics from making ignorant comparisons to cock fighting or gladiator combat. It's a fighter's free will that makes this a sport that transcends its street fighting roots. It's the athlete's pursuit of perfection that makes this something worthy of the participants and the audience.
MMA is sport. It has to be, or it has no place in a civilized world. When the fog of battle clears, I hope Dana White thanks Jon Jones for having the courage to remind him of that.
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