If there is one thing we know about UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones, it's that we don't know anything.
Even among those of us who have spent a considerable amount of time in his presence, Jones remains a mystery. You get the sense that this is partially by design. Jones often expresses his desire to be a role model and a type of human bridge between the dark area where mixed martial arts still resides and the glorious mainstream. But so much of him is unknowable, and he keeps the public he often seems to be courting off-balance through a never-ending series of contrary actions and statements.
We do know one thing about Jones: He is an athlete unlike any before him in mixed martial arts. From a skill perspective, he may already be the greatest fighter in the history of mixed martial arts. His record is littered with the carcasses of former champions and top contenders, most of whom were dispatched with ease and sometimes with haste. The two men generally considered contenders for the mantle of "greatest ever" are Anderson Silva and Fedor Emelianenko; neither can boast the quality of across-the-board opposition Jones has faced and defeated.
We also know Jones is a businessman. Fighters come from all sorts of backgrounds, but the one thing most of them have in common is that they fight because they have some sort of issue in their past that needed to be worked out, and they discovered that violence was as good a way as any to alleviate anger. As a general rule, people who decide to physically fight another human being in a cage probably had something broken inside them at one point or another; they may have resolved those issues years ago and come to a place of professionalism, but the decision to fight is usually not made out of financial peace and mental well-being.
For Jones, this is not the case. He was brought up in a happy home with loving parents and two brothers with whom he remains close today. Jones began fighting purely out of a financial need to do so.
It wasn't anger that drove Jones to the cage. It was money, at first, and then it was greatness.
Jones wanted to be the best fighter in the history of the sport, and he set about doing so in methodical fashion. He treated his career as a profession, not as a hobby that he got paid for doing. He loved the art of mixed martial arts, a love instilled in him by Greg Jackson and Brandon Gibson and others who have given him a sense of peace and self that is almost completely unrecognizable in prize fighting.
The monetary side of his career is treated the same way: cold, calculating and with his best interests in mind at all times. If the UFC loses an entire event because his team didn't feel one week was enough time to prepare for a replacement opponent, well, that's tough. Even when his boss elected to publicly castrate him—an unthinkable notion in any other line of entertainment work—Jones would stick to his guns in a way no other mixed martial artist ever has.
Jones is still sticking to his guns. Last week, the UFC took the unprecedented step of announcing a fight they'd only half-completed. They told the world that Alexander Gustafsson, the man Jones beat last fall, had signed a bout agreement for a rematch in August. All that waited, they said, was Jones' signature on the contract. They shifted the pressure on Jones in a very public manner, much like they'd done nearly two years ago when Jones opted out of UFC 151.
The same night they made the announcement, Dana White told those of us in the media who assembled for the post-UFC 173 scrum that the holdup on Jones' side was a new contract they were working on for the light heavyweight champion.
“We’re doing a new deal with him," White said. In their new "Embedded" series, the UFC even showed negotiations beginning at the UFC offices with White, Lorenzo Fertitta and Wayne Harriman, a Las Vegas businessman with deep ties to both Jones and the UFC.
A week later, White's story changed. Here's what he told UFC.com, which is both a UFC mouthpiece and a publication White controls, essentially making this a press release disguised as an interview:
“Just to clear up a couple things, people think we’re in contract negotiations with Jon Jones – we’re not,” he said. “Jon Jones still has five fights left on his contract. So what we’re doing right now is trying to get him to sign the bout agreement for Gustafsson. He doesn’t want to fight Gustafsson. … Lorenzo and I have a meeting with Jones on Thursday to get him to sign the bout agreement, and he’s asking to fight Cormier instead.”
Perhaps people think the UFC is in negotiations with Jones on a new contract because, well, White said a week ago that the UFC was working on a new deal with Jones?
The truth is that all of this—from laying the blame for the cancellation of UFC 151, to claiming that anyone but Jones is seemingly the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world, to hinting that Jones is scared to fight Gustafsson again—is a very public form of shaming. Jones is a big star and a dominant champion, and all of the negotiating power lies on his side of the table. This puts the UFC in the awkward situation of having to kowtow to his demands, and they don't like being put in such a situation because they are used to having the power of the UFC initials being the only thing that matters.
And so White all but says Jones is scared to fight Gustafsson (even though he's already beaten him once) and that he'd prefer to fight Cormier (who is actually a much tougher matchup for Jones) instead. And the public eats it up, because of course they do. UFC fans are a smarter group of people than they're given credit for, but nuanced reactions are not one of their strong suits.
I don't care if Jones fights Gustafsson or Cormier. Ideally, I'd like to see both of those fights, because I think both are neccessary bouts for Jones to overcome if he wants to be considered the greatest of all time by every single onlooker of the sport. The order in which they occur does not matter to me.
One thing I'd like to see less of, however, is the backhanded attempts at public humilation from the UFC. Jones has established himself as the greatest athlete of this generation in the UFC, and the UFC brass treats him like a coward who won't fight the man they have determined to be the most deserving (because Gustafsson also happens to be the man who would sell the most pay-per-view buys when standing across from Jones).
Instead of celebrating his greatness, they claim he maybe isn't as great as he thinks he is, and they do so because he isn't easy to deal with at the negotiating table. That's a stupid reason to continually alienate the man who might be the single best athlete to ever make his way up the UFC ranks.