The UFC has never had a fight that has sold two million pay-per-views, but it will most assuredly have one if somehow, against the odds, Brock Lesnar and Jon Jones find themselves standing across the Octagon from one another early next year.
The Lesnar-to-the-UFC rumor has been traveling the circuit for the past 10 days or two weeks, but it got a lot more real on Tuesday. First, Jones said during a Facebook Live chat with fans that was set up to promote his light heavyweight title fight at UFC 214 on Saturday with champion Daniel Cormier at the Honda Center in Anaheim, Calif., that he would be interested in facing Lesnar down the line.
“It would be a massive draw, really big for the sport,” Jones said of fighting Lesnar during the Facebook chat. “It would be a great challenge. “[He’s] a big old boy. I doubt Brock Lesnar would take that fight, though. I definitely wouldn’t try to wrestle with him the whole time. I’m not going to tell you what I would do.”
That was it. Jones was asked a question – a hypothetical one, at that – and he answered it. But Lesnar is retired. And he has a suspension to serve. And he’s under contract to the WWE.
Game, set and match.
But then, suddenly, things changed in the late afternoon. Greg Beacham of The Associated Press reached Lesnar, told the ex-UFC heavyweight champion of Jones’ words and asked for his reaction.
They were enough to get UFC president Dana White jumping for joy.
“Would I fight Jon Jones?” Lesnar said, repeating Beacham’s question. “Anytime. Anywhere. Right now he should be worried about [Cormier] on Saturday night.”
If he could, White would have the lawyers drawing up the contracts already, but it’s not that simple.
Lesnar failed two drug tests last year in his return to mixed martial arts, when he fought Mark Hunt at UFC 200, one before the fight and one after. The results of the failed test from before the fight weren’t returned in time to prevent him from competing. He won, but the results were overturned to a no-contest once the test failures became known.
He was given a one-year suspension, and would have been eligible to return to the UFC on July 15 of this year. But on Jan. 3, he informed the UFC and USADA of his retirement.
And therein lies the problem of putting together a Lesnar-Jones fight in 2017.
Under the USADA rules, whenever a retired fighter opts to return to UFC competition, he must enter the testing pool for six months. In addition, Lesnar would have to serve the remainder of his suspension. Since his retirement papers were dated Jan. 3, 2017, it means he has six months, 12 days remaining to serve on his suspension.
Per Jeff Novitzky, the UFC’s vice president of athlete health and performance, a fighter in Lesnar’s circumstance would have to serve the greater of the remaining suspension time, or a full six months to be in the testing pool.
The suspension is 12 days longer, so if he notified the UFC and USADA on Wednesday, the earliest he could return to the Octagon would be Feb. 7.
Stars are the lifeblood of any successful fight promotion. For one as ambitious and far-flung as the UFC, which promotes shows just about every week and on nearly every continent, they’re even more critical.
The stars pay the bills, keeping the lights on while the rest of the fighters can grow, develop and entertain the faithful. When one of them emerges from the pack and becomes a star, the process repeats.
Stars who cross boundaries, who propel themselves from the fighting sphere into the mainstream, are rare and precious commodities. Those who make the leap, such as UFC lightweight champ Conor McGregor, ex-women’s bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey and, yes, Lesnar, the former heavyweight champion, become rich beyond their wildest dreams and call their own shots.
McGregor’s ability to attract that kind of mainstream attention is why he stands to make $100 million, or more, by boxing Floyd Mayweather on Aug. 26.
The Mayweather-McGregor fight is, in most ways, anathema to White. But when White not only signed off on McGregor’s participation in the Mayweather fight but went to great lengths to make it happen, it was because he understood McGregor’s unique value to the UFC.
The UFC will make a princely sum off the Mayweather fight, and for a company with a large debt service, that can’t be overlooked. Given the life-changing money McGregor stands to make, had White gotten in the way of the bout, McGregor could simply have walked away from MMA for good.
Dozens of UFC fighters have been begging White to allow them to fight a boxer since talk of the Mayweather-McGregor fight first got serious earlier this year. White has paid next to no attention to any of them, but he didn’t ignore McGregor’s pleas.
Rousey looks for certain to be retired. After making more than $100 million in one night, there is legitimate question whether McGregor will fight in the UFC again, though both he and White say he will. And though Georges St-Pierre has said he’s coming out of retirement, it’s taking a strangely long time for him to be ready and, oddly, he’s said he’ll retire if he loses again.
White is arguably the greatest fight promoter ever, and have little doubt that he’ll develop new stars to replace Rousey, McGregor, Lesnar and St-Pierre. He did it when Randy Couture, Chuck Liddell and Tito Ortiz retired, and he’ll do it again. Count on that.
When that will happen, though, is another story entirely. It could take a while.
And so while putting together a Lesnar-Jones fight might seem on the surface to be more hassle than it’s worth, the prospects of the mega-event they could headline would probably override any annoyances he’d have to confront.
Logic says it remains a long shot, and it’s a good guess that Lesnar is trying to leverage the WWE with the UFC’s interest. Lesnar is 40, and who knows what kind of fighter he’ll be if he does return to the cage?
But he’ll sell the fight, because it’s what he does. He’s fought eight times in the UFC, and according to MMAPayout.com estimates, those matches have sold a combined 7.34 million pay-per-views. That is an average of 917,375 per fight.
If Jones defeats Cormier in their grudge match at UFC 214 on Saturday, he’d regain the light heavyweight belt and would again be regarded as the No. 1 fighter in the sport.
Jones going to heavyweight, as long has been rumored, to fight a star of Lesnar’s magnitude would be as big as it gets for the UFC. It would seem to be a slam dunk for two million sales, and perhaps more.
Given all the obstacles – remember, both Lesnar and Jones failed drug tests at UFC 200 – the fight is going to be hard to get done.
But because of its financial prospects and the attention it would bring to the sport, don’t be shocked if White tries to find a way to make it happen.
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