Jon Jones: A Talisman the UFC Needs

UFC-159The Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) needed Jon Jones to win last Saturday night. Business is not booming and for all intents and purposes, ‘Bones’ is their most valuable cash cow in an increasingly barren field. Even with the recent revelations surrounding his drug use, ‘Bones’ is still the man the UFC wants at the top of the mountain. While some fans will lament the loss of exciting opportunities the crowning of a new champion would have afforded, they are confusing the nobility of sport with the reality of business. The UFC’s marketing department did an admittedly wonderful job of selling Jon Jones vs Daniel Cormier to the general public. When stripped down to its bare bones the genesis of their ‘rivalry’ was pathetic; two men meet, one of them mumbles something about the other looking like a wrestler and now we’re supposed to believe that they hate each other with a lust that can only be slaked in the theatre of combat. It’s incredible that we, as adults, buy into it. But buy into it we do and if Dana White’s prediction of UFC 182 smashing the 750,000 Pay-Per-View buy threshold holds true, we’ve bought into it more than any other fight in the past twelve months. Here’s the thing though; as much as the UFC wanted us to believe that this was a dead-heat contest where anything could happen and (insert your own hyperbolic statements here), their chips were riding on a Jon Jones win. Perhaps that’s not completely fair. They may have hedged their bets on a five-round ballet of violence (in the vein of Hunt vs Bigfoot) with Cormier nicking a split-decision, but that’s a small basket to be placing all your eggs in. UFC: A sport or a business? To understand why the UFC’s collective fingers were crossed for a Jones victory, you first have to ditch the notion that the UFC exists to match the best fighters in the world against one another every time out. Even harking back to the purer, halcyon days of the sport, that was never the case. The early tournaments were an infomercial for the Gracie’s brand of fighting, bolstered by the Gracie/Shamrock rivalry that sprung out of UFC 1. What other explanation is there for the lack of a 240lbs NCAA Division 1 stud in the earliest events? Are we expected to believe that people like Mark Coleman didn’t exist in ’93 or that they were ‘too scared’ to give it a go? Where was the Luta Livre guy, and why was a 270lb beast with a reasonable knowledge of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu like John McCarthy turned away as a competitor? Regardless of what the early organisers say, if they’d have looked hard enough (or wanted to), there would have been someone. There are many anecdotal explanations but Occam’s Razor says that the plan – and projected financial windfall – was rooted in Gracie success: A cast of colourful characters lined up to be choked out. It worked, but that’s another story. The theme has prevailed throughout UFC history; the Zuffa era’s first great victory was the big lie that Ken Shamrock vs Tito Ortiz was a legitimate fight. It’s always been about compelling challengers to a compelling champion. That’s never rung true more than at light heavyweight, the division in which Jon Jones currently resides and dominates. Through many eras of UFC action the better pure fighters – the Penn’s, Hughes’ Miletich’s etc – have resided in the lower weight classes, but 205 has been talismanic. Tito Ortiz carried the company for years fighting mostly undersized or under-skilled opposition. Chuck Liddell ran through the ranks like a screaming berserker, but still engaged in pointless batterings of Babalu and Jeremy Horn. When the cast of characters at 205 got even more compelling, it didn’t matter that the belt became a hot potato; Couture, Liddell, Rampage, Griffin, Evans, Machida, Shogun… these were superstars – all thriller, no filler. In 2015, the landscape is different. Those colourful characters are either long gone or out of the picture. If one looked beneath the hype and hubris of last Saturday’s title fight, there weren’t legions of Daniel Cormier fans clamouring for the start of the ‘DC Era’. Sure, there were plenty of fans backing him, but the prevailing theme was Jon Jones losing, rather than Cormier winning. That’s what makes a perfect champion; someone who can polarise the audience. Daniel Cormier is a fine representative of the sport; he’s likable, articulate, a fantastic analyst and a technically phenomenal fighter. From a purely sporting point of view, he’s the total package. But regular sports fans aren’t tipping the Pay-Per-View buys over the 500,000 mark. “Are you still there p***y?”, hotel brawls, an infinitely unlikeable demeanour and flagrant hypocrisy is what makes Jones compelling – along with him being the best fighter in the world. Cormier, on his own, has none of that. You can draw a parallel with Chris Weidman and Anderson Silva. The Brazilian was arguably the best of his era and a true superstar. The man who beat him should have seen his profile skyrocket, but Weidman is as bland in the personality stakes as he is elite in the realm of fighting. Epilogue: Breaking news On Tuesday night, news broke of Jon Jones testing positive for cocaine metabolites. The 27-year-old has already been dragged shamelessly through the court of public opinion, but few are considering how the situation will affect his standing in – and value to – the UFC. Both the promotion – and newly-minted mainstream sponsor Reebok – have stood by the champ, which speaks volumes for how highly he is regarded as an asset. One of the main reasons fans (love to) hate “Bones” is his split personality; he’s a good Christian boy on one side, and a drunk-driving, womanising reprobate on the other. Of late he’s been embracing the dark side openly; celebrating in the cage before his fight with Cormier was done, his comments post-fight and at the subsequent press conference. From here Jones can go one of two ways; he can do his time and come back as brash and arrogant as ever, cementing his status as MMA’s ultimate bad guy, or he can be ‘born again’, the ultimate redemption story. Either way, Jon Jones next fight will be his most-watched ever. When there’s money to be made, we can all set certain morals aside. By Brad Wharton @MMABrad48  

Written by Brad Wharton

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