UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones is emerging as one of the very biggest stars in MMA history. The youngest UFC champion ever has been (mostly) dominant in the cage, has his own Nike sneaker and graces the covers of major magazines.
All those things are parts of Jones’ stardom that his promoter, the UFC, likely appreciates because they gain from them as well. Of course, the most significant component of stardom to a rising athlete and fighter is power in the form of control.
It’s that portion of Jones’ stardom that the UFC does not appear to be enamored with, at present.
For decades, there have been items that many boxing champs have exercised increased control over as their own stars rise. Power to demand higher wages, control over fight venues, fight dates and, to a degree, fight opponents, for example.
Such power and control has thus far been rare in MMA fighters, however. The sport is young and controlled by one major promoter – the UFC.
Plenty other promotions have tried to challenge the UFC. For years, the Japanese Pride organization was top-dog in MMA, until the UFC’s parent company bought the promotion once it began to struggle.
The UFC also faced competition from the likes of EliteXC (who had a network television deal years before the UFC got their own), Affliction, the IFL (which was publicly traded on Wall Street) and Strikeforce. The UFC did and does the work of MMA promotion much better than anyone else and ended up wiping everyone else out in some form or another.
Sure, the UFC still faces competition from organizations like Bellator, who struck a deal with former UFC partner Viacom, but the Nevada-based promotion still reigns supreme in MMA. All that is to say, for most MMA fighters, the UFC is the place to be.
UFC Champion Jon Jones responding to criticism on Twitter about his not yet signing to rematch Alexander Gustafsson:
Let's make the distinction between bad business and bad press
— Jon Bones Jones (@JonnyBones) May 30, 2014
Only champions of the UFC are truly recognized as “world” champions and the promotion, by in large, pays better than other organizations.
In exchange for the money, stage and recognition that the UFC has offered its fighters, it has mostly gotten back near complete compliance from most of its athletes on most major issues. Fighters often step up to fight on short notice, sometimes with little regard for weight class, when the UFC asks.
Oftentimes, contract extensions (for the most part, binding on the fighter side much more so than on the promoter side) are usually sought after by UFC fighters to get some illusion of job security and are treated as an afterthought for champions. Fighters in the UFC fight whom, when and where the promotion wants them to, with relatively few exceptions.
For fans, this makes for great content. The UFC is able to put together sought-after matchups that many boxing promoters could only dream of because of conflicting promoter, television and casino deals.
One such dream matchup is a rematch between Jones and Alexander Gustafsson. The Swede contender pushed Jones to the brink last September in possibly the greatest UFC title fight in history.
The fight was incredibly difficult to score, included immeasurable drama, had many questioning the judges’ decision and everyone clamoring for more. Everyone, it seemed, except for Jones himself.
The UFC rightly pushed for an immediate rematch between Gustafsson and Jones. The champion, however, showed little interest in the fight and instead chose to take on Glover Teixiera.
That right there was a relative anomaly in the UFC – even promotional champions have historically deferred to the organization’s matchmakers. Jones went even further than dictating who he would fight next, however, by deciding when he would fight him.
The UFC and its president Dana White appeared completely unprepared for (and increasingly irritated at) Jones to not accept the first date they proposed. Instead, the champion chose to push back the date a bit from what the UFC wanted.
The UFC, so used to having fighters go along with their plans, announced plans for the Jones vs. Teixeira to take place on dates before the champion had evidently even agreed to a time. As a result, the UFC had to shuffle things around a couple times to accommodate Jones.
And now Jones is flummoxing White and the UFC once more. After Jones took out Teixeira and Gustafsson won a fight against Jimi Manuwa, everyone once more agreed that it was time for the champ and the Swedish contender to rematch.
The UFC went ahead and announced their plans to book the fight for August, Gustafsson signed on and the MMA world looked ahead to what we all assume will be an epic second battle. Once more, however, the UFC got ahead of its champion and is now paying for it.
Having learned their lesson the hard way in the past when sitting-champions defended their belts on the last fights of a contract and then walked away from the promotion, the UFC now makes sure that champions have more than one fight left on their contract before having them defend their belt. So, the UFC is in negotiations with Jones’ management to extend his contract and to sign to fight Gustafsson.
Assuming that Jones would go along with whatever they wanted, the UFC of course did not bother to first come to terms on an extension and bout agreement with Jones before announcing their plans to have him rematch Gustafsson in August. Now, Dana White is once again aggravated at Jones and putting pressure on the champ, through PR means, to sign their contract.
Despite the fact that Jones has been perhaps the most active top contender and champion the UFC has ever had (fighting on short notice, fighting former friends, fighting with injuries, fighting quite often, etc.) one of White’s favorite pasttimes in the past two years is to vilify Bones and his team. When Dan Henderson injured himself shortly before a scheduled title bout against Jones at UFC 151 and withheld the information in hopes of still competing, and then eventually dropped out of the fight, the UFC expected Jones to change opponents and fight Henderson’s friend and teammate Chael Sonnen.
When he refused to fight Sonnen on such short notice, White deflected attention from the fact that – without Jones in the main event – the card was too weak to make money by blaming the champion for the UFC's decision to cancel the event. Jones would go on to easily beat Sonnen at a later event, on his own time.
Now, White is once more trying to deflect attention away from the promotion not doing its due diligence and signing fighters to fight before they announce plans for them to fight by putting the spotlight on Jones and faulting him for a supposed delay in the Gustafsson rematch being inked.
Speaking to media in Berlin this past weekend about Jones not having yet signed to fight Gustafsson again, White said, "I don't like it. I don't like it at all."
We're sure he does not. Jones himself has also made it clear through comments to fans on Twitter that he doesn't appreciate the UFC effectively announcing fights and dates for him before he's agreed to them.
Who knows what Jones and his management are specifically asking for in order to extend his contract with the UFC and to fight his toughest opponent to date once more? We do know, however, that the champ fought just five weeks ago.
Perhaps he doesn’t want to jump right back into an arduous training camp in order to fight again as soon as August. Perhaps Jones and his management realize that the UFC made tactical negotiation errors in so publicly declaring their desire – Jones fighting Gustafsson in August – right before heading into contract negotiations and are (gasp) trying to use that as leverage to get better terms for themselves.
At the end of the day, it’s the responsibility of the promoter to make the fights happen. If a promoter wants a professional fighter to fight somebody, they have to pay him or her to fight.
With Jon Jones, the UFC seems to simply be stuck in negotiations with less leverage and less fighter complicity than they are used to. Clearly, Jones isn’t afraid to fight Gustafsson - he’s already done it once before.
It’s also clear that Jones isn’t too eager to rematch the Swede. If the UFC wants him to, then, they’ll likely just have to pay him a lot more to do it.
Sounds about right.