It has been a bit more than eight months since the cancellation of UFC 151, which at the breakneck pace of the MMA news cycle makes it feel as though it happened sometime during the Bronze Age.
Heads have cooled considerably since that bizarre and uncomfortable day last August, which Dana White branded as one of his all-time lows as UFC president. He pulled the plug on UFC 151 just eight days before Jon Jones was scheduled to defend his light heavyweight title against consensus No. 1 contender Dan Henderson. It marked the first time the promotion had scratched an entire event and White seemed to drown his sorrows by blasting Jones, saying he was “disgusted” with his champion for passing up the opportunity to fight Chael Sonnen on short notice once he’d learned Henderson was injured and couldn’t compete.
“The one thing that I never thought in a million years would happen, happened ... ” said White, during one of the tamer moments of a volatile conference call. “A guy who’s a world champion and considered one of the pound-for-pound best turns down a fight.”
These days, Jones and White appear back on friendlier terms; but the unexpected removal of UFC 151 from the schedule set off a chain reaction from which the 205-pound division still hasn’t fully recovered. For evidence we must look no further than this Saturday, when Jones and Sonnen will finally fight in the gratuitous and likely very lopsided main attraction of UFC 159.
Remember that prior to Henderson’s last-minute withdrawal, Jones had cultivated the single greatest 13-month run in MMA history. He’d easily taken the title from Mauricio Rua at UFC 128 and then stomped through consecutive bouts against three other former champions, all without suffering so much as a scratch. His fight with Hendo was set to continue that march, because the 42-year-old legend had become a darling of the pound-for-pound crowd by winning the Strikeforce title, beating Fedor Emelianenko at heavyweight and defeating Rua in the best fight of 2011.
If the sudden collapse of UFC 151 didn’t completely put the brakes on all that momentum, it certainly sidetracked it. After fighting four times during 2011 (all wins), Jones made only two appearances in the Octagon during 2012 and by his own lofty standards the second half of the year was fairly underwhelming. With Henderson out, Jones faced off with Vitor Belfort, another former light heavyweight champion (though only on the flukiest possible terms), who’d more recently become a middleweight and whose reputation hadn’t recovered from a dramatic front kick knockout at the hands of Anderson Silva at UFC 126.
It was a fight that, frankly, nobody wanted to see and smacked of one the UFC booked only because Jones was healthy and the company wanted to put his name on a marquee somewhere. It would have been a total loss had Belfort not almost pulled off a stunning upset via armbar early in the first, before conceding by painstaking and inevitable submission three rounds later.
Now here’s where things get extra confusing: In the aftermath of the Belfort fight many expected the UFC to once again match Jones with Henderson. Instead, it opted to go with Sonnen, who had not fought at light heavyweight since 2005 and whose record at middleweight was just 2-2 during the past three years.
Sonnen is arguably a less logical opponent for Jones than even Belfort, and the fact he’s getting this bout now only makes sense (and then only vaguely) when viewed through the lens of UFC 151. Simply put, Jones deserves better, but he likely felt he had no choice but to accept this matchup in order to retroactively prove he wasn’t ducking Sonnen by refusing to fight him in September.
Unfortunately, the hot feud the UFC may have expected from Jones and Sonnen never materialized and promotional efforts have floundered among hard-core fans who are weary of seeing the best light heavyweight on the planet thrust into nonsensical bouts against middleweights. At least middleweights not named Silva. They are likewise tired of seeing Sonnen trash talk his way into fights they don’t think he deserves and there is a palpable sense of simply wanting to get UFC 159 over with, so Jones can get back to real business.
During the months we’ve all watched Jones and Sonnen perform the sad dance of the uninspired, the decision to mothball UFC 151 also came back to bite Henderson. After twice missing out on the chance to fight for the title he lapsed back into mortality, dropping a tepid split decision to Lyoto Machida at UFC 157. He’ll now take on Rashad Evans at UFC 161 in what is essentially a must-win fight for the future of his career.
If Henderson and Jones never fight, we’ll probably always rue the day UFC 151 was canceled and mourn the time wasted having the young champion fight lesser competition. Perhaps the best-case scenario from here might be for both guys to emerge victorious from their current scheduled bouts.
If that happens, perhaps their original pairing can still be resuscitated and then -- maybe only then -- we can finally let UFC 151 rest in peace.