The controversy surrounding UFC 151 has provided no shortage of articles and opinions by media pundits, fighters and industry insiders. Fans have been out in droves to attack or defend Jon Jones via twitter and message boards and other social media but this is a randomized and unfocused way to try and gauge the average fan's emotions. It therefore seems prudent and responsible to provide clarity to this issue. I won't pretend to speak for every MMA fan on the planet, but I feel comfortable saying these opinions are shared by the vast majority. Jones recently responded with a media statement to mmajunkie.com to clarify his position and thought process throughout this time. I think all MMA fans appreciated his attempt to explain his side of things, but in truth his statement provided less comfort and elicited less sympathy than I think he or anyone could have predicted.
"I definitely apologize to the other fighters on the card," Jones said. "I feel terrible, but it also wasn't my decision to cancel the whole card. I don't make those decisions."
Agreed. As a fan I believe Jones didn't make this decision to screw the other fighters over. I know that wasn't his intent, just like we know it was ultimately Dana White and the UFC that couldn't make the card work without Jones vs somebody. We get that, but Jones doesn't seem to get us. We're not mad that he cancelled the card because we know that was ultimately the UFC's decision. We're upset because he had the chance to save it and didn't. Was it his responsibility to save the card? No, not really. But it also wasn't his responsibility to stop a robber just hours before a title fight, and we all know how he responded there. Should Jon Jones have chased down a criminal, risking injury (not just from the robber, a simple trip on an uneven sidewalk and he may not be the champ today) just to arrest a petty criminal? No he shouldn't have but he did, and we all lauded him for it. That was the action of a champion. It was clear, it was decisive and it was not the action most people would have taken. It was a step above normal which is where we, as fans, expect our champions to reside. Turning down a high risk, low reward decision that benefits mostly other people? Well, we can all do that, we just wish we were better people and wouldn't. We wish the same thing for Jon Jones.
"I take a lot of pride in the way I perform, and I want to put on the best performance possible every time I fight. I don't want to go out there just to win the fight. I want to go out there to dominate. I want to make it look effortless. I want it to be a beautiful thing."
Good for you. Are Jones' performances impressive? Undoubtedly. Does he have a skill set we as fans do not possess? Clearly. But so does every UFC fighter. The youngest and most rookie fighter opening the preliminary card can do things physically we as fans cannot. That's why we're fans and not fighters. But heart? We can emphasize with heart. We can picture ourselves never giving up, even if we can't picture ourselves submitting someone with an inverted triangle. There is a reason why Jones had one of, if not the most successful years ever in the history of the sport by any fighter in 2011, and yet it was the fight between Dan Henderson and Shogun Rua that was widely considered the best fight of the year. Why? E-F-F-O-R-T. We, as fans, know Jones trains hard. It is clear every time he gloves up that he has put in the time and sacrifice to make the most of his natural abilities. But inside the octagon? Effortless is not why we shell out $50 for a PPV. That said, it would be unreasonable to ask Jones to fight down to his competition just to prove he could take a beating and come back from it like Henderson and Rua did. But he could have achieved a similar effect on the MMA fan base by taking the Sonnen fight as offered. Skills are impressive, but heart is inspiring. Jones impresses inside the octagon but as a champion, he does not inspire.
"Chael is completely different fighter," Jones said. "This is war. This is strategy. You have to go in there prepared and know that you did your homework. I wouldn't be the same warrior if I just jumped in there blindly and was cutting weight while I was trying to prepare for the fight."
Are UFC fighters warriors? Absolutely. Is a licensed, regulated sporting event in Nevada between two equally trained competitors under controlled and televised conditions anything like war? Not even close and frankly I cringe whenever fighters use that analogy. Continuing with that mindset however, were this a life and death situation was retreat a tactically sound option? Absolutely. Of course, this isn't a life and death situation. It is sport and Jones would have made millions just for showing up, win or lose. In battle, retain control whenever possible. In sport? Get over yourself. In no other sport do you get to pick your opponent. That is a luxury reserved for combat sports alone and it is tempered by an unwritten rule that it should not be used to artificially create a safe career for oneself. Jones may have broken that rule in order to "look out for himself because no one else is" but here's the bottom line for fans. The UFC Light-Heavyweight Champion doesn't believe he can beat an overblown middleweight who had no training camp. By not accepting the Sonnen fight and saving UFC 151, Jon Jones is putting out there that it's too big a risk that Chael Sonnen will beat him despite Chael being out of shape and unprepared. Jones can couch it in all the Sun Tzu quotes he wants to try and justify his rationale, but that's how he comes across with this decision and the fans won't buy it. We know he could beat Chael. We know, even if this fight were to go ahead that it would be a filler fight. That's not to sell Chael short but his odds of winning with no camp and not having fought at LHW in seven years would be slim to none. Unfortunately, Jones doesn't share our confidence in his own abilities and would rather take the safer route. And after all, isn't that why we pay our money time and time again? To watch our champions be insecure and play it safe?
Since becoming champion Jon Jones has watched his popularity ebb to new lows even as his success waxed to new heights. I don't mean to imply that he has no fans, merely that his fan base is much, much smaller than what someone with his looks, intelligence, skills, physical attributes and dedication should possess. I don't know what he attributes to this, but I know what most fans attribute it to because I am a fan and I know what I need to feel to invest emotionally in a particular fighter. I need to WANT to see them succeed. This is the same criteria followers of any sport require before they are fans. There has to be an emotional connection to some aspect of the sport before we can invest time, money, energy and our own emotions into becoming a FAN. Do you like baseball or football? Great, but you're not a fan until you actually feel your heart break a little when your team is eliminated from the post-season. Why does your heart break? Because you want those guys to succeed. You want to feel like part of their success when the times are good and share in their lows when times are bad. We want to feel like it's us out there on the field and that they are doing these amazing athletic feats to entertain and inspire us.
MMA is no different. We can like the sport, but we're FANS of fighters. We become FANS when we share in their glory and their defeats. We become FANS when they inspire us with the heights they can push themselves to and the heights they make us want to reach. We become FANS when we feel they are putting their bodies on the line to grant US a primal satisfaction we cannot deny. We know they are also satisfying their own competitive fires when they're doing this. We know they are, at the same time, accomplishing their own ambitions and providing for their own families. We know all this and we are happy for them when they can say they are the champion, when they can cash big paychecks and pat themselves on the back for a job well done. We become FANS however, when they can do all that and make us believe they are doing it for us too, not just for themselves. I am not a fan of Jon Jones, despite my huge respect for his abilities and accomplishments, because I do not believe he competes for me or for the fans. The confidence he exudes is not an inclusive confidence it is an isolating one. It's like he doesn't want fans, he just wants strangers to witness his personal glory. When Jon speaks, when Jon acts and when Jon makes decisions like this most recent one it's as if we fans are standing on a street, looking inside a window display as an artist crafts his latest work. Jon Jones is creating the life he always wanted, realizing his own personal vision of success day in and day out. I'm glad for him, it just doesn't feel like that personal vision includes us.