MMA has entered the age of the superstar, but with mainstream appeal comes mainstream problems.
One such problem was recently on display—the issue of a fight negatively influencing an athlete's "brand image."
In a moment that instantly became one of MMA's most infamous, UFC light heavyweight champ Jon Jones refused to face Chael Sonnen on short notice at UFC 151 after Dan Henderson withdrew due to injury. This conundrum prompted the cancellation of the event and put egg on the face of the UFC and the sport of MMA as a whole.
Jones himself seemed nonchalant about the incident.
"I take a lot of pride in the way I perform, and I want to put on the best performance possible every time I fight," he told MMAjunkie after the event's cancellation. "I don't want to go out there just to win the fight. I want to go out there to dominate. I want to make it look effortless. I want it to be a beautiful thing."
"You have to go in there prepared and know that you did your homework. I wouldn't be the same warrior if I just jumped in there blindly and was cutting weight while I was trying to prepare for the fight...If I would have taken this fight, that would have been letting my ego get in the way and not using my intellect," he said.
"This is a professional sport. It's not just a backyard fight. You put everything on the line every time you step into the cage, and I now have a new mission. I'm all-in now, and I won't give anything less than my full effort," said Jones.
It is a line in the last paragraph that is the most telling; "This is a professional sport. It's not just a backyard fight."
Jones is absolutely right. MMA is a professional sport, and along with professional sports come professional sponsorships.
Why should a man—nay, a superstar—who recently signed a deal with one of the world's leading sports apparel companies in Nike put that sponsorship and his entire "brand" as an athlete on the line just to make his boss and the fans (the same fans who'd crucify him if he lost the fight, mind you) happy?
Jones isn't the first fighter to behave in such a manner.
UFC welterweight champion Georges St.Pierre, too, changed when he became more popular.
His cold, canned, calculated responses at press conferences and interviews have become one of his main characteristics. The fighting style that earned him the nickname "Rush" was discarded in favor of one that preserved his pristine record and, more importantly, his power to attract big-name sponsors.
Again, why should GSP—an athlete who has been sponsored by Under Armour, and appeared in commercials for Gatorade and ESPN—risk everything by trying to be more entertaining?
What would he accomplish? He'd please fans who, should he lose, would criticize him for having a poor game plan instead of praising him for changing his ways.
For the first time in the sport's history, the pitfalls that await big-name fighters outside the cage are greater than the glory they can achieve inside the cage. It's not worth putting your mainstream appeal and brand strength on the line just to win a fight.
Gone are the days of the Tank Abbott who would fight anyone, anywhere, anytime, for practically any price.
We are now entering the age of the superstar, where fights cease to be just fights and instead become calculated risks to increase one's name value and bargaining power amongst the sportswear titans.