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Jon Jones, a fighter who should be celebrated for his athletic brilliance, lauded for his groundbreaking style and beloved for his charismatic ways, is probably now the most despised man in mixed martial arts.
Jones' decision Thursday to decline fighting Chael Sonnen at UFC 151 on Sept. 1 led to the cancellation of the entire card at the Mandalay Bay Events Center.
Late Wednesday, Jones learned that Dan Henderson, his scheduled opponent at UFC 151, had a partial tear of the medial collateral ligament in his right knee and could not fight.
The UFC desperately wanted to save the show and sought a new opponent for Jones. It offered the fight to Sonnen, who quickly accepted.
Jones, though, chose to ponder the decision carefully instead of accepting right away. He convened a meeting of his team, and debated the pros and cons of accepting a bout with Sonnen with three real days of preparation remaining. Because of weight cutting and all the promotional and marketing duties a fighter has, it is difficult to get any serious preparation done on fight week.
Jones concurred when coach Greg Jackson advised against taking the bout. He did not waver even in the face of extraordinary pressure from UFC president Dana White, a man used to always getting his way.
Essentially, he wouldn't agree to fight anyone but Henderson, the man he had prepared to face for two months, on Sept. 1. That led to White repeatedly lambasting his budding star on a conference call Thursday.
White said Jones' decision cost the UFC "millions and millions of dollars" and said it would have far-reaching implications. He pointed out that because of Jones' decision to pass, the undercard fighters lost their paydays. Fighters are independent contractors who get paid only when they compete. They don't earn salaries.
One of them, Jeff Hougland, tweeted to Jones on Thursday, asking him for one of his Nike T-shirts. He said he wouldn't be able to afford to buy his daughter new clothes for school since his fight was canceled. Hougland later took the tweet down.
Fighters have stepped up to take such bouts on short notice for years. In 2003, a 38-year-old Lennox Lewis accepted a much more difficult bout, against Vitali Klitschko, when original opponent Kirk Johnson pulled out about 10 days before their match.
Michael Bisping did it for the UFC in January, when on eight days notice he accepted a fight against Sonnen, a high-level wrestler, when he had been preparing for submission expert Demain Maia.
"Jon Jones is never, ever going to live this down," Bisping told Yahoo! Sports. "This was a massive mistake. I can't believe this was his decision. If you have ultimate fighter on your business card, you are supposed to show up and fight. And if you are the world champion, you are supposed to have the 'anytime, anywhere, anyhow' attitude.
As great as Jon Jones is, and he’s a great talent who has done a lot of great things and will do a lot more great things, he's never going to be allowed to forget this. I know myself, the fans are very passionate and have long memories. I can see it already: 'Chicken Bones Jones! This is the UFC, not KFC!' And the fans are right. This is a little pathetic to be blunt.
For all the vitriol being directed Jones' way, he has the right to do what he feels is best for his career. Jones, though, looked at it from a strategic standpoint and not simply a fighting standpoint.
His relationship with White and UFC CEO Lorenzo Fertitta has been irreparably damaged. It's always best to have the bosses on your side and owing you a favor rather than the other way around.
"This is one of those selfish, disgusting decisions that just doesn't affect you," White said. "He just affected 16 other people's lives, families, kids going back to school. The list goes on and on, the money that was spent for these fighters to train, and everything else.
"Like I said, this isn't a decision that is going to make Jon Jones popular with the fans, sponsors, cable distributors, television network executives or other fighters."
Former UFC light heavyweight champion Chuck Liddell, now a Zuffa front-office employee, said he would have advised Jones to fight had they had the opportunity to talk. He said that Jones, who has been struggling with image problems, will pay for it in the eyes of the fans.
He said fans will now have a vastly different perception of Jones.
"The fans want to think their favorite, their world champion, is indestructible, and believe he can beat anyone," Liddell said. "From a fan's standpoint, you want to believe your guy would fight anyone at any place at any time. Him saying no to a guy fans perceive as a middleweight isn't going to help his image at all."
This is a coming-of-age problem in many ways for the UFC, though. As it's gotten more successful and generated more revenue, it's attracted better athletes who have been more aware of the business aspects of the sport.
White repeatedly referred to Jones as being rich during the conference call. It was a subtle way of reminding Jones that he made his fortune via his success in the UFC and that he should be willing to do a favor for management when asked.
The majority of fighters take such bouts in order to save the show, as Sonnen repeatedly pointed out Thursday.
"Without Dana White and the Fertittas, where would this sport be?" Sonnen said. "We're all enjoying the fruits of their hard work and investment. They built this sport from nothing and when they need you, you step up and you do what they ask you. If they want you to take a fight, you take the fight. That's what you do to show the people who have created this opportunity for so many of us to follow our dreams that you appreciate what they've done."
As Jones has gotten more successful in the cage – his 2011 campaign might be the best in the sport's history – his popularity has waned among fans and media. His publicist quit last week, frustrated by Jones' prickly style and inability to deal well with the media.
Jones has chosen to cut his own path and not follow the road that others have done in accepting these short-notice bouts. He was asked to take a fight his team didn't think was wise for him to take so close to the bout. He could have easily overruled them, and if he had taken the bout and subsequently had lost, he'd have had White on the hook for a major favor.
By choosing not to do so, he made an enemy of the sport's most powerful man. That won't do much for one's long-term prospects, Nike sponsorship or not.
Jackson said he only offered his advice regarding the fight when asked and didn't consider anything other than fight circumstances. But he didn't buy the argument that White and Sonnen made Thursday that Sonnen hadn't been training.
"Chael's not an idiot," Jackson said. "If he didn't feel he could go and do it, he wouldn't step off the couch and take the fight. I guarantee you he's been training and probably training very hard.
"That he's a middleweight is irrelevant because he's not a middleweight any more. It's not that, though, as much as it was that it was three days notice for a world title fight against a person who is exactly the opposite style of the guy we were training for. Three days to deal with a southpaw who does things very differently than Dan Henderson does, who is very dangerous and I believe in shape, didn't make much sense."
Jones will now fight Lyoto Machida in the main event of UFC 152 on Sept. 22 in Toronto. He's beaten Machida before, choking him out in the second round of UFC 140. He'll probably do so again, though in fighting, it's wise never to speak in absolutes.
The only thing for sure these days is that Jones is no longer a popular man among his bosses or the sport's growing fan base.
The shrewdest prediction for UFC 152 is to expect boos – lots and lots of boos – whenever Jones comes into public view at the Air Canada Centre. It's something he'd better get used to.
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