The fallout coming from Thursday’s cancelation of UFC 151 has been tremendous for one person in particular. UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones has been blamed, and now apologized, for the UFC canceling its first official (they canceled UFC 145 earlier this year and shifted its fights before it was official) event in the promotion’s history. The skewering of Jones (and his trainer Greg Jackson) by UFC President Dana White and former middleweight contender Chael Sonnen has been taken to the extreme in terms of rhetoric. If the last part sounds familiar, it is because it should. The UFC redirecting anger away from what the real issue is nothing new, and it will likely make them rich in the end.
“It’s déjà vu all over again” – Yogi Berra
“If he ever acts like that again, I will cut him” Sound familiar? No, that’s not from Thursday’s teleconference where the UFC announced the canceling of UFC 151, but was a comment made by UFC President Dana White following Anderson Silva’s antics at UFC 112. The UFC’s PR machine released, in a fit of anger, a fighter whose vitriolic comments about champion Anderson Silva far outweighed his fighting accomplishments (which is an accomplishment on its own) by the name of Chael Sonnen. Sonnen launched into rants that were, at the least, trollish and often xenophobic in nature. The result was that the UFC had renewed interest in a champion that had become bored and frustrated by the lack of challenges, though most of it was negative interest. Sonnen proved he was a more than a legitimate threat at UFC 117, proving that his opportunistic nature on top of his ability to promote a fight were a winning combination. So even with his subsequent failed drug test and Federal legal troubles, the UFC stuck by him.
Sonnen never relented on Silva, and eventually got his second shot at UFC 148. Where the UFC enjoyed a fantastic weekend punctuated by Sonnen losing to Silva, and again it came by way of a mental lapse. So while the UFC made their money, they had a proven asset in Sonnen. That issue left the UFC looking for ways to use this asset rather than just having him sitting at a desk, and with Sonnen cutting from 230-240lbs. to make weight at middleweight, a move up made sense. This led to his move to light heavyweight against Forrest Griffin at UFC 155. Sonnen then had a new target in his scope, light heavyweight champ Jon Jones and all he needed was an opportunity to pounce.
“Luck is when preparation meets opportunity” – Seneca
Light heavyweight champion Jon Jones probably enjoyed the greatest drop in popularity through little fault of his own. While his DWI did not help matters, his leapfrogging of former teammate Rashad Evans (when the UFC asked him to jump in on a months notice), subsequent annihilation of Mauricio “Shogun” Rua, and his mistake of surrendering the narrative to Evans after an injury did a ton of damage to the budding star’s reputation amongst hardcore fans. Despite becoming the first light heavyweight champion to defend the title more than once since Chuck Liddell and gaining big promotional deals with mainstream brands (including a massive investment by the UFC itself), Jones’ perceived arrogance saw himself made out to be the villain. In a sport where making brash and arrogant statements is often rewarded, it seemed odd to believe that Jones had stepped over the line when most of his talk is fairly generic.
Part of that can be explained by the UFC’s incessant marketing of Jones as the face of the promotion. This led to the UFC believing they were safe when they placed him on two precarious cards this year. First, was a UFC 145 (originally supposed to be UFC 146) card that was deemed not good enough for Montreal (but seemingly good enough for Atlanta, despite the lack of local talent). Second, after defeating nemesis Rashad Evans at UFC 145, was UFC 151 against MMA legend Dan Henderson. Neither event had an abundance of known stars or relevant fights, so both firmly rested on his shoulders. Then, an injury to Henderson announced only eight days away from fight night, left the event’s vulnerability on full display. Enter Chael Sonnen, a fighter who was answering the call on only eight days notice to be the UFC’s savior of the card. Only it turns out, that is not quite the case.