Jeff Wagenheim: No winners in UFC 151 cancellation - Sports Illustrated

No winners in UFC 151 mess

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Gee, I didn't realize the UFC president is one of those celebrities -- like Nixon, Elmo, Jimmy from Seinfeld and Dalí -- who refer to themselves in the third person. Wait, Dana wasn't talking about himself? Oh, OK, it turns out the big cheese was assailing his light heavyweight champion, Jon Jones, who earlier in the day had declined to switch opponents eight days prior to a scheduled title defense.

Sure, go ahead and call Jones selfish, if you choose, for nixing a bout against Chael Sonnen after No. 1 challenger Dan Henderson tore a knee ligament in training and had to drop out of next weekend's main event. But White is being no less self-serving. When he announced in a hastily arranged media conference call that because UFC 151's top-billed bout was off, so was the Las Vegas fight card in its entirety, the fiery face of MMA tried to lay the blame in the champ's lap. "Good for you, Jon Jones. You're rich and you've got some money. You don't need to take this fight," White said with disgust in his voice. "But there's a bunch of guys on the undercard that this is how they feed their family and this is how they make a living."

White speaks the truth when voicing concern for the undercard fighters, and he's being not the least bit melodramatic. Guys counting on their $6,000 purse in order to pay a mortgage bill or groceries tab are the ones taking a kick to the groin here. So, to a lesser extent, are the fans who'd been planning trips to the Nevada desert next week and the hotels, restaurants, bars and casinos that now are left waiting at the station for a money train that no longer will arrive. But Dana's truth-telling gets fuzzy when he starts doling out the culpability for this fiasco, unprecedented in the 11 years since he and the Fertitta brothers took over the UFC. There's no question that Jones would have been taking one for the team if he'd agreed to a short-notice scuffle with Sonnen. But all he really scuttled were his own paycheck and Chael's dream of wearing a championship belt. "Bones" didn't cancel UFC 151. The UFC did.

Why didn't the behemoth fight promotion just forge ahead with what was left of 151? Maybe add a bout, perhaps even poaching Sonnen vs. Forrest Griffin from December's UFC 155. Chael already was up for fighting next weekend, and tossing a few extra bucks at Forrest might have enticed him into the octagon early, too. But no. "We're selling the Jon Jones title fight," said White. "This card had to be canceled."

So the saving grace of UFC 151 was going to be a title bout in which the replacement challenger had never once fought as a light heavyweight in the UFC and in his most recent bout, fought while 20 pounds lighter, had been brutally knocked out? This is what Dana & Co. were willing to sell as a championship fight? Really?

"Did I think that the Chael Sonnen fight made sense, as far as the title and everything? No," White acknowledged. "But you know what? These guys have been talking smack back and forth to each other, and I thought that it was a fight that people would be interested in."

These words were coming from the same mouth that two days earlier had addressed the Sonnen vs. Jones Twitter tussle by declaring, during a Vegas radio appearance, that there's no way Chael is "just talking his way into a 205-pound world title shot." Then again, as we've since learned, desperate times apparently call for desperate measures.

Said White, "When things are normal and things are going the way they should go and guys aren't injured and guys are fighting, Chael Sonnen would have had to beat three nasty guys, at least, to get to Jon Jones." That's because a world championship fight means something. At least it does until it's sold to the first guy who answers his phone and is willing to fly to Vegas.

Sonnen, for his part, went on ESPN later in the day to try to sell the doomed fight. But the more Chael spoke about it, the less appealing it sounded. "OK, eight days' notice is going to turn into zero days' notice," he said, "because the final week [before a fight], all you do is make weight and do a media tour. I never would have stepped foot in the gym. I wouldn't have got one mile, one round, one jump rope, nothing under my belt before walking into that ring."

Oh, great. The undeserving challenger would have entered the cage unprepared. Jones has wrecked even the most training camp-sharpened light heavies, guys with 205-pound resumes far more impressive than what a bloated 185-pounder brings to the table. But Chael was willing to provide just what the UFC needed: a warm body and a big mouth to keep the hype train rolling along, selling the public on a Jon Jones title defense, as advertised. Step right up.

So why didn't "Bones" take the bout, then? Like White, he made a business decision.

This is the new world of MMA that White and the Fertittas have propagated. Dana never fails to remind us that they built the UFC from ashes, transporting it from the shadowy fringes to the sports mainstream. Watch a UFC event on the Fox network and you'll hear the telecast open with the same anthemic fanfare that gets our adrenaline going on NFL Sundays. Along with ever-more-widespread recognition and acceptance, there's more real money in the sport now. And money changes everything.

"I'm a 2012 warrior, and I fight to provide for my family," Jones had said during a media conference call on Tuesday, back when there still was a fight to hype. "This is a sport where we don't have a retirement plan. We don't have insurance for the rest of our lives, so the money that I make today is the money I'll draw from when I'm 80 years old."

That's what you call thinking ahead, a concept not all athletes have come to grips with as has Jones, who says, "I refuse to be a broke athlete when I retire." This is an athlete who just last month shot down talk of a superfight against pound-for-pound king Anderson Silva by framing the issue not in fistic terms but in fiduciary ones. "We both have sponsor deals and things that are really important to us," he told ESPN Radio's Los Angeles station, "and a big part of that sponsorship package is winning [and] being a champion." So in the case of UFC 151, "Bones" decided, with the guidance of Zen master trainer/mentor Greg Jackson and no doubt with an eye toward his brand new Nike sponsorship deal, that putting his belt on the line against a new opponent with one week's notice would not be the most prudent business decision.

White's response: business, schmusiness. "I always laugh when I hear a fighter say, 'I'm a businessman,' " the UFC poobah said smirkily. "No, you're not. You're a fighter."

Sorry, Dana. That dismissal might fly when you're talking to a guy toiling away in one of the prelims for his $6,000 check. But when you're addressing a fellow who has a swoosh design on every piece of new clothing in his closet, you're talking to a businessman. That's Jon Jones, Inc., to you.

Dana White and a large portion of the MMA fanbase don't want to hear that. Even other fighters have taken swipes at Mr. Swoosh. "Jones said he's not fighting Chael on eight days' notice," Michael Bisping wrote on Twitter. "I did. Just sayin'." Yes, Michael, but at the time Sonnen was standing on a higher rung on the middleweight ladder, so why not try to make a quick climb? Likewise, while Chael is being praised as The Man for stepping up this time, consider what he had to gain: He could have won the light heavyweight championship without having to mow down a murderer's row of contenders first. Nice work if you can get it.

"I got a roster of guys that will fight at a drop of a hat at any opportunity," said White. "Those are the guys that I like. Those are the guys I respect." What the UFC president should have added: "Those are the guys I control." Because as long as he has his hands on the purse strings and there are fighters living paycheck to paycheck, Dana can get guys to jump through hoops for him. (Does he like and respect them enough, by the way, to pay them their purses for the fights he canceled at the last minute? It would amount to pocket money for the billion-dollar fight organization.)

Sure, there's a tenuous balance between commerce and the fighting spirit at play here. Some guys are simply fighters, through and through, and are too machismo-driven to ever back down from a challenge. Some who are on the way up remember what it was like to work for promotions offering far lesser financial rewards than the UFC, and they'll do whatever it takes to remain in White's good graces. Every fighter, from the first-time octagon visitor competing in the earliest prelim to the main event reigning champion, is an independent contractor with his own unique relationship with the UFC. In the case of Jones, he might work for Dana but he's truly his own boss. What, is White going to cut him from the roster and watch "Bones" show up in the next Bellator light heavyweight tournament?

No, as it turns out, Jones will simply take on his middleweight challenger three weeks later, at UFC 152 in Toronto. Except the 185-pounder who'll now get the title shot will not be Sonnen. It'll be Vitor Belfort. How'd that happen? During Thursday's conference call, right after announcing the 151 cancellation, White revealed that Jones would fight the next man in line, Lyoto Machida, at 152. Asked why he didn't just call on Machida to fight next weekend, Dana gave a vague answer about the fighter being on a plane home to Brazil ... as if Lyoto, if willing, might not be able to turn around and fly right back to Vegas. As it turned out, Machida, who fought just three weeks ago, wouldn't agree to even the Sept. 22 turnaround. So instead we get a light heavyweight challenger even less qualified and far less talkative than Chael. Belfort last fought at 205 five years ago, and apparently earned his shot at the shiny brass-and-leather belt with a submission of second-tier middleweight Anthony Johnson back in January. So much for the UFC as a meritocracy.

Still, life goes on. And Jon Jones will have to be fitted with a swoosh-logoed black hat befitting his ramped-up villainous status. Which he does deserve, by the way. If you're going to approach your craft as a businessman, you need to understand the role public relations plays in the marketplace. You don't respond to Thursday's furor as Jones did -- by tweeting a Sun Tzu quote: "And therefore those skilled in war bring the enemy to the field of battle and are not brought there by him." Smugness will win you no fans.

What it will do is ensure that UFC 151 becomes the first event in the fight promotion's history where there are no winners, only losers.