A decade later, Greg Jackson still has no regrets about his part in one of the most infamous events in UFC history.
Ten years ago today, UFC 151 was supposed to have taken place at the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas. Headlined by a light heavyweight title fight between Jon Jones and Dan Henderson, the card was thought to be a rebound for the promotion after lackluster sales for their previous two pay-per-view events. But everything fell to ruin eight days before the event, when Henderson informed the UFC he ruptured his MCL and would be unable to compete. The promotion scrambled to find a short-notice replacement for Henderson, settling on former middleweight title challenger Chael Sonnen, but with such short time to prepare, Jones and his team declined to accept the fight.
Then all hell broke loose.
UFC 151 was a thin card to begin with, propped up by the star power of the main event, and without Jones competing, the UFC was left with few options to salvage it. So, for the first time ever, the promotion outright canceled a fight card — and upon doing so, the company laid the blame squarely at the feet of Jones and his head coach, Greg Jackson.
“For the first time in the history of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, a UFC champion has refused to face an alternative challenger after an injury to his original opponent, forcing the organization to cancel an event,” read a scathing press release from the UFC.
That same press release went on to excoriate Jones and Jackson, saying their decision “stole” from the fighters on the undercard who would no longer get paid. It also infamously dubbed UFC 151 “the event Jon Jones and Greg Jackson murdered.”
It was explosive rhetoric, particularly when directed at the man most people believed to be the promotion’s next superstar. But White’s most famous quote was reserved solely for Jackson, whom he had had previous issues with: “Let me tell you, this guy is a sport killer.”
White wasn’t the only one upset by Jones’ decision, though. Backlash from both the fans and fellow fighters was heavy, and the “Sport Killer” moniker followed Jackson for years.
So for the 10-year anniversary of the event that never was, MMA Fighting spoke with Greg Jackson about what happened, the backlash it triggered, and if he had any regrets about how it all went down.
Jed Meshew: So, how does it feel to have killed MMA?
Greg Jackson: Well, you know I tried my best to kill the sport, but despite my best efforts, somehow it’s still alive and kicking. So I’ll wait for my next opportunity to destroy an entire sport by not taking a fight. It’s a talent. I’m a talented guy.
You did your best, and that’s why I wanted to do something about UFC 151, because obviously 10 years is a long time. We have a lot of new fans in the sport who aren’t going to remember that this happened or was such a big deal. It’s kind of insane to look back on it now and see how it all went.
Yeah. Little overreactions from people, maybe?
Just a little bit.
Just to clarify, because this was a while ago, were you the one who specifically told Jon he shouldn’t take the fight, or was it a consensus among the team: “Hey, it’s eight days, this is a very dumb idea. We shouldn’t do this.”
I think it was a consensus, but I’ll take the responsibility for telling Jon, for sure. I was the guy that was like, “Hmm, a new opponent, different style, brand new,” and then some random, “Oh, well this is now the No. 1 contender,” even though I don’t think he really was the No. 1 contender. You know what I mean? I didn’t seem right. It was just like, is this a sport or just fight anybody for the title?
That was actually going to be one of my other questions: Obviously Chael Sonnen was not the No. 1 contender. He had just lost to Anderson Silva. He wasn’t even in the conversation. How much, if any, did that play into the decision? Or was it strictly, “This is eight days, it’s ridiculous for us to take a new opponent for the light heavyweight belt on this short notice?”
It was more that, on eight days, but it was also the style. If it was very close — because we were supposed to fight Henderson, and Henderson’s got wrestling, but he’s also got giant right hands, and his wrestling style is different. So from Dana’s point of view it was, “Oh, Jon will just steamroll Chael and then everybody’s happy,” but I’ve been in so many corners, I’ve seen that go bad, and I don’t underestimate Chael Sonnen at all. Zero. That guy can show up as a world-beater. Really.
So, preparation. This is the 205-pound championship of the world. If you’re a 5-0 guy and it’s your first fight in the UFC or whatever, you’re trying to get a fight, yeah, give me last-minute stuff, whatever. You can weigh that out. But for the championship? I wanted to be prepared and I wanted to win, and neither of those options were as easy. And I’m not saying that Jon wouldn’t have steamrolled him, but I like to win. I like to get in there and be prepared, so really, that’s what it was. Eight days, for the title, lack of preparation for a somebody we’ve never even game-planned against.
To your point about not underestimating Chael Sonnen, obviously you guys did go fight him and beat him [at UFC 159], but after that he submitted Shogun [Mauricio Rua], so he’s not some pushover just showing up.
Exactly. I have all the respect in the world for that guy, I really do. I like him a lot and I respect his fighting style. It was almost like I respected him that much where I wouldn’t be like, “No, we’re not going to just jump in.” I have more respect for that guy than that.
So you end up fighting later that month, at UFC 152, against a totally different opponent, Vitor Belfort. [Jones won by submission in Round 4.] How much of that was the additional weeks to game plan vs. did you feel pigeonholed or backed into taking a fight given the backlash that came from turning down the Sonnen fight?
No, no. Nobody is ever going to pigeonhole me into anything, nor would I feel any pressure about anybody else’s opinion to do what I think is right. None of that will ever be a factor for me. Mostly we just had time to put together a plan, train it, say “OK, this is going to work,” and do it. I didn’t feel obligated or anything, but eight days isn’t even — that’s fight week, basically. You have zero time to do anything. Basically you’re just showing up and fighting. If they gave us three weeks, that would have been something. We could’ve said, “OK, let’s break him down, look through all this stuff.” That would have been reasonable to me, but one week just wasn’t reasonable to me.
Especially while you’re in the middle of a weight cut.
Yeah, we could work on nothing. You have to know your fighter, and Jon is a fighter who does best when he’s very prepared, he’s watched hours of video on you, he can relax. That’s what makes Jon, Jon. If you put him — not that he can’t adapt and overcome, he certainly can, but I want to put us at the best odds possible to win, and him being relaxed enough to be creative enough comes from him understanding what his opponent is going to do, what he’s going to do, etc.
So what were the vibes like when you told the UFC you weren’t going to take this fight? Obviously their public reaction was harsh.
The public reaction is dictated by Dana and Joe [Silva]. So if Dana and Joe come out go, “X,Y, and Z, it’s not a big deal, we’ll have the next fight for you guys, yada, yada, yada,” then people would be sad and disappointed, but there wouldn’t have been that kind of reaction. I guess Joe didn’t have that much to do with this one. Dana just did what Dana does sometimes, which is go hard in the paint. And that’s where the public reaction came from.
Did you feel that moving forward for awhile?
We were always going back and forth. Dana came out with a statement before that where “All my fighters were boring,” and then I came out with the list of that year that we had like 80 percent of Fight of the Night bonuses. To me it was, if somebody is always screaming at you, it doesn’t have any power. You’re like, “Oh, that’s what the guy does. He’s always upset, throwing temper tantrums.” If he was the sweetest, nicest guy, and then all of a sudden he had done that, I would have been like, “What the hell? That’s a little weird.” But it was just par for the course. It didn’t bother me that much, I wasn’t affected by it.
It’s a sport. I did what I thought was right, I would do it again, and that’s all I can do. So at the end of the day, if you don’t agree with me, I’m sorry you don’t agree with me, you have your opinion, I have my opinion, and that’s what I do.
So just to make absolutely certain, it sounds like you have no regrets?
No. Zero. I’m always going to do what’s best for my guy, not what’s best for the promoter. It sucks that we did that, but you’re putting us in a position where we — we were prepared to fight the person you wanted us to fight and do that stuff. I’m not really sure why they got so mad. I still don’t know. I get that it’s a control thing. “If I say you do this, you f****** do this.” I get the whole bully aspect of it, but if you’re a promoter, you’re not a bully. Just in this situation, I think he was off the mark a little bit.
Did you ever personally feel any backlash from the fans? Immediately I’m sure there was some, but did that linger at all?
There’s always some backlash from the fans. The more successful you are, the more backlash you’ll get. So yeah, for a while, everybody was yelling “sport killer” and stuff, but I just found the whole thing funny. “What the hell are you talking about?” It was really absolutely ridiculous to me at the time. Not taking one fight is not going to kill the sport. Even if they cancelled one card, what are you talking about?
They just tried to make an example of me, tried to make a scapegoat of me. It didn’t work. I’m still around, dumber than ever, but still around. It was just bizarre, not unexpected but still surreal like, “What the hell?”
So we’re clear, if we were friends, I would exclusively call you “Sport Killer.”
For a while there I wanted to make t-shirts, I wanted to embrace the whole thing because I thought it was so silly. So just to make fun of the ridiculousness of it had value, but we never did.
But I’ll tell you what, of the two major kerfuffles we’ve had with the UFC, one was the “My fighters were boring,” two was [the “sport killer” stuff], [and] the “fighters were boring” had a lot more long-term negative implications than “sport killer” did.
Really? That is surprising, because your fighters obviously weren’t boring.
Exactly. Obviously I didn’t kill the sport either. All of it was absurd.
Well, you say that, but then they sold the UFC for $4 billion...
I know, they really didn’t make any money off it. Let’s let history be the judge. Six of one, half dozen of the other. $4 billion, good lord.
I think that was a message to people. Dana was doing it as a message to try and make an example of me: “If you don’t play ball, I’m going to try to destroy your reputation.” So looking at it from a strategical point of view, it makes sense in a weird way, but not really. Like a not well thought through strategy I guess, maybe.
Well, maybe you’ll have more luck the next time you try to kill MMA.
It’s an everyday thing for me. I wake up like, “God damn it, this thing’s still around? This thing that makes me money is still on the planet?” One day. I will. I’ll find a new avenue to destroy an entire sport. I’ll find it.