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The Great Divide: What does the UFC owe Jon Jones in latest dispute?

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MMA Fighting

The Great Divide is a recurring feature here at MMA Fighting in which two of our staff debate a topic in the world of MMA – news, a fight, a crazy thing somebody did, a crazy thing somebody didn’t do, or some moral dilemma threatening the very foundation of the sport — and try to figure out a resolution. We’d love for you to join in the discussion in the comments below.

Jon Jones is going another five rounds with the UFC.

The longtime UFC light heavyweight king and all-time pound-for-pound great is once again at his wit’s end with the promotion he’s called home for over a decade. On Monday, Jones unleashed a passionate and profane Twitter tirade at Dana White and the UFC, which was a follow-up to a disagreement the two had in real time after UFC 260 when White suggested that Jones’ attempts at negotiation were a sign that may not actually want to face new heavyweight champion Francis Ngannou.

Yes, you’ve heard this before, as Jones and White stirred up a similar debate last year over—you guessed it—whether Jones’ demands for greater compensation were just a smokescreen to avoid fighting. Jones hasn’t fought since February of last year and even though it appears he’s finally serious about jumping up in weight, right now there’s no guarantee that the Ngannou matchup will happen.

Jones is one of the UFC’s biggest stars, but just how integral is he to the promotion’s plans? In this edition of The Great Divide, MMA Fighting’s Jed Meshew and Alexander K. Lee debate whether Jones is owed more than he’s been given or if this latest drama will once again end with the status quo intact.

PAY THAT MAN HIS MONEY!

Meshew: I would say that I am stunned we are still having this conversation in the year 2021, but I’ve been following MMA for too long to actually be shocked by this. Yes, Jon Jones deserves to be paid more by the UFC. In fact, he deserves to be paid SUBSTANTIALLY more by the UFC. All fighters do.

Fighters revenue share in the UFC is about 20 percent. This is a fact. For reference, that means that every $69.99 PPV you buy, about $14 ends up going to the fighters, total. If you knew literally nothing else about the situation and have even an ounce of empathy in your soul, that should end this discussion right here. In the NFL, players make about 47% of revenue. In the NBA, it’s close to 50%. Fighters are making—at best!—half of what they deserve collectively. Fighters are the UFC’s product. Without them there literally is no business and yet they make pennies on the dollar.

If you don’t care about that, well, you’re not alone. There has never been a shortage of fans in any sport who come down on the side of ownership instead of the players. “Oh, the spoiled millionaire is complaining about not making enough money!” cries the disillusioned “fan” who is de facto siding with billionaires instead. Only in MMA, “fans” can’t actually make this argument because everyone knows that 99.99 percent of fighters are not millionaires. So instead those proletariat-smashing calls turn into “Well, he’s scared.” As if someone who fights people for a living is really afraid of getting into a fight. Friggin’ rubes.

It’s here that I should note that the biggest purveyor of this absolute horsesh*t line of argument is UFC President Dana White (shouts to Caposa).

Interesting that the promoter of an organization, the guy who’s literal job it is to get you excited about fighters and sell them to the public, so often trashes some of his biggest stars. It’s almost like he has a deal in which his pay is a percentage of profits and thus, he personally makes more money the more he can depress fighter pay, putting him in a direct adversarial relationship with the people he is supposed to promote. Nah, I bet he’s doing it to keep costs down so in turn those savings can be returned to the fans in the form of cheaper PPVs and tickets. What’s that you say? The price of PPVs actually jumped up this year? Huh. Never could have seen that coming.

Honestly, I could continue to make this argument without even speaking about Jon Jones in particular because this fruit hangs so low it’s starting to grow roots but for the sake of it, let’s talk about Jones individually.

Jones has a lot of outside-the-cage issues, there’s no doubt about that. But you know what he doesn’t have issues with? Selling pay-per-views. Now, to be clear, Jones is not some Conor McGregor-level star that clocks a million buys even if he’s fighting a broomstick, but Jones has never sold less than 300,000 and consistently pulls in over half a million buys. He’s a reliable draw.

Moreover, we aren’t just talking about a random Jones fight here. We’re talking about Jones doing the thing fans have wanted to see for ages and doing so against the scariest man alive. This is indisputably compelling stuff and when Jones is in a compelling fight, his numbers jump up. Jones’ grudge match with Rashad Evans, his two fights with Cormier, and his rematch with Alexander Gustafsson all topped 700,000 buys and that would be the absolute floor for an Ngannou-Jones superfight. We’re talking seven-figure buys, easily, and that should be worth the cost to the UFC.

Now, the argument against paying Jones more (not even paying him equitably mind you, because that is clearly a total non-starter for the UFC at this point) basically boils down to “Why should the UFC pay more for Jones when they can get 70% of the return for far less with a guy like Derrick Lewis?” and in the most cynical terms, that’s reasonable. However, it’s also short-sighted.

Last year, Dana White gushed about how, despite losing somewhere in the neighborhood of $100 million due to no live gates, 2020 was a great year for them as they crushed it in every other category and the brand was better than ever. What do you think is better for the brand long term, that they FINALLY deliver on one of the actual superfights fans want or that we keep talking about this nonsense ad nauseum? I’m gonna go ahead and say it’s better if everyone spends the next three months talking about how dope this fight is instead of how penny-pinching Scrooge McDucks are standing in the way of a good thing. Again, this isn’t some paradigm-shifting moment for fighter pay. This is a one-time allotment for a superfight that literally everyone wants. For years, White has said that the UFC is superior to boxing because they put together the fights the fans want, and yet here we are, with the UFC not putting together the fight the fans want when it is entirely in their power to do so.

Ultimately, we all know what is going to happen here. Jones will get angry online and Tweet Through It. White will continue to throw Jones under the bus just as hard as he possibly can. Ngannou will fight Derrick Lewis and then, assuming he wins, the cycle will start all over again until finally, probably in 2022, Jones backs down and we finally do get the fight.

And that is what’s so frustrating about all of this. The UFC has the power to do its job but they will not do so until they bend Jones to their will. It’s not about good business - good business is creating the product that the most people want to buy, at a cost that supports your continued operations. This is about domination, ego, and greed. I’d like to say that we deserve better, but given the fact that we’re still having this conversation in 2021, I’m not so sure that’s true.

THE MACHINE ROLLS ON

Lee: Round one of the latest Jon Jones-Dana White negotiation saga didn’t exactly go great for “Bones” and round two could see him having to eventually throw in the towel.

What do I mean by that? I mean Jones fought once in early 2020, then didn’t sniff a booking for the rest of the year and the UFC did just fine. In fact, if White’s accounting is to be believed, the UFC did spectacularly well due to their aggressive approach to resuming operations during the COVID-19 pandemic. It might not have been smart, it might not have been safe, but it was clearly hugely profitable for the promotion during a time when many other entertainment entities were struggling to stay afloat.

All of that is to say that if the UFC can thrive under those circumstances, it can easily go another 12 months without a Jones fight. And that sucks.

Ideally, the UFC would give Jones every penny that he’s worth, which given that he’s one of the promotion’s more reliable (if not spectacular) pay-per-view draws, is a lot. But calling White and the UFC idealists is a laughable notion. Running a major pro sports organization is a matter of pragmatism and White understands that as well as anyone. He has always been about preserving the UFC brand above all else, even if it’s at the expense of the fighters and yes, often the fans whether we realize it or not. He is not about giving his fighters what they deserve and I’d go as far as to wager that the UFC’s company bible removed any mention of the word “deserve” a long time ago except when referring to how much is owed to shareholders every quarter.

Which is why White is resorting to the same junior high negotiation tactics that have resulted in him coming out on the winning end of deals for years. When you look at White’s most recent comments, he hasn’t even explicitly said that Jones is afraid to fight Francis Ngannou, but the implication is as clear as day. He doesn’t need to say it. All he has to do is dangle the bait and a legion of UFC sycophants will jump to the promotion’s defense.

Jones has his supporters too, but how many of them are likely to abandon the UFC completely should Jones continue to remain out of action? There’s always a new shiny to capture the attention. With Jones and Conor McGregor absent for most of 2020, new cults formed in the name of Kevin Holland, Khamzat Chimaev, and Joaquin Buckley, among others. Jorge Masvidal made a Fight Island appearance, which kept him in the UFC’s favor and now he’s waltzing right into another title shot. McGregor came back this year and is expected to fight again in the summer. Sean O’Malley is back. The train keeps a rollin’.

There’s a growing possibility that Jones is relegated to Diaz status (Nate or Nick, take your pick). A popular fighter who the UFC is happy to play hardball with until the fighter bites the bullet, accepts pennies on the dollar for their next bout agreement, and then disappears back into a swirl of training videos, sponsored social media posts, and passive aggressive tweets until it’s time to do the dance again. That’s what awaits Jones for the rest of 2021 and possibly much of 2022. Aren’t we having fun?

This is all terribly cynical, but it is the cost of doing business with the UFC until the fighters and their managers get sorted and work to gain more leverage at the negotiating table. Until that happens, the UFC sets the parameters and the price and that’s that. Maybe the UFC owes fighters more than a 20 percent share of the revenue. “Come get it,” the UFC says time and time again. Legends like Randy Couture, Tito Ortiz, and Henry Cejudo have all tackled the issue of fighter pay to varying degrees of success, but I guarantee you that none of them were ever truly paid what they were worth by the UFC.

Don’t be surprised if these public negotiations get even nastier with White using Jones’ misbehavior—both in and out of competition—as evidence that he and his team have already done enough for the two-time undisputed champion. It’s Jones who has failed multiple drug tests. It’s Jones who forfeited one of his UFC belts back in 2015 after being involved in a hit-and-run. It’s Jones who added a DWI to his permanent record as recently as March of last year.

Fair or not, the UFC can hold that against him. More importantly, it can subtly suggest that the public hold that against him, while White presents his promotion as the noble employers that have kept food on Jones’ table and kept him in the spotlight despite these infractions. “What do we owe Jon Jones? What about what Jon Jones owes to us?!?”

Again, it sucks to even have to be saying this, but it would be worse to pretend that Jones is anywhere close to getting what he wants. If he’s chasing an eight-figure payday, it’s going to take widespread reform in the business of MMA to achieve this, not the occasional tweetstorm. As impassioned and convincing as Jones’ words may be to his fans, it’s the UFC brass that he really needs to convince of his worth and at the moment that’s a discussion he can’t win.

Poll

How will this chapter of the Jon Jones-Dana White saga unfold?

This poll is closed

  • 14%
    Jones gets the money he’s looking for
    (207 votes)
  • 46%
    The UFC moves on with Jones on the bench
    (643 votes)
  • 39%
    Jones eventually fights Ngannou, no significant pay change
    (544 votes)
1394 votes total Vote Now