Let's start with a basic question: as it pertains to UFC 151, what is in UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones' best interest?
The two opposing arguments setting out a vision for Jones both have merit. On the one hand, accepting a very winnable fight, saving an event and pleasing fans seems like an incredibly reasonable offer. Were I part of Jones' management team, I would've recommended he fight Sonnen, save UFC 151 and in the words of Greg Jackson, 'go make some fans'.
On the other hand, Jones' decision is anything but ludicrous. His UFC title is not to be lightly protected, which doesn't mean not fighting. It does mean, though, preparing for specific challenges is critical and taking on admittedly out of shape yet dangerous fighter on short notice is unnecessarily risky. So what if he saves an event if he stupidly gives away his title in the process? You know, the title he's worked to earn and defend? The title that means a financial future where his children can go to college and he can retire without having to worry how he'll keep the lights on when he's 50? Why should he risk that future when a) he'll happily fight that person at a date when he's had a full camp, b) that fighter offered as an opponent has done positively nothing to earn a title shot at that weight class and c) he isn't the one in charge of the event?
It's easy to ask Jones to risk what matters to him when we have to pay no costs if something goes wrong. For all the accusations lobbed at Jones for displaying selfishness, there is little more self serving than demanding from athletes they risk what they've built to satisfy the mostly inconsequential needs of those who share no burden for failure.
And that's the story of UFC 151's cancelation: shared burden. Where UFC stars and UFC once more harmoniously worked in tandem to keep the machine running, Jones represents a new era of fighters who don't view their responsibility to the company or the sport as superseding their own interests. Whether we like it or not, he's not crazy for thinking that way.
The frustration and anger in the character assassination of Jones yesterday is somewhat understandable, albeit unjustifiable. The UFC essentially asked Jones to help them out of a problem that is partly of their creation and he balked. Injuries to fighters are not their fault, but that's only half of the story. Headliners have fallen out of UFC shows before and replacements have been found. What makes UFC 151 unique is that previous shows were not a product of 2012's realities. That is, UFC 151 had no supporting cast because most of the resources had already been used, weren't ready or just didn't make sense. UFC President Dana White doesn't care about media criticism, praise or opinion, which is fine. Personally speaking, however, it's difficult to claim there's no issue with oversaturation and cards being too thin if the loss of the main event results in the cancellation of the entire event.
Contrary to suggestion, Jones doesn't have the ability to hold UFC hostage and was acting well within his rights. In fact, he was able to decline their offer and force the UFC's hand in a system almost entirely of Zuffa's creation. MMA is Zuffa's world and they'll be the first to remind you of it (as they should). Other than obligations to abide by U.S. law, the ecosystem of contracts, negotiations, back room dealing, expectations, tradition, precedent and more are all the product of Zuffa's handiwork. If Jones is guilty of anything, it's exercising the minimal powers bestowed upon him in a system he inherited. That it had such a catastrophic effect says less about Jones' discretion and more about the precarious nature of UFC 151.
All of this is to say Jon Jones is not Chuck Liddell. I have no doubts that Liddell, if placed in a similar position, would've taken the fight. I'm not suggesting Liddell is a hero where Jones is a villain. Rather, they are the products of two different eras of mixed martial arts.
Aside from the personal relationship Liddell shared with White, first with White as his manager and then his boss, Liddell came from a moment in time where many of the principle actors in UFC accepted a notion of shared sacrifice leading to shared gain. The fighter relied on the brand, the brand needed the fighters and the mutual accommodation lead to mutual gain. One can quibble about who got the most out of it, but that was the general pattern. It was a time where most of the power players knew if this MMA thing was going to go anywhere, it would only happen when everyone pulled their weight working in concert.
Those days, for better or worse, could be done. Moreover, romanticizing a 'golden age' of MMA (or NHB) as a morally superior age filled with braver men, more eager to accept challenges in the name of championship glory and corporate assistance isn't just lazy historical revisionism, it's irrelevant.
Jones and many of his contemporaries fight in the UFC bequeathed to his generation, not the one they built. The downside for the UFC and fans may be those fighters adopting a more rigid view of what's acceptable in their interests. The upside is that they represent a quantum leap in their athleticism and capability to fight. It's the natural evolution not just of this sport, but sports generally.
It isn't merely that they don't share the same cultural ethos or worldview. Equally important is the consideration that today's MMA stars aren't as fungible or easily dispatched. The boom of the UFC since 2005 came with a notable roster of stars fans adoringly flocked to, a number of which are either gone or on their way out. There is a new generation of notable talents - Jones leads the pack - but they are fewer in number and not (yet) as popular.
The previous generation of fighters may have had more career options, but were also more easily replaced. Jones is not immune from UFC dismissal, of course, but for the UFC to get rid of it's most promising star in a moment where every ounce of star power is needed to power the company through a transition period would be the epitome of cutting off one's nose to spite their face.
It doesn't matter if Jones could go to Bellator or some other promoter. Bellator probably can't afford him and even if they could, they couldn't make effective use of him. While true the UFC can release Jones into the ether if they so choose, it does so at a cost far more significant to their bottom line than in previous years.
After all, who would've headlined four of the major pay-per-views in the last year were it not for Jones? Brock Lesnar's diverticulitis while Georges St. Pierre being on the injury shelf placed a significant responsibility on Jones to give the company a star attraction in a serious diet year. Anderson Silva has been peaking, but at age 37 he is much closer to retirement than signing another six-fight contract.
Welcome to the new MMA where the notion of communal responsibility leading to communal gain gives way to more calculated moves about career best interests.
Sure, Jon Jones is a UFC champion. But like every other fighter in the UFC, he's not an employee or a part of some vague notion of 'family'. He's an independent contractor. No more, no less. There is no one at the company tasked with looking out for his best interests other than when the UFC's best interests converge with his. If anyone is to protect them, it will be Jones or it will be no one. Unlike fighting in front of crowds, the task of preserving one's best interest is a lonely, thankless job.
Ultimately, I don't agree with Jones' decision. I don't see it as overly risky to fight Chael Sonnen even in the shortened timeline. I suspect Jones still would've won handily, helped the UFC (by their measurements) and became more likable. I believe he erred in turning down the Sonnen fight.
But it doesn't matter what I (or you) think. I'm not the light heavyweight champion. It's not my belt to protect. I have no idea what it means to achieve such heights then be asked last minute to risk it for the benefit of someone else (to whom my services are only contracted out) in a challenge that makes virtually no sense. If that were me, would I really want to do that if I didn't have to?
Jones is good for the UFC, and Jones and UFC working together is good for MMA. Everything works best for everyone when it works harmoniously. All the parties involved know that. Yet, we are likely witnessing an eclipsing of the days when fighters view their role as one that balances their self-interest with the UFC's. Not in total, of course, but this is not the end of fighter-UFC divergence. And it while it may have taken 11 years for the first event to be canceled, it won't be another 11 before it happens again.
This is the evolution of sport played out in MMA. When athletes get more leverage, they use it. It's not illegal, it's not unethical and even though it can be unpleasant, it shouldn't be unexpected anymore. We've been building towards this all along.