- Outside of Conor McGregor, there’s no UFC fighter with the same aura and magnetic appeal as Jon Jones, which is why Dana White moved his year-end card to Los Angeles.
What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas—unless you pull the plug on your trip six days before your flight.
In a historic, unusual and last-minute decision, UFC president Dana White announced Sunday night that UFC 232 is moving from Las Vegas to Los Angeles after running into a late licensing issue with headliner Jon Jones and the state of Nevada.
Less than a week before Jones is set to return to the UFC after his 15-month suspension from USADA, another infamous notch is added to the fighter’s belt. USADA reported an atypical finding in a drug test Jones submitted on Dec. 9 and ultimately concluded it contained “residual amounts” of the same drug (turinabol) Jones originally tested for in 2017. In other words: Jones didn’t take steroids again—he simply hasn’t flushed them out of his system yet.
While USADA told the Nevada State Athletic Commission it does not deem the trace amounts “performance-enhancing,” according to ESPN’s Brett Okamoto, the NSAC said it wouldn’t license Jones until the fighter stood in front of the commission for a hearing in January. Upon word Friday night, Dana White phoned the California State Athletic Commission, which had already licensed Jones to fight. Jones flew on a private plane to California and took an expedited drug test, which he passed, according to ESPN’s Ariel Helwani.
So what does White moving the 26-fighter card from Vegas to Los Angeles tell us? The resounding message that the UFC needs Jon Jones a lot more than Jon Jones needs the UFC.
Rather than risk losing the biggest star on its pay-per-view card, the UFC decided to move its entire circus 270 miles west and deal with the logistical nightmares that now follow. Rather than risk losing Jones (again) to a drug-related issue (fair or not, that’s a separate debate), the UFC is forcing 25 other fighters and thousands of fans to change their plans and relocate to L.A. so Bones’s return to the Octagon wouldn’t be further delayed. Jones will still fight Alexander Gustafsson in a rematch for the light heavyweight championship on Saturday night—everyone else be damned.
In terms of keeping the card relevant, you can’t blame White and the UFC. While Cris Cyborg vs. Amanda Nunes is a compelling co-main event, it’s not the same as a headliner, and the loss of Jones would have been crippling to the marquee. Outside of Conor McGregor, there’s no UFC fighter with the same aura and magnetic appeal as Jones, and the UFC has felt his absence since it was forced to strip him of the light heavyweight belt in 2017.
The loss of Jones on the UFC 232 card—or the postponement of his return—would have also been a staggering blow to the fighter himself, who has worked hard to rebuild his image after repeatedly testing positive for banned substances over the years. White admitted himself on Sunday that “nobody” has made more mistakes than Jones, but that this one genuinely wasn’t his fault. Either way, the removal of Jones from the card would have been viewed as a setback. As Jones told SI.com’s Jon Wertheim earlier this month, he knows he’s at a crossroads in his career that either could make or break him.
“I’m in an interesting position,” Jones told Wertheim. “I knocked out Daniel Cormier in my last fight. A lot of people say I could be the best ever. The reality is that I just got accused of using steroids. This next fight allows me to beat a guy a lot people think I lost to. And beat him right after this USADA situation. So I can prove so much at once. Okay, I don’t do steroids. I don’t need steroids. I’m obviously not on steroids now, beating a guy everyone thought beat me before. What’s next? What’s your excuse next? How are you going to stop me?”
Jones might not be on any banned substance, but his tainted past is literally still haunting his career. Rather than the focus of UFC 232 being on his return to the sport, the next six days will be centered on the UFC’s unprecedented move for the sake of Jones’s inclusion.
The initial reaction wasn’t pretty, with Jones’s arch-nemesis, Cormier, the first to pile on:
He tested positive again!— Daniel Cormier (@dc_mma) December 23, 2018
You can’t blame DC for his anger with this decision—neither can you really blame anyone else for feeling the same way. Gustafsson has been training in Vegas for weeks, according to White, but at a minimum the fighter definitely had his pre-fight trip to the Grand Canyon ruined.
Alexander Gustafsson, who is scheduled to fight Jon Jones in 6 days, has been in Las Vegas for a week and, according to sources, is on a four-hour helicopter ride right now around the Grand Canyon. If he doesn’t have cell reception there is a very good chance he doesn’t know.— Ariel Helwani (@arielhelwani) December 24, 2018
The people I’ve talked to close to Gustafsson believe he doesn’t know the location has changed yet (and more importantly why) because he’s still on the helicopter ride.— Ariel Helwani (@arielhelwani) December 24, 2018
The decision to move UFC 232 from Vegas to L.A. is a complicated one, but more than anything, it’s an unfortunate one. Jones and the UFC both could have done without another PR nightmare and now both will be clouded with distractions in the build-up to Saturday’s fight. Helwani reported Sunday night that almost every fighter on the card found out about the move over Twitter—not exactly the way you want to be disseminating info six days before your year-end card.
Jones vs. Gustafsson II could prove to be worth all of this trouble in the end—but will fans remember the result either way?
Not if they still go to Vegas.