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Lyoto Machida, Jon Jones And the Politics of Turning Down Fights

Gary A. Vasquez, US PRESSWIRE
Gary A. Vasquez, US PRESSWIRE

Three weeks ago, Lyoto Machida was granted a title shot by Dana White, largely because, as White told it, he just wanted it more than anybody else. According to the UFC president, Machida and his camp had "terrorized" him for a rematch with Jon Jones while Mauricio "Shogun" Rua seemed unconcerned by the No. 1 contender designation that was up for grabs at the recent UFC on FOX 4 event.

On Thursday, with the prospect of facing Jones in four weeks looming, Machida backed away slowly from his demand and gave way to Vitor Belfort.

The funny thing is, no one seems to care.

One day after Jones became MMA's public enemy No. 1 for turning down a fight, Machida's decision was received with a collective shrug.

Is that fair?

To be sure, the two were in very different situations. Jones was basically entrusted with propping up a pay-per-view event as its bankable headliner, and was reportedly told by the UFC brass that if he didn't accept a fight with Chael Sonnen, UFC 151 would be canceled, costing the company a huge financial loss. He still chose not to fight. That's his right. And it's the public's right to disagree with his decision, which they have overwhelmingly elected to do.

Machida was simply asked to step into a fight four weeks from now, which is not a long time to prepare, but longer than many short-notice replacements get. His acceptance or refusal was not going to make or break an event, as UFC 152 had already been set with a headliner, and was only being improved upon. He said no. And the public doesn't care. His decision was met with a collective yawn.

It could be a function of the fact that they never really felt he deserved a title rematch to begin with, after only a single win between his first crack at Jones and now. Or it could be something else entirely. Either way, it doesn't quite make sense that while Jones has become the sport's new villain, Machida walks away unscathed.

Remember, this is the second time Machida has turned down a high-profile short-notice fight. Just one year ago, Machida made a stand that could have cost the UFC an event cancellation. With an injury to Phil Davis necessitating a late replacement for UFC 133, the UFC turned to Machida to step in and face Rashad Evans. Machida asked for a massive pay bump in the incident that launched the infamous "Anderson Silva-money" catch phrase. Instead, it was Tito Ortiz who stepped into the void.

This time, Machida turned down a fight that we know he wanted. The reason for his decision was simply time. In a statement his camp released to the media, he said he would have preferred six weeks to train. But most people don't care about his reasoning, the same way they don't care about Jones' reasoning. Reaction, after all, never waits for an explanation. It's all based on gut feeling. And for Machida, there's been no backlash. None. While Jones was bombarded with so many negative tweets that others with the same name were casualties of the crossfire, a search of social media related to Machida shows little venom. This despite the fact that he faced Jones less than a year ago, and so is intimately familiar with his style.

I'm not suggesting that Machida is deserving of any rage. Like Jones, he has the right to captain his own ship as he sees fit. But there is a certain hypocrisy to the disparate reactions.

The interesting part of this is that Jones has no history of turning down fights. In fact, just the opposite, he has until now fought whenever asked. He made his UFC debut on 12 days' notice. He fought tough veteran Stephan Bonnar in his second UFC fight, with less than one year of professional experience. He fought Rua on short notice for the world title. He also stepped up for the UFC in a big way last year, agreeing to fight in the UFC 140 main event when the promotion had few other options. In that way, Jones has been up until this week, a model employee.

All of that goodwill has apparently been smashed to bits. Turning down Sonnen seems to be considered a cardinal sin in the eyes of many. It doesn't matter that there's no real case for Sonnen as a title contender. It doesn't matter that Jones had said he had no interest in the bout even before it was offered to him.

For Machida, it's the opposite. For him, it doesn't matter that he had publicly said he wanted to face Jones, and then changed his mind.

When you strip away the extraneous details, they are simply two fighters who decided a short-notice bout wasn't to their liking. For that, one of them is now MMA's bad guy while the other faces no repercussions.

In retrospect, Jones didn't have a decision to make; he was facing an ultimatum. He said no to a fight he never wanted. Machida said no to a fight he was begging for. The politics of MMA suggest it's never OK to turn down a fight, yet the public reaction to Jones and Machida show that's not really true. It's only OK to turn down a fight when no one cares about it.

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