The key to understanding what occurred Thursday on what was perhaps the most bizarre day in UFC history is first understanding what the UFC is not.
It is not the NFL. Nor is it the NBA or MLB or, for that matter, the PGA Tour.
What happened late Wednesday and on Thursday that culminated in the cancellation of an entire fight card and the public vilification of one of the sport's elite talents wouldn't have happened in other sports, many of the UFC's critics point out. And, clearly, they are right.
That, though, is because a fight promotion has next-to-nothing in common with those sports.
Fighting is better compared to a concert. Tennis players and golfers are independent contractors who, like fighters, only get paid when they compete.
But, unlike in fighting, if Tiger Woods pulls out of a PGA Tour event with an injury, the tournament will proceed without question. In fighting, the event itself is at stake whenever the biggest names withdraw close to its start.
In that way, fighting is much more closely aligned to a concert. If Bruce Springsteen gets sick and can't perform, the show is in instant jeopardy of cancellation. Not too many people are going to be eager to pay top dollar for a ticket and to fly around the world to see a Springsteen-less show that features just the opening act. More often than not in those cases, the show is cancelled.
Fortunately for the UFC and its fans, it never had to cancel an event before it scrapped UFC 151 on Thursday.
But on a zany day in which the UFC announced that A) Dan Henderson was injured and couldn't fight Jon Jones for the light heavyweight title; B) Chael Sonnen had agreed to fight Jones on eight days' notice; C) Jones declined to fight anyone other than Henderson on Sept. 1; D) Jones would defend his belt on Sept. 22 at UFC 152 against Lyoto Machida; E) Machida declined the Sept. 22 match and F) Vitor Belfort ultimately would wind up fighting Jones in Toronto, everything bad that could have happened did, in fact, happen.
[Related: Who is to blame for UFC 151 cancellation?]
The events began to unfold late last week, when Henderson, a former PRIDE and Strikeforce champion, suffered a partial tear of the medial collateral ligament in his right knee. Henderson tried for a few days to see if he could go, but the knee lacked stability.
On Wednesday, he informed UFC president Dana White that he had to withdraw. White made several phone calls trying to replace Henderson, but, understandably, not too many were all that eager to take on Jones on such short notice. Only Sonnen had agreed to take the fight in what seemed to be setting up as a show-saving decision.
But Jones had other ideas.
"When Chael stepped up, I thought we were good," UFC chairman Lorenzo Fertitta said. "I honestly never thought of the possibility that Jon wouldn't fight."
Fertitta referred to what he called "a brotherhood in the fighter ranks" to do what they could to save the show.
Jones, though, looked at the differences in style between Sonnen and Henderson and decided it wasn't worth it to him to accept with only three days of practice available.
From a competitive standpoint, it was hard to argue with his decision. It wasn't easy to win the title, and in the last year-plus, he'd beaten Ryan Bader, Mauricio "Shogun" Rua, Quinton "Rampage" Jackson, Machida and Rashad Evans, fighting five times when the UFC was lacking stars because of an assortment of injuries and illnesses.
The injury bug has hammered the UFC throughout 2012 and has forced White, Fertitta and matchmaker Joe Silva to scramble to rearrange cards. They'd moved fights off UFC 151 to other shows and were left with a card that seriously lacked in star power behind Jones-Henderson.
None of the other fighters on the card had the juice to carry the show. Fertitta said he agonized before yanking the show.
"We felt [we] needed to have a big headliner," Fertitta said. "We were in Las Vegas on the biggest stage and we just felt like we needed to have a big championship fight. That's just the way we do things. When Dan fell out, we were scrambling to find an opponent. … It's an individual sport, not a team sport, and a guy at the top like Jon Jones is hard to replace."
Jones was vilified by White during a heated conference call Thursday and then by fans, media and fighters afterward. White announced during that call that Machida would fight Jones at UFC 152, though he hadn't even spoken to Machida.
He'd broached the idea with Machida's manager Ed Soares, who desperately began trying to reach Machida. Machida had flown to Brazil and it was several hours before Soares could reach him.
And when they talked, they concluded it wouldn't be wise to fight Jones for the second time in less than a year without a full training camp.
They discussed the fact that every fighter in modern times who lost twice to the same champion was forced to leave the division. Rich Franklin and Sonnen each lost twice to Silva and jumped to light heavyweight. Frankie Edgar lost twice to Benson Henderson and is moving to featherweight. B.J. Penn was beaten twice by Edgar and moved up to welterweight.
"If Lyoto would have taken the fight, he wouldn't have had enough time to prepare and so he wouldn't have gone into the fight 100 percent confident the way he needs to be to win," Soares said. "We asked Dana if he could move the fight to Brazil (in October) and that would have given us five weeks and it would have been enough.
"At the end of the day here, Jones should have fought. He had a full training camp and he would have been fighting a guy for the light heavyweight title who had just been knocked out six weeks ago in a middleweight title fight. Jones absolutely should have stepped up and taken the fight to avoid this. All of this [controversy] is because of him, not Lyoto."
The way it unfolded made the UFC brass look disorganized, at best. It wasn't until 10 p.m. Pacific on Thursday, when Fertitta said he offered the fight via text message to Belfort, that the saga finally ended.
"He replied to me in literally a minute, 'I'm in, bro,' " Fertitta said.
That finally gave stability to a listing ship. Fertitta, though, isn't concerned that the day's bizarre events will have a long-lasting impact.
And he said the UFC would still work hard to promote and develop Jones, even if feelings between the sides are strained at the moment.
How Jones comes out of it is anybody's guess. He's a mega-talent whose success has seemingly gone to his head. As he has climbed the ranks, he's become more of a diva and been difficult to deal with.
He took a torrent of abuse from fans and his fellow fighters.
Michael Bisping, who lost a disputed decision to Sonnen in January in a fight he took on eight days' notice, was, as usual, among the most vocal.
"I've taken short-notice fights for the UFC a bunch of times, three or four times," he said. "I was told before weighing in for one fight that I was fighting again in six weeks. That wasn't a nice telephone call to make to my girlfriend, who'd just booked a holiday with the kids, I can assure you. But the UFC has provided me with a great lifestyle and I'm here for them.
"Jon Jones likes to talk about where he comes from, but the reason he now has a Bentley to wrap around a tree is because Dana White and the UFC have built this sport up from zero. Dana and the company needed him and he basically bitched out."
In other sports, competitors can talk trash with impunity. But in the fight game, you talk trash at your own risk. Sooner or later, you may be standing across a locked cage from the guy you've just insulted.
Jon Jones is paying the consequences now for his choice. In a while, it may well be Bisping who has to face the music.
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