Image courtesy of Esther Lin/MMAFighting.com.
Image courtesy of Esther Lin/MMAFighting.com.
Entering the year, Jon Jones was clearly the UFC’s best light heavyweight prospect and nothing more. That's not nothing, but it's not a big something either. Sure, dude could be breathtaking in the cage, but can’t-miss MMA prospects can—and do—end up headlining regional shows for rent money before they ever get a chance to wonder what the hell they did wrong in the first place.
That's not Jones. It's easy to explain how and why he entered the cage on Saturday night in a position so different, and so much better, than the one in which he entered 2011. Before Saturday night, Jones had spent his year batting around fellow prospect Ryan Bader like a baggie of catnip, pistol-whipping then UFC light heavyweight champion Mauricio Rua and becoming the first man in more than a decade to submit Quinton “Rampage” Jackson. A cautionary tale he is not.
So Saturday night’s title defense against Lyoto Machida was more than just a title defense. It was an opportunity for Jones to close out a year that would be remembered with the sort of hushed reverence and bellowing hyperbole reserved for the most virtuosic of champions. Yet MMA fans, by and large, were more excited by the possibility of Machida putting Jones on the wrong end of a snuff film gone right—or at least forcing Jones into that stupidest of combat sport clichés, "a real fight"—than they were at basking in Jones' greatness. For the first five minutes of the fight, those fans got exactly what they wanted: a real fight, as if there were any other kind.
For those first few minutes, Jones’ high-spot driven offense, a dervish-ing amalgamation of techniques geared towards creating “The fuck?” moments, was failing against Machida’s ascetic counter-striking. Not just failing, actually, but failing with an abjectness that seemed to have quantum theory implications. Landing a spinning back kick or harai goshi is tough, after all, when your opponent appears to be inhabiting a different reality that exists a minute or so in the future. It was a weird, new and unappealing spot for Jones to be in—his obscene reach advantage was useless because it couldn’t crack Machida’s defense, and when he tried to get inside the pocket, Machida was there to remind him that he wasn’t the only grown-ass man in the cage.
So there it was: five minutes of true adversity for Jones. As it turned out, the rest of the fight wouldn't even last that long.
Four minutes and 26 seconds later, Machida was slumped unconscious against the cage, sporting a ghastly divot in his forehead that was still intermittently spurting fresh plasma onto the canvas, and which arrived courtesy of a Jones five-iron elbow. The nuts and bolts of Jones going all Ultimate Nullifier on Machida are pretty simple: he realized that his striking style was playing into Machida’s bait-and-switch game so he changed the terms of engagement altogether. Instead of reaching for some Rey Mysterio Jr. style spot-fest, Jones simply used his superior wrestling to get Machida on the floor and executed the face machete-ing that changed both Machida's actual, literal, as-applies-to-his-face complexion and the fight itself. If that sounds too easy, it’s only because Jones is that good.
And that's why Jones drives MMA fans up a fucking wall. MMA is a sport that breeds insolent, impatient fans whose internal engines are permanently overheating on a combustible biofuel comprised of gimme-gimme childishness and a ravenous hunger for something shiny and new. Yes, all this even though fans receive higher caliber fights than ever before and in spite of the social- life- merking regularity with which said fights occur.
If Louis C.K. put a bow on American society when he said “Everything’s amazing and nobody’s happy”, the mascot of American decay has to be the MMA fan—well, the really fucking loud ones that ruin every MMA show I’ve ever been to at least.
That’s the first half of why UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones is a human earwig to many MMA fans. Sure, his pious brand of arrogance is both grating and a convenient explanation for the Playa Haters’ Ball material directed at him, but being an annoying Godboy makes Jones no different from, oh, basically every elite athlete ever in the history of everything. Jones pisses MMA fans off because their vampiric thirst for novelty is at odds with the now-undeniable reality that Jones is not merely better than everyone else, but so much better than everyone else that five minutes of apparent adversity are nothing more than a way of raising the dramatic stakes before he reaffirms his own greatness in viciously Jordan-esque terms. That million-dollar smile and all the canned quotes in the world can’t hide the fact that Jones believes it when he says he was preordained to be the UFC light heavyweight champion. More importantly, he’ll protect his so-called destiny with the white-hot zealotry of, well, a zealot. Or, if you want it without metaphor, a monster-grade champion who is, at most, one or two wins away from claiming unquestioned alpha-everything status.
None of this is bad, mind you. Viable superstars need not be well-liked and in some cases they’re much better off being hated. This isn't the way in which Tim Tebow drives football fans and society at large crazy either. Convenient religious equivalencies aside, Jones is and will continue to be much, much better at his job than Tebow ever will be at his. In pure sporting terms, the hate reserved for the truly great occupies a different realm than the carping and doubt that faces those deemed overrated, fair or not. The valid and important parallel here is Floyd Mayweather Jr., for reasons both flattering and not.
Mayweather started his professional boxing career as a reasonably likable babyface before transforming into the monstrously perfect heel that he is today. The monstrously perfect heel, that is, who cashes checks several orders of magnitude bigger than the ones he collected while paying lip service to fans who were never going to put a dime in his pocket anyway.
It’s likely that Mayweather's emergence as his sport's ur-asshole is just Floyd being Floyd, but it was also an incredible bit of business savvy on Mayweather’s part. He has become so polarizing a figure that boxing fans of every stripe feel compelled to tune in every time he fights. Hardcore boxing fans appreciate the elegant beauty of Mayweather’s fistic excellence while casual ones lap up the love/hate dynamic Mayweather has engineered through sheer force of personality.
And this, all of this—the majesty and the dickishness, and the way they amplify each other—could belong to Jones, if only the UFC's brass would recognize it and stop trying to craft him into a golden boy. Far too many fans have far too many reasons to hate Jones for him to suddenly transform into the perfect corporate engine of pay-per-view buys.
Combat sport fans are a pretty straight-up lot when it comes to spending our money—we want drama and violence, but never a transparently artificial version of either. Jones can deliver the violence, but packaging him as some do-gooder best admired from afar is only going to lead to the MMA version of “Rocky Sucks!” chants. Of course, just like Mayweather, Dwayne Johnson only reached the top of his profession when he was allowed to embrace the fact that everyone fucking hated him.
Thankfully, there isn’t a thing the UFC can do to affect what Jones does in the cage. I just wish they’d accept the narrative that’s already been organically imposed upon both their champion and the people tasked with marketing him. Luckily for them, that narrative is simple and easy to sell: you and everyone else hate Jon Jones, so pay $60 to see if anyone can get him to shut the hell up. In a sport that lives and breathes the “It is what it is” existentialism of sanctioned, consensual violence, it’s time the promoters realize that fans love MMA for what it is and not what the promoters would like it to be.
So let Jones be what he is. Let the fans hate him. Let the hate drive him insane. Let it be what it already is. What else could it possibly be?