There was a time UFC president Dana White had his finger firmly on the pulse of the mixed martial arts community. It was part of what made hardcore fans so excited about his ascension to the UFC throne.
He wore his T-shirts too tight, had a foul mouth and loved fighting. He loved talking about fighting. He was one of us. He got it.
His recent decision to allow Jon Jones to duck a rematch with Alexander Gustafsson proves that White doesn't know how to give his audience what it craves. Or, even worse, he's still the same old Dana, only he no longer has the juice to bend fighters to his will.
That wasn't always the case.
When Randy Couture beat Pedro Rizzo in one of the best, most action-packed and close title fights in UFC heavyweight history at UFC 31, White booked an immediate rematch at UFC 34. There was no delay or pause—no consideration of or for other fighters' feelings.
It didn't matter that Couture couldn't walk right for weeks after the fight. Whether he wanted the bout was immaterial. White saw the demand. Better still, he felt the demand too—because he was a fan. And he acted.
If it sounds familiar, it should.
Like Gustafsson and Jones, Couture and Rizzo was a classic fight. Like Jones vs. Gus the outcome of the fight was contested by many. To this day, Rizzo believes he deserved the win. Couture just shrugs his shoulders and points to the results of the rematch, where he settled the question once and for all. But everyone agreed it was an issue that needed to be settled.
Unfortunately, transported into today's MMA world, that rematch never happens. Couture and his camp would have likely fought tooth and nail to avoid facing his toughest challenge again. A subset of fans on the Internet would complain that a rematch wasn't fair to Josh Barnett, the next-highest-ranked contender. The moment would have passed. By the time the two eventually met again, only the hardest of hardcores would remember what all the fuss was about.
That's what's going to happen with Gustafsson and Jones. The champion, despite conquering corporate America, has struggled to make headway with MMA fans. They sense a certain inauthenticity and haven't embraced the sport's best fighter the way they probably should have.
His fight with Gustafsson was Jones' chance to change all that. He showed a warrior's heart, refusing to quit or bend when presented with a tough test. It was the kind of performance that wins fans. He could have further cemented his position as "fighting champion" by not just accepting, but demanding a rematch.
Instead, Jones decided he didn't want to fight Gustafsson again. Rather than stepping up to the challenge, he side-stepped, issuing a statement through the PR firm of Ariel and Helwani that sounded like it came from a corporate attorney and not a cage fighting champion (hat tip MMAMania):
Initially, before watching the fight, he thought the most fair thing to do was to grant Alexander Gustafsson an immediate rematch, it was such a close fight. But after watching it over 10 times, he now believes that he decisively won rounds two, round four and round five and maybe even round one. So, now he thinks, because it was so clear cut, that the most fair thing to do is to grant the next contender a title shot. He'd be up to anything; if UFC said fight Gustafsson, he'd do it, but he thinks the most fair thing to do right now is to move on. He also said Gustafsson was very game and put forth a great fight but he thinks personally, he was only at 70 percent and next time he vowed that he would be at 100 percent.
Jones will now face Glover Teixeira, a promising fighter the UFC has inexplicably fallen in love with. That's another article for another time. Suffice to say, like Gustafsson, at least like Gustafsson before UFC 165, Glover doesn't have much of a profile; casual fans don't know him and the bulk of Internet interest comes from his native Brazil. It's a fight destined to underperform on pay-per-view.
The same things were true of Gustafsson as well. Just replace Brazil with Sweden, and you're painting the picture of a fighter who isn't quite ready, commercially, to jump into a pay-per-view main event.
But things changed the moment he bloodied Jones at UFC 165. Over the course of 25 minutes, Gustafsson became a star. And stars need a chance to shine, especially in the MMA realm, where they burn out all too quickly.
Not promoting a rematch the public, and even White himself, demanded makes no sense for the UFC. The absolute best-case scenario from a business perspective is that Jones successfully defends against Teixeira and Gustafsson wins his own, as yet unscheduled, tune-up fight in the meantime.
Then the rematch can happen sometime next year, still diminished but not dead.
Should either man lose in the interim? All the excitement of a second tilt is out the window.
So, the question is this: Why would the UFC make this inexplicable decision?
The answer? They didn't. The champion did.
"That's what the champ wants," White told ESPN.com. "We'll probably have that fight on the Super Bowl card in New Jersey."
You can understand the impulse for Jones and his team to put Gustafsson far in their rear-view mirror. They dodged a bullet. Perhaps jumping right back into the line of fire is too much to ask from a very calculating man.
But, for the UFC, the rematch made the most sense. There was no fan movement propelling Teixeira to the top. He's barely established himself as a Top 10 fighter, let alone a contender who absolutely has to have a title shot without delay.
It's a decision that shows, clearly, that White no longer runs the UFC with an iron fist. Maybe he's still the old Dana we knew and loved and he isn't making the fights the fans want to see, not because he doesn't want to, but rather, because he can't. He's ceded that power to the fighters.
And, for UFC fans who don't want to see diminished competition and the kind of political matchmaking that defines boxing in 2013, that's a real shame.