As I wrote previously, Jones—as well as UFC welterweight champ Georges St-Pierre, to a lesser extent—has helped usher in what I call the age of the superstar, where fighters cease being true fighters and instead become pseudo-businessmen and advertising/PR moguls.
This was made clear by the chicanery surrounding UFC 151. After Dan Henderson withdrew due to injury, Jones refused to fight the UFC's appointed challenger, Chael Sonnen, on eight days' notice. As a result, the pay-per-view—without a viable main event—was canceled by Dana White and Zuffa.
Jones' defense of his actions was flimsy and poorly received. It centered around the fact that Jones wanted to protect his brand as a fighter; he wants to make his victories "look effortless" and "beautiful," and that anything else would be a detriment to the Jon Jones name (and the Jon Jones wallet).
Unfortunately for Jones, MMA fans don't care about the strength of an athlete's brand or what sponsorships they have. MMA fans want to see fights—not athletes whining over risks vs. rewards and the minutiae of their contracts.
MMA started as a spectacle, not a sport. Thus, the men involved were fighters who were interested in beating people up and testing themselves, as opposed to their counterparts from other sports, who were primarily interested in endorsements and Wheaties boxes.
This former attitude from fighters helped make the MMA and the UFC popular—there was no prima donna B.S., just the best guys fighting the best guys with no (or comparatively few) questions asked.
This has changed. If a UFC champion won't fight somebody, how can he really be called one of the toughest men on the planet?
Even Tank Abbott, a sub-.500 fighter who has long since retired, is more of a fighter—he even fought in a backyard just to get even with Scott Ferrozzo. Abbott's words in a post-fight interview with Sherdog after his loss to Paul Buentello in 2006 sum up what the early days of the sport were about:
Giant pay-days is not what it's about for me...I've never been in it for the money. I've never been in it for anything but the love of fighting. All the people that blow their trumpets, it's because they are those kind of people. Where were they when, guess what? After they beat somebody up—Like Buentello, where was he after he hit me with a punch? Was he waiting for the cops to come pick him up and take him to jail? Guarantee he wouldn't do it, I would.
Street fighting and illegal activities aside, Abbott was a true fighter. He'd fight anyone, anywhere, anytime, for practically any price—as would any of the fighters from the old guard. To them, fighting and genuine competition meant more than legalese and sponsorship money.
If Tank Abbott is too sordid and absurd for an example, how about Renzo Gracie?
After a career that saw Gracie fight numerous big names, people thought that he was retired. Alas, in April 2010, he came back to take on former UFC welterweight champion Matt Hughes at UFC 112. Gracie hadn't fought in three years and was promptly dominated in a TKO loss.
However, Gracie didn't complain. In fact, his answer to a post-fight interview question about taking an easier fight before fighting Matt Hughes summarized the attitude of the old guard with elegant simplicity. "What kind of fighter would I be if I did that?" he said.
MMA has traded men like this for men who cower behind contracts and big-name sponsors—men who are in the sport not to test themselves but to try to amass as much fame and wealth as possible.
Bigger paydays are fine for fighters, but when money becomes the sole purpose of participating in MMA, the sport, as fans have known it since its inception, is compromised.
Jon Jones has pulled away the "fastest growing sports organization in the world" veneer that hid the disgusting inner workings of MMA; he's shown that the soul of the sport is dying. It can only be saved if fighters remain fighters, and fights remain fights.
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