The mixed martial arts game isn't easy -- for the fighters and for their managers. No one knows this fact better than Malki Kawa.
That's because the self-proclaimed "Best damn sports agent around" has been facing a ton of criticism from the media and fans as of late because of what is perceived as his "mismanagement" of his star client's career.
We're talking about, of course, UFC Light Heavyweight Champion Jon Jones.
However, a pesky thumb injury and subsequently scheduled surgery forced a cancellation of the bout, much to the dismay of the fans. What happened next was odd, to say the least.
After consulting with quite a few doctors, trained professionals, mind you, it was eventually determined that Jones could forgo surgery. Music to his ears, of course, considering how invasive the procedure would have been.
This news was not well received by the fans, especially with the way it was relayed to them by the media.
Speculation was rampant that Jones was "ducking" Evans and Rashad, who had already been booked into a new fight against Phil Davis on Aug. 6, fanned the flames by claiming as much at every possible opportunity.
Which brings us back to Kawa, who also took to Twitter to defend his client's good name and let the world know they had it all wrong. His version of the story, condensed to 140 characters or less, seemed shaky and he was immediately blasted by multiple outlets for his handling of the situation.
I recently caught up with Kawa to hear what he had to say about all this and get a more in-depth explanation of the circumstances surrounding this entire ordeal.
Without further ado, in we go:
When news of Jones needing surgery came out, it was also brought to the media's attention that Jon had been suffering from this particular ailment from his days in college. If he had dealt with it his whole career, why is it an issue now? Did something happen in his fight against "Shogun" Rua on March 19 that made it worse?
Ding ding ding!
"In the past, even back in his wrestling college days, Jon would get pain in that hand. At one point he must have severely sprained it or he jacked his thumb up somewhere or somehow. So, in his UFC career or his mixed martial arts career even before the UFC, some fights it would hurt after, other fights it wouldn't. I can tell you, after Vladimir Matyushenko, his hand hurt him, after Ryan Bader, his hand didn't hurt him. In the second round of the Shogun Rua fight, he jacked it up really bad.
"What prompted us to see the doctor was the fact that his hand was really, really swollen, he couldn't shake hands, it was affecting him to hold or grab people's hand, he couldn't open up a can of coke and at the same time we had this potential fight with Rashad on the horizon and we wanted to make sure he was ready to go. The last thing we wanted to do was to set him when he wouldn't be 100 percent in a fight with a fighter that's a great fighter like Rashad.
"So, in essence, this whole I mismanaged him to make him look bad or whatever, it's quite the opposite. If I was trying to mismanage him and I was only looking for my own best interest, I would have forced him into a fight with Rashad right away. It's a big money fight, we would have probably made god knows how much, I would have got my percentage and that's the end of the story. But I'm not trying to mismanage Jon's career. He's the world champion. I think when you represent a world champion you should take proper measures, even if it's the smallest little thing, to make sure he's at the top of his game.
"It's the same injury, it's an injury that's reoccurred in the past but this time, to make it clear -- Jon at no point ever had an MRI or X-ray done on his hand to determine if he had a tear from the past or not. This is the first time that we are aware that he has a tear or any type of issue going on in the hand and it's not just one tear, he's got a couple issues in the hand itself.
"When you get a call that says, 'hey, we want him to fight in August' and the guy now at this point can't even hold the pencil to sign the bout agreement, I can't sit here and say to you, 'well, yeah let's go ahead.' This injury, even though it's the same hand and it's the same relative area, it's a lot worse today than it ever was in the past. So that's what really prompted the visit, the fact that his hand was really really painful, it was really swollen and it was unbearable."
All the doctors Jones saw and talked to agreed that surgery was the best option. But the fact of the matter is, that's not, at any point, what he wanted.
As Kawa explains, putting everything on hold was not a decision he wanted to have to make and if it was up to him, the surgery wasn't going to happen.
"When the first doctor recommended surgery it was a chore to even get him to go. When the rumor was out that he was going to have surgery, I said that he doesn't want to have surgery and he wants to fight ASAP. He wants to get back in the cage. So I'm on record saying, 'hey look guys, don't think that this guy is trying not to fight, he wants to fight, but he's got to do what's best for his career long term.'
"We feel, based on the doctors opinions, not my opinion or anything that anybody said, the doctor's told Jon that if he continued to train on that hand the way it was, the only thing that was going to happen was it was going to get worse. The UFC doctor, the one that always does all the surgeries and all that stuff, his name is Dr. Saunders, had a conversation with me on the phone and said to me that he recommended that Jon should have surgery.
"So when the UFC brought us out or when they have their doctors look at it, they want to make sure that this is not something that's minor or that, hey in a lot of possible cases, you don't know that a fighter might not be faking it. So Dana White came out and said, 'they're not lying, we flew them out here, there's no one lying here.' So that's basically what it is. The doctors recommended him to have surgery. Jon was against it, he felt like he just needed time to let the swelling go down and the pain would eventually go away. He felt like he would be the same as he always was in the past. Once we found out he had a tear in his hand I told him it's not the same as the past and the doctor said it's only going to get worse if it's not taken care of."
Kawa also went on to explain that Jones did everything exactly has he was supposed to. In consulting with the many doctors he did, it was determined flat out that the hand will not return to 100 percent on its own. For that, surgery is necessary.
However, when the day came that Jones met with Dr. Vahey, the UFC doctor who would perform the surgery, they ran some additional tests to determine the extent of the injury. It was in these tests that Dr. Vahey came to the conclusion that, if he wanted to, Jones could forgo the highly invasive surgery because of his range of motion and the functionality of his thumb.
Considering the fact that "Bones" never wanted the surgery in the first place, those were exactly the words he was hoping to hear.
Immediately, though, word trickled out and the timing of the matter became an issue. After all, suddenly it looks like Jones is a lot healthier than once thought and Evans, who all the while was claiming Jones is fake and doesn't want to fight him, already has a fight scheduled against Phil Davis on Aug. 6 in Philadelphia.
"Suga" rushed to his Twitter to say Jones was faking ever needing surgery and Malki decided he should do the same, only his was in defense of his client.
Here's how he explained it:
"It was always timing. I jump on Twitter because I get a fighter saying that my fighter is being fake and faking surgeries. So I immediately jump up and say, 'let me tell you guys the truth: he's not having surgery but he never faked any surgery. The UFC scheduled it. I didn't pick a date out of the blue and take him to a local hospital. We flew to Vegas, understand, I live in Miami, he lives in New York. Jon comes from Ithaca. It's not a direct flight for him. A flight to Vegas from New York is a nine-hour ordeal. He has to fly from New York to a city and sit in that city for a couple hours until there is a flight in that city to go to Vegas. Jon doesn't want to go across country to go have surgery. I could have done it in New York or Miami but we went with UFC doctors and it was scheduled based on our schedule and the UFC doctors schedule that they recommended. That's what we did. We followed protocol to a tee."
Kawa made sure to make note of the fact that it should be very clear Jones isn't avoiding a fight against Evans if, for nothing else, their recent nightclub confrontation.
Jones essentially told Evans, straight to his face, that he was going to beat him, kick his ass and make him a part of the Jon Jones highlight reel.
Okay, so that's cleared up.
But what about just rescheduling the fight against Rashad? Surely that's an option for the UFC, especially considering the fact that main event championship level fighters are dropping like flies with multiple ailments and injuries.
So why not let Phil Davis continue his run as a top prospect who is steadily climbing the ladder and re-book Evans vs. Jones?
"I think the problem is that Rashad needs to fight. Here's the other issue. Rashad hasn't fought and he needs to fight right away, well... he needs to fight, basically. So the issue here, because normally what would have happened is, hey, Jon can probably be back in Oct. and if you're going to fight in Aug. let's just wait two more months. The issue is, let's just say that Jon's hand isn't healed by then, let's say that Jon goes back to training camp in June or July and he goes and punches the mit and it goes and swells back up again and we decide that surgery is the best option because now that it's been healed and the swelling has gone away, lets say that the pain immediately comes back. Then Jon says, 'You know what, my hand is really killing.' Let's say that that happens, then what? Rashad is going to miss out on another opportunity to fight. So the fact of the matter is, I told the UFC, until Jon has all the pain and swelling in his hand go away, I didn't feel comfortable scheduling a fight. That's why they didn't schedule it. We couldn't commit to an Aug. fight. I feel comfortable today committing to an Oct. fight."
After it was determined that Jones was no longer having surgery on his hand, Kawa noted that the very first thing he and his client did was meet with Dana White and Lorenzo Fertitta to get their next fight scheduled.
Why hold off, right? The good news was in and the light heavyweight champ wasn't going to be out as long as originally thought. There were still speed bumps, sure, but they were much fewer and far between.
But the UFC wasn't going to reschedule yet another Evans fight.
"They didn't say no. We asked them to set something up with us as soon as possible. We said to them that we think we can be back in Oct. or maybe very late Sept. and Rashad has a fight with Phil Davis. That's the problem; he already has a fight booked. So they said depending on certain things that happen in the next couple weeks, maybe couple months, they would let us know what availability there was and what timeline and date and we have to stay in contact with them as far as his hand and let them know when he's really 100 percent ready and in shape and we can schedule something eight weeks in advance so that he may have a fight. In my opinion, he's going to fight before the end of the year. Do we have an opponent? No. Do we wish it was Rashad Evans? Yes. Will that happen? Chances are probably not, he's fighting Phil Davis."
It's unfortunate that Jones vs. Evans might not happen, at least anytime soon. It's entirely possible that Davis will leave Philadelphia having spoiled the entire thing.
That said, there are a couple other division contenders that could very well step up and take on Jones if need be. Such as Lyoto Machida, who currently doesn't have a fight booked.
Kawa wants to make it very clear that Jones will take on all comers. It doesn't matter who it is, they will not say no to any fight because, again, Jones is not ducking anyone:
"What I'm trying to say today is that at no point in time are we ever going to duck anybody. We're never going to say no to a fight, whether it's Rampage or it's Machida or it's Rashad; it doesn't matter, we're always going to do the fight. My concern as a manager is that my fighter is 100 percent healthy and that the wishes of Jon that he wants as far as the timelines for his training camps and his own personal situations that he needs as a professional and as a father and a husband and all that stuff, that it gets done. Sometimes fans and maybe even the UFC won't be happy with that and I understand that. But Dana White knows and he assured me that he knows nobody tried to duck any fight. He's working just as hard to make this fight happen as we are to get back in the cage to make this fight happen."
There are those who are taking Kawa to task for saying that he is, in fact, not trying to get in the cage fast enough. The main crux of the argument is that Malki explained that between June 11, when Jones gets his wrist cast removed, and Aug. 6, when the Evans fight would have been, is not eight weeks and therefore not enough time for a full training camp.
Of course, technically speaking, June 11 to Aug. 6 is exactly eight weeks.
There's just one problem with that and here's how Kawa explains it:
"The removable hard cast doesn't come off until June 11. That's another reason why, when people went off my Twitter and started saying, 'Oh, he's got eight weeks to prepare and he'll be cleared,' ... he takes the cast off and he won't be wearing it anymore as of June 11. When everybody jumps on me and says I made it seem like he's ducking someone, listen -- this guy is not ducking anybody and he's not faking anything.
"We're following the doctors orders and what they're saying to do. His hand is in a cast and a hard cast. Once he gets it off he still needs to work his strength back up again. So for anyone to think that he's just going to take this cast off on June 11 and then June 13, that Monday, go to Greg Jacksons and start a training camp for any fighter, whether it's Rampage, Lyoto or Rashad and fight them in eight weeks coming off an injury like that, it doesn't make any sense.
"That's why I said to people on Twitter that eight weeks is not enough, it's not really eight weeks because that first week is to strengthen that hand and get back into the range of things and get into shape, he'll probably be doing more cardio than anything. And when you really think about any eight-week camp, the last week is all promotion and weight cut. So you would only really have seven weeks to prepare for a fighter the caliber of a Rampage or Lyoto or Rashad and I don't think any knowledgeable manager would sit back and let them do it."
Difficult to argue against that logic, especially when considering the injury, which is still an issue for Jones, a young fighter that just became champion and has the luxury of taking the time he needs to make sure all is right.
Another reason the eight-weeks argument used by so many against them doesn't seem to hold up is the fact that Jones, after getting the cast removed, has to take the time to get back into shape before he can embark on an eight-week camp to prepare for a fight.
You can't exactly do both at the same time, nor would they attempt to do so. After all, Jones will be fighting the best martial artists the world as to offer ... not exactly an endeavor one should short change himself on in preparations for.
That may not win him any favor with fans but his best interests must always be on the mind of his manager, right?
According to Kawa, that's been the case from the get-go. Criticize his choices all you want, but his plan has always been to do what's best for his client, a budding superstar who likely possesses the most talent of any fighter in the entire sport of MMA.
Whether you agree with his methods or not, that's the story ... and he's sticking to it.
So when can we expect Jones to be back inside the Octagon? "Late Sept. or early Oct. at the earliest."
Rest assured, we'll all be tuning in, no matter who he is fighting.