There are those competitors that are routinely cheered and well liked amongst fans and media. Then there are those that often vilified whether through actions or words, and deep down none of them may actually be “bad guys,” but they are treated as such when they walk into an arena or are shown on a TV screen.
In 2010 when LeBron James made his infamous “decision” to join the Miami Heat, he was lambasted in the press for his transgression to not only put on an hour-long special to announce his move to Miami, but to flaunt it in such an open forum while abandoning his hometown team in Cleveland where he started his NBA career.
Over the next NBA season, James was routinely booed in every arena he appeared in, and despite his jersey sales still reaching some of the top numbers in the entire NBA, he was the league's biggest villain for an entire year based around one moment on ESPN when he uttered that famous phrase, “I'm taking my talents to South Beach.”
The last few weeks have been eerily similar for UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones, who didn't make his “decision” in such a public forum like a live interview on ESPN, but instead opted to turn down a short-notice fight with Chael Sonnen after his original opponent Dan Henderson dropped out due to injury in a conversation with his bosses.
Right or wrong, whether one fighter should be held responsible for that action happening, Jones was seen as the catalyst behind the first major UFC event being cancelled in 11 years.
Now as he heads into his next scheduled fight at UFC 152 against Vitor Belfort, the questions continue to come at Jones about his decision to turn down the fight a few weeks earlier at UFC 151, and some of his reactions have been met with harsh criticism.
He has stated that he's not in the sport to be loved, he has nothing to prove to anyone, and has no regrets about his decision to not fight at UFC 151. Jones took pot shots at opponent Dan Henderson for his “old man” status and blamed his knee injury for him not fighting at UFC 151.
All of this has led Jones to a precarious situation with fans as he heads into his next fight because he was already on shaky ground with many of them for his perceived “cocky” nature and many have accused him for being “fake” in the past. This latest scenario has only tossed Jones back into the fire of public scrutiny, but he says he's not embracing the role of villain the way James did after his decision led to Cleveland fans going as far as burning his jersey in the streets.
“I am not going to say I embraced the role of being a villain because I am not,” Jones told MMAWeekly.com recently. “I am not a villain; I am not a bad person. I pride myself off of inspiring others. For all the people that think I am cocky, it's like if you really listen to what I talk about, if you talk to me about fighting you may hear something that is a little arrogant because, right now, I train so hard to not even get hit, let alone talk about rousing a fight.
“So it is like I love this sport so much, I own it to myself to think of myself in the highest regard, so I am not going to apologize if I am a little full of myself when it comes to MMA.”
The defensive nature of Jones' response may just cast him even deeper into the villain role, but the UFC's top light heavyweight insists that he's not a bad guy. Jones says he's actually a very nice guy, who gives back to his sport and his teammates every day.
“I am the nicest person ever to everyone who has ever met me,” Jones said. “I'm the nicest person to people. Every day I walk into Jackson's gym and I hand out boxes of equipment. I order stuff all the time for my teammates and just give it out. I just give it to people. I am like the nicest person ever.”
Extolling one's own virtues may not be the best way to ingratiate oneself in the public eye, but Jones has been taking a beating lately and his natural defense is simply to remind people that he's not really a bad guy.
If there's one fighter who can relate to being the “bad guy” in MMA, it's former Ultimate Fighter winner Michael Bisping.
Over the last few years, Bisping has become public enemy No. 1 in most MMA fan circles, and he's learned to embrace the hate. Quite often when the boos reach their loudest is when you'll see the biggest smile on Bisping's face, but even he admits it takes time to reach the point where you can take the disdain from fans and turn it into a positive.
“See the thing is that comes with time. Obviously I've been around it for a while now before anyone even knew who Jon Jones was. At first it gets you a little upset, because you've gone from everyone loving you to thinking you're a (expletive). It takes some time coming round,” Bisping told MMAWeekly Radio recently when asked if Jones should embrace the villain role.
“Cause at first you want everyone to like you, and you try to change them and you try to put out the correct responses, and you're thinking about this and the marketing and the PR and all the rest of it. But then after a certain amount of time you've just got to think ‘awww (expletive) it, if that's what they're going to think, that's what they're going to think,' and go with it. That's certainly how it was for me.”
Early in his journey in the UFC, Bisping was beloved by fans, but it quickly turned to venom and it wasn't an overnight trip where he learned to embrace it.
“I got cheered at first. I fought at UFC 66 when Chuck Liddell fought Tito (Ortiz) for the second time, and that was in Vegas, and the crowd was fantastic. It wasn't long before they were all booing me. It's hard to transition. We're all human beings, we're sensitive, especially fighters. We're emotional, sensitive people,” said Bisping.
“So at first you can't understand it and maybe it might upset you a little bit, but after a while you've just got to go with it.”
Bisping has learned very well to just go with it, and despite his status as the UFC's biggest villain, he remains one of the biggest draws and most requested interviews. Bisping is just being himself all the time now, and doesn't fight to please anyone any more.
“I'm certainly not one of these fake (expletive). Trust me, there's a lot of fake people out there that will be a nice guy to your face, on camera or whatever they're super nice, but when there's not a camera around, they're absolutely (expletive). I'm not naming names, but I'm not one of those guys,” said Bisping.
“Either I'm a good guy or I'm consistently an (expletive), one or the other.”
Is it time for Jon Jones to learn from Michael Bisping and just accept the role of villain or can he buck the system and find love from the fans again?
UFC 152 will be the first test for Jones after the debacle surrounding the cancellation of UFC 151, and the fans reaction to him in Toronto will be the real litmus test to his future as hero or villain in MMA.
To hear Michael Bisping's entire interview on MMAWeekly Radio listen to last Tuesday's show in our archives
- Jon Jones