It was at the conclusion of UFC 140 that Greg Jackson famously told Jon Jones to check on fallen opponent Lyoto Machida and “get yourself some fans.”
Though not necessarily meant for public consumption, it was sound advice. At the time, Jones’ approval rating was not especially high, even though the light heavyweight champion had completed one of the most dominant years in MMA history by running roughshod over Ryan Bader, Mauricio Rua, Quinton Jackson and Machida. Fair or not, something about Jones has always seemed to rub more than a few fans the wrong way.
Now, some 10 months removed from that scene in Toronto in December, Jones needs fans more than ever. When Jones faces Vitor Belfort on Sept. 22 -- Belfort moved in in after Machida declined a rematch with Jones -- he could very well be stepping into the Octagon as MMA’s greatest villain.
Jones had a chance to play the hero. By taking a fight with Chael Sonnen on eight days’ notice, he could have saved the entire UFC 151 event and altered his image, perhaps permanently. Instead, Jones said no thanks.
You know what? It was the right call. As much as there are teams and camps and families in the tightly knit MMA community, fighting is an individual sport. Jones got to where he is today because of an intense devotion to self. Anyone who tries to tell you that any top-shelf professional athlete in any other sport thinks differently is lying.
Would I have liked to see Jones square off with Sonnen next weekend? Absolutely; but do I think, given time to marinate, that pairing could do much better business down the road? There is no question.
Fighting Sonnen at UFC 151 was a high-risk, low-reward proposition for Jones. If he won, it would be a victory over a converted middleweight who had not been training for a fight. Lose, and all the work Jones had done over the past year-and-a-half would go down the drain. None of that sounds too appealing with a freshly inked Nike contract in your back pocket.
If this were yet another twist in the Floyd Mayweather-Manny Pacquiao saga, people would simply shrug their shoulders and say, “Well, that’s boxing.” We hold our mixed martial artists to a different standard, however. These guys are fighters and, no matter the circumstance, they should never turn down a fight. What’s great about the sport is that many of these athletes hold themselves to this ideal. Jones does not have to because he has put himself in a position where he can call his shots.
The good news is that Zuffa will continue to scramble in an attempt to make sure that most of the fighters who lost bouts as a result of the UFC 151 cancellation wind up on cards in the very near future. Some of those fighters might not forgive Jones, though.
“Jonny Bones, can you send my check to P.O. Box 198. EH NJ. Rent is due the first, so preferably by then. Thanks,” tweeted Charlie Brenneman, who was one of many to express anger at the champ.
Jones’ decision also affected his Jackson’s Mixed Martial Arts teammates, as Henry Martinez and Kyle Noke were scheduled to compete on the undercard. Noke said Jones called him on Thursday to apologize. Like everyone else affected, the Australian was disappointed by the news. A few hours later, it was announced that his bout with Brenneman would take place at UFC 152. Noke can also see why his teammate did what he did.
“I understand his point of view. You’ve got nothing to gain by taking an eight-day-notice fight with Chael Sonnen. Chael’s got everything to gain, win or lose. I think Jon’s just trying to look at bigger and better things. It just sucks for all of us,” he said.
Is it Jones’ duty to look out for his fellow fighters? Those thinking with a level head say no.
“I don’t think he has any obligations to any of the other fighters,” Noke said. “I think he has an obligation to himself. He made the decision he made, and it’s his decision.”
In the end, Jones did what he thought was best for his career. The light heavyweight champion has been doing that for some time now, and the results speak for themselves. It might just be a little harder to get fans from now on.
This story was updated at 12:02 p.m. on Aug. 24 to reflect the change in opponent from Machida to Belfort.