This weekend, at UFC 197 in Las Vegas, Jon Jones will step inside the octagon for the first time in 15 months. That’s a big deal, no?
“Bones” is the most dominant fighter in mixed martial arts today, and might well be the greatest in the history of the sport. Factor in that his exile from the cage was the result of a hit-and-run arrest and felony conviction that threatened to bring the 28-year-old’s storied career to an abrupt end, and we would seem to have a hugely significant redemption story on our hands.
Yet there’s little buzz surrounding Saturday’s fight card in Las Vegas. Instead, the spotlight has been diverted toward a no-longer-scheduled participant on a fight card more than two months away. Of course, Conor McGregor isn’t just any participant.
Remember the Irishman’s brash proclamation from a couple of years ago following his UFC debut in Dublin? “We’re not here to take part,” he said, “we’re here to take over.” At the time, it seemed like naïve bluster from a wide-eyed rookie. But now McGregor’s volatile standing on the marquee for July’s UFC 200—and his status with the UFC in general—is indeed taking over the sport’s narrative, grabbing away the headlines from the pound-for-pound best in the world.
You might call it a superfight. Typically, the term is used for that rarest of fistic occurences: a champion fighting a different weight division’s champ. But this week it’s been more a clash of star power—one man’s disruption versus another man’s disruption—and, frankly, it’s no contest.
Perhaps if Jones were challenging for the championship belt that was stripped away from him last year, his return would be not so deeply in the shadows. But Daniel Cormier, who now wears the strap that Jones did for so long, was injured in training and had to pull out of this fight, replaced by mid-level contender Ovince Saint Preux. That hurts the hype in a big way. Cormier is Jones’s archnemesis. They famously brawled in a hotel lobby long before they first stepped into the octagon together. There’s still scorching heat between them. That doesn’t exist in Jones’s tepid replacement matchup.
Still, Jones is No. 1 in the world, and Saturday’s co-main event features the pound-for-pound No. 2, flyweight champ Demetrious Johnson, who’ll take on an undefeated challenger, Henry Cejudo, who won a gold medal in freestyle wrestling at the 2008 Olympics. Those are some serious credentials. But they’re not enough to push these fights out of Conor McGregor’s shadow.
Is that a good thing for the UFC? Star power certainly isn’t bad for business. McGregor’s three pay-per-view main events in the last nine months have been the promotion’s biggest sellers since Brock Lesnar returned to pro rasslin’. And no one at the UFC is going to complain about McGregor distracting the fans and media away from the disturbing image of Jon Jones in an orange jumpsuit after he was jailed last month for a traffic stop that put his parole status in question.
Before this week’s McGregor brouhaha boiled over, the UFC was basking in the fruits of its partnership with the Irishman. It certainly was more profitable than the business the company conducts with the mild-mannered Demetrious Johnson—and the same could be said for the many other all-fight-no-talk champs, from heavyweight Fabricio Werdum to lightweight Rafael Dos Anjos. On top of that, McGregor created far fewer headaches for the UFC than did its dealings with Jon Jones’s immaturity and, say, bantamweight belt holder Dominick Cruz’s fragility. But now that McGregor is directing his “we’re here to take over” manifesto not just at his fellow fighters but also at the promotion itself, it’s a whole new ballgame.
The UFC has drawn a line in the sand, bumping McGregor from his scheduled rematch with Nate Diaz at UFC 200. In response, the Irishman has taken his case to social media, drumming up support among the fans and even some fighters by insisting that his refusal to travel to Las Vegas this week to fulfill promotional obligations is rooted in his desire to focus on training. “I must isolate myself now,” McGregor wrote on his Facebook page. “I am facing a taller, longer, and heavier man. I need to prepare correctly this time. I cannot dance for you this time.”
And yet he dances on and on in cyberspace, his cryptic initial message on Twitter (“I have decided to retire young”) generating 170,000 retweets, his more expansive Facebook post garnering 260,000 shares. Even after the UFC pulled him from the landmark July event, McGregor has continued to show off his reach into the fanbase. Something has to give.
It seems inconceivable that the UFC and its biggest draw would continue to dig in their heels, thereby leaving millions of dollars on the table. But Dana White & Co. have been the alpha males of the fight game for over two decades now, and it’s not in their nature to back down. While suspending Jon Jones last year allowed the company to get out in front of a saga that very well could have ended with its champ in prison, this situation is less about righteousness and public relations than it is about power.
McGregor is flexing his muscle, betting on himself and his star power. He believes he has earned the right to fall out of the lockstep in which UFC fighters do what they are told when it comes to promotional obligations. It’s reasonable for him to play this hand. Beyond being a big earner for the UFC, McGregor has twice saved flailing events by taking difficult fights on short notice. Yes, he was paid handsomely each time. But if he’d balked, the money he would have missed out on would have been a pittance compared to what the UFC would have lost.
At this point, though, the UFC’s message to McGregor is clear and unwavering: Even if you can blow the roof off the bank with a few forays on social media, you still have to show up when and where we tell you to show up. And dance.
So who’ll blink? If it’s McGregor, his blustery image will be unmasked. If it’s the UFC, a long line will form outside the company’s Las Vegas headquarters, fighters queueing up to ask for their special treatment. Of course, special treatment isn’t for everyone—that’s what makes it special. Prelim fighters need not apply. But those wearing shiny brass-and-leather belts, as well as a select few contenders within reach of those straps, will surely take notice.
That adds to the stakes facing Jon Jones this weekend and beyond. He’s been humbled by the turmoil that’s surrounded him—turmoil he created, turmoil he now must tamp down. He’s a heavy favorite to take care of business against Saint Preux. If he does so, his next stop would be a title shot against Cormier. That meeting might very well take place at UFC 200 now that the milestone event has a vacancy at the top of the marquee.
On the other hand, if the UFC and McGregor kiss and make up in time to restore the Diaz rematch to that main event slot, and the resolution involves Dana White backing down, it would set a precedent that Jones would be among the few athletes capable of exploiting. He might not be quite the draw that McGregor is, but he’s the best in the game. He has star power.
Of course, none of that will come into play if Jon Jones stumbles. That goes for his fight on Saturday night and, should he win, it goes for a rematch with Cormier and a potential reclaiming of his well-worn crown. And no less so, it goes for Jones’s troubled life outside the cage. If he can grow up and stay out of trouble, the greatest fighter in the world might make an even bigger splash.