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UFC 151 Cancellation and MMA’s Growing Pains

By on August 23, 2012

UFC 151 has been canceled in an unprecedented action by Zuffa in their eleven-plus years of owning the UFC. This was revealed just moments ago in a media conference call with Dana White, in which White took the opportunity to throw both UFC Light Heavyweight Jon Jones and his trainer, Greg Jackson, under the bus.

White said that when Dan Henderson was not able to fight due to a knee injury, Jones was offered the chance to defend his title against Chael Sonnen on eight days’ notice, and Jones declined. White says that Jones did so based on Jackson’s advice, as Jackson believed it would be a “huge mistake” to fight Sonnen on short notice.

Here’s the rundown on the other pertinent information:

–The other undercard fights will be worked into other upcoming cards whenever possible. No specific plans have been made yet, though.

–The final decision was made just an hour before the conference call went live, with Jones saying he would not fight Sonnen based on Jackson’s advice not to do so.

–Lyoto Machida was offered the chance to fight Jones, but he is out of the country and had to decline. Sonnen immediately accepted when given the chance.

–Dana White is not sure whether Dan Henderson will be able to get a title shot when he comes back from his injury.

–Regarding whether there could be a clause in champions’ contracts that they have to accept a replacement fight if a challenger is injured, Dana White said that he can’t make someone fight.

–White indicated that he wasn’t all that pleased that the UFC decided to sponsor Jones to begin with. When asked whether the decision by Jones would affect the UFC’s sponsorship of him, he answered cryptically with, “That’s a good question.”

–On the UFC’s losses due to the cancellation of UFC 151, White says, “We lose shitloads of money…money that’s already been spent.”

Most MMA fans are well-acquainted with White’s distaste for Jackson, the most famous trainer in the sport right now. Jackson has been a proponent of fighters not only using tactics to win fights that aren’t always deemed as the most exciting for the fans, but also for fighters not having to face training partners and friends in the Octagon. Both stances have led to White criticizing Jackson heavily in the media, and he today called Jackson “a fucking sport killer”.

It’s clear why White and Jackson can’t see eye to eye. White wants to put on events, and he wants them to be satisfying for the fans. Jackson, meanwhile, wants his fighters to be successful, stay healthy, and win. Therefore, a lot of White’s priorities are at odds with Jackson’s, since White wants fighters who will face anyone on any type of notice, put on exciting fights whether they win or lose, and generally toe the company line.

Jackson, on the other hand, has been part of an emerging trend where top MMA fighters actually act like elite athletes (imagine that!). Elite athletes who make a lot of money and have a lot of power aren’t going to take fights on eight days notice, especially not against fighters who just lost a title fight at a weight class below them. White, who remembers the days when his employees were “real” fighters, bristles at the thought of fighters building their “brands” and thinking about making smart decisions regarding their careers. White believes a champion should fight anybody at any time, period.

I’ve followed the sport for longer than Zuffa has even owned the UFC, and I see where White’s coming from. There’s no question that his job was easier when anyone on his roster would show up on a week’s notice to fight somebody and not bat an eyelash. It was also great for the fans when fighters were accessible and cared just as much about putting on a good show as they did building a legacy or (shudder) their “brand”.

Money changes things, though. For Jones, this was an easy decision. He’ll make just as much to fight Lyoto Machida at what was UFC 152 (it will be known as UFC 151 now) in Toronto, and he’ll have extra time to prepare for him. It’s the UFC and the undercard fighters that are impacted financially by this decision; Jones will be largely unaffected other than the date written on his paycheck.

In a way, Jones is a preview of the direction that the sport’s fighters are headed. Elite athletes who make a lot of money have leverage. Jones is sponsored by Nike now, he’s got a trainer in his ear that rightfully prioritizes his career over the success of the UFC itself, and he looks at his career as a businessman rather than as a “real fighter” who takes on all comers as a matter of bravado. In twenty years, fans will be astounded that fighters used to willingly take on replacement opponents with two weeks’ notice or less, that they apologized to fans after wins that weren’t “exciting enough”, or that they were bullied into fighting their teammates.

When White calls Jackson a “sport-killer”, he means that Jackson is the kind of person that is taking the sport in the direction that boxing has gone. While the structure of MMA, where almost all of the world’s top fighters are under one promotional banner, is much different than boxing, there are some similarities that are starting to emerge between the two. Fighters are competing less and less often once they reach elite status, and they are starting to throw their weight around more in terms of stating who they do or don’t want to fight. Many fans have even complained that UFC cards lately have been more like boxing cards, with one or two “can’t miss” fights surrounded by undercard fights of a much lesser stature.

I get where White’s coming from. It’s distasteful to him to hear fighters say that a bout “doesn’t make sense” or isn’t smart for them to take, because White comes from a time when you fought anybody that was put in front of you. That’s what fighters did. The problem is that those days are coming to an end, and it’s not all because of Greg Jackson, no matter what Dana White prefers to believe.

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