UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones is a marketable star.
You won't find any MMA-centric brands adorning Jones when he walks out for fight night. He has endorsement deals with Nike and Gatorade, two of the biggest brands available in the sports marketing world.
He is eloquent. He is dedicated to his craft. Sure, he makes some of the same mistakes that other athletes in the spotlight make from time to time—a 2012 DUI incident being the most prominent—but he appears to learn from those mistakes in a way that many athletes do not.
He is an excellent fighter and a great champion. And he is the perfect face to present to a sporting world that still has a bit of trouble accepting the notion of cagefighting as a legitimate mainstream sport.
The UFC doesn't feel the same way. Or at least that's the impression that Jones gets. Here's what he told Bloody Elbow's Trent Reinsmith:
We don't always see eye to eye with the UFC. So I don't know if they are always necessarily pushing me and whether that's a smart idea on their end or not, who knows? I do know that they are pushing Ronda Rousey really hard, and she's gotten a lot of great opportunities. I don't know what they're going to do, but I'm pushing myself all the time so, I'm not really worried.
I know that I'm a lot different from some of the guys from the past. Guys like Chuck Liddell, and guys like Matt Hughes that would just get up and do anything, anytime, and never voice their opinion. I'm trying to change a lot of things in the game. Making sure the fighters are being respected, making sure our own brands are being respected, things like that. We just don't always see eye to eye on everything, either way it works out.
Jones has a point.
Rousey, who might just be the biggest star in the UFC at this point in time, is constantly pushed to the mainstream media, and rightly so.
She is a fantastic fighter. She's beautiful. She has a magnetic personality that shines through when she's not stressed out or grumbling about one issue or another. And she's about to take Hollywood by storm, with two movie roles in the can and several more coming down the pipe in the immediate future, according to Variety (h/t Fox Sports).
In short, she is everything that the company likes. But what the UFC likes more than anything is that she's a company woman. For the most part, she does what the UFC asks of her without much in the way of complaints. She toes the company line, helping to extend the brand and message in the same controlled way that the UFC does.
Jones is different. He's not afraid to publicly disagree with Dana White or other company officials.
This is a rare trait. The majority of the fighters on the roster are more than happy to stick to the UFC's message, because most of them are thankful for the opportunity to chase their dreams in the Octagon. They don't want to rock the boat, because rocking the boat might compromise future earnings and opportunities.
Jones is not worried about rocking the boat. He is financially secure. More importantly, he believes in his convictions and isn't willing to compromise them, even when it leads to the cancellation of a UFC event for the first time in company history.
He could likely walk away from fighting and find a place in Hollywood.
A recent example: The UFC is pushing its own line of Octagon headphones. You've no doubt caught a glimpse of them at this point, because they've been wrapped around the neck of nearly every fighter in the UFC over the past few fight cards. They are a company-wide marketing effort.
Jones isn't playing the game.
Earlier this week, he posted a few Instagram photos of the new headphones sent to him by Monster's biggest competitor, Beats Electronics. Whether he was legitimately excited by the headphones did not matter; the implication is that he isn't going to push the UFC's shiny new headphones just because everyone else is. He's not going to push a product unless he receives fair market value in return.
There have been many discussions over the years surrounding the formation of a fighter union. Most believe it will never work, because it would take an active superstar to start things up and sacrifice some of his own income in order to benefit the fighters who take up spaces much lower on the card.
To date, there hasn't been an active star with the clout and the willingness to make it happen. And I don't know if Jones is that guy, but he has all the traits of someone who can. His willingness to stand up for himself, assert his own value and express his opinion without caring about the consequences makes him the perfect candidate to effect massive changes in the UFC and in mixed martial arts as a whole.
I don't know if he'll do it. He may care only about himself, and that's OK, too.
But here's what I do know: If Jones continues to feel disrespected by the UFC, there is every chance in the world he'll become that guy. And if that moment ever comes, the UFC will wish it had treated him like the superstar and professional athlete he is.