September 21, 2012

Jon Jones (left) defends his UFC light heavyweight championship on Saturday night in Toronto against Vitor Belfort. (Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC)

TORONTO -- The two most telling moments during the UFC 152 press conference Thursday afternoon at a sports bar in the shadow of Air Canada Centre, where the Jon Jones vs. Vitor Belfort light heavyweight title bout and the rest of the fight card will go down Saturday night, came at the very beginning and right at the end.

One of the first things emcee Tom Wright, the director of operations for UFC Canada, told us was that tickets are still available. So even with two championship bouts on the bill -- we'll also see Joseph Benavidez and Demetrious Johnson vie to become the UFC's first flyweight belt holder -- this fight organization that less than a year and a half ago sold 55,000 seats at the Rogers Centre in a matter of minutes is having trouble filling an 18,000-seat arena down the block. That's especially troubling considering the coinciding lack of competition at a time of year when people in these parts typically would be huddled around ice rinks. As Wright said, alluding to the ongoing NHL lockout, “We may not have Hockey Night in Canada, but we can have UFC night in Canada and we'll fill that void.”

Just maybe not fill all of it.

Wright also ended the media gathering with something telling, though not concretely so. Just before having the six fighters on the dais square off for the sea of cameras in the room, he told the assembled reporters and fans that there will be another press conference next Thursday in Montreal to announce that Georges St-Pierre will defend his welterweight championship against interim belt holder Carlos Condit at the Nov. 17 event in that city.

Did it not occur to Tom that scheduling a press conference to announce news that he’s just revealed renders the forthcoming publicity event not so newsworthy? Of course he understood that. This was simply another demonstration of the UFC team's grasp that news need not necessarily be the only information being dispensed at its press conferences. The most vital information we ingest when a group of fighters sits before us two days before the cage door closes on them is more amorphous. If we’re lucky, we get a feeling in our bones about what these fighters are feeling in their bones.

We got some of that on Thursday:

You can count on him: The hour-long hypathon morphed into a lovefest at times. Jones likes and respects Belfort, who likes and respects him. Benavidez and Johnson enjoy each other’s company to the point that they’ve gone to a concert together (more on that later). And Michael Bisping and Brian Stann made nice, too.

Until the very end, that is, when all the words had been said and all that was left was the photo op. Michael Bisping had to do something to spice things up, or he wouldn't be Michael Bisping. So when he and Stann met at center stage for the cameras, Stann approached it as a ceremony while Bisping saw an opportunity. He put on his best mean mug and pushed his forehead into Stann’s, moving the Marine onto his heels a bit. Stann seemed a bit taken aback, and as he stepped aside, Bisping posed once more for the cameras and walked away, pointing at his opponent and telling anyone within listening range that Stann “has the look of a man who knows he’s beat.”

I don’t know that Stann is a beaten man in the fight. But in the hype game he’s an amateur next to “The Count.”

Boo for me: Speaking of Bisping, well, I’m going to say this once and never repeat it, so pay attention. Ready? I. Was. Wrong. In our viewers’ guide to UFC 152 I made a remark about how, even here north of the border, “Stann will get a war hero’s welcome, while Bisping likely will be treated like an insurgent.” Well, Stann did get an enthusiastic greeting (OK, so I was half right), but so did Bisping. And Michael endeared himself to the crowd more and more with every question answered and especially with the staredown performance. If Thursday afternoon is any indication, he’s actually going to be a popular guy come Saturday night.

Will work for food: Dana White was not at the press conference, so we didn’t get to ask him if he did this on purpose. But it did not escape the notice of Jones that the much-anticipated closed-door sit-down between the UFC president and his 205-pound champion -- aimed to quell any residual discontent over the cancellation of UFC 151 -- will take place Friday afternoon just before the weigh-ins. “I don’t know why we’re meeting at that time,” said Jones, “because obviously my mental state won’t be as clear, being extremely dehydrated and hungry.” Yeah, and Dana will walk into the room chowing down on a slice of pizza. Before he’s polished it off, he’ll have Jones eating out of his hand.

Timing is everything: When Jones was asked where he stands with Dana at this point, the champ grabbed the mic and said, “I hate him! I hate everything about him.” He then sat stone-faced and still for one, two, three, four, five full beats, enough time for at least some in the room to wonder if “Bones” truly does have a bone to pick with the boss.

He doesn’t. “Nah, I’m joking,” he finally said, a big smile spreading across his heavily bearded face. “Dana White is awesome, man. Like I’ve said before, Dana White is a very passionate guy. … His passion is honestly the reason we’re all here right now. So when he’s upset with you, he’s going to be passionate. You know, I forgive Dana White for any insults he might have given me. I’m looking forward to talking to him and just moving forward. I’ve said before, me and Dana White are both ambassadors of this great sport. The two of us not being on the same page really makes no sense.”

That’s not the kind of feisty response that headline writers can run with, but it demonstrates that Jones -- who at age 25 has at times appeared to be in over his head when dealing with troubling matters in the public eye -- has done some growing up.

Om is where the (martial) art is: Jones’ opponent opened as a 13-1 underdog, so it’s tempting to count him out. Belfort is too old. Belfort is too small. But sitting in his presence, you get the sense that this is a man who understands what opportunity is all about, who knows that when your moment comes you must seize it before it evaporates. So he might actually give Jones the fight everyone has been waiting for from someone.

The 35-year-old Brazilian has a big-picture-zeroing-in-on-tiny-moments mindset. Watching his self-assured body language and listening to him speak so purposefully, I could picture him sitting in full lotus in front of a room full of acolytes. But can his Zen elevate him when the cage door closes?

Music soothes the savage breast: Back before the Jones vs. Belfort bout was added to the top of the card, when Benavidez vs. Johnson was the main event, the flyweights were brought to town to kick off the promotional campaign. It turned out that the band Coldplay was in town, too, playing at the Air Canada Centre. Benavidez and Johnson were offered tickets, and they went together, which conjures an image that might be hard to wrap your brain around if you think of fighting as something you do with someone you despise. But both fighters said they enjoyed hanging with the other, and Benavidez even found inspiration.

“We were in the same arena [as the fight], the Air Canada Centre, and here’s this crowd going nuts over this act in the middle,” he said. “I was just thinking come two months we’re going to be in the middle putting on a show and these fans are going to be going crazy for us. Yeah, people won’t be crying and have lighters, but we’re going to be controlling that many people in there and we’re going to be in the middle putting on a show. So at times I’d look at Demetrious and just imagine fighting him in front of all these people. So even though we were into Coldplay, I was still thinking about taking him out.”

-- Jeff Wagenheim

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