Just a shade more than three years since his UFC debut, Jon Jones’ star is in full bloom.
After decimating Mauricio Rua to become the youngest champion in UFC history back in March, Jones is the consensus pick to waltz in similar fashion through his first title defense against Quinton Jackson on Saturday at UFC 135.
He’s already being heralded, in the words of color commentator Joe Rogan, as perhaps the greatest talent MMA has ever seen. Were it possible to buy stock in a fighter, investors couldn’t do much better than Jones, as he stands poised to be a linchpin in the UFC’s new network television era, where the possibilities simply dwarf anything the sport has seen to this point.
With good reason, the UFC seems giddy to have him, casting Jones in beer commercials and talk show gigs and public appearances everywhere from Denver (where he is this week) to the Philippines, where he’ll be next month as part of a personal “tour” not-so-subtly billed by a local television station as an opportunity for fans to “Face the Future.”
Jones is 24 years old and on top of the MMA world. There’s just one problem: If he is indeed the future of the UFC, why does a significant percentage of the promotion’s hard-core fan base appear to hate his guts?
"Jones your goin down $@%!$!!!!" wrote one commenter on ESPN.com this week.
"Anyone who really follows the sport knows Jones is a total tool and I personally want to see him get blasted by Rampage," wrote another.
"Jones has fought nothing but cans," said another ... And another: "Jones is cocky and his character is suspect" ... And another: "I think he is incredibly entertaining in the ring. I just hate his personality and hope that he get's his a-- kicked" … etc., etc., and so on and so forth.
So, what’s the deal? Why all the hate for a guy who may be on the verge of becoming one of the sport's all-time greats?
The likely answer is twofold. First, as another, perhaps more insightful commenter pointed out this week: Haters gonna hate. Any fighter who’s risen as fast through the ranks as Jones has is bound to have critics.
Second, there is the matter of Jones' carefully crafted public persona, which has always made him an odd fit in a subculture that prides itself on being unscripted.
Where other sports are overprocessed, staid and self-serious, the UFC has taken pains over the years to come off as casual, edgy and a little bit unpredictable. It was a “reality” show, after all, that gave the UFC its first foothold in the mainstream. More recently, one of its core promotional tactics has been to utilize unfiltered blasts of social media to connect with fans. "As Real as It Gets," promised the company's own slogan for a time.
For better and worse, the political correctness that hampers mainstream entities like the NFL and NBA hasn’t quite caught up to MMA yet. At least part of the sport’s appeal has always been grounded in hard-core fans feeling that they really know their heroes, and fans have come to expect "realness" from MMA personalities with the same regularity that they expect a pay-per-view or two every month.
In terms of pure marketing, it’s been a fairly genius approach and one that’s worked wonderfully for the UFC over the last six or seven years. Now, though, comes Jones -- who frankly doesn't play that way.
Even from the beginning of his career, Jones’ interactions with media have been studied and savvy. He’s not a “fake” or a “phony” as has been suggested by adversaries Jackson and Rashad Evans, but he’s certainly very sensitive to how he’s portrayed and very careful about the things he says in public.
As a result, some fans likely view him as dishonest. They think he’s trying to hide his cockiness beneath a humble exterior and near-constant talk of his faith. There’s nothing edgy or unpredictable about Jones and that probably rubs some people the wrong way, whether or not they can put their finger on exactly what it is they don’t like about him. Unfortunately, that’s also just the man's personality, and at this point I’m afraid he’ll always have some trouble connecting with a certain segment of rabid MMA fans.
Is that fair to Jones? Maybe, maybe not. There's nothing that says fans have to cheer for a guy just because he's an incredible talent. There's nothing that says Jones has to care, either. At the end of the day, the boos and negative Internet comments probably just equate to dollar signs for him. Plus, the good news is that his careful, easily digestible approach may well play much better to the droves of casual, mainstream viewers who promise to come along with the company’s new broadcast deal with Fox.
Of course, Jones’ greatest strength will always be that it is simply electric to watch him fight. Even his harshest critics can’t deny him that, and if he’s able to wade successfully through the absolute murderer’s row of opponents the UFC may throw at him during the next calendar year, his performance will speak for itself.
Some people certainly won't like it, but as the sport continues to grow in popularity, they'll probably become outnumbered by those who do.