MMA: UFC 135
The word “popularity” trumps a word like “retread” six days of the week. It did in the case of Quinton Jackson -- the popular, yet polarizing, former UFC champion who just became Bellator’s latest acquisition, according to a Spike TV press release. “Rampage” is presumably headed to the so-called “toughest tournament in sports.”
And with him comes an ounce of that hard-to-find intrigue.
Bellator will hold a news conference Wednesday in Los Angeles to make the announcement. If a 34-year-old on a three-fight losing streak and with strong associations to a rival league seems like an odd choice for a multiyear contract with Bellator, that’s because it is. Traditionally, Bellator has steered clear of picking up the UFC’s sloppy seconds, with a few exceptions. Just last week, Bellator inked prospect Bubba Jenkins, a collegiate wrestling champion from Arizona State who is 3-0 in MMA. That’s a signing that falls more in line with the Bellator ideology of unearthing talent. Landing Jenkins was a major boon.
But Jackson isn’t exactly a cast-off either. He was a disgruntled UFC employee who openly battled with Dana White and the UFC over pay, treatment, integrity, the reinvention of B.A. Baracus, fighting boring wrestlers and a descending scale of pettier issues over the past few years. He’s not known as an “entertainer” for fighting alone. That’s why he fits with Spike, where he can roam into pro wrestling waters under the TNA platform (an idea he’s flirted with before) and play a role in the network’s reality programming. With “Rampage” comes drama, and in his case, that’s interchangeable with “baggage.”
You know what else he brings? Star power and accessible validity.
After all, as of UFC 135, Jackson was name enough to challenge Jon Jones for the UFC’s light heavyweight belt. He didn’t make good, but the UFC sold more than 500,000 pay-per-views, which was the most since UFC 129 when Georges St-Pierre fought Jake Shields. It was the most pay-per-views sold for all of the UFC 130s. When he fought Dan Henderson on Spike, there were 6 million viewers.
Even in a sport where yesterday is a distant memory, that wasn’t so long ago. Yes, the Japan homecoming at UFC 144 against Ryan Bader was a disaster, with the missed weight and the swirling chaos of his TRT/groveling over how the UFC had handled him poorly. And yes, his sayonara bout with Glover Teixeira wasn’t exactly the barn burner he (or we) imagined. Just like Rashad Evans, Henderson and anyone who’s been in the fight game long enough, he’s capable of duds. Ennui is a hard thing to shake.
Yet even with all of that, what’s not to like about this signing? It was Josh Koscheck who said that fans can love him or hate him, it doesn’t matter, so long as they care. Signing “Rampage” will get people to care. And realistically, Bellator could use some love and caring, especially for its tournament structure that stubbornly makes a star of attrition. That concept’s not a fit for everyone. Maybe not even for Jackson, who has had trouble with motivation and weight in the past. It's tough to maintain health, weight and mindset through three fights in three months for anybody. But for a millionaire who doesn't particularly need to?
Then again, remember that he made a name in those Pride Grand Prix’s back in the early days fighting the likes of Wanderlei Silva, Chuck Liddell and Mauricio Rua. Those yesteryear names now become Attila Vegh and his longtime off-limits rival Muhammed Lawal -- not to mention Emanuel Newton, who knocked “King Mo” out in February with a spinning backfist. There’s something about those Memphis “bungalows” that tuned people in, even if they’re being flung at the more curious retread cases of Renato “Babalu” Sobral and Vladimir Matyushenko.
There are always exceptions to the exceptions.
The thing is, Bellator hasn’t strictly adhered to anything other than its own bracketology. Hard to imagine it giving Jackson special treatment and holding him out of the 205-pound tournament. And the promotion has loosely gone about its business of bringing up the next best names over the past couple of years. It's scored with Michael Chandler, Ben Askren, Pat Curran, Eduardo Dantas and Eddie Alvarez (now the subject of a fierce tug-of-war). This is its traditional model, insomuch as tradition exists.
Yet while Jon Fitch didn’t raise the Bellator eyebrow when the UFC released him with a 14-3-1 record under Zuffa, Jackson -- 7-5 in the UFC -- did. Why is that? Fitch will never be confused with entertainment, that’s why. He was never a champion. He doesn’t use words like “bungalows,” much less throw them. Eyeballs aren’t as likely to follow his every move.
Jackson, on the other hand, doesn’t feel too much like the UFC’s leftovers. Kudos to Bellator for thinking inside the box enough to see it.
LAS VEGAS -- People knew things before we did -- that’s what we suspect we know now. That’s why the fight week buildup to Michael Bisping and Jason Miller -- a fight with vague insinuations toward a high contender spot -- is unique. Unique in a short shrift kind of way for the headliners.
Traditionally leading up to a fight card, there are open workouts to attend, a news conference, a definitive place to be for the weigh-ins and media mixers. For Spike’s final broadcast show, the finale of the 14th season of "The Ultimate Fighter,” it has all the hype of a straight to DVD movie. There are acrimonious underpinnings between the UFC and Spike. Where once it was a powerful relationship full of unified presence, now you have to pay active attention to know what’s going on. The hurtful last words that aren’t being said? “We’ll always have Griffin/Bonnar.” In lieu of a news conference, the UFC held a press junket of sorts inside the Fantasy Tower at the Palms. Dana White was out of town.
Through this whole thing, Michael Bisping is and has been the odd man out. The Briton is used to floodlights surrounding his bouts, large arenas during them, and media blitzes before and after to activate his peeves. That’s only part of it. Bisping is within periscope range of a title shot, and beating Miller won’t likely advance his cause. In fact, it was originally thought that Bisping was fighting well beneath him, back when the UFC was trying to saddle him against Chael Sonnen as the coaches on TUF 14.
“Fighting Jason, I don’t think he gives me the right to fight for a title,” Bisping told ESPN.com’s Brett Okamoto earlier this week. “He’s not the name. He’s not the guy to do it.”
Think about that. Bisping took 10 months off between fights to make a crab-like movement toward the title. For exposure? Doubtful. Bisping is a resident TUFer by now. This was his third stint on the show (once as a participant, twice as a coach). Maybe we’re looking at his sentence for the spitting incident that occurred against Jorge Rivera.
Of course, people have warmed to Miller’s chances over the course of the last couple of months, to the point that many wouldn’t even view it as an upset should he pull it off. He returns to the Octagon after nearly seven years, and “return” is a funny word for a guy who has but one cameo appearance in the promotion, back at UFC 52 against Georges St. Pierre. With Miller having fought in Dream and Strikeforce -- to go along with his outsized cult of personality -- this one has an interleague vibe going on that’s hard to get a firm grasp on. How does it play out?
If the week leading up is any indication, quietly.
TUF lessons from El Cucuy
Last season’s TUF winner, Tony Ferguson, is on this weekend’s card as well. He won the season as a broadcast welterweight, and before that achievement could even sink in “El Cucuy” cut down to be a lightweight and fought Aaron Riley’s at UFC 135. How did that pan out? Riley was eating from a tube after a brutal left uppercut broke his jaw. For all the talk about TUF no longer producing threatening talent to the established names in the sport, Ferguson looks like a huckleberry.
“If you want your life to change, then don’t get stuck up in all the B.S. that goes along with it, all the people that come around -- just keep doing what you do,” he told Ariel Helwani in response to what advice he’d give future TUF alum. “Keep doing what you were doing just before you got to the Ultimate Fighter" show. Make sure that you’re still giving 150 percent inside the gym everyday, and make sure nothing gets to your head. Why? Because true champions are made that way.”
Doesn’t sound like a guy who is resting on his laurels.
Miller’s Chael moment
Essentially Jason Miller got his chance to coach on "The Ultimate Fighter" because Chael Sonnen was still suspended when it came time to sign on the dotted line. Miller isn’t Sonnen, but he has had the pleasure of fighting Sonnen back a decade ago on something called “Rumble on the Reservation” in California.
“You mean when he double-legged me through the cage?” Miller told ESPN.com. “I got hurt from that s---, too, because I went through the bottom of the floor. We broke through the cage, and I twisted my ribs because he fell on me so hard. That was crazy. We were fighting on an Indian Reservation. I was selling tickets outside with my hands wrapped. That’s how crazy it was. It was a weird thing.
“So, yeah, we broke right through the floor. Then they tried to fix it for like three minutes, and I was getting angry, because I wanted to get [Sonnen] back for that. So I was standing in the corner going, ‘what the hell.’ And finally the referee was like ... alright, let’s continue, but don’t go over there [pointing to broken floorboards]. Avoid that spot. Fight over there [pointing to safe end]. So we had a weird gentleman’s agreement not to go over there [toward the hole]. It was kind unspoken. It was crazy.”
Miller lost the decision, but gained a piece of lore.
The No.1 contender’s title shot has already been such a long time coming and his feud with Jon Jones so acrimonious that Evans must have breathed a sigh of relief on Monday when UFC President Dana White revealed that the champ’s recent six-month injury suspension was more precautionary than anything else.
"He's 100 percent,” White told MMA Junkie of Jones. “I talked to him [on Saturday], and he said he feels great ... I'd like to give these guys time to rest and give them a little break, so we'll see what happens."
Fans were surprised when Jones emerged looking unscathed from his UFC 135 title defense against Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, only to limp to-and-from the postfight media event (ice packs duly strapped on his lower extremities) and then be waylaid with one of the longest medical suspensions handed down by Colorado athletic officials in the wake of the show. Finding out the suspension -- like many of their ilk -- was just a formality is sure to be a relief.
It’s also good news for Evans, who has only fought once since May 2010 and saw a shot at Jones initially scheduled for UFC 133 postponed by his former friend’s hand injury.
The fact that White wants to give both guys some short time off might also turn out to be fortunate -- since Evans was reportedly still sporting a cast on his right hand while conducting a public Q&A before UFC 135.
Is Evans’ luck regarding his long-awaited shot at the gold finally turning around?
Starnes fled the scene of a fight without actually leaving the cage against Nate Quarry -- and it made for an awkward experience. Kalib Starnes ran; Nate Quarry pursued; 15 minutes died in the interim. If there was ever a clear demonstration of the fine line between comedy and tragedy, this was it. In the end, one judge saw the fight 30-24. Another had it 30-26, and the last one -- a marathoner, no doubt, who didn’t disagree with the aesthetic he was watching -- had it a standard 30-27.
In other words, neither people nor judges know what to think when a fighter runs. Whether it’s for a whole fight, or just in pockets.
Jon Jones is a far cry from Starnes, but he ran from Quinton Jackson at UFC 135 -- only he was far more selective when he did it. This was a skipped-over detail of the fight. A couple of instances when Jackson coiled back in a scramble, Jones high-tailed it out of there. He admitted as much during the postfight newser, saying, “there were a lot of times where Rampage swung at me, and, instead of defending technically, I kind of ran like a little girl.”
Afterwards, on an ESPN podcast, Jackson talked about that very thing, and said that’s one of the reasons he’s contemplating a post-UFC career in boxing (ahem).
“I hate fighting people who are scared,” he said. “When you fight somebody who is scared, you never know what they’re going to do. They turn and run. That’s why I'm gonna go to boxing. I’m gonna try boxing because they’ve got to stand with you. If I get knocked out I don’t care because at least it’s a fight.”
Obviously, Jackson is bothered by Jones’ retreating. Why? Because when Jones ran, it wasn’t that he was hit and trying to recover like you see so often. He ran to avoid getting hit. This can be defended as fighting smart, but it can also be looked at as an unexpected new wrinkle in Jones’ game, the wrinkle of caution -- particularly for a guy who has dominated everybody the UFC has put in front of him. Rampage sees a fight as literal; swing until somebody gets knocked out. Jones sees it as something more akin to art; swing until you need to get out of the way.
While he still out-landed Jackson 74-24 in total strikes according to FightMetric -- with 61 of those strikes deemed significant -- it was unexpected that Jones’ first reaction in an exchange was to skedaddle. You say Jackson has knockout power? So did Mauricio Rua and Ryan Bader and Vladimir Matyushenko, all of whom have more knockouts in the last three years than Jackson (who has zero).
It’s possible Jones got caught up in the moment. It’s possible that his body and mind were parting ways for a few seconds here and there. It’s a fight, after all, and one that had more pressure than Jones was used to.
Even still, he dominated en route to a fourth round rear-naked choke. It was his fight from the opening bell. But in a bout where so much went right for the champion, it was one little, barely registering detail that looked a little wrong.
For the record, that's the same hefty banishment from contact training handed out to lightweight Aaron Riley, who withdrew from his bout with Tony Ferguson on Saturday complaining of a broken jaw after the first round. It's also substantially longer than the 60 days dealt to Jackson (who certainly appeared to be the one worse for wear after their fight) and the 45 days given to Matt Hughes after he got knocked cold by Josh Koscheck in the co-main event. Specific reasoning behind any of the suspensions was not immediately available.
Before this and reports that Jon Jones may have injured his foot -- supported by accounts that he had to be helped to and from the postfight news conference -- elicit an audible groan from both fight fans and the camp of Rashad Evans, it should be noted that these suspensions are sometimes purely precautionary. If Jones can get the go-ahead from his physician, he can be back to training soon enough, likely in time to make, say, a potential Super Bowl weekend show against Evans.
Whenever they officially add this fight to the docket, let's hope the re-rescheduled date goes off as planned, since any further delays for Evans, who has already waited some 16 months for his second shot at light heavyweight gold, will certainly only bring more backbiting and allegations of tomfoolery from all sides.
“A talent like never seen before in UFC history!” Goldberg declared, in the familiar cadence so inexorably linked now with action in the Octagon. “Jon 'Bones' Jones wants to challenge the light heavyweight record of five successful [title] defenses turned in by Tito Ortiz!”
Had Goldy been talking about any other 24-year-old making the first defense of a championship he’d held for barely six months, these words might have seemed like puffery. They might have seemed over the top, or at least like a very bad omen for the kid’s future, since the comments actually came before Jon Jones entered the cage to fight Quinton Jackson.
Yet on Monday, it feels like Goldy was just saying what many of us are thinking. After watching Jones effortlessly rout Jackson in their main event fight at UFC 135, the MMA community seems fairly evenly split between people who are ready to put Jones on the cusp of greatness and those who claim, more and more desperately perhaps, that they’re not fully sold on him.
In this case, the wonderful thing about the fight game is that over the next calendar year, we’re likely going to find out exactly what we’ve got in Jones. His win over Jackson was great -- anticlimactic in its dominance, actually -- but the next 12 months figure to be critical in determining his legacy in the sport.
It doesn’t take a UFC matchmaker to plot out the immediate future: Barring serious injury or other unforeseen setbacks, Jones’ next few bouts will come against a murderer’s row of competition that includes Rashad Evans, the winner of Dan Henderson versus Mauricio Rua and the winner of an expected, but as-yet unconfirmed fight between Lyoto Machida and Phil Davis.
If he can pull it off, it’ll put him one defense shy of Ortiz’s record and amount -- speaking of superlatives--– to the greatest run in the history of the UFC light heavyweight title. Not even Ortiz, Chuck Liddell or Randy Couture faced such a stiff level of competition during their respective reigns. If Jones emerges victorious from this gamut of challengers, he’ll solidify his place among the greatest 205-pounders ever and possibly topple Anderson Silva as the world’s pound-for-pound best.
If he can’t? Well, there is already a significant contingent of MMA fans ready to jump out of the bushes and scream, “Overrated!” Certainly, a second career defeat and the loss of his title during this stretch wouldn’t totally derail Jones’ career, but it would make him look a lot more like everybody else in the division -- a cadre of easy-come, easy-go champions who’ve been trading the belt back and forth for the past four years.
Precisely because of this weight class's chaotic recent history, we all know full well how dangerous it can be to declare anyone the future. This was a lesson learned the hard way when the UFC’s self-described “Machida Era” fizzled after less than a year. On the other hand, it would be disingenuous not to acknowledge the scope of Jones’ potential at this point.
It would also be unfair not to mention the very next thing Goldberg said about Jones after tabbing him a unique talent and a candidate to overtake Ortiz as the greatest 205-pound champion of all time:
“The pressure and expectations [are] larger than they have ever been.”
Considering how the next year of his career will look, you can say that again.
If reports out of Denver on Friday suggest that the animosity between Jones and Jackson seems to be growing as their bout for the UFC light heavyweight title draws nearer, that perhaps it has even eclipsed the hostility each has expressed for mutual nemesis Rashad Evans in the past, maybe all this time together has something to do with it.
“I don’t like being around him at all,” Jackson told MMA Fighting’s Ariel Helwani this week, about sharing the same space with Jones as they made the rounds to promote their fight. “You just feel the energy of people, you feel the fakeness coming off him. He tries to say little sly things on the side here and there. He tries to make me out like I’m the bad guy, like I’m the one picking on him. [It’s] the same thing Rashad basically did [before UFC 114] ... but honestly, Jon Jones is making me like Rashad more than him.”
Jones confirmed the feeling was mutual, but -- in typical fashion for the young champion -- gave the impression he’s been able to find something useful out of doing joint appearances and interviews and even sharing the same couch with Jackson on an episode of "Jimmy Kimmel Live!" this week.
“I’m actually liking it, I’m liking it a lot,” Jones told Helwani. “Rampage’s personality is a very unique personality and if you’re not familiar with it ... it can take a lot of people aback. Rampage has that in-your-face [attitude] like, ‘Oh, I’m going to knock you out, kid’ and the Mr. T talk. The more I’m around it, the more I’ve humanized him [and] the more I’ve realized that he’s just some heavy-handed Mr. T wannabe.”
Like I said, useful, if not exactly complimentary.
Certainly, this can’t be easy for either guy. A professional mixed martial artist typically spends the weeks leading up to a big bout secluded inside an anonymous gym, surrounded only by a close-knit group of training partners. This is the part most say is a drag, but there’s probably also something necessary about the isolation and solitude of training. During this time, fighters usually see the guy they’re about to fight only on film, and to the extent most will even cop to being the slightest bit concerned about him, it’s with an arms-length kind of contempt.
Nobody wants to spend much time around his opponent, let alone be confronted by daily reminders of him as an actual, living human being. So long as you are able to stay cocooned in the fog of camp, the guy probably isn’t even real to you until you show up on fight week and, boom, there he is, breathing and walking around and, maybe, mean mugging you.
Jones and Jackson haven’t had that luxury of that separation and, at this point, the prefight theatrics have probably worn off for both guys. It appears that with familiarity has come a true dislike, as Jackson reportedly said he didn’t even want to be in the same room as a “fake-ass kid” like Jones during their Friday morning "SportsCenter" interviews.
Only a bit more than 24 hours left, guys. Then you never have to see each other again. Well, until the next time.
On the one side, you have a limber Jones, who can tag you from six feet in, with a range of kicks, backfists and dervish elbows. He can hit you from distances that you can’t hit him back from and do it with staple gun speed. Since that’s the case, we’ve never seen him get tagged -- not truly tagged, anyway -- even against prominent strikers like Mauricio Rua. We’re left to theorize about the durability of his chin.
So what makes us think that Jackson can wade in through the flying things (knees, elbows, fists, backhands) and land that million-dollar shot? In a word: Audacity. The slower, flat-footed Jackson will be willing to eat a couple of Jones’ “pillow” shots to get in close enough and close the drapes on Jones. That’s what he’s selling. That’s what we need to build a belief around if we want this thing to look more competitive than it feels.
The best of all worlds would be to get both. To see the full canon of Jones striking, but also to see how he reacts to getting hit with a vintage Rampage “bungalow.” Then some mysteries could begin to unravel. And who knows, maybe afterward we’re talking about Rampage’s rematch with Evans. Maybe we’re saying of his career, “It’s alive, it’s moving it’s alive, it’s alive, it’s alive!”
It’s a long shot, but it would be the way to turn the Frankenstein analogy on its heel.
Around the Horn
If it was up to Matt Hughes, he’d go on fighting, win or lose this weekend, no questions asked. But he’s married. And as a good husband, he’s listening to his wife, who is urging him to retire.
What about his coach, Jeremy Horn, who has fought exactly 61 more times than Hughes (who’s fought in 53 pro fights)?
“He and I have had two different careers,” Horn told ESPN.com. “I’ve fought all over the place -- upper-, mid-, average-levels -- and he’s been the champion for quite a while. I think for someone like him, once the desire to chase the championship is not there anymore, he may think about retiring. Whereas with me, I just like beating people up. So whenever I get a chance to, I will.”
185 of bust for Kos?Josh Koscheck finds himself in Rich Franklin territory -- that is, 0-2 against the titleholder in his natural division. What happened to Franklin? A strong suggestion from the UFC to switch divisions if he wanted to continue pursuing a title. Guess where Koscheck finds himself heading into his fight with Matt Hughes? Ditto’d.
“To be honest, let’s see -- do they really want to see me and Georges St. Pierre fight a third time? I’d like it, but I don’t think the UFC is going to have anything to do with that anytime soon,” he told ESPN.com. “And that’s one of the reasons why I want big fights, so I can make money. Think about the opportunity of putting some Josh Koscheck matchups at 185 pounds. It’d be fun for the fans, and they’d be main event fights.”
In other words, this may be the last time we see Koscheck at 170 pounds so long as Georges St. Pierre is around.
Vulgar display of power
“It’s the Hawaiian people, man, it’s the Hawaiian pride, you know what I mean?” Browne told ESPN.com. “We put everything into that punch. That’s what I mean -- I’m kind of lean for the heavyweight division, and I’ll probably weigh in around 250 pounds for my fight, but my strength is highly underrated.”
“I was very gifted with what God gave me and my parents. They really did well giving me genetics. I can be totally out of shape, walk in front of a mirror and feel disgusted in myself, and then diet, lift weights for two weeks, walk in front of that mirror and I’m a different guy. So I’m very, very lucky.” -- Matt Hughes on the fortunate situation he was born into with his body type
Hughes, 37, is on the final fight of a four-fight contract. The former welterweight champion has not committed to re-signing with the UFC following his Saturday fight against Koscheck at UFC 135. But he hasn’t committed to retirement, either.
Although he admitted at a news conference Wednesday his wife has said, “I’m done fighting,” his options remain very much open.
“No matter what happens in this fight, I’m going to see how I feel afterward,” Hughes said. “I’m not saying if I lose, I’m done; and I’m not saying if I win, I’m staying.
“Dana seems to think if I demolish Josh Koscheck, there’s no way I’ll retire. I’m telling you that’s not a true statement.”
Perhaps not -- perhaps so. Predicting when a fighter will hang up his gloves is nearly impossible. Whether or not Saturday is the last time we’ll see the seven-time defending champion in the Octagon remains to be seen.
That said, Hughes (45-8) does not sound like a man who’s ready to walk away. He’s obviously already considered a possible future in the UFC, stating he intends to sign contracts on a fight-by-fight basis, instead of a multi-year deal.
He also clearly still enjoys the competition and lifestyle the UFC provides.
“I don’t want to [retire],” Hughes said. “I’m the luckiest guy in the world. I go to the gym twice a day. I’m around my buddies all the time. I still love to get in the Octagon. I really don’t want anything to change.”
As much as he doesn’t want to admit it, Saturday’s outcome most likely will have an enormous impact on Hughes’ next move.
Should he win convincingly, chances are White is correct in saying he will stick around. Hughes would be 4-1 in his last five fights at that point and, as he admits, the competitive drive would be hard to ignore.
“The bad thing is, we’re all competitors,” Hughes said. “Me, Chuck [Liddell] and Randy [Couture], you get that win and you want another one. It’s a sickness.”
If he loses, he’s also likely to return for one more shot. Hughes would still be a respectable 3-2 in his last five and, at that point, the only goal would be to finish his storied career with a win.
Even though Hughes was well within his right to retire after a first-round knockout loss to B.J. Penn in his last fight, he admitted there was no way he would have allowed that to be his final act.
“The Penn fight was disappointing,” he said. “I made critical errors in the first 32 seconds of that fight, or whatever it was. I made a mistake and this sport is deadly. You can put two small mistakes together and be done.
“I wanted to fight again. I was not happy going out, getting hit like that."
The only scenario which likely sees Hughes exit the sport, and again, this is a nearly impossible thing to predict, is if the fight against Koscheck is so legendarily amazing there’s simply no way to top it.
If it’s a fight where both men get knocked down, fight off submission attempts and ends with Hughes sealing an improbable victory in the final moments, one has to believe he’d take that opportunity to go out in style.
Then again, as White said in the news conference, Hughes has never been one to turn down a fight in his long career. Regardless of what the outcome Saturday is, there is good reason to believe that won’t change.
“Matt Hughes has never not been interested in anything,” White said. “I’ve never called Matt Hughes and had him go, ‘Eh, I don’t want to do this fight.’ Never, in over 10 years of being in business together.”
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.
A quick look inside the Pepsi Center ...Location: Denver
Opened: October 1999
Cost: $160 million
Seating Capacity: 20,000
Light heavyweight champion Jon Jones will defend his crown against former titleholder Quinton “Rampage” Jackson in the UFC 135 headliner on Saturday, as the Pepsi Center in Denver plays host to its first Ultimate Fighting Championship event. Hall of famer Matt Hughes will lock horns with perennial welterweight contender Josh Koscheck in the co-headliner. The show -- which airs live on pay-per-view at 9 p.m. ET/6 p.m. PT -- will also feature a lightweight duel pitting “The Ultimate Fighter” Season 5 winner Nate Diaz against former Pride Fighting Championships kingpin Takanori Gomi, along with a pair of heavyweight bouts, as the unbeaten Travis Browne collides with Rob Broughton and Ben Rothwell tangles with Mark Hunt.
The Pepsi Center was constructed as part of a major downtown revitalization plan that included Coors Field, home of Major League Baseball’s Colorado Rockies, and Invesco Field, home of the National Football League’s Denver Broncos. No stranger to major sporting events, it has hosted the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament in 2004, 2008 and 2011, the 2001 National Hockey League All-Star Game and the 2005 National Basketball Association All-Star Game.
Home to the Denver Nuggets, of the NBA, and the Colorado Avalanche, of the NHL, the Pepsi Center opened in October 1999 at a cost of $160 million. The facility features a grand atrium, which houses a suspended sculpture depicting hockey and basketball players in action. The sculpture weighs in at 2,000 pounds and was created for $75,000. Food connoisseurs can visit the Pepsi Center’s Blue Sky Grill, which offers patrons western cuisine in a mountain lodge setting.
Taylor Swift (Sept. 27), World Wrestling Entertainment’s RAW World Tour (Oct. 7), Foo Fighters (Oct. 9), Jimmy Buffet (Oct. 18) and Disney on Ice’s “Toy Story 3” (Dec. 8-11) will follow the UFC into the Pepsi Center.
Supreme athletic ability, an unorthodox fighting style and unwavering determination are some of the reasons very few people doubted Jones would become the youngest UFC titleholder ever. Jones also exhibited good character inside and outside the cage, which had never been questioned during his rapid rise to the top.
But after Jones won the belt, his character became a hot topic. It has remains a hot issue heading into his first title defense Saturday night (pay-per-view at 9 ET) in Denver.
And the man often leading the discussion is Quinton Jackson, who will look to dethrone Jones at UFC 135. Jackson has expressed contempt for Jones, claiming the champion isn’t the nice person many believe him to be.
“When I first met Jones he was real cocky,” Jackson told ESPN.com. “I have no respect for him. I don’t care two shakes about him.
“And I want to be the first person to hand Jones his first [butt] whipping.”
Jackson claims Jones made disrespectful comments about him, though the former UFC 205-pound champion can’t recall exactly what was uttered. The exact words don’t matter; Jackson is determined to demolish Jones.
But Jackson isn’t the only high-ranking light heavyweight who has questioned Jones’ character in the past few months. Former UFC champion Rashad Evans labeled Jones a "fake."
While Jones (13-1) could envision becoming a champion, he was unprepared for the hostility that followed. On the surface it appeared the verbal assaults had no impact on Jones, but inside he was hurting.
Jones can’t pinpoint why he became the target of such anger. But after several months of seeking answers, he has reached a conclusion.
“It’s hate. That’s all it is,” Jones told ESPN.com. “I’m not one who goes around calling people haters, but in this case I really think that’s what it is. I really do. It’s hate.
“I know Rashad is a hater; definitely. I don’t want to talk about Rashad for this fight. But he proves that he’s an envious person in everything that he does, when it comes to me. And it’s so clear, that I feel sorry for him.
“With Rampage it’s also hate. I’m a young guy who’s worked hard. I’ve made it to a position that they both want. And both of them know that it’s going to be really hard for them to ever get this belt again.
“Maybe they think by coming out and trying to insult me makes them look better.”
Jones is 24 years old now and there are days when the harsh criticism still stings emotionally. But he refuses to let wounded feelings interfere with his mental and physical preparation.
Jones has had a solid training camp. He is in top physical condition and believes the questioning of his character has accelerated his mental maturation.
“I’d never gone through anything like this before,” Jones said. “It’s been a very interesting little road to travel, but I’m growing.
“The only thing that this has done is make me stronger, wiser and more experienced as an athlete. But at the end of the day, we’re going to get in that cage and rock it. We’re going to start swinging at each other.”
Jones isn’t about to reveal his game plan for Saturday night’s fight, but he hasn’t ruled out trading punches with Jackson.
That’s sweet music to Jackson’s ears. He’d love nothing more than to have a toe-to-toe battle with the young champ. Jackson (32-8) is an old-school slugger. Maybe his verbal attacks are intended to lure Jones into slugfest, which would favor Jackson.
“I’m going to keep it real,” Jackson said. “God made me to be a fighter. That’s what makes me different from anybody else Jones has fought.
“I’ve been a fighter my entire life. I was designed to be a fighter. It’s everything about me, from my natural punching power to how big my legs are -- that’s where you get the punching power from -- from the way my head is shaped to my thick neck.”
The physical objective of each fighter is no secret: Jones needs to utilize his long reach to stay out of harm’s way; Jackson must come up with a plan to close the gap.
Strategy aside, this title bout likely has already been determined by the prefight mental war. If Jackson has damaged Jones’ young psyche, a slugfest will ensue and a new light heavyweight champion should emerge.
“That is what Rampage is trying to do, get my mind off the fight, to get in my head and maybe that will change things -- which it won’t,” Jones said. “People who support me understand my character. That’s what’s important to me.
“I have good intentions. I’m just trying to be my best and inspire others with some of the things that I say and the way I carry myself. Some people will love it, others will hate it.”