February 2013. UFC 156. After a hotly contested featherweight title fight, 145-pound champion Jose Aldo sits down next to Dana White and is told some strange news.
Top lightweight contender Anthony "Showtime" Pettis had called the UFC president. He wanted to forgo his shot at lightweight champion Ben Henderson in favor of a fight with Aldo. White loved the idea. Aldo, however, did not.
Scarface had been so dominant for so long that he was poised to clear out a division in a way MMA fans had never seen before. In a position where he could stake a claim as one of the greatest mixed martial artists of all time, a win over Pettis added very little to his resume at that point (this was well before Pettis took the lightweight title). In addition, Clay Guida, who previously had dominated Pettis, was a legitimate player near the top of the featherweight division.
When Aldo's handlers pointed this out, White was indignant. Not just indignant; White was livid. His rage was obvious even when paraphrased on Twitter:
Dana said Aldo will fight Pettis or he's not going to like the way this turns out. He's absolutely refusing right now.— Ariel Helwani (@arielhelwani) February 24, 2013
White would stamp his foot. His face became red. He yelled and screamed, and ultimately, he got his wish. Aldo vs. Pettis was booked for UFC 163.
Eight months later came Jon Jones vs. Alexander Gustafsson. What was supposed to be a throwaway fight that merely served to pad Jones' record turned out to be one of the greatest wars in UFC history. The fight was incredibly close, and fans desperately wanted more.
Alas, "more" never materialized. Jones refused to face Gustafsson again. Instead, he chose to face Brazilian slugger Glover Teixeira.
Let that sink in. Light heavyweight champion Jon Jones opted out of a potential million-buy pay-per-view, and the UFC, for all its posturing with Aldo, let him. The reason?
"That's what the champ wants," White said to ESPN's Brett Okamoto.
That turn of events showed two things: that the UFC gave absurdly preferential treatment to some of its stars, and that Jon Jones, at least at the time, had a Floyd Mayweather-like ability to control whom he fought. When Jones opted to leave Gustafsson twisting in the wind, there was nothing Gustafsson, the fans or the UFC could do about it.
With complete control over his UFC destiny, Jones successfully weaponized the belt against irreverent (or particularly formidable) competition. For meanies like Gustafsson and Phil Davis, he could whimsically deny them deserved title shots if he so desired. When fighters like Daniel Cormier kissed the ring, however, Jones flipped from disinterested champion to full-blown hype man.
While the UFC managed to force a Jones vs. Gustafsson 2 after a lengthy, intense contract dispute, a knee injury to Gustafsson scrapped the bout. With the Swede now left out in an all-too-familiar cold with Jones vs. Cormier rescheduled for January 2015, an announcement first made on the Fox Sports 1 program America's Pregame (h/t Ariel Helwani of MMAFighting), the rematch ship has almost certainly sailed.
Jones is calling the shots in the light heavyweight division, and one of his biggest pet peeves is seeing his aura of invincibility shattered. Because of that, Jones will sadistically pick any opponent other than Gustafsson.
Worse yet, there are plenty of options.
With another savage win, it will be hard to argue against Anthony "Rumble" Johnson as the top 205-pound contender. After that, rising stars like Ilir Latifi and Ovince Saint Preux are strong potential contenders in 2015. After that (and keep in mind, we're reaching into 2016 at this point), maybe Tyrone Spong joins the UFC and makes a strong run, or Rashad Evans returns to his 2012 form or that superfight with Chris Weidman happens.
Time remains the greatest enemy of hype, and any financial incentive for Jones vs. Gustafsson 2 will evaporate sooner rather than later. That sad fact will end up leaving the division's top contender twisting in the wind for years.