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MMA Roundtable: Jones' Fans, Canceled Events, and GSP's Return

Esther Lin, MMA FIghting
Esther Lin, MMA FIghting

It's been nearly a week since the cancellation of UFC 151, yet it remains the most buzzworthy topic in mixed martial arts. This week's MMA Roundtable takes a look at some of the topics that have been raised over the last few days as a result. For example, will UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones have a tough time reconnecting with fans after declining a fight with Chael Sonnen? Also, were there any other light heavyweights who should have been offered a fight with Jones, and is the event cancellation ultimately a sign that the UFC is producing too many events?

But it's not all about bad news. On the bright side, UFC welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre is back, with Carlos Condit waiting in the wings, hoping he is primed for an upset.

My colleague Dave Doyle and I examine these subjects around the old roundtable.

1. What does Jon Jones need to do in order to win back his fan base?

Doyle: He needs to focus less on so obviously and openly being Jon Jones, Inc. and go back to being Jon Jones, the fighter. Even if Jones and his camp are being honest in saying that certain fights don’t make sense for his bottom line, or that he needs to think about protecting his Nike brand when he makes a career decision, guess what? The fans don’t want to hear it.

A big part of the UFC’s appeal has been that the guy who, say, works in construction, or holds down three jobs to make ends meet, appreciates that these guys just go out and fight. They don’t want to hear a nuanced argument as to why a fighter has the right to refuse an opponent, and they especially don’t want to hear that he doesn’t want to fight because it might ruin his gravy train.

Without the fans’ willingness to spend $54.95 for a pay-per-view card, there’s no such thing as Jon Jones, the Nike-endorsed superstar. It’s going to take a long time for him to win back the crowd. He’s blessed with the skills in the Octagon which give him the opportunity to eventually do so. But fans don’t get emotionally attached to businessmen, they get attached to their favorite fighters. If nothing else, Jones needs to stop blabbing about money and endorsements, pronto, and go out and put on a show against Vitor Belfort to a degree that even his harshest critics give him his due. That’s step one.

Chiappetta: One of the big head-scratchers when it comes to MMA is the fickleness of the fans. The same ones who abandoned Jones for his decision are the ones who say they will never again support Carlos Condit because of one fight strategy, as if the fact that he finished 26 of his 27 wins prior to facing Nick Diaz counts for nothing.

But that fickleness can ultimately work in the athletes' advantage, because those same fans can be won over again. If Condit goes out and savages GSP to win the title in November, his bandwagon will suddenly be so full there won't be enough room for everyone trying to jump back on board. It's not so different for Jones. I disagree with Dave that it's going to take a long time for Jones to win back the fans he lost. All he has to do is win. Just think back to how angry everyone was at Anderson Silva after his erratic performance at UFC 112. It took all of one fight for him to win back all of those pissed-off fans. That's how simple it can be in this game. Win big and the world is drawn to you. The fight is what matters; the rest is just temporary distraction.

If Jones keeps ripping through the division, anyone with a true interest in MMA will be unable to deny his talent, and they'll be there when the decision comes to plunk down their money on fight night.

2. After Machida turned down the Jones' fight, the UFC's next two choices to fight Jones were both most recently middleweights. Of the UFC's available light-heavyweight roster, was there a better choice than Vitor Belfort or Chael Sonnen?

Chiappetta: There is no question the UFC was faced with a very difficult situation here. Because Jones has beaten several of the division's best, several of those they could have pulled in from the division would have felt like recycled contenders. Of those remaining, they could have offered the bout to fresher names like Alexander Gustafsson or Glover Teixeira, but that would have required pulling them from other previously scheduled matchups. Robbing Peter to pay Paul is not a very good long-term booking strategy.

The Sonnen matchup made sense only from a marketing aspect. He's a guaranteed headline-maker, and that would have given the UFC the best opportunity to pop a strong pay-per-view buyrate on short notice. But I would suggest that there was a more deserving light heavyweight, and one that has a built-in storyline with Jones: Stephan Bonnar.

Sure, Bonnar lost to Jones three years ago, and likely would have been considered a huge underdog in a rematch, but he would bring a certain Rocky-style storyline that hasn't been seen in the UFC since Matt Serra fought and defeated Georges St-Pierre. The UFC fans once rallied for Mark Hunt to fight for the heavyweight championship on the strength of three straight wins; it would have been nice to see them do the same for a longtime veteran who recently said he may call it quits unless he gets a major fight against a major name. At any rate, he was probably more deserving than either Sonnen or Belfort since he has actually won divisional fights within the last few years.

Doyle: I agree that on paper, Gustafsson and possibly Teixeira would have made better choices. In practice, as Mike notes, they already have fights lined up, and I’m taking an educated guess that the UFC sees both of these guys as potential legitimate contenders who are a big win or two away from being ready for Jones. Thus, they decided not to involve either of them in this mess at all.

The list is thin after that. One name we haven’t discussed is Mauricio Rua, and if you saw the battle he went through with Brandon Vera a few weeks ago, you know that he’s not going to be ready any time soon.

But I have to respectfully disagree with Mike on Bonnar. While everyone likes Bonnar, the reality is, he’s the guy who was on the wrong end of a loss to a then-44-year-old Mark Coleman. Sure, he’s won his past few, but it’s been against a stream of undercard guys. If the options are Stephan Bonnar and Vitor Belfort, in this case I’d rather see the guy who has competed at a top level as a middleweight and has won at an elite level at light heavyweight in the past step up and take the fight.

3. As a result of the movement of UFC 151's scheduled bouts to other events, the upcoming fight cards are some of the deepest UFC has boasted in awhile. Is this a hint the UFC should run fewer events? Why or why not?

Doyle: Short answer: Yes. Longer answer: This summer’s events -- not just UFC 151, but the lousy UFC 149 and the endless string of fight replacements -- should serve as a big, loud warning siren to the UFC. They’ve long promoted their company off the idea that the power of the UFC brand will trump all other considerations. When you look back over the years at how many times fights have fallen out and they’ve still managed to deliver quality cards that in some cases turned out better than the original (can you say UFC 108?), then you can understand why such conclusions were drawn.

In the wake of UFC 151’s cancellation, even casual fans talked about how the event was a "boxing card," a.k.a., one in which all the focus was on the main event. That’s some dangerous territory for the promotion to wander into. Casual fans shut off boxing in part for this very reason. UFC 152 now looks stacked, with two title fights and Michael Bisping vs. Brian Stann. The upcoming TV cards such as UFC on FX 5, if not loaded with star power, are now deep with compelling style matchups. It wasn’t that long ago that such cards were the norm, and all the UFC needs to do to give the fans the type of shows they’ve come to expect over the years is trim a few shows off the schedule.

Chiappetta: This is a question that is best answered in two different ways, both from the view of the fans and from the view of the promotion. From the view of the fans, of course the UFC should run fewer events. That way, there would be deeper cards on a more regular basis, offering the viewer more bang for the buck.

From the view of the UFC, they should only offer fewer cards if there is a financial reason to do so (i.e. they're losing money on events). The free market system is beautifully simple in that demand dictates supply. If the fans rejected more events, the UFC wouldn't run so many events. That's ultimately the reason they canceled UFC 151; they knew it wouldn't sell without a main event. But if they offer events that are essentially one-fight cards and people keep offering their money, there is no incentive to change.

I will also point out, there are some pros to the expanded schedule. For example, by the time 2012 ends, the UFC will have broadcast 18 events on free or cable TV this year, marking the first time the promotion aired the majority of their events on those platforms rather than pay-per-view. So in a sense, the lack of depth on pay-per-views come due to a need to populating these free events. For fans, that's not a bad tradeoff.

4. Georges St-Pierre was cleared to return full MMA training this week and should return against Carlos Condit in November. At 31 years old and coming off his first major injury, is he prime for an upset?

Chiappetta: I would argue no. While there's no guarantee that St-Pierre will come back as the same athlete he was before his injury, we do know that he had his surgery and rehabilitation handled by some of the most renowned names in the sports orthopedic business, so it's fairly safe to assume he'll return very close to normal. Aside from that, St-Pierre hasn't fought since April 2011. He hasn't had to go through the daily rigors of training, the grind and the mental of exhaustion of preparation. In some ways, he may be fresher than he otherwise would have been if healthy all along.

I had the chance to recently speak with GSP, and he admitted that he had lost some of his motivation and got complacent in the routine of it all. It is often true that absence makes the heart grow fonder. St-Pierre got a glimpse of what his life will be like without fighting, and that's either going to fuel him through these next few years or cause him to coast to the finish line. I believe the former is more likely.

If St-Pierre was facing a top-notch wrestler like Johny Hendricks, I think the possibility of upset would be higher. Perhaps his transitions will be just a tick slower, and at the highest levels of MMA, that's often the difference between a landed takedown or not. But Carlos Condit's takedown defense has never been his strong suit, so GSP will always have that as his ace in the hole for if and when the fight gets a little too gritty for his liking. The matchup of their styles strongly tilts the odds in St-Pierre's favor, so even coming off the injury layoff, he's likely to walk out of the Bell Centre with his belt.

Doyle: As the question is worded, I agree that St-Pierre isn’t "primed" for an upset. He’s going to be as motivated as he’s ever been coming off the long layoff, and St-Pierre in the Bell Centre is one of MMA’s strongest home-court advantages.

If you amend it to "can Condit pull off the upset?" Absolutely. Condit’s a fighter who has been underestimated his entire career. He’s capable of a firefight but he’s also smart enough to tailor his game plans to the smartest path to victory, such as in his interim-title winning effort over Nick Diaz. (And as an aside, if Condit uses that approach against GSP, we just might see Dana White’s head finally explode during the post-fight press conference.)

Condit certainly has a chance to win. But a healthy St-Pierre, in his hometown, with something to prove? I just don’t see Matt Serra, Part Two happening.

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