Jon Jones, the UFC light heavyweight champion of the world, gets paid by the viewer.
Like all defending UFC champions, Jones banks a dollar amount based largely on how many people order the show on pay-per-view. The number of zeros on his check will correspond closely with the amount of interest he cultivates.
It's this reality that has made combat sports athletes unique—part P.T Barnum, part Hercules. It's not enough just to win. The world is filled with broke fighters who could win bouts, but couldn't win the hearts and minds of fight fans.
Unlike athletes in traditional sports, men and women who are paid after carefully negotiating a contract, sometimes years in advance, Jones and his UFC cohorts have to earn their bones every time they step in the cage.
Kobe Bryant makes his $27,849,000 whether the Los Angeles Lakers sell a single ticket or win a single game. That's a reality that makes a huge difference in both the tone and scope of an athlete's media responsibilities, salesmanship and bravado.
Bryant doesn't have to pretend a random game with the Nuggets in February is a world-changing battle of the titans. He's getting paid regardless. Jon Jones? He has to hustle for his dough.
It's this stark reality that makes Jones' approach to his April 27th fight with Chael Sonnen, considered by many analysts the most commercial UFC fight of the year, nothing short of flabbergasting.
It's not just that Jones has seemingly refused to promote the fight, though his lack of interest and sneering dismissal of the business side of his profession has to be troubling for the UFC, especially after all the time and effort they've spent building him into a star. Worse than disinterest, he's actively and continually downplayed the contest, making it clear that he doesn't believe Sonnen is a fit contender and that this isn't a competitive bout:
The beautiful thing about Chael is that he uses his words and that's about all he has, really. He's just a gang of quotes that no one's going to remember.
He's weak in every way, shape or form. He taps before submissions are even sunk in. I could put one hand around his throat and he's probably going to tap.
This is a classic mistake. When the true masters of the game promote their bouts, they never dismiss their opponents outright like that.
Watch Floyd Mayweather in the run-up to his fight with Robert Guerrero on Showtime PPV. Floyd is the prohibitive favorite. No one expects Guerrero to have much of a chance against this generation's most brilliant fighter, even as he continues to slow with age. But you won't hear that from Floyd.
"Robert Guerrero is a tough fighter, a solid, busy fighter. He only has one loss, a champion in multiple weight classes...He (Guerrero) did something right to get here," Mayweather told reporters at an Atlanta press event. "We will have to see how the fight plays out. I just want the fans to tune in, it's going to be an action-packed fight on May 4th. I am willing to do whatever it takes to get the victory. If I have to mix it up or box, I am going to bring it."
See the difference? Mayweather gives fans a reason to watch, even promising the potential for fireworks. Jones does nothing but give fans reasons not to watch. The distinction is about as subtle as a Jon Jones elbow to the face.
Jones has completely tuned out of this fight. Watching him during The Ultimate Fighter 17 Finale on FX was painful. He and Sonnen were given an entire segment to promote their upcoming bout, a chance to hard-sell a captive audience of fans on free television.
Chael did his best to drum up interest. Jones all but yawned, refusing to make eye contact, making his disdain and disinterest in the whole process crystal clear. If the champ can't be bothered to care about his own fight, why should any of the rest of us?
Jones explained his philosophy to MMA Fighting's Shaun Al-Shatti:
Chael is in the 'promote fight' business. I guess that's how he got in this situation in the first place. I'm in the ‘remain champion' business.
He made a similar comment on Twitter, refusing to engage Sonnen in a war of words:
I could care less about promoting my game is winning.
Unfortunately for Sonnen, the other fighters on the card, UFC management and even Jones himself, the champion just doesn't get it. In combat sports, everyone is in the "promote fight" business. That's the name of the game.
The window of opportunity for a professional prize fighter is ridiculously small. If he's lucky, Jones will have another decade at the top of the sport. Maximizing his earning potential in order to support himself and his family in the years to come is paramount.
An opponent like Chael Sonnen is a gift in this regard. This is a chance for Jones to, in one fell swoop, sock away the kind of "FU" money the rest of us just dream about. In combat sports, a retirement fund doubles as a "I don't have to take another beating and get brain damage" fund.
Every penny saved means one fewer brain-jarring fight on the back end of your career. And that's too important to give up in a fit of pride and hubris. Jones owes a better effort, if not to the UFC, than to himself and his family.
Promote the fight Jon. In 10 years, when you can eschew a grubby autograph-signing at a pizza parlor because of all the money you've saved, you'll be glad you did.