It's time for Jon Jones to embrace the hate.
Whether or not Jones was within his rights as a champion to accept a short-notice replacement fight, the aversion towards him -- which was more inflated than it had any right to be from the beginning -- just increased exponentially as a result of his decision to decline a bout against Chael Sonnen at UFC 151.
I don't think this means that Jones is a bad person, or that he even made a wrong decision. It's easy for us to sit behind computer screens and criticize a choice when we are only observers. For Jones, it was no hypothetical; it was real life, one with ramifications past a "yes" or "no," in a situation that he himself did not create. But in making his decision, he had to know the negative reaction it might cause. He still made it, so apparently, he felt very strongly in his convictions.
Now he will have to deal with fans who feel just as strongly in theirs.
As it turns out, Jones unknowingly boxed himself into a corner. Just two days ago, he spoke on the phone with reporters, discussing his career strategy.
"I refuse to be a broke athlete when I retire, so I don’t apologize for being aware of pay-per-view sales, and being business savvy," he said.
That seems fair enough. This is how he makes his living after all.
Later, he said, this: "… originally I joined this sport because I wanted to make it; it was survival mode. And when I met my coaches it became more than money, it became about warrior spirit. And so I can sit here and truthfully say that I had both. I had business savvy and I have a street warrior spirit."
OK, now we have a problem. Because on Thursday, Jones' decision does not agree with his words.
While Sonnen doesn't have a rightful claim as the light-heavyweight division's No. 1 contender, he's fought in enough major fights over the last two years to become a draw. He's also a master salesman and would no doubt do everything within his power to market the fight in the nine days between now and Sept. 1. In some ways, he already had, injecting himself into the conversation when Jones was preparing to fight Dan Henderson.
There's little question that a Jones-Sonnen bout would have drawn a bigger pay-per-view audience than what he'll end up getting, a rematch with Lyoto Machida less than one year after their first bout.
Jones himself recently voiced a disinterest in fighting Machida again, telling ESPN, "No one wants to see me fight Lyoto Machida. I don't want to fight Lyoto again. Lyoto is high risk and low reward."
After that series of quotes, he has to understand why the MMA world is collectively scratching its head. Less than a week ago, he didn't want to fight Machida. He wanted to fight a bigger draw. Yet he said no to Sonnen, whose last fight with Anderson Silva is believed to have topped out at around 1 million pay-per-view buys?
Jones has largely been a company man up until now. He famously took a title shot against Mauricio "Shogun" Rua on short notice. He fought four times in 2011, including three times against former champions. His profile has risen and he's delivered exciting fights nearly every time out. So what was different this time? As of now, we don't know. Jones hasn't made a peep and his management hasn't returned messages. That only exacerbates the situation. Silence breeds speculation.
According to UFC president Dana White, Jones was advised against taking the Sonnen fight by his trainer, Greg Jackson, who allegedly told Jones that if he took the short-notice fight against Sonnen, it would be the "biggest mistake of his life."
That's White's version of events, and needless to say, he was heated in the aftermath of announcing the cancelation, so take that for what it's worth. It's also important to note that the UFC shares some of the blame for not having enough substance below the main event to allow the show to go on. But there is no disputing that Jones could have taken the fight, one in which he would have been strongly favored. The bout would have offered him a built-in edge, as he's had a full training camp and Sonnen would be competing on less than two weeks' notice and in his first light-heavyweight fight in nearly seven years.
Needless to say, the fans and UFC management aren't the only ones upset with him. (White said he and Lorenzo Fertitta were "disgusted" by the decision.) The cancelation means that 20 other fighters will not receive their payday or revel in their spotlight after 6-8 weeks of training. Jay Hieron, who was set to make his UFC return after a 7-year absence, will have to wait. Checks that pay for rent and school supplies will not be doled out.
That's not directly Jones' fault. White likes to remind us that MMA is not a team sport, and if that's true, Jones doesn't owe the promotion or his brothers in arms a damn thing. But here's the stone cold reality of the situation when you strip away all the details: Jones could have played the hero and chose not to. That doesn't automatically make him a villain, but as LeBron James learned when he made "The Decision," it's not always about the choice you make. It's about everything that surrounds it.
Things ultimately turned out fine for James, who won an NBA championship and an Olympic gold medal in the span of the last two months. But the anger against him? It's still there in some numbers. It's slow to burn off. At least Jones is in good company.
In making his "decision," Jones didn't really do anything wrong, but he didn't really do everything right, either. In time, maybe he'll win over the support he lost. For now, he's the bad guy, and while that hardly seems a comfortable fit for his image, it's the only thing he's got.