UG Columnist Ralph Welch reflects on the craziest 24 hours in UFC history.
UFC 151: The event that never happened, but will never be forgotten
As the UFC has continued its rapid rise from niche to mainstream, it has given us many memorable moments.
But surely nothing has matched the seismic drama of yesterday’s turn of events.
It was a day that shook the fortress UFC to its very foundations, a day when the balance of power shifted and the King found himself threatened by a new pretender to the throne.
Who would ever have thought 24 hours ago that the Crown Prince of the Zuffa brand would find himself banished from the King’s court? Could we have ever imagined that Jon “Bones” Jones, the UFC’s most bankable future asset, the man who had just signed the most important merchandising deal in MMA history, and the man who seemed destined to lead MMA into a bold new future, would become the most hated man in the sport?
It had all started so inauspiciously. A ripple of noise about a potential injury to Dan Henderson soon turned into a veritable explosion of excitement as fans, pundits and fighters sought the truth. Social media was invented for scandals like this. With every new secret source and every new unconfirmed report, the tempo rose and the pulse quickened.
Whilst the Twitter orchestra reached a pulsating crescendo, the silence from the UFC powerbrokers was deafening.
But not for long.
Since he first stepped into the limelight, Dana White’s voice has given us some extraordinary soundbites. Yet surely none as raw and visceral as the words he spewed with such venom yesterday afternoon. With each passing syllable of a conference call that will live long in the collective memory, White’s rage grew more uncontrollable.
Frustration finally gave way to fury. This was no time for niceties or introspection. UFC 151 was being canned and the UFC President needed a scapegoat. As it happened he found two of them: Jon Jones and his mentor, famed coach Greg Jackson, who together decided not to accept a late-notice fight against replacement Chael Sonnen.
The most phenomenal young talent in light-heavyweight history and arguably the most successful tactician the sport has ever seen were afforded little respect as White made it clear that the blame for this calamity lay squarely on their shoulders.
“This is one of my all-time lows as president. For the first time ever, we’re gonna cancel an event. I don’t know why a guy who is a world champion and considered by many the pound for pound best wouldn’t fight anybody. It’s baffling to me. I’ll go on the record saying Greg Jackson is a f---ing sport-killer.”
Millions of eyeballs were glued to Twitter as live updates of an unforgettable 34 minutes were shared with the world at large. The beauty of social media is the instant accessibility of information. Those not privy to the call were being updated within seconds. And in those precious seconds, opinions were formed, allegiances were broken and Jon Jones became Public Enemy Number One.
UFC 151: the inquest
A full 24 hours after the death of UFC 151 and tensions still remain high. At the time of writing, Jon Jones will now defend his title against Vitor Belfort at UFC 152 after Lyoto Machida matched the champion’s caution and decided to forego his title shot – a decision that may yet have ramifications for his own future.
Meanwhile, thousands of column inches have attempted to dissect the drama. Some have supported Jones, opting instead to challenge the Zuffa business model of an ever-expanding calendar of events, resulting in paper-thin cards reliant on a single star name to keep them afloat. It’s a persuasive argument. Certainly the roster seems more stretched than it has ever been before and murmurs of discontent have grown increasingly audible amongst the paying audiences. Joe Silva, the UFC matchmaker whose contribution has been crucial to the UFC’s success, may have some work to do.
So too will the lawyers. Being held to ransom by their star man is not a situation that the Zuffa chain of command will want to endure again. In some ways, it is an inevitable consequence of a product that edges closer to mainstream acceptance. The moment the ink dried on his deal with Nike, Jon Jones became less dependent on his paymasters for his personal finance. It gave him more freedom and control which he exercised to such devastating effect. Inevitable or not, there may yet be some contractual efforts from Zuffa to limit their risk in future.
Jones, meanwhile, will have woken this morning to find that the passing of time has not healed the gaping wounds in his popularity. Ultimately fans, fighters and other support industries dependent on UFC dollars have found themselves severely out of pocket. His comments earlier this week about maximising his own worth could – with the benefit of hindsight - not have been more poorly timed.
Timing. It’s what made yesterday so dramatic. With each new tweet the story twisted and turned.
One of the privileges of watching a young, dynamic sport mature before our eyes is that we bear witness to historic moments. And perhaps - in some bizarre way - we should cherish them.
As the years pass and MMA continues its exponential growth, there will be changes to its governance and infrastructure. The eruptions which made yesterday so memorable may in future find themselves confined to the secrecy of the boardroom.
We may never again see a day full of such public drama and intrigue. Just as people will enquire about the night Brock Lesnar won the title or Anderson Silva submitted Chael Sonnen, one day we may all be asked our whereabouts on the day Jon Jones turned bad guy.
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